Cooking With Fire

The Great Charcoal vs. Gas Debate
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 14 2006 12:07 PM

Cooking With Fire

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Hi Steven and Sara,

Thanks, Sara, for getting us started. Gas vs. charcoal or wood: That is the fundamental grilling question. I generally prefer taking a nonjudgmental approach to cooking, encouraging anyone willing to make an effort. But over the years, I've found that if I don't take a stand, folks start to question my chef credentials. Thus, I present my criticisms on gas grilling.

I acknowledge that gas grilling is easier, quicker, and safer, but for me, one fundamental reason I love grilling is the excitement that's born from the risk involved: With charcoal grilling, there's a big chance you'll ruin your dinner. I love the challenge of starting the perfect fire, and cooking over live coals is unpredictable and thrilling. (And perhaps, Sara, this point speaks to your question about why men love grilling. Steve, what do you think?) This unpredictability might turn some people off, so let me offer one other reason coals are preferable to gas: Gas only burns two-thirds as hot as live coals. To me, the characteristic flavor of grilled food comes from its interaction with high heat, the ensuing browning, and the resulting deeply concentrated flavor—something that's just not possible with the heating output of gas. Having said that, some of my good friends own both gas and charcoal grills; one for the weekdays and the other for the weekends, when they can spend a little more time at the grill. That's not a reasonable solution for most, but it is a compromise I can live with. Sara, I know a lot of people who cook with the Big Green Egg, and they rave about its heat. Is it able to brown things quickly? Do you use dry rubs with the egg? Steve, I'd love your take, too, if you use one.

My biggest grilling inspirations come from my travels. Cooking with fire is not uniquely American—many cultures use grilling as their principal cooking method. Steve, I've found that your Big Flavor Cookbook, which features BBQ recipes from around the world, has some outstanding flavor ideas: fresh herbs, spices, chilies, and citrus. I use some common flavor combinations for specific cuisines, like chilies, lime, and cilantro for Latin flavors; soy, ginger, and scallions for Chinese cuisine; chili, lime, and fish sauce for Thai-styled dishes; and tomato, garlic, and basil for Italian. These simple combinations make for very creative grill flavors.

You're right, Sara, that a lot of people shy away from grilling seafood because of its perceived complexities, but they shouldn't. To prevent seafood from sticking to the grill, here are three tips:

1) Clean the hot grill.

2) Lightly oil the fish.

3) Allow the fish to stay on the grill a while before trying to move it. This allows for a sear to develop between the fish and the grill, which facilitates turning it.

All seafood is appropriate for the grill. Clams and oysters in their shells are some of the easiest seafood to grill, followed by shrimp and scallops, and then fish steaks and fillets. You can earn your seafood-grilling Ph.D. after successfully grilling a whole fish.

A major part of the enjoyment I get from grilling lies in its simplicity. So, I suggest only three basic tools: long-handle restaurant tongs, a stiff wire brush for cleaning the grill, and a cool beverage of your choice—mine is beer. Steve, what do you think of all of the fancy grilling tools you can find around these days? Unnecessary? Fun?

As I mentioned earlier, the fun, flavor, and the casual vibe of grilling is part of the appeal of live fire grilling. And it's a fantastic way to share food with friends and family. I imagine there are tricks to using a gas grill with regard to promoting flavor, but I'm just not experienced. Steven, what do you do?

—Chris

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.