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Charcoal or gas? Depends on what you’re grilling

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Grilled chicken thighs have a soy-based sauce and are topped with spicy cashews.

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Lightly grilled flounder fillets are simply served with lemon and parsley.

Gas or charcoal? It is a question that has bedeviled American consumers and cooks for decades, since the first LazyMan propane grill went on sale in the 1950s and left the Smiths with their briquette-fueled brazier looking jealously over the fence at the Joneses and their new outdoor-science stove.

In the abstract there is no one correct answer.

You get great smoky flavor and an unparalleled crust from cooking over or beside coals or wood. That said, on a Wednesday night there is little easier than lighting a gas grill after softball practice and cooking a bunch of brats for the team. There are positives and negatives to each form of fire, depending on what you are cooking, and when and for how long.

“We are way past ‘versus,’” said Adam Perry Lang, a barbecue chef from New York who built his career on food enhanced by the flavors and scent of wood smoke. Lang said that at home he cooks over propane, and in some cases he actually prefers gas to charcoal or wood. “They’ve gotten very good,” he said of gas grills. “You can make some really, really good food with a gas grill.”

A lot of people do, or try to. Roughly 180 million Americans have some kind of grill in the yard, on the patio or on the deck, according the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group. Of that number, said Eric Davis, a spokesman for the association, roughly 62 percent have gas grills, and 50 percent own charcoal-fired ones — which suggests that at least 12 percent (or something in the neighborhood of 20 million Americans) might have both.

So which to buy? Or which to use?

Gas grills are, of course, a marvel of expediency. They are ideal, said chef Josh Cohen, who owns bars and restaurants across North Brooklyn, for cooking fish, roasting vegetables or making a fast dinner of sausages and peppers.

What gas grills are not good for, Cohen and others said, is high-heat searing. Even the ones scored highest by the product testing site Sweethome were ultimately unsuited for cooking a pricey, well-marbled steak or even a good hamburger.

Lang suggests deploying a cast-iron pan or steel plancha on top of the propane grates to help concentrate the heat and allow the meat to cook in its own fats.

“Start the meat in the pan,” he said, “render some fat, then kiss the steak onto the fire at the end for a crust. You want browning to occur before you start the caramelization. That’s the best of both worlds.”

It’s safer, too. “You put a really well-marbled steak over live fire,” Lang said, “it can be really volatile.”

As for cooking over charcoal or wood? It is a technique practically as old as humankind. It is not particularly difficult, as any caveman would tell you. But it is more complicated than simply turning a knob. You have to build and bank and tend a fire. You have to pay close attention to temperatures and “zones” of heat.

Grilling that way may not be the best use of time on a weeknight, but on weekends — or any time you can get free to concentrate on your cooking — a charcoal grill cannot be beat. (That is not just idle opinion. The Sweethome’s side-by-side testing of both hamburgers and chicken cooked on gas and charcoal grills delivered a flavor win to charcoal by a wide margin, regardless of the model.)

Good things to grill over charcoal? In Hinckley’s opinion: steak, so long as it isn’t too fatty or too slicked in oil. “I’m always going to go toward charcoal for that,” he said. “It’s hard to generate enough heat with a propane grill.” Also: chicken, pork, fruit and anything that will be cooked long enough in the presence of smoke and indirect heat to qualify as barbecue.

For his part, Lang suggested “choice cuts, less fatty proteins, even skinless chicken” for the charcoal grill, where they can pick up the scent of the smoke beneath them. “You can just lacquer them like in Japanese cooking, with a baste,” he said.

But he cautioned that much the same could be done on a propane grill.

“I love everything about wood and charcoal, but not at the expense of people stepping away from grilling altogether because it’s complicated to light and tend a fire,” Lang said. Grill on gas if you have to or if you want to: “There’s no B team anymore,” he said.

BEST FOR CHARCOAL

Grilled Chicken Thighs With Spicy Cashews

  • 1/2 cup unsalted cashews
  • 2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce
  • 2 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs
  • 4 scallions, sliced thin
  • 5 or 6 springs cilantro, tough stems removed and roughly chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
  • >> Marinade:
  • 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
  • Hot sauce, to taste
  • >> Basting sauce:
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (light or dark) or molasses
  • 2 tablespoons peeled and minced ginger

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Line a small baking pan with foil.

Combine cashews and Sriracha in a small bowl; stir to coat. Spread on baking pan, then bake until dry, about 20 minutes. Carefully remove from foil and cool, then chop roughly and set aside.

Meanwhile, whisk together marinade ingredients in large bowl. Add chicken thighs and stir to coat. Refrigerate until ready to cook.

Whisk together basting sauce ingredients until sugar has dissolved.

Build a fire in a charcoal grill, leaving about one-third of cooking space free of coals. When coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for 5 to 7 seconds), you are ready to cook.

Cook chicken directly over coals, turning every few minutes, until well browned but not crusty, 8 to 10 minutes. Brush with sauce until they develop a lacquer, an additional 8 to 10 minutes, turning every few minutes. (If chicken threatens to burn, place it over the part of the grill without coals.)

Serve sprinkled with cashews, scallions and cilantro. Serves 4 to 6.

BEST FOR GAS

Grilled Flounder

  • 4 flounder fillets, approximately 1-1/2 pounds, or any thin, low-fat white fish such as catfish or tilapia
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
  • Neutral oil, like canola or grape seed
  • 4 small pats unsalted butter, approximately 1 teaspoon each
  • Chopped parsley
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • >> Brine:
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 gallon water

Combine brine ingredients in large bowl or pot, stirring to dissolve salt and sugar.

Set burners on a gas grill to medium.

Slide flounder fillets into brine and let sit about 10 minutes, then remove and pat very dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper, then apply a little oil to one side of each fillet, lightly spreading it with your fingers.

Apply more oil to a paper towel and oil the grill grates (use tongs to protect your hands). Grates will smoke furiously. Gently lay fillets, oiled side down, onto grates. Cook until fish starts to turn translucent at the edges, 3 to 4 minutes, then place, grilled side up, on a warmed platter. The fish will continue to cook as it rests.

Top each fillet with a small pat of butter, parsley and a squeeze of lemon. Serves 4.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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