Charcoal vs. Gas vs. Pellet Grills

Who doesn’t like to grill on a nice summer evening? But there has been an ongoing debate for many decades about whether that grill should be gas or charcoal, with die-hard fans coming down on either side. In the past twenty years or so a new player has come along to challenge them: pellet grills. We break down the pros and cons of all different types of barbecue and smoker grills so you are prepared when shopping for a new grill.

Research different brands and types of grills before shopping for a good sale. Charcoal, gas, and pellet grills all cook food at different temperatures and tastes.

Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills are a type of grill that burns briquettes made from compressed sawdust with additives mixed in. The charcoal is long burning and burns very hot. They come in a large variety of designs, but there are a few designs that are most common:

Kettle Grills

Kettle grills are shaped like a large bowl, with a deep area to place the charcoal and a grate placed near the top where the food is cooked. These typically have a lid with an adjustable vent, letting you control the heat. You can also raise or lower the metal grate to adjust the relation of the food to the charcoal, which also aids in heat control. This type of grill is small and allows for a high concentration of heat, letting you cook at a higher temperature.

Barrel Grills

Barrel grills resemble a 55-gallon barrel laying on its side with a cut halfway up. The lower half is the grill itself, with the upper half making up the lid. Charcoal sits at the bottom and there is a metal grate for the food near the top of the grill. Above that sits the lid, which resembles the upper half of the barrel. These grills are great to cook a large amount of food at one time. 

Brazier Grills

Brazier grills are simple grills that are shaped like shallow pans. They are usually small and lidless. The charcoal sits in the bottom of the pan, with the food cooking on a grate directly above it. You control cooking heat almost entirely by raising or lowering the grate. These grills are cheap and very portable, making them great for camping or tailgating.

Benefits Of Charcoal Grills

  • Low Price
  • Smoky Flavor
  • High Temperature
  • Small Overall Size
  • More Portable Than Gas Or Pellet Grills

Many people prefer the charcoal grill because of the rich, smoky flavor it can impart. As the charcoal burns, the smoke from the wood rises up and into your food. The drippings of your food drop onto the burning charcoal and burn up, which can add even more flavor to what you’re cooking. 

Charcoal burns at a very high heat, letting charcoal grills cook at higher temperatures than gas and pellet grills. Most of the time they are much cheaper, too. These grills are usually very small in size compared to gas grills. They don’t have the weight or bulk of a gas bottle, so they are often more portable. There is no need for an electric outlet, making them more portable than pellet grills as well. 

Drawbacks of Charcoal Grills

  • Slow Heat Up
  • Long Cooldown
  • Hard To Control Temperature
  • Messy Cleanup

Charcoal grills take a long time to heat up, leaving you waiting for as long as half an hour before the grill is ready to cook on. It can be very difficult to control the cooking temperature in a charcoal grill, unlike gas or pellet grills. This is because charcoal grills depend on the user to set the vents and food height to control the cooking temperature, and also leave a cook to guess at the temperature of very unreliable charcoal. 

You’ll likely have to wait quite a while after you finish cooking before you can put the grill away, as it needs a long time for the charcoal to burn off and for the grill to cool. It can be quite messy to clean up a charcoal grill. You’ll need to dispose of ashes from expended charcoal and you’ll need to brush and scrape away the residue each time you use the grill.

Gas Grills

Gas grills are a type of grill that has small burners and a gas source that it runs off of. The gas is usually a bottle of liquid propane (LP), but gas grills can also connect directly to a natural gas line. Most of these grills are rectangular, and often resemble a shallow pan with a hinged lid. 

Many gas grills have features that you won’t often find with charcoal or pellet grills. These features can include things like additional small side burners, bun warmers, and rotisseries. Many people like these added features, but they do increase the price.

Benefits Of Gas Grills

  • Fast Heat Up
  • Good Heat Control
  • Easy Cleanup
  • Versatile
  • Cheap To Run

Gas grills warm up very quickly. They are basically like a very large version of your gas stove in your home, so you just light them up and you’re almost ready to cook. They have a short cooldown time, since there is no charcoal to burn off. There’s versatility in how you cook since you have good control of the heat range.

These grills offer easy cleanup. Part of this is because you don’t have any ashes like those you’ll get with charcoal or pellets, and no leftover charcoal like you do with charcoal grills. You’ll just have to clean the grate where the food sits and a drip tray underneath. The gas is much cheaper than the cost of charcoal, so this costs less to run between the two.

Drawbacks Of Gas Grills

  • Not As Portable
  • Expensive
  • Less Smoky Flavor
  • Propane Bottle To Fill

Gas grills tend to be larger than charcoal grills. They’re usually much heavier, too. Part of this comes from the weight and bulk of the propane bottle. There is also the weight of the burners, gas lines, and other extra parts that charcoal grills don’t have. This makes them far less portable than charcoal grills, though still more portable than pellet grills.

Many people find that gas grills don’t infuse nearly as much smoky flavor into their food. Much of this comes because the gas doesn’t produce much in the way of smoke, where the charcoal and pellets are both burning a type of wood that produces smoke. Gas grills are also much more expensive than a similarly sized charcoal grill. 

Pellet Grills

Pellet grills came onto the market in the 1980s. They have gained in popularity since then, and are now fairly common. They use small hardwood pellets as a fuel source, and usually have a hopper to hold pellets, an auger to feed the pellets into a fire pot, a heated rod to ignite the pellets, a fan to circulate the heat, and thermostats to control the heat. It sounds complicated, but an onboard computer handles most of this for the user.

