The great grill debate: Charcoal vs. gas grills


From backyards, campgrounds and public picnic areas, millions of Americans this Memorial Day will enjoy barbecued hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks -- even seafood. As the unofficial start to the outdoor cooking season heats up this holiday weekend, the "grate" grilling debate resumes: gas vs. charcoal.

In Dalton, Frank McDonald likes the convenience of his propane gas grill and the flavor it brings out in his favorite foods, such as pork ribs.

"It comes out nice and tender," said McDonald, a year-round griller. "The vinegar and ketchup helps tenderize the meat."

Professionally, Jeffrey Thompson grills with gas during the weekly summer cookouts at Wheatleigh. But personally, the head chef at the upscale Lenox hotel and restaurant is a charcoal guy.

"It's almost like searing meat in a pan, you can get such good flavor," he said.

The 75 to 85 percent of American households who own a grill are nearly split over their choice of fuel.

According to The BBQ Report, 60 percent prefer propane gas, 50 percent charcoal, followed by 7 percent natural gas and 3 percent electric. The website also found propane gas grillers willing to be creative cooks, as 17 percent use a smoker box or wood chips to enhance flavor.

As for what Americans love to grill, The BBQ Report said hamburgers and steaks are tops, followed by hot dogs, chicken and potatoes.

Aside from taste, the gas-charcoal debate also involves convenience and expense. points out charcoal can take 35-40 minutes to heat up; gas grills need 10-15 minutes. The advantages of charcoal are the coals make for a hotter fire and the cost to maintain a charcoal grill is less than a gas grill, according to the website.

McDonald has cooked both ways and settled on gas grilling, claiming it's less expensive in the long run.

"I was getting tired of buying charcoal grills, they were constantly wearing out," he said.

Another option -- the oldest and most natural -- is barbecuing with wood. Jabari Powell cooks all the beef and pork he serves at MadJacks BBQ in Pittsfield with wood: cherry, maple, cherry and apple, depending on what is available. The North Street restaurant owner said wood gives a great smoky taste to the pork butt, brisket and meatloaf.

Powell's slow-cooked meatloaf is courtesy of his father Dennis Powell -- and is definitely not your mother's meatloaf.

"It has spinach, cumin, curry, paprika -- there's [practically] no ketchup, which a lot of people traditionally use," he said.

Grill owners may be loyal to their cooking method, but many are willing to vary what they toss on a grate over an open flame.

McDonald occasionally grills seafood, with a preference for a swordfish steak.

"I put it directly on the grill and let it sear," he said. "The outdoor flavor is better than what you get in a restaurant."

During the Midsummer Night's BBQ at Wheatleigh, Thompson's seafood delights include lobster tail rubbed with the right amount of oil, along with scallops and shrimp he puts on the grill raw, as they cook quickly.

As for barbecuing lamb, Thompson recommends using "lamb chop or a leg of lamb sliced thin, they are not too gamey and have more flavor than beef."

No matter how or what is grilled, the key to good barbecue is patience, according to Powell.

"You want to [cook] slower; it allows the moisture to stay in the food and make it juicy and tender," he said.

MadJacks' meatloaf

Courtesy of Jabari Powell, Pittsfield

3 1/4 lb. ground beef

3/4 lb. frozen spinach

3 1/4 cloves garlic

3 1/4 eggs

2 cups bread crumbs

5 tbs. Worcestershire sauce

2 tbs. curry powder

2 tbs. cumin

2 tbs. paprika

Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl, mix the Worcestershire sauce, eggs, three spices and garlic. Then add ground beef, spinach and bread cumbs and place entire mixture into the oven and bake at 350 degrees, until no longer pink.

Note: You can cook this on the grill -- simply place meatloaf pan on a cookie sheet, then on the grill and close the lid. Meat will cook faster on grill. You may want to split the recipe into two dishes to ensure faster cooking.


Barbecue Pork Ribs

Courtesy of Frank McDonald, Dalton

3-4 squirts of ketchup

capful of vinegar

2-3 squirts of maple syrup

Heat up the sauce mix or pour over par-boiled ribs prior to placing on the grill. Or boil ribs in the sauce until sauce thickens and finish on grill. Both options, cook until done.


BBQ sauces for grilling shrimp, lobster, scallops, swordfish, tuna and other seafood

Courtesy Jeffrey Wheatleigh, head chef Wheatleigh in Lenox

Lemon Glaze:

2 cups lemon juice

11 2 cup water

11 2 cup whole grain mustard

1 cup honey

2 each roasted shallots

4 cloves roasted garlic

1 each bay leaf

1 sprig thyme

Place all items in pot and reduce by half, strain out solids and continue to reduce to a glaze-like consistency

Tomato Jam:

2 tbls olive oil

12 each small diced roma tomatoes

1 4 cup honey

3 tbls minced ginger

1 4 cup brown sugar

3 oz cider vinegar

In pot saute ginger in olive oil, add vinegar, sugar and honey and bring to a boil. Add tomatoes and simmer until tomatoes are cooked down and stew together

To reach Dick Lindsay:,
or (413) 496-6233


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