If you’re looking to cook outdoors on a grill, flavor is one of the first things you’ll think about.
Charcoal grills are known for their rich flavor with a light smoke infusion, and many enthusiasts won’t cook with anything else.
If you’ve ever been to an authentic BBQ restaurant, you probably noticed that charcoal was the fuel of choice in the main pit.
Gas is a versatile option for cooking but it can be difficult to get the same results as you can on an affordable charcoal grill.
It’s not just a myth.
There’s some science to back up what’s actually happening here.
Heat is the Secret Ingredient for Charcoal Grilling
Charcoal gets hot. Incredibly hot. In fact, the best charcoal grills can get much hotter than their gas counterparts.
Charcoal is almost pure carbon, and it’s an efficient fuel for outdoor cooking.
Its affordability and the heat that it creates are two of the best reasons to use it.
The most important reason is the flavor…
When food is heated to the point where the surface becomes charred, it goes through a chemical process known as the Maillard reaction.
The crust of bread is made possible only because of the Maillard reaction.
When you sear a juicy steak or a batch of burgers, the same reaction takes place.
The chemicals that respond to the Maillard reaction lead to complex flavors and aromas.
This is why an undercooked pale steak tastes nowhere as good as one that has a delicious seared crust.
Charcoal allows this reaction to happen quickly, and because the heat source is right below the food, another process occurs, too.
As juices leave the food they drip down onto the hot coals below and are instantly vaporized.
This vapor then hits the food, incorporates as part of the crust, and imparts even more flavor.
Fats, sugars, and proteins that drip down from food are never wasted when you cook with charcoal.
While it can happen quickly, it also works over longer cooking sessions.
Searing and then slow cooking food at a lower temperature allows superheated, flavorful gasses to continually reincorporate with your ingredients.
Gas grills have flavorizer bars that are designed to vaporize juices and grease, but they aren’t as effective or as consistent.
The rich smoky flavor of food cooked on a charcoal grill is not actually caused by smoke, but by the Maillard reaction and the vaporized juices.
Of course, you can also add smoke to your charcoal grill, which will give even more complex flavors to your favorite ingredients.
Unlike a gas grill, you can drop wood chips or pellets right into the firebox on top of the coals, put the hood down, and let the wood do its work.
Try this Zorestar Variety Pack of Natural Wood Chips for your outdoor recipes.
Can Every Charcoal Grill Achieve these Reactions?
Even the smallest charcoal grill will produce the Maillard reaction and vaporize juices to some degree.
Larger grills will have more surface area for the coals to create more heat, so you’ll get the best results when using something at least as big as a Weber Original Kettle Grill.
Compare this to gas grills where the smallest models significantly underperform their larger counterparts, and it creates an even stronger argument to lean towards charcoal cooking.
Charcoal Grilling Tastes Better, But Are There Downsides?
The downsides to charcoal grilling will typically only affect you in the first weeks of ownership.
Think of it more like a learning curve than specific downsides.
- Charcoal grills take longer to get started than gas.
- Heat control is achieved by selecting the right amount of charcoal and opening or closing the vents to increase or decrease temperature.
- Charcoal needs to cool completely before it can be safely disposed of.
Aside from these few points, charcoal cooking becomes intuitive after a relatively short time, and many home grillers love the almost therapeutic nature of regulating the temperature and having more hands-on control than simply turning a knob on a gas grill.
Is Charcoal Grilling Safe?
Getting wonderful flavors from a charcoal grill is also safe.
Volatile organic compounds are burnt off quickly and after the initial smoke-off from fresh charcoal, the heat will be clean and largely smoke-free.
Always use high-quality natural charcoal like this 100% Lump Hardwood Charcoal from Jealous Devil.
The Bottom Line: Does Charcoal Grilling Taste Better?
Even with a relatively inexpensive grill, charcoal typically tastes better than gas.
The consistent Maillard reaction combined with the vaporized juices imparts a flavor that only the most expensive gas grills can compete with.
There’s a reason so many people swear by charcoal grilling, and it’s all to do with the deliciously complex flavors that are possible.
With charcoal grills being so affordable, it’s an easy purchase decision to make.