Mike Hogan and Phil Hardiman agree that there's really no better way to spend a weekend than stepping into the backyard and grilling steaks, ribs or burgers.
But agreement ends between the Omaha men when you ask them a question that divides husbands and wives, neighbors and friends: What's the best way to grill — charcoal or gas?
Hogan believes charcoal rules, and Hardiman says gas whips briquettes.
It's a backyard debate that flares up in summer when talk turns to grilling.
Hogan and Hardiman are friends and members of the Greater Omaha BBQ Society, a group that promotes outdoor cooking.
Hardiman, 59, said the convenience of gas grilling, plus the darn good meals that result, earns it the golden spatula award.
“Charcoal is such a pain,'' said Hardiman, who owns an Omaha funeral home. “You've got to let the coals get hot. You've got a mess afterward. If you're not careful, you're going to burn your deck.”
OK, Phil. Tell us how you really feel.
For the 47-year-old Hogan, flavor propels charcoal to the top. Hogan, a safety consultant, said charcoal provides hints of smoky flavor that turn a simple steak into a carnivore's dream.
And he doesn't mind waiting while his charcoal heats up.
From left: Mike Hogan and Phil Hardiman
Says Hogan, “Good things come to those who wait.”
To help settle this backyard tussle, we talked with Brian O'Malley, chef instructor at the Institute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College.
O'Malley grills at home with a charcoal grill and a gas one, and says each has strengths.
So here's his take on the gas vs. charcoal matchup:
Charcoal kicks in a smoke flavor that makes you want to give your oven away. But the big advantage? Charcoal fires up an intense heat that sears meat quickly, providing a savory taste. Still, charcoal isn't the best for everything you grill, such chicken breasts and veggies, because the heat is harder to keep steady and low for longer periods. Overall though, whether you're grilling steaks, burgers or brats, charcoal snatches the flavor prize.
Push a button, and within five to 10 minutes, gas grills are ready for action. So when the kids and grandma are really hungry, gas grills will deliver burgers on the table faster than charcoal. Gas also is better for grilling year-round, like that February night when your stomach demands barbecued chicken. Who wants to fool around lighting charcoal when it's cold enough outside to freeze your sauce?
You can find a good Weber kettle grill for about $100, and off-brands for less than $50. Generally, gas grills are more expensive than comparable charcoal ones, and gas grills have more parts that can break and require replacement. Use the savings from buying a charcoal grill to get some really nice steaks.
Caveman Effect: charcoal
Deep down, don't we all like playing with fire? There's something satisfying about striking a match, lighting the charcoal and watching the smoke float into the sky. Your clothes get smoky, and suddenly you feel like grabbing a spear. Anybody have a good marinade for mammoth?
Neighbor Envy: gas
If you really want to impress the neighbors, gas grills flash the bling. A shiny stainless steel grill can look like a propane-fueled Lexus on the back deck. You can find gas grills with fridges, wet bars and even granite counters. Sure, these rigs can cost more than $3,000, but you'll be the king of the cul-de-sac.
Ditch the lighter fluid
If you're tired of buying lighter fluid, try a chimney starter for firing up your charcoal. A chimney starter is an upright metal cylinder with a handle on the outside and a wire rack inside. Just fill the space under the wire rack with a few sheets of wadded-up newspaper, and then fill the space above the rack with briquettes. Tip: Don't wad the paper too tightly.
Light the newspaper, and the chimney channels the heat evenly throughout the briquettes.
When the briquettes are lightly covered with white ash, dump them in the grill and you're ready to cook. You can buy a good chimney for less than $20.
What's the temp?
Some charcoal grills come with a thermometer on the lid, but if yours doesn't, you can try the hand test. Hold your hand about 5 inches above the cooking grate. If you need to pull your hand away after two to four seconds, the heat is high (450 to 550 degrees). If you need to pull your hand away after five to seven seconds, the heat is medium (350 to 450 degrees). If you need to pull your hand away after eight to 10 seconds, the heat is low (250 to 350 degrees).
Picking a gas grill
You'll find a big selection of gas grills. Consumer Reports offers features that matter, along with recommendations on good buys.
Features that count:
» Electronic ignitors are usually easier and more reliable than a rotary or push-button starter.
» Rounded edges are safer than sharp ones, especially when kids are running around.
» Fuel gauge shows you how much propane remains.
» Burner warranties of 10 years or longer, because burners are the most frequently replaced part.
Best gas grills
• Small: Weber Spirit E220 (46310001), $450. Preheats quickly, cooks evenly and has electronic ignitor and long burner warranty.
• Large: Grand Hall Grand Tech, $500. Cooks evenly and is less likely to flare up when cooking fatty foods.
• Large: Master Forge (3218LTN), $600. Good performance, folding prep table and lots of storage.
• Good budget buy: Brinkmann (810-2545-C), $260. Excellent high-temperature evenness.
Sources: Weber.com, Consumer Reports