Benefits Of Pellet Grills 

  • Excellent Temperature Control
  • Even Heat
  • Easy To Use
  • Easy Cleanup
  • Smoky Flavor

Pellet grills offer some of the best parts of both the charcoal and gas grills. With pellet grills you get temperature control that exceeds even top-of-the-line gas grills, far outdoing any charcoal grill. These grills heat very evenly throughout. They infuse less of a smoky flavor than charcoal, but it’s still far more than you’ll get from a gas grill.

Cleanup is also much easier with pellet grills than it is with charcoal and similar to that of gas. The pellets burn very cleanly, leaving only a small amount of ash behind. These grills are also extremely easy to use. You only need to turn it on and set the temperature before walking away, since the computer feeds the appropriate amount of pellets and maintains the temperature for you.

Drawbacks Of Pellet Grills

  • Expensive
  • Require Electrical outlet
  • Lower Temperature than Charcoal
  • Harder To Find Pellets Than Charcoal Or Gas

Pellet grills are more expensive than charcoal grills and on par with gas grills. They’re also not very portable, mostly because they require an electrical connection to run the auger, fan, and thermostats. These grills don’t get as hot as charcoal, burning only about as hot as propane grills do. And when you’re running low on charcoal or propane you can find them in many grocery stores and gas stations, but finding a place that sells pellets may be more difficult in some areas. 

Which Type of Grill is Right For You?

There is a good chance none of these grills meet your exact needs; you’ll probably need to compromise. Below are some cases where each type of grill works well. Look through these and find the closest fit to how you plan to use your grill. In the end, you’ll need to find the best match for what is important to you. If you do that, you should end up with a great grill.

Choose a charcoal grill if:

  • You like smoky flavors
  • You like to sear your meat
  • Portability is important to you
  • Price is your most important factor
  • You don’t mind a long warm up

Charcoal grills provide the smokiest flavor of the three types, they sear meat the best, they are usually the most portable, and they are much cheaper. They have the downside of taking a long time for the charcoal to get to the correct temperature for cooking.

You get less smoky flavor from a pellet grill and very little from a gas grill. Gas and pellet grills don’t get as hot, so they won’t sear as well. Both gas and pellet grills are bulkier and require either a gas bottle or electric outlet, so they aren’t nearly as portable.

Choose a gas grill if:

  • You want the easiest cleanup
  • You don’t want a smoky flavor
  • You want ease of use
  • You want to be able to cook a large amount of food at once
  • Extra features are important to you

Gas grills don’t have a lot of ash or soot to clean up after use like what you’ll see with charcoal and to a lesser extent with pellets. You won’t get the smoky flavor unless you add on a smoke box, making gas the perfect choice for those who don’t like that flavor. There are a lot of large gas grills available, making them great for cooking a lot of food at the same time.

Gas grills aren’t quite as consistent with their heat settings as pellet grills. You’ll find you may have to adjust the heat depending on the weather, yet they are much easier to use than charcoal grills. If you want extra features, such as an additional side burner for sauces, then you’ll want a gas grill.

Choose a pellet grill if:

  • You like ease of use
  • You want a mild smoky flavor
  • You like to cook a large amount at one time
  • You want something easy to clean
  • Portability is less important to you

Of the three, the pellet grill is the easiest to use. You set the temperature and the grill handles almost everything from there, adding the proper amount of pellets to maintain the precise temperature you set. This is all handled by the onboard control system, which means it’s less portable because it has to have an electrical outlet to work.

With a pellet grill, you get a smoky flavor, though much milder than you get with charcoal. But you can select pellets made of different woods to change the flavor of the smoke. Pellet grills are much easier to clean than charcoal, producing far less ash and soot. If you like to cook for a lot of people, the pellet grill typically has a higher capacity than a charcoal grill. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the Best Place to Buy a New Grill?

The best location to buy a grill will vary, with barbecue stores and outdoor stores a good option in many areas. Other options are available online, from sites like Amazon. Some of the best locations you can buy a grill in-store are:

  • Lowe’s 
  • Home Depot
  • Menards
  • Ace Hardware
  • Best Buy
  • Walmart
  • Target

What Is A Hybrid Grill?

A hybrid grill is a grill that can use either gas or charcoal. Usually, this works by having a grate or tray in the bottom that holds charcoal with a gas burner that sits beneath that. This lets you use the grill for either gas cooking or for charcoal cooking. 

Hybrid grills give you the best of both worlds, letting you use charcoal to get your smoky flavor one time, using the gas for the faster startup and better heat control the next time. They have the downside of being difficult to clean when used for charcoal. But they also have an advantage in that they can use the gas burner to light the charcoal, making it a very clean startup compared to using lighter fluid on your charcoal. 

Is Grilled Food Safe?

People often ask if grilled food is safe, and the answer to that is yes and no. Grilling is safe in moderation, according to WebMD. High-temperature grilling can increase dangerous compounds in the food, and the smoke can deposit chemicals onto your food. Put foil under your food to prevent it from dripping onto the fire below it, as burning fat from your food can increase those chemical compounds. For safety, grill less frequently and grill at a lower temperature for a longer time. Following these and other safety tips can help make your grilling experience as safe as possible.

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