THE STATISTICS I just made up don’t lie: More people will die this summer from fighting each other over gas grilling versus charcoal grilling than all other causes combined. Americans, you see, have themselves some assertive opinions about their grilling.
Let us and our friends at ChefSteps settle this debate once and for all.
The charcoal crowd swears that their method imparts some sort of magical flavor to their food, and they’re right. But they’re wrong about where that flavor comes from: It’s not actually from the briquettes themselves.
The great thing about charcoal is that it burns crazy hot, way hotter than a gas grill can manage. Why? Because charcoal is pretty much pure carbon, and that means lots of energy. Briquette manufacturers get that pure carbon by, yes, carbonizing wood.
Here’s how it works. The plant starts with sawdust and other little wood bits left over from lumber mills, cooking the stuff at super high temperatures but with little oxygen so it doesn’t ignite. That process burns off water and other compounds, leaving the carbon. This they combine with binders and other additives, then form the mixture into those characteristic pillows. In your grill, these briquettes will burn cleaner and more evenly without those volatile compounds. See that uniform glow? Good. And no smoke? Even better.
Ironically enough, it’s the volatile compounds in the food, not in the briquettes, that are responsible for charcoal grilling’s distinct flavors. As the meat heats up, it releases drippings that strike the super-hot charcoal and combust with a tsss and a burst of flame (check it out in the video above—it’s beautiful). Those drippings are full of fats and oils and sugars and proteins that vaporize and rise back up into the meat whence they came.
That’s how grilling over charcoal gives you that wonderful flavor. The briquettes themselves are just middlemen, not the flavor-makers. The more you drip, the more the flavor builds.
But mind those drips. It may seem like a drop in the … bed of coals, but that flareup briefly cools down the coal, leading to smoke if the dripping gets out of hand. Smoke can leave your meat with a bitter flavor. And that, my friends, would defeat the purpose.
If you want to get really fancy with it, consider scattering a few plain wood chips on top of the coals. These won’t burn as ferociously hot as the coals, but the upside is they retain all the lovely compounds that the briquettes lost during carbonization. As vapor, hundreds of these compounds interact with each other and the meat to impart that classic barbequey flavor.
So fire up those coals and grab the nearest sharp object: Someone is either going to steal your food or demand you use a gas grill instead.