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Just in time for Father's Day: Definitive answers to Charcoal grill versus gas debate

Love the aroma of food sizzling on the grill? We’re lucky in South Florida because grilling year-round is an extra perk here — not just for Father’s Day and July Fourth.

As with any of life’s great pleasures, there are choices to be made. Do you wrestle with the question of which type of grill to buy? Your options include a charcoal-burning grill, a gas grill or an indoor electric one. Here are some pointers to help you select the right one for you:

Charcoal versus Gas

This choice is a clear one. Do you have time to light and tend a fire until it reaches just the right temperature? Or do you need instant grilling gratification, particularly when you’re grilling during the week?

Here are some pros and cons, first for charcoal:

Pros: Most professional cooks prefer charcoal grills. It gives a deeper smoky flavor, and, used properly, it produces a clean heat with a high temperature. Cooking over coals gives a seared crust, and once you’ve got it, you can move the meat to a lower-heat area to finish cooking. Some charcoal grills have a “gas-assist” feature that helps light the charcoal but uses the charcoal for cooking.

Cons: It is time-consuming to light the fire and wait for the coals to burn to the right degree. Like, say, 2-year-old kids, coal fires can be unpredictable and messy to clean. The charcoal may need to be replenished during the cooking process to handle long, slow-barbecued meats.

And now for gas:

Pros: Gas is convenient, easy to use and quick to light, and gas fires have an even heat. Longing for that smoky flavor? You can create it by allowing the juices and fat to drip onto the stones and briefly catch fire (be vigilant watching for a bonfire when cooking chicken with skin on). The fuel supply can be used over and over again and is easy to replace.

Aaron Nelson, owner of Quality Grill Service in Indianapolis, says grills powered by gas or propane turn on faster and offer more options and control than comparable charcoal grills.

“You can get your food on the grill in 10 minutes, you don’t have to keep adding coals, and you can moderate your heat,” he says. “You can cook a steak, fish, chicken and veggies at the same time on a gas grill. Someone who’s really savvy with a grill and wants to do things like smoking meat might gravitate to a charcoal grill, but the gas grill offers more options to cook quickly and conveniently.”

Cons: Most gas grills won’t burn as hot as a charcoal grill, although a few high-end gas grills hit the heights of heat. Drippy fat or no, gas doesn’t quite give the level of smoky flavor that charcoal grills do.

Nelson, who primarily works on gas grills, says many grillers swear by the intangible element charcoal adds to the barbecue experience.

“You’re using smoke heat, so your meats are going to have a little more flavor,” he says. “The gas grill industry has some really neat designs to mimic the smoky feel, and a seasoned grill brings some of that flavor, but you can never fully mimic what charcoal-smoked meat will taste like.”

Jeremy Leyva, sales associate at the All American Grill Store in Jacksonville, says the two types draw in different fandoms, especially given the do-it-yourself, wing-it-on-the-fly creativity charcoal offers.

“Gas fans like the ease of use and not having to tinker,” he says. “Diehard charcoal fans know they’ll get a different flavor. A lot of people who like to work with their hands or tinker tend to lean toward the charcoal.”

Fuel prices

Nelson says gas grills consume less fuel and thus cost less. At a cost of about $20 per refill, a single propane tank will last for more than 20 grillings, he says. “You’re looking at less than a dollar per cooking to feed your whole family,” Nelson says. “A bag of charcoal runs between $6 and $10, and it can only be used once.

However, Leyva points out modern, ceramic charcoal grills cook with more than just the blackened charcoal briquettes most people recognize from years of outdoor entertaining. “Lump” charcoal offers a high-heat, all-natural format.

“It’s all hickory or oak, with no accelerants,” he says. “You get a better taste from it, and it tends to last longer, because unlike charcoal briquettes, you can relight it next time.” He says a 20-pound bag costs about $24.

Decision time

If you like to be all hands-on and spend time crafting a perfect charcoal fire, that’s the answer for you. If you’re looking for convenience and speed and ease of cooking, gas grills can produce an excellent meal with less time and effort.

Buying a grill

Walk into your local home superstore, and the lineup of grills looks like Meatopia. How do you winnow down the choices? We talked with grilling expert Elizabeth Karmel, chef and founder of girlsatthegrill.com and chef owner of CarolinaCuetogo.com online barbecue delivery, and she made a list of tips for safety, convenience and flavor.

1. Make sure the grill is sturdy enough that it won’t roll or topple over in a strong wind.

2. If choosing gas, pick one with at least three burners so you can use it on direct or indirect heat.

3. Also pertaining to gas, make sure the propane tank is a safe distance from the igniter and burners.

4. Buy one that has the options you will use. Do you need a side burner for caramelizing onions or even wok-frying vegetables? Or would you rather have extra work surface instead? As for other accessories, decide whether they’re advantages or just gimmicks.

