The Great Debate: Charcoal or Gas?

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Charcoal or Gas? Gas or Charcoal? The Ultimate Dilemma. What’s a tailgater to do?

Go to any tailgate party and you will find two different types of fans. I am not talking about the fans of the teams that will be playing inside the stadium in a few hours. I am talking about the fans of how to cook and prepare food on a grill. There are two types of tailgate grillers. One type loves the old-fashioned way of firing up the charcoal grill while another loves the gas grill. There are no wrong answers to this eternal tailgating question as to which one you should choose. Use this comparison as your guide to making the right choice for your next tailgating experience.

Charcoal grills: Ah yes, the old standby. Good old-fashioned charcoal. We all have memories of dad pouring out the bag of black briquettes, spraying the lighter fluid on and then one single match igniting the entire mound with a ‘whoosh’ of flame. When it comes to tailgating, many will swear that going charcoal is the only way to go. The main argument to support this claim is that the flavor and texture of the meat cooked on a charcoal grill is the best. Also, another reason the charcoal camp advocates going the old-fashioned way is that when tailgating, charcoal grills are smaller, lighter, and easier to transport to the party in the parking lot. Unlike your gas grill at home which may contain a ‘smoker box’ for mesquite chips, most portable gas grills do not have one. Charcoal grills can handle those wood chips. Just sprinkle them on the coals and you are in business.

The cons of charcoal grilling as a tailgater is based on speed and convenience. Typically charcoal needs between 15 and 25 minutes (based on lighting and arrangement techniques) to get hot enough to properly cook meat. Also, once the coals are hot you need to cook what you want to eat while the coals are hot. There is no turning on and off charcoal once they are hot and ready to cook. Another pitfall is the fact that your charcoal is messy and dirtier than gas grills. Many parking lots of stadiums and arenas do not have proper disposal receptacles for hot coals. Some stadium parking lots will not allow tailgaters to use charcoal grills because of the dangers they pose. Tailgaters either need to let coals burn completely out and then dump the ashes into a trash bag or leave their grill outside of their vehicle to let the coals cool off completely. Leaving your grill out while you go inside the game can be risky in that someone could steal your grill before the game ends or someone could accidentally knock over your grill before the coals have burned out. No one wants to come back to their vehicle to find that their grill was knocked over and a few coals burned or melted their tires. Another con is that temperature control is a problem with charcoal. You have to have some creative arrangements of the coals in order to get indirect heat or slow-cook your meats.

Gas Grills: The main benefits of tailgating with a gas grill are speed, convenience, and control. Gas grills are fast in that they light instantly and can warm up to cooking temperatures within five minutes. This is great for those last-minute tailgaters that arrive at the tailgate party after you have and still want something to eat. You can always fire the grill back up and within minutes be on your way to grilling. Cooling down on a gas grill is more convenient as well making packing up before heading into your event faster and easier. Another advantage to gas grilling is that it affords you more control over the heat applied to your meat. Charcoal grills only offer one temperature but gas grills can be as hot or cool as you prefer. Others may add that gas grills allow you to ‘taste the meat, not the heat because they claim that charcoal grills may deposit traces of coal tar on your food. For the environmental conscience tailgater, gas grills are also considered cleaner for the environment since it does not produce ashes and put out less carbon monoxide than charcoal grills.

The knock-on gas grills are that the food cooked on a gas grill lacks the flavor from a charcoal grill. Many complain that propane and natural gas grills produce a ‘wet heat’ that includes water vapor as a combustion byproduct that can change the texture and flavor of foods cooked over such fuels. Lastly, the price of a gas grill can be more expensive than a charcoal grill depending on the brand and style. Also, an inconvenience of gas grills is having to buy propane tanks that do not contain a fuel gauge. Running out of gas while tailgating can be a real drag and can severely alter the flavor of your food if it is not detected soon after the tank runs out.

A quick summary of both the pros and cons of charcoal and gas grilling.


Pros – Flavor, size/space conscience, less expensive, mesquite chips easier to use

Cons – A longer time to heat up, messy cleanup, lack of heat control, must cook when coals are hot, many stadiums prohibit charcoal grills.


Pros – Lights fast, better heat control, cook for a long or short periods of time, cooling time quicker than charcoal, no coal tar on food, less carbon monoxide.

Cons – Less flavorful food, ‘wet heat’ texture and flavor, more expensive.

All in all, when choosing a grill for your next tailgating experience, there is no right or wrong answer. You may find that your tailgating grill may be a gas grill but your grill at home is charcoal or vice versa. It all depends on your own personal style and how you want to spend your time tailgating. Getting to the parking lot early and letting the coals heat up may be a great way to unwind and enjoy a frosty beverage before grilling. Maybe you plan on having a number of people stop by your tailgate party and being able to fire up the grill quickly for a quick snack is exactly what you need. Again, there is no right or wrong answer here. No matter what type of grill best fits your needs, the key is to relax and enjoy yourself. Tailgating is fun and the type of grill you choose should enhance that experience. Just another tailgating idea to make the pre-game just as fun as the real game.

Ready to get your next grill? Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Coleman Portable Road Trip Propane Grill – 10,000 BTUs of pure grilling power

Kingsford Portable Charcoal Grill – For you ‘Old Schoolers’ that love the charcoal taste

Stansport Steel Barrel Barbeque Grill/Smoker Combo -Looks like a keg, cooks like a mother

Weber Q100 Table Top Gas Grill – Features a 189 sq-in, porcelain-enameled, cast-iron cooking grate, and a 6-in tall capacity lid

Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker/GrillThe two, 18 1/2-in cooking grates are heavy-duty plated and provide ample room for smoking a turkey and a ham at the same time.