Burning issue It's gas-grill guys vs. the coal-and-ashes bunch

July 01, 1998|By Jennifer Lowe | Jennifer Lowe,Orange County Register

Within the food world, certain debates are never-ending: butter vs. margarine. Red wine vs. white. Chicken or beef.

But none grows more heated this time of year, perhaps, than the face-off over fire under a grill: charcoal or gas?

It can be a passionate dispute as it rages across back yards in America. It pits purists who love the smell of smoke and the blaze from wood or charcoal against those who gladly give up hopeless minutes blowing on coals, then cleaning up piles of ashes, for fire begun by turning a knob.

Ultimately, it boils down to taste.

The charcoal crowd thinks it wins, hands down.

"I really don't see the argument for a gas grill. If you're half interested in making something taste good, why not make it taste good?" asks Mark Soden, a high-school audiovisual technician, who, as a hobby, competes in barbecue competitions throughout the state.

"If I'm going to take the time to cook something, I'm not doing it all for convenience," he says. "I have a certain element of pride to make it taste good."

THE CHARCOAL SIDE:

It's real fire

Hard-core charcoal folks such as Soden believe a fire fueled by charcoal or wood flavors food like nothing else. Beef chars, chicken crisps, fish takes on the smoky flavor that marks good grilling, and no lava rocks, flavor bars or other man-made contraptions can do that. "It's an intense, earthy flavor," says Yvonne Kopina, a chef who grew up with the Santa Maria, Calif., style of barbecuing, where food is grilled over various kinds of oak. "I like the way the smoke smells," she says, "and it seems like when you're having all that smoke and breathing it in, that's how the food tastes."

Grilling means cooking over live fire, says Chris Schlesinger, who wrote "License to Grill" (Morrow, $27.50) with John Willoughby.

Tender food is cooked rapidly over hot flame, with the added benefit of the smoky char, he says. The seared crust that develops when food is exposed to the direct heat of flames is responsible for the characteristic grilled flavor. But while any cooking processes using reasonably high heat can brown food, Schlesinger writes, "There's no question grilling rules. It is the hottest of high-heat techniques and the food is usually cooked right over the flames, which means the heat is about as direct as it gets."

He quibbles not with gas' convenience.

"There is a lot of reality in cooking -- that's why we have microwaves," he says. "I'm not going to tell someone to throw away the gas grill. Sometimes you choose dried herbs instead of fresh herbs. But let's not confuse the results. If you want speed and convenience, I believe you specifically sacrifice flavor."

And no gas grill matches the thrill of a charcoal grill, he says.

"It's about working with live fire and the excitement of it and the unbelievable feeling you get when you've conquered the wilds of the back yard to deliver a meal. With a gas grill, it's all safe, and you lose that kind of adventure and success thing." No fancy gas grill is necessary, he says. "All you need is a fire, a grill and a beer."

THE GAS SIDE:

It's real easy

Ron Rumford has beer beside his gas grill. In fact, in his brand-new, built-in, four-burner, gas-grill island, he has a built-in refrigerator. His old kettle-style grill didn't have that. It's parked on the side of the house now. "The good part is the little refrigerator," says Rumford, a manufacturer's representative for a company that sells printing-press rollers.

"I really favored charcoal in the past because I liked the flavor. But if you get the [food] seasonings right, if you 'turn it up a notch' as Emeril [Lagasse] on TV says, you take care of everything. Just spend a little time marinating meat, and you're ready to go."

Diane Robson's style is to baste. A teacher by day, she often flips on the gas grill in the evening to cook chicken, steaks, burgers and vegetables, turning and basting just about everything to instill flavor. Maybe charcoal is better, she says, "but it's negligible compared to the convenience of gas," she says. "Who wants to get charcoaly hands? It's a dirty job."

Steve Weddington has been a gas guy since he chucked his kettle grill 15 years ago. His neighbors all have gas grills. They found this out when, at a recent block party, no one could pull their grill from the back yard to cook since they were all hooked up to natural gas lines.

But Weddington, an electrician with three young children, will never go back to charcoal. "Gas is such a convenience. You just go out and turn it on as opposed to going to the store and getting charcoal and lighting it," he says.

Over the years he has honed his gas-grill skills, mastering the temperature of his gas fire to produce food he takes great pride in. Occasionally he'll add wood chips to his gas grill for more flavor. "I can make a cardboard box taste good," he says.

THE TASTE ISSUE:

Not black and white

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