5. Look for a grill with a cover. It can help speed cooking as it acts also as an oven when closed. A thermometer attached to the lid will help you control the heat level.

6. Make sure there is good air flow and that the grill is deep enough for a large piece of meat like a turkey. Stay away from one with a shallow lid.

7. Look for one with an effective and efficient drip system. The drip pan should be large enough to catch pieces of food that fall through the grates and be easy to clean.

Gadgets galore

It’s fun to look at all of the grill gadgets. But do you need all of them? We asked Karmel what grill tools are essential. She mentioned just three important ones.

1. Two pairs of long-handled tongs — use one for cooked foods and the other for raw.

2. A brass bristle brush — this is best for cleaning the grates.

3. A long-handled basting brush — this makes basting safe and easy.

Look for warranty

No matter which kind of grill you purchase, pay close attention to the warranty to ensure many years of happy barbecues.

“You can buy a grill for a couple of hundred bucks at a big-box store, but it’ll be junk in three years,” Nelson says. “The good companies like Weber or Broilmaster offer strong warranties, so this will be the last grill you ever buy. You’ll be spending around $800 or $900 for a portable Weber grill, but the 25-year warranty makes it the best value for your dollar.”

Leyva says people can pay as little as a few hundred dollars for a charcoal grill, but he advises customers to go with a name brand with a solid warranty, which tends to cost between $800 and $1,200.

“Pay attention to the thickness of the stainless steel and the extent to which the company backs the warranty,” he says.

COMMERCIAL KITCHENSPrefer to let somebody else do the work? You’re in luck: Grilling on an open fire has become popular in restaurants. Top-of-the-line, high-end industrial grills are the new WOW factor in three Miami-area restaurants.

Klima and Coya have imported Josper ovens from Spain. These are indoor kitchen barbeque ovens that use top-quality charcoal that smokes the meats. With the oven door, the natural moisture and flavors stay inside throughout the cooking process. Klima (210 23rd St., Miami Beach) barbecues lamb, steak and pork in their oven. At Coya (999 Brickell Ave., Miami), in addition to grilling their meat in the Josper oven, they smoke butter to make sauces.

Beachcraft at the 1 Hotel South Beach has a Grillworks Inferno, a custom-designed, hand-built grill. They use only Florida hardwood oak that burns very hot and gives a smoky wood flavor. The grates have v-shaped grooves that catch the natural juices that they use to continually baste the meat.

THE ART OF THE GRILLGrills are getting some cutting-edge designs these days — in all price ranges. Here are a few of our favorites:

Black Olive Pellet Kamado GrillKamado is a hot new ceramic egg-shaped grill whose thick ceramic walls help to create a gentle heat. The only pellet-style Kamado on the market, this is a quick-starting smoker with an electric ignition that lights the grill in less than two minutes and is ready to use in 5 minutes. It has a motor that feeds the pellets into the firebox so you don’t have to tend the coals. $1,699.

Primo Oval XL Charcoal GrillThis oval-shaped grill has a thick ceramic shell and a dividable firebox, making indirect grilling easy. With 400 square inches of cooking space, it’s one of the largest ceramic grills available. $1,269.

Classic Joe Stand Alone Grill with Heat Deflector FinishA Kamado grill that is a smoker and oven all in one. It can be ready to cook in 15 minutes. $999.

The Big Green EggOne of the original Kamado grills available in the U.S. The Daisy Wheel top and lower damper allow for precise control of the inside temperature. Medium-size 15-inch diameter, $649.

FireMagic Echelon Diamond e790iThis outdoor kitchen is complete with side burner, rotisserie and halogen lamps. $5,500 to $6,500, depending on accessories.

FireMagic Legacy 30-inch Charcoal Grill on Cart

Has a 540-square-inch cooking surface, with heavy-duty stainless rounded oven hood and rear exhaust vent. The charcoal drawer makes adding charcoal and smoker chips a breeze. $3,199.

Cal Flame P4 Burner Built-In Propane Gas GrillHas heavy-duty cast stainless steel burners and exclusive v-grates that create steakhouse-style sear marks. An added feature is internal lights so you can grill at night. $1,469.

ProFire 36-inch Built-In Hybrid Gas BBQ GrillMade in the U.S. of quality materials by the first company to make stainless-steel grills. As a hybrid, it works on gas and has an infrared option for intense heat. It has a stainless steel rotisserie that supports up to 50 pounds and a stainless steel smoker tray built in. $3,049.

