Note to reader: These opinions are sarcastic, strong, partially rude and arrogent. This was written as a joke but became so popular that I decided to keep it posted online. So take a deep breath and let's not turn this into a shouting match!!! :-)
Initially I didn't want to weigh in on this topic. It is a personal preference and similar to religion and politics no matter how good your argument is you won't be able to change someones mind. However, one day I was googling "charcoal vs. propane" because I was curious to see what would come up. I was a bit dissapointed because most of the gimmick websites that come up on google's first page lean heavily towards propane. This blows my mind so I figured I should at least have a say in this matter.
Do you want an experience or do you want a quick meal?
I believe that this is what it comes down to. If you want to be able to throw a pre-formed burger patty on the grill and eat it within 10 minutes, you probably don't want a charcoal grill. If you are looking for speed and you don't want to put much effort into your meal (merely applying a quick store bought marinade, for example), I suggest propane. On the other hand, if you enjoy carefully creating a burger patty - perhaps stuffing some 80% lean ground chuck with sharp cheddar, bacon, and jalepeno peppers - you may lean more towards a charcoal grill because you will be more in control of the heat. You can choose the amount of coals to light, the orientation of the coals in the grill, and the smell of charcoal may complete the picture of your carefully created burger discussed above.
Some say that charcoal grills just take too long to get going. This may have been true many years ago but I don't think that this argument has much merit any longer. First, I can have a charcoal grill ready to cook on within 20-25 minutes. My Weber Performer grill contains a small propane tank that is used to ignite a small flame in the kettle to light my charcoal. I run the propane for about 2 minutes and this is enough to start the coals. There is no need for lighter fluid any longer. There are also devices called charcoal chimneys which allow the coals to light much faster because the coals are forced to be in close proximity due to the shape of the chimney. This really helps light the coals fast and hot! However, if you don't want to spend the extra money for the Weber Performer (about $299.00) which contains the small propane tank for easy coal ignition, you can still use the charcoal chimney in any standard charcoal grill by lighting a paper towel soaked in olive oil which is placed underneath of the coals.
Taste the meat not the heat?
Nonsense. A lot of propane guys use this cute little slogan to suggest that they taste more of their meat's flavor since the smokey charcoal flavor isn't present. At first this may make a bit of sense because one can indeed simply taste the meat - nothing else. However, I have yet to see a propane guy simply put meat on the grill. They are always using some type of store bought marinade or heavy seasonings (which help make burnt food more edible). To me, I don't want to taste a store bought marinade, I'd rather taste the meat with a nice hint of smoke from a real wood fire. I have put a steak on my grill with nothing other than a little salt and pepper and when the charcoal flavor kicks in you have a taste that can't be beat. Perhaps the slogan should be re-worded to "taste the fire not the store bought marinade!"
Charcoal is too messy
Yes, charcoal is a little messy. But you know what? When I get some coal on my hands when I'm adding coals to the fire or preparing a fire I simply walk inside and wash my hands. Easy as that. Also, once a week or every other week I will empty out my ashes in the back woods. In my opinion its a small price to pay for a great cooking method.
Men play with fire
Absolutely. I love getting the coals going. This is how humans first started cooking meat. There is just something special about cooking your family a meal on a fire that you have built.
With a little work you can turn your charcoal grill into a smoker. Some gas grills do contain smoke boxes but this can't be used for authentic BBQ. A few coals mixed in with some mesquite wood and you can make a mouth watering authentic barbecue that your friends will die for.
It's just an outdoor oven
I've heard some diehard BBQers refer to gas grills in this fashion and I think there is some merit to it. Think about it. I had a gas oven in an old apartment that I lived in. It had a gas burning flame inside of it that was used as the heat source. This is the same thing as a propane grill - since no flavor is imparted from the propane flame it's essentially just a outdoor oven. With a charcoal grill you actually have something that can't be reproduced inside your home. There is actual wood being burned to cook your food. In fact, I think you can replace a propane grill with a nonstick grill pan used on a stove top.
The decision on whether to use charcoal or propane comes down to the type of cook you are. Do you like Mac N Cheese from a box or do you like like to make your own gourmet version? Do you order Dominos Pizza or do you make your own dough and add your own favorite toppings? There is nothing wrong with boxed Mac N Cheese or Dominos Pizza, if you picked these two then perhaps a propane grill is best for you. You can still follow most of the recipes provided here at grilling24x7.com you just wont have the charcoal flavor that you could have with a real wood burning fire. What I'm getting at here is that a charcoal grill does take a little extra effort. But many people are of the opinion that it is well worth the effort, especially if you like to be totally hands on with your cooking. Think of charcoal grilling as an experience. Sit back, take some time out from your busy schedule and watch your coals ash over. Sure it takes a little bit of time, but so what? Your patience will be greatly rewarded.