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GOODS: Choosing between gas and charcoal grills

These days barbecues, smokers and grills can range in price from $25 to $10,000 and in size from 12 inches to 6 feet long. Aside from the ubiquitous Weber kettle grills, there’s a multitude of pimped-out gas grills on the market; substantial portions of the grilling population MacGyver their own grills out of oil drums and various mechanical parts; and Oregon is even home to Traeger, a manufacturer of wood pellet grills. So how do you decide what kind of grill is right for you? Here are a few pros and cons to consider if you’re choosing between the most common varieties.

CHARCOAL GRILLS

Kettle

Pros: Vents in the bottom and in the lid allow you to control the temperature. The grill’s rounded shape makes it ideal for grilling, barbecuing and smoking.

Cons: Heating lump charcoal or briquettes in the grill can take a while, unless you use lighter fluid, which can infuse your food with an unpleasant chemical flavor.

Brazier

Pros: Simple, inexpensive, often disposable

Cons: These usually don’t come with a cover, so they’re best for cooking burgers and dogs. They also don’t always come with a grate to hold the coals, which makes the grill a bit cumbersome.

Hibachi

Pros: Its small size makes it useful for urban dwellers with small patios or decks. These are best used to grill skewered meat or vegetables over high heat. Many models allow you to adjust the heat by raising or lowering the cooking grate closer to or farther away from the coals.

Cons: Hibachis are usually too small to be able to grill efficiently for large groups.

GAS GRILLS

Pros: Quickest way to barbecue or grill food. Multiple burners allow you to cook several different ingredients at once.

Cons: The temperature of a gas grill can’t get as high as that of a dry-burning charcoal grill, which means that when you cook food on a gas grill you’re essentially steaming the bottom surface of the meat—which in turn means you won’t get that strong, smoky, seared, flavorful brown crust on your meat that you get from charcoal.

Burn, Baby

GOODS: Fueling the fire

If you own a gas grill—and the majority of Americans do—bully for you. The only decision you’ll need to make before throwing that juicy hunk of cow onto the “fire” is whether to turn the burners up to high or medium-high. Those of us with charcoal grills face more difficult decisions when it comes to fueling our cooking flames. Here’s a basic rundown of fuels:

“CHARCOAL” BRIQUETTES:
The original charcoal briquettes were invented and patented in the 1920s by Orin Stafford, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon, and later marketed by Henry Ford and his Kingsford Company, whose various bags of charcoal briquettes are, today, the bestselling briquettes in the country. Originally, these briquettes were made from powdered wood charcoal, but today most are made from mined coal, leading many barbecue purists to raise concerns over potential contaminants (arsenic? mercury? lead?) often found in coal. If you prefer briquettes, make sure you’ve allowed them to burn long enough that a covering of gray ash coats the outside before you start grilling.

LUMP CHARCOAL:
Barbecue purists tend to use lump charcoal, which consists of irregular pieces of burnt wood (such as mesquite or hickory). Most of the chefs that provided us with grilling menus for this story preferred to use lump charcoal as well. The downside to lump charcoal is that it costs considerably more than briquettes. The upside is that you don’t have to wait for it to heat up be-fore adding it to an existing fire, as you do with briquettes. Plus, most lump charcoal will infuse your food with an authentic smoky flavor. In Portland, we have two main lump charcoal brands to choose from. Most grocery stores sell Lazare mesquite lump charcoal—Wild Oats and New Seasons sell their own brands—but you can also buy it from Paul Peffer, owner of Fast Track Marketing (503-254-0774), a supplier of Northwest “cooking woods” that sells everything from mesquite and hickory to alder and organic cherrywood lump charcoal.

WOOD CHIPS:
Dried, untreated hardwood with varying degrees of aroma can be added to charcoal or gas grills to infuse food with a smoky flavor. The following are the most commonly used hardwoods from strongest to mildest, according to Peffer: Mesquite, hickory, grapevine, pecan, apple, maple, wild cherry, oak,
alder. Be sure to soak the wood in water for at least 30 minutes so that it will burn slowly once it’s added to hot coals. It is not a good idea to use soft woods like pine, fir or hemlock, because their strong resins will turn your meat or vegetables into turpentine-flavored muck. If you are using a gas grill you can place them in a drip pan above a burner and let them steam. Most grocery stores sell bags of wood chips alongside bags of charcoal. Paul Peffer of Fast Track Marketing (see above) also sells local hardwood scraps.