Weber Genesis E-3330Has three burners, a sear burner, 12,000 BTU side burner — a brand you can always count on. $949.

Fuego Element Propane Gas Grill FELG21CA sleek, contemporary style. It gets hot quickly, better than 500F in less than five minutes with a maximum temperature of 700F — great for searing. It has a heavy cast iron cooking grate for even distribution. $299.

DeLonghi Perfecto BG24 Indoor Electric GrillThe 12-by-6-inch cooking surface will cook a meal for the entire family. The embedded heating element distributes heat evenly without hot or cold spots. It weighs less than 11 pounds. Glass top protects against splatter. Uses standard electric outlet. $112.

Cuisinart CeG-980T Outdoor Electric Tabletop GrillHas a powerful 1,500-watt, 5,120 BTU burner with porcelain-enameled grill grate. It plugs into a standard electric outlet. $179.99.

BUBBA’S BUNCH BABY BACK RIBSThis recipe is Elizabeth Karmel’s version of ribs that won a Memphis-in-May Patio Porkers contest a few years back. Their secret was marinating the ribs in lemon juice before rubbing spices into the meat. We’ve streamlined their process with cut lemons and a homemade rub. Grill on indirect/medium-low heat. Serves 4.

4 racks baby back ribs

2 lemons, cut in half

1/4 cup classic Barbecue Rub*

Soaked wood chips, if desired

Favorite barbecue sauce

Build charcoal fire or preheat gas grill. Remove silverskin from back of ribs, if desired. Set up the grill for indirect heat and if using wood chips, place soaked chips directly on charcoal, or in smoking box of gas grill. Rub the cut lemons over front and back of ribs squeezing to release as much juice as possible. Set aside for 5 minutes. Rub ribs liberally with spice rub and let sit, covered, for 15-20 minutes. Place ribs (bone side down) in the center of the cooking grate or in a rib holder/rack, making sure they are not over a direct flame. Grill covered (at about 325° F, if your grill has a thermometer) for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until meat is tender and has pulled back fom the ends of the rib bones. Leave ribs untended for the first 30 minutes — this means no peeking; especially important if using wood chips. If the ribs start to burn on the edges, stack them on top of one another in the very center of the grill and lower your fire slightly. Twenty minutes before serving, unstack ribs and brush with barbecue sauce. Remove ribs from grill and let rest 10 minutes before cutting into individual or 2-3 rib portions. Warm remaining sauce in a saucepan and serve on the side, if desired.

BASIC BARBEQUE RUB2 tablespoons smoky Spanish paprika

2 tablespoons kosher salt

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon celery salt

1 teaspoon oregano, crushed

Combine paprika, salt, sugar, brown sugar, cumin, chili powder, pepper, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, celery salt and oregano in bowl; mix well. For a smoother rub, puree ingredients in a spice grinder until well combined and all pieces are uniform (the rub will be very fine and tan in color). Extra rub can be stored in an airtight container for up to six months. Note: The great thing about BBQ rubs is that everyone eventually makes their own adaptation of their favorite rub recipe. If you don’t like a specific spice, leave it out; if you like it hotter, add more pepper or cayenne, and if you think something’s lacking, add that, too. Just make sure to watch the salt content as you are mixing; many prepared spices include salt and it adds up quickly.

GRILLED MAHI MAHI SANDWICHMahi Mahi fillets with their firm meat hold up well and are readily flavored by the smoky grill. Mayonnaise with a hint of garlic and sweet onions make a perfect topping for the grilled grouper. Use this recipe for any thick, meaty fish such as striped bass or wild caught grouper. Serves 2.

2 6-ounce mahi mahi fillets

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

Olive oil spray

4 slices French country bread

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons low fat mayonnaise

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 medium garlic cloves, crushed

4 1/2-inch slices Vidalia or other sweet onion

Heat grill or preheat gas grill. Rinse mahi mahi and pat dry with paper towel. Place in a self-seal plastic bag and add balsamic vinegar. Marinate 15 minutes. Spray bread with olive oil spray and set aside. Mix mayonnaise with lime juice and garlic. Set aside. Remove grouper from marinade and pat dry with paper towel. Place on grill 4-inches from heat. Grill 2 minutes per side. Salt and pepper cooked side. While fish grills, add the onion slices, grill 1 minute per side. Toast the bread on the grill, 1 minute per side. Spread each slice of bread with a layer of mayonnaise. Place a grouper fillet on 2 of the slices and place onion slices on the grouper. Cover with the remaining bread slices. Recipe from Linda Gassenheimer Dinner in Minutes.

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