Gas or Charcoal Grill? A Grill Master Weighs in on the Burning Debate

Look, this is an important decision. Some might even say it’s a heated debate, and you’re going to have to choose a side.

The respect of your friends, family and colleagues is at stake.

Which is better: a gas or charcoal grill?

More people own gas grills — 64% of grill owners have a gas grill, while 44% own charcoal grills.

But that doesn’t settle anything.

We asked Mark Bittman, former New York Times food writer and author of “How to Grill Everything,” to weigh in on the debate.

“If you want to cook outdoors a lot, get gas,” Bittman said. “It’s so much more convenient, and the food tastes great. If you like the experience of building and tending a live fire, then you’re a charcoal person.”

How’s that for keeping it simple?

But other factors like taste, budget and convenience can influence the decision for you.

Ask yourself: Why are you buying a grill? Do you just want to cook the basics for family and friends, or do you intend to smoke meat? Are you feeding an army?

Figure these questions out, and you’ll be closer to choosing a side.

Charcoal Is Cheaper, but…

Aileen Perilla/The Penny Hoarder

At The Penny Hoarder, we love to save money, so cost affects a lot of our decisions.

On the low end, you can purchase a small dome charcoal grill for $14 or a patio charcoal grill for $20. Prices go up from there, depending on size and features.

You can find large charcoal grills with a smoker and more storage for around $80 to $100.

Basic tabletop gas grills start around $25. The next step up hovers around $80 for a two- or three-burner gas grill. Prices stretch to $200 and higher for stainless steel, more burners, side tables and storage.

Both gas and charcoal grills need a steady supply of propane/natural gas or charcoal to keep burning, so don’t forget to include this ongoing expense in your bottom line.

Regardless of which grill you choose, check out the holiday sales around Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day for the best bargains.

What About Taste?

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Some people prefer that campfire taste in their meat and veggies, whereas gas leaves food tasting cleaner without the smokiness of charcoal overpowering the natural flavors of your food.

This is truly a matter of preference, so there’s no point in arguing.

Gas tends to cook fragile food like fish and chicken more gently. Charcoal generally gets hotter than gas and gives thicker cuts of meat a crisper outside and pinker inside.

It all depends on what you grill most often and what you like.

Other Factors to Consider

Consider assembly, maintenance, convenience and cleanup when you’re trying to decide. All of these matter eventually, but you kind of don’t know until you use one. And that’s actually not so bad, because…

… guess what?

You don’t have to choose a side.

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Just buy both and keep the respect and honor of all your friends and colleagues.

“Owning both doesn’t have to break the bank,” Bittman said.

And he’s right. You can acquire both for less than $40 and do a true comparison on your own terms — don’t worry, we won’t watch.

Choose one and go from there, or get the best of both worlds with a combination gas and charcoal grill, if your budget allows.

Bittman said the brand is less important than the size and cover.

“You definitely want enough surface area to be able to have the ability to cook directly or indirectly over the fire; the lid should be at least a little domed to create an ovenlike environment,” he said. “Square, rectangle, drum or kettle style are all fine.”

If you’re worried about grilling costs, there are other ways to save money grilling. And you can have fun with it, too, by experimenting with grilling weird foods.

Whatever you decide, you will not lose our respect and admiration. Get what works for you, enjoy yourself and eat some delicious grilled goods.

Stephanie Bolling is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She owns a charcoal grill because she loves playing with fire.