Ask MeatEater: Charcoal, Propane, or Pellet Grill?

Ask MeatEater: Charcoal, Propane, or Pellet Grill?

You’ve got questions. We’ve got answers (and if we don’t, we’ll make them up). Every day fellow MeatEaters send us more than 100 emails and direct messages regarding hunting, fishing, cooking, and more. So, we decided to publish a series dedicated to our favorite FAQs. This is Ask MeatEater.

In the market for a new grill? Choosing between charcoal, propane, or pellet fuel can be tough because they each have their advantages and disadvantages.

Charcoal grills are the OG of backyard grilling. They get very hot and retain their heat well if insulated. In my opinion, charcoal is the best option for searing backstraps or cooking burgers. My favorite grills are the ones that allow you to move the grates up and down for heat control. The downside is that you have to wait for the coals to get hot and deal with the mess of ashes left behind afterward. If you’re often in a hurry and want food fast, you’re better off with propane.

That’s the main advantage of a propane grill: instant heat. It can be ready in less than a quarter of the time that it takes to get charcoal or pellets up to temp. I regularly use propane to quickly roast peppers or char onions. However, the flavor that gas adds to meat is a deal-breaker for some folks. To counter this issue, try putting wood chips on the top shelf to mask that scent.

When it comes to flavor, it’s hard to beat the ease and versatility of a pellet grill. There are several brands on the market, varying widely in design and quality. Many double as smokers. When picking one out, be sure to check out the specs. You’ll want to know how high and low the temperatures will go. For wild game, having the ability to smoke between 180 and 200 degrees is a necessity. Pulled barbecue venison roasts and smoked redfish are two of my favorite smoker recipes, but the possibilities are endless.

One of the biggest pitfalls of a pellet grill, besides cost, is that not all brands can get ripping hot, over 400 degrees or so. Many of them are made out of very thin metal, so whatever heat you can generate will disappear as soon as you open the lid to check your meat. Built-in meat thermometers can be helpful to keep from opening the lid and losing smoke and heat, however.

On the grills that do get really hot, crank the heat up as high as it can go and  sear your meat in a cast iron skillet. Or, start smoking at low temps first to do a reverse sear. That will give you the best of both worlds—a solid crust and wood-smoked flavor.

All three of these options have advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to consider how often you grill, how much time you have, and the type of cooking you do most. If I had to choose just one, I would pick the grill that can do it all—a pellet grill.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article