Jeff Flowers on May 26, 2016 0 Comments Convenience vs. Flavor: Understanding different fuel sources for better grilling The experience of buying a grill for your backyard should be pleasant and relatively hassle-free, but there are many factors to take into consideration before you bring home a new outdoor cooker. Just as grills come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, there are different ways to heat your grill that should be taken into consideration. Heat Sources The way that you heat your grill depends on a couple of key factors — flavor and convenience. Some fuel sources can be convenient, but one may argue you compromise additional flavor with this convenience. On the other hand, some backyard cooks argue that the mess and clean up of the more flavorful fuel sources are not worth the taste. 1. Charcoal Briquettes This is one of the most recognized and iconic fuel sources for the backyard barbecue. Charcoal briquettes are engineered to be a convenient and consistent fuel source. Outdoor gourmets believe that the flavor of charcoal is far superior to other fuel sources, both for grilling and smoking. Briquettes are commonly started with charcoal lighter fluid that has been known to leave a chemical flavor on food. An easy way to avoid that is to use a chimney starter to ignite your briquettes instead. Some charcoal briquettes come pre-soaked in a chemical designed to assist in getting the coals lit with only a match. Although the method for this type of charcoal is more convenient, the flavor can be unpleasant and acrid. 2. Hardwood Lump Charcoal A lesser-known charcoal fuel, hardwood lump charcoal, is gaining popularity in part because there are typically no chemicals or fillers added to the fuel source. Hardwood lump charcoal resembles wood which had been burning in a bonfire and then was suddenly smothered and extinguished. Pieces of hardwood lump charcoal range in size from about the size of a racquetball to a grapefruit and are clearly recognizable as burned pieces of wood. Ideal for cooking slowly and at low temperatures or for searing meat with knuckle-burning heat, hardwood lump charcoal is arguably one of the most flavorful fuel sources. Most hardwood lump charcoals are a blend of woods, but some will specify that the charcoal is made from a specific type of tree. This is important because a wood like hickory or mesquite may provide an undesirable taste when grilling something like a turkey or a delicate fish like halibut on the grill. On the other hand, the same flavors of hickory or mesquite hardwood lump charcoal work well for proteins like beef, lamb, or even ostrich. 3. Natural Gas Natural gas is a fantastic fuel source for a few reasons. It is affordable and the supply is seemingly endless if plumbed into your residence. Gas grills can be purchased to receive natural gas as a fuel source and most qualified plumbers can safely install a semi permanent gas supply to your grill. Larger grill manufacturers often offer conversion kits that allow propane grills to convert to running on natural gas, so take that into consideration when you are purchasing your grill. Gas is very affordable as a fuel source and depending how often you grill, you may not even notice much of a change in your utility bill. Being connected to your home’s utilities, gas grills are ready to go all day, every day that they are connected. It is convenient, but in exchange, you sacrifice some flavor. 4. Propane The Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA) reported (PDF) that 98 percent of gas grills use propane as a fuel source. Liquid propane tanks are affordable and can be purchased at many different locations, including grocery and hardware stores. Tanks can easily be refilled. Many large retail chains offer propane exchange programs where you exchange your empty liquid propane tank for a new, filled one for the cost of the fuel; that gets you grilling sooner than waiting for a qualified propane professional to re-fill your tank. If you are serious about grilling with propane, having at least one full spare propane tank on hand at all times is probably a good idea. Propane burns hot and clean, but similar to natural gas, it’s arguably not as flavorful as charcoal. 5. Wood Pellets Food quality wood pellets for use in pellet grills seem to be relatively new to the grilling and barbecue scene, but have actually been available for about three decades. All-natural wood pellets are about the size of a baked bean and are made from a variety of trees to pair well with different meats. White meats like chicken and pork absorb the flavors of fruitwoods like cherry and apple. Beef takes on the flavors of hardwoods like hickory and mesquite well, and fish often works well with cedar or alder wood pellets. Pellet grills often operate in a range between 150°F-450°F. Pellets are less messy than the black soot of charcoal, and often are available in convenient 20-pound bags that you pour into a hopper, which feeds the fuel to your grill. Because wood pellets are basically compressed wood shavings or dust, they are susceptible to moisture and humidity. If possible, wood pellets should be stored inside and in a sealed container until you are ready to use them. If you use a pellet grill in the late fall, and do not plan on using it again until the spring, it would be a good idea to remove the unused pellets from the hopper, auger, and burn pot to limit exposure to moisture. 6. Wood At the core of it all, wood is one of the most classic fuel sources for backyard barbecue and grilling. If you live in an area where wood is plentiful, it is often a great solution as a fuel. People may even pay you to haul away wood that you can use in your grill or barbecue. Some of the most recognized pit masters would never use anything other than firewood or sticks of wood, keeping barbecue pits going seemingly around the clock. Wood is consistent, abundant, and packs lots of flavor. But wood takes constant monitoring to keep the pit at an even temperature. Wood storage, its availability, and how safe your cooking area will be if you cook with wood should all be taken into consideration if you use this abundant fuel source. Wood should also be seasoned, or allowed to dry for one to two years before using it in your barbecue or smoker. 7. Electricity Although less common among the backyard barbecues, electric grills can be a welcome addition to your cooking quiver, especially if space is at a premium. Typically, electric grills are lighter and smaller, making them ideal for a balcony or someone who lives in an apartment. Electric grills cook similarly to gas or charcoal grills, applying direct heat to your food to create amazing flavors and colors. Because electric grills are often smaller, they can be ideal for an intimate gathering. However, you are probably would not want to take on an item that takes many hours to cook, like a brisket or holiday turkey. Conclusion Regardless of which fuel source you choose, doing some homework and preparation before you buy a grill will be helpful when it is time to cook. Some fuel sources can be convenient, but lack flavor. On the other hand, the more flavorful options can be messy, smoky, and require constant monitoring. If you make sure that fun and safety are on the menu, I am sure you will be happy with whatever fuel you choose.