You’re thinking about barbecuing for Labor Day, aren’t you? Or, are you thinking about grilling? Because our headquarters are in Texas, we’re intimately familiar with the differences, though we know our Customers in other parts of the country use the terms interchangeably. But, if Ambit Energy is going to tackle the pros and cons of gas vs charcoal for barbecuing, then it’s important to first define barbecue.
The difference is actually pretty simple: you grill meat hot and fast, you barbecue meat low and slow (or, at least, slow-er – more on that later). If you’re grilling, you’re taking an already relatively tender piece of meat and you’re putting it close to the hot charcoal. Even if you grill a ribeye past medium – a sin, really, but who are we to judge – it will still be pretty tender. Barbecuing is reserved for meat that would not be tender if grilled – brisket, pork butt, ribs – these have more collagen and fat that needs prolonged, steady moderate heat to break it down and make it chewable and delicious. To grill is not to barbecue, and vice versa – specifically for this conversation.
Now that a barbecue pitmaster has won a James Beard award, suffice it to say that a restaurant using a gas grill to cook barbecue can’t be considered a great barbecue place. But, that’s because they’re professionals who have all the time in the world to do it the “right way” – over charcoal they burned down from logs – it’s their profession. Like we explained with the definitions of barbecuing and grilling, we might as well just get it straight now – charcoal will, all things being equal, always make better barbecue.
It’s the “all things being equal” part where gas actually has an advantage! One of the keys to barbecue perfection is maintaining a steady temperature – usually between 225-275 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on your preference. Gas barbecue grills can be precisely set to hold a steady temperature as long as the propane doesn’t run out. That means you can sleep while your brisket is on, rather than feeding a barbecue pit new charcoal every few hours.
So, can us common folks make good home barbecue with propane barbecue pits? Yes, because other barbecue fanatics have invented gas barbecue smokers that also provide wood smoke! You just can’t get good barbecue without smoke, so propane smokers provide the heat with gas but the smoke with wood chips or pellets. You can easily control the temperature. All you have to do is add more wood chips occasionally. Barbecue purists could still tell the difference between propane smoked meat and pure charcoal smoking, but the difference with a modern gas smoker is honestly pretty minimal. You will always have the ongoing cost of propane, as well.
If you want to really impress your friends with your ‘cue, or if you want to try your hand at a barbecue competition, you’ll have to learn to smoke meat over charcoal. And, that means you’ll have to spend more time and effort barbecuing – but I and others would argue those cons pale in comparison to the ultimate pro: the best smoked meat possible.
Within pure charcoal barbecuing, you also now have three different options: offset smoking, direct smoking and pellet smokers. In offset smoking, your fire is not directly below your meat, and the smoke and heat enter the smoker from a firebox. It’s the choice of most pros, and it keeps the meat from overheating or getting scorched. With practice, you can keep temperatures in the 250 degrees Fahrenheit range, give or take 10 degrees, and learn to craft good barbecue every time. Direct heat is harder to control, but if you do it right you can spend half the time cooking that you do with offset smokers. You can cook a 12 pound brisket in five to six hours or racks of ribs in as little as two hours. The risk is overcooking or charring your meat, or even just a portion of it if your charcoal isn’t spread evenly. With pure wood charcoal, if you have your own trees or access to free wood, you can keep your costs low, too.
Pellet smokers use compressed wood pellets that are ignited with an electric device. The pellets are fed to the fire by an electronically controlled mechanism to maintain the temperature you set. You can smoke long and slow, “cold smoke” to give something like salmon smoke without cooking it, or even grill on some models. These smokers still might not satisfy hardcore barbecue aficionados, but they’re an excellent option for people without a lot of experience to smoke consistently good barbecue. But, they can be pricey and you have to buy the wood pellets, too. The electricity cost is minimal.
Well, being humans, some arguments will never be resolved to the satisfaction of many of us. A rack of ribs that is 90 percent as good as the best, but took half as long to smoke might be the ultimate goal of someone with little time. For a barbecue aficionado, that perfect bark, thick smoke ring, and just the right tenderness may be worth an extra three hours of work. At Ambit Energy, we understand how some people’s pros are other people’s cons. If you ask us, though, just about any barbecue is better than no barbecue at all.
Fire up those smokers for Labor Day, and maybe you can resolve the great debate once and for all.