Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fueling the Fuel Debate

I detest partisan politics. I feel that those who hold either purely Democratic opinions or exclusively Republican views are typically unable to look at any particular issue holistically. I suppose that's why I'm an independent thinker with opinions that crisscross party lines.

My nonpartisan views extend into the realm of outdoor cooking as well. When it comes to the endless debate about charcoal vs. propane, my view is that both do well at different tasks and in different situations. I personally own 5 charcoal units (2 grills and 3 smokers) and 4 propane devices (2 grills, 1 camp stove, and 1 high-output burner), so there's no way I can be branded as either a "charcoalist" or a "propaner". That I have such a diversity of outdoor cooking gear gives me the right to comment on charcoal and propane in a completely unbiased manner.

I don't have much patience for anyone who espouses a one-sided view on fuels used for outdoor cooking, so when a high-falootin' food writer named Josh Ozersky published an article entitled "Barbecuers, Unite! Why Gas Grills Are Evil", I really got torked off. In this piece – which can only be described as a fanciful, one-sided rant against propane – Mr. Ozersky demonstrates partisanship at its finest (or worst, depending on your point of view).

I have nary a clue about what caused Mr. Ozersky to hate gas grills so much. It could have been some horribly traumatic event that befell him as a child. Maybe it's just that no one has ever demonstrated for him the proper combination of a high-performance gas grill and an exceptional technique. Regardless of the rationale for his views, this guy's blistering screed got my blood a-boilin' mainly because he crossed the line when he went from merely criticizing gas grills to seemingly denigrating the people who use them.

Despite his being a James Beard Award-winning food journalist, Mr. Ozersky allowed some inaccuracies and misconceptions to get tangled up in his overworked and cloying prose:

1.) He says that propane users give up flavor. What? Are you kidding? The gas grills I use can sear a steak, grill a burger, or roast a chicken as good as any charcoal grill. Throw some wood chips in the smoker box, and you'll be infusing hickory, oak, or some other flavor just like you would if you were scattering them atop a charcoal fire. Based on the equipment I use, there is no difference between gas or charcoal when grilling. (Smoking, on the other hand, is a different story... keep reading.)

2.) Mr. Ozersky writes: "Gas is grossly artificial, abstract, a formula for the feeding of indifferent crowds. There are no flare-ups, and no ash to throw away, but there is also no crust, no fire, no woodsy taste or sizzling, succulent fat." No flare-ups? I've had plenty of them on gas grills over the years, typically at times when the succulent fat (which is dependent on the meat not the grilling method) sizzled just a little bit too much. No fire? The last time I checked, there were actual flames (a.k.a. fire) coming out of the burners. No crust or woodsy taste? At the risk of sounding like Hank Hill, come to my house, Mr. Ozersky, and I will show you what propane can do to put a nice crust on a steak and infuse some good smoke flavor.

3.) He also states that "as a free and mobile people, we should be able to grill wherever we want: on roofs, on beaches, in parks, in arena parking lots. But all of these are places your gas grill can't go." Dude, I don't know about you, but I think just about every municipal, county, and state fire safety code in the nation prohibits the rooftop use of a charcoal grill. And regarding not being able to take one's gas grill to the beach, to a park, or to some tailgating event, I'm confused as to why Mr. Ozersky has never heard of an innovation called a portable gas grill. They exist. You can buy them. The Weber Q series is one of the more popular alternatives in a market that offers a plethora of options.

4.) What really confounds me is how the author asserts that "gas grilling is actually much more complicated and laborious than real grilling". Say what? When I want a really quick burger I can light a gas grill and cook a batch of patties quicker and with much less effort than on charcoal. Mr. Ozersky's basis for contending that propane is more of a chore is "the drive, inevitably at the last minute, to refill your propane tanks because you forgot to close the valve, or because, being dead, blank, enormous metal spheres without any kind of fuel gauge, they impart no information to their owner." My good man, forgetting to close a valve is called being a dumbass. By the way, if you want a pretty good idea of whether a tank is almost empty, just pick it up to see how heavy it is ... it's not that difficult. Or you could simply buy a gauge. And for goodness sake, it's a well-known best practice to keep a second tank (a full one) ready to go as a back-up.

I don't want today's post to turn into a bashing of Mr. Ozersky and, by extension, charcoal. To set the record straight, I am not disrespecting charcoal at all. I have simply highlighted the fallacies of the author's position on propane. Furthermore, if Mr. Ozersky had done a better job of making the distinction between the methods used for slow-smoking BBQ and the techniques more closely associated with grilling – between which he indiscriminately switched in his companion article entitled "Five Things Americans Need to Know About Barbecue" – then I might not be putting up such a fuss. So, let me further clarify my position.

Grilling (high direct heat) is different than smoking (low indirect heat). For example, when my team prepares BBQ at a competition, the only heat that touches the meat is that which emanates from charcoal and wood. In fact, the KCBS rules prohibit me from using propane. And even if I could use propane I wouldn't do so because the end product wouldn't turn out the same. This is because when cooking for hours (instead of just minutes), the cumulative taste effect produced by charcoal is measurably better and different than propane.

Am I saying that I couldn't smoke a pork butt on a gas grill? No, not at all. If given a full tank and a decent gas grill with good burner control (e.g., my late-90s model Weber Genesis), I could definitely do it, and it would be damn tasty, too. It's just that I could make a better pork butt on a charcoal grill or smoker.

I suggest that if you're in no rush to eat and have the time to light off a chimney full of charcoal to grill up a juicy flank steak or nice piece of fish, by all means do so. But if you're pressed for time with hungry family members demanding grilled chicken ASAP, or if you're planning on grilling some sausages when it's 28°F with falling snow, a gas grill is the unit of choice. That's why I recommend that every grilling or smoking enthusiast should have at least one of each asset type, and 1 in 5 actually do. Versatility is the key!

But the 'fuel wars' aren't limited to just charcoal vs. propane. There is a great divide within the charcoal camp about the use of briquettes vs. lump charcoal. Once again, I am decidedly neutral on the matter. There are occasions when I use Kingsford briquettes instead of Royal Oak lump and vice versa. Heck, there are even situations where I use both to simultaneously enjoy the virtues of each.

Yes, it's true that lump charcoal is free from fillers, burns hotter, and imparts a slightly superior taste on meat. But lump is also of irregular size, meaning that it doesn't pack well to minimize airflow for really long cooks, and it typically burns out quicker. An insightful analysis offers a more detailed comparison. Different strokes for different folks, right?

Here are some interesting stats to consider:

  • Of Americans at least 21 years of age, 71% own at least one outdoor grill and/or smoker. Of this population, 67% own a gas grill while 46% own a charcoal grill. (source: Weber)
  • 1985 was the first year that the number of gas grills sold in North America exceeded charcoal grills. Gas has led the way ever since, and in 2010 over 8.5 million gas-fueled units were sold compared to 6.2 million charcoal units. (source: HBPA)
  • There were more than 826 thousand tons of charcoal sold in North America in 1993, and at that time 97.9% was in the form of briquettes and only 2.1% was lump. In 2010 the total amount of charcoal sold was 1.04 million tons, but the proportion of lump had risen to 11.0%. (source: HBPA)

So, here's the bottom line, people: just get outside and cook! I don't care if you're grilling or smoking, using charcoal or propane, or firing up briquettes or lump. The main thing is to get out there and do it. And don't think of cooking outdoors as just something that's done in warm months. There is no such thing as an outdoor cooking season. It's a 365-day-per-year opportunity that with the right equipment, techniques, and attitude you can seize whenever you want. Own it!!

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