Best of Both Worlds: How to Get Charcoal Flavor on a Gas Grill

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Last Updated on August 3, 2021

Annabelle

Annabelle Watson

Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.

how to get charcoal flavor on gas grill

Gas grills have a ton of advantages, foremost among them being that they’re incredibly easy to use. Turn a knob, pick your desired temperature, and get to grilling. It’s as easy as using an oven, but with a bit more of a direct connection between food and fire, and makes excellent grilled meat. We’ve made a propane grill review listing the best grills to buy.

It does have to be admitted that you lose a bit of…something on a gas grill. “Taste the meat, not the heat” is the gas grill aficionado’s creed, and it does hold up for many purposes (which we’ll get to), but there is something different, if not necessarily better, about charcoal and wood cooking.

Thankfully, there are ways to get that nice wood and charcoal flavor into your gas grilled meat, but first let’s start with whether you might even want to bother.

1. Does It Really Matter?

When it comes to grilling, for the most part a gas grill and a charcoal grill are completely identical. The reason being that smoke needs time to penetrate the skin of a meat and really warm itself in there, impacting the flavor.

This is why smoking takes so much time, and needs to be done at a low heat; it gives the smoke time to penetrate multiple layers of the food and evolve the flavor.

When you’re grilling, particularly with something that can be tossed on for only a few minutes, like a steak, that smoke will never have time to do much, if anything, to the meat. It will taste exactly the same whether you cook it on a gas grill, charcoal grill, or even an electric grill in most cases; this is why making a steak in a cast iron skillet is actually a very reasonable way to cook it.

On the flip side though, if you’re doing anything that’s going to take a bit longer, even if you’re not technically smoking it, it’s going to matter. This applies to any thick or bulky meat; whole chickens, thick steaks and roasts, that sort of thing.

And for that, you have a few options.

2. You May Already Have What It Takes

grilling burgers

The funny thing about that “charcoal flavor” is most of it doesn’t actually come from the charcoal at all, people just think it does. A lot of that flavor comes from the meat itself, particularly the drippings. On a charcoal grill, these drippings fall into the coals, vaporize, and shoot back up in what is essentially a concentrated flavor blast of its own juices.

Older, or lower end gas grills don’t really have this capability; after all, juices dripping into where the pilot light is would be a safety hazard.

But as time has gone on, ”flavor bars” (or “flavorizers” for some brands)have become more common, either as a thick line running up the width of the grating, as triangular grates, or both. These are designed to catch the drippings, vaporize them, and send them back up…same as a charcoal grill.

So if your grill has these: you’re good to go. You’re getting that supposed “charcoal taste”. If you’re interested in getting gas grills, then read our review on the new models.

If this doesn’t work for you (such as if you’re smoking), there’s also another good option.

3. Use Wood Chips

smoking

Gas grill manufacturers have taken note over the years that people want to do smoking with them, so they’re  a lot more suited to it these days than they used to be, with much better insulation on average.

Additionally, many sell smoker boxes that are designed to allow you to use wood chips on the grill. This makes getting that smoky flavor a cinch.

All you need to do is fill the box with wood chips of your choice. Any flavor is fine, and you can soak them if you like (some believe this releases more smoke, but it’s not really necessary for most peoples’ purposes). Close the box, and set it over the burner.

Make sure to do this BEFORE you turn the burner on. This will give the smoker box time to heat up and ignite the chips as the grill is preheating.

Put your meat on the grill right afterward, and go to town. 

If you don’t feel like shelling out for a smoker box, you can make a makeshift one pretty easily using aluminum foil. Make a tightly sealed packet around your wood chips using two pieces of extra thick tin foil, and then poke some holes in it to let the smoke escape, and you’re good.

This works just as well, but can get extremely tedious if you plan to do this often, so if you’re smoking regularly with a smoker box, it is probably better for you.

Annabelle

Annabelle Watson

IS IT WORTH IT?

It depends, really.

As long as you have the right model, you can use charcoal or wood chips on non-charcoal grill products. Which would include: Built-In gas grillsPost Mount gas grills, and even Infrared grills. We’ve made separate reviews on these grills.

If you love having a gas grill and it’s enough for your uses about 75% of the time, this technique is a way to get a little bit more utility out of your grill on the rare occasions you want to smoke.

While the results won’t be perfect, and can be a bit finicky, it gets the job done well enough.

But if you’re a real connoisseur of smoking, you’re better off picking up a charcoal grill to do your smoking on. You’ll pretty much always get better results with a kit easier than doing it on your gas grill.

It’s all about using the right tool for the job; you don’t want to have it improvise unless you have to, so when you’re buying your grill you need to figure out what your priorities are. Gas grills are arguably better for grilling, but inarguably much worse for smoking on for a multitude of reasons.

You may also include price on your criteria. If your working in a budget then we recommend reading our review on the best gas grills under $200 to start your search.