There was a time when it seemed that charcoal grilling was going the way of the eight track tape and the manual transmission, a throwback that no longer had a place in the modern world. Gas was the way forward: charcoal was only for old-school dads who wore black socks with their sandals, and smoked a straight-stemmed pipe while drinking beer out of a stubbie.
But charcoal is enjoying a resurgence.
There’s no denying that the gas grill is more convenient: turn the knob, push the starter, and it’s lit. So why do so many people still fuss around with lumps of charcoal or briquettes? It all has to do with taste.
Charcoal advocates claim that cooking over coals gives food a depth of flavour you can’t replicate with gas.
Those who are really serious about it will argue about whether to use pre-formed briquettes or natural lumps of charcoal, and the lump-lovers will even debate about whether mesquite is better than hickory. (Don’t believe us? Check out this site and see where someone has spent years testing and ranking dozens of kinds of lump charcoal. Yes, there’s a lot of argument that goes on around the grill.)
The reason charcoal gives the food a distinct flavour, though, has less to do with the kind of wood than with the way it burns.
Charcoal has been around for millennia, dating back to the Iron Age. The simplest way to make charcoal is to dig a pit, fill it with hardwood, get a good fire burning and then bury it with earth. The wood will continue to smoulder, but without any oxygen it will instead be converted to lumps of nearly pure carbon.
The modern process is a bit more sophisticated, but it’s essentially the same: burning hardwood in the absence of oxygen.
The result is a substance that has no moisture and will burn much, much hotter than wood with very little smoke. It’s that intense heat that gives charcoal its magic. The radiant heat from the coals cooks beautifully, but it also creates a perfect bed for building flavour.
When the drippings from meat or the marinade from vegetables land on the supremely hot coals, they are vapourized, releasing a rich steam of aromatic chemicals. (There’s an amazing slow-motion video of the process here). Manage the cooking properly, and the food is bathed in this flavour-rich blend of smoke and steam. Get it wrong, though, and you can cool the coals and wind up just steaming your food.
You can mimic the effect with high end gas grills that get supremely hot – an infrared burner helps get the heat even higher. You can also supplement the heat with some wood chips or chunks to add smoke.
There are purists on both sides, and nearly everyone who grills has their preferred methods. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal taste and convenience. Which perhaps explains why the biggest trend in outdoor cooking isn’t gas or charcoal: it’s outdoor kitchens with a gas grill and a charcoal grill. Now that’s the way to make the most of summer!