If there is an eternal debate that can stir up a heated debate between even the most amiable of grillers, it is over whether it’s better to grill with propane or charcoal.
There’s little doubt that both grilling forms have pros and cons.
Most novice grillers find that grilling with propane is easier than with charcoal. All they ought to do is fire up the grill, preheat for 15 to 20 minutes, then slap the food on the hot grate and get cooking.
And yet no one can deny that grilling with charcoal delivers a one-of-a-kind BBQ flavor that gas grills cannot match. Learning how to start a fire and control the heat takes a while (and a good amount of trial and error), but the results are least to say rewarding when you do.
But one question that lingers in the gray area, and that many a griller is too shy to ask, is whether you can use charcoal in a propane grill.
Now that’s a pickle! Read on below to get to the answer—and a whole lot more.
Can You Use Charcoal in a Gas Grill?
No, you can’t use charcoal in most natural gas or propane grills, and you’re not supposed to. Most of these grills are designed to use only one type of fuel source, and that’s propane from a 20-pound tank or natural gas from a hookup.
Just dumping a bunch of coals in a gas grill can create a hazardous situation and ruin the appliance. We explain why below.
Dangers of Putting Charcoal in Propane Grills
Here are just a few things that can happen if you put charcoal inside a grill designed exclusively for propane fuel.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues when it comes to adding charcoal inside a propane grill is clogging. The tiny fragments of burnt charcoal, ash, and debris are likely to clog up your grill’s airways and vents.
This will cause serious ignition and/or usage issues with your grill in many cases, not allowing it to retain a fire at all due to the lack of oxygen. And a gas grill that doesn’t burn fuel properly is one that isn’t safe to use.
Whether we like it or not, modern propane grills can be very delicate. They’re nothing like the clunkers they used to sell at the home improvement store a decade or two ago.
They have components designed to handle only the heat created from the grill’s gas burners and not from other fuel sources such as charcoal. Placing charcoal inside a propane grill can damage these components, which will have to either be replaced or require the purchase of another grill.
Clean-up is never a fun job, and with many propane grills, it can be a real pain just cleaning up your normal gunk and grease left over from cooking normally.
However, those problems compound when you throw charcoal into the mix. Stuck pieces of charcoal, ashes, and debris can make cleaning out your propane grill much harder, if not virtually impossible.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are certain exceptions when it comes to using charcoal in propane grills, such as grills designed to use both. These newer grills allow you to achieve the best of both worlds while preventing damage to your grill.
Many will include charcoal trays that make it easy for your lit propane burners to ignite the charcoal. However, many models only allow you to use one or the other while cooking. Your gas burner does not stay on while the charcoal is lit.
Then you have the two-in-one models that feature two separate cooking areas for grilling with charcoal and propane. This can be very useful for creating cooking zones as the propane side tends to burn hotter, which is perfect for searing, while the charcoal side can be used for longer cooks and adding those delicious smokey notes to foods.
Another option might be a grill that accommodates a smoker box allowing you to add materials such as wood and coal to deliver a smokey flavor to your food.
Which Is Cheaper? Grilling With Gas or With Charcoal?
When it comes to price, propane grills will usually cost more than charcoal grills. And the newer models that accommodate both will likely be the most expensive.
As for operational costs, propane wins again as you can generally get more cooks out of a 20-pound canister of propane versus a 20-pound bag of charcoal
Propane is usually much cheaper by the pound than charcoal, and you can grill more meals using propane. Plus, in many places, you can refill 40-gallon propane tanks pretty cheaply versus buying new bags of charcoal.
The price can be a big factor when it comes to durability, whether using a propane or charcoal grill, as the higher-priced models tend to last a bit longer. However, with the proper maintenance and storage, you can make a bargain-brand grill that lasts as long as you’re cleaning it regularly and storing it in climate-controlled environments like a shed.
Of course, geography also plays a significant role in regard to the lifespan of a grill. For instance, if you live near the sea with lots of salt water in the air, this will dramatically impact the overall lifespan of your grill.
Using charcoal in a propane grill is really a non-starter in most cases. It’s generally not worth the risk to your grill or health. Some grills allow you to use both separately or one at a time, but not both simultaneously.
Most people wish to use both so their food can have that distinctive charcoal flavor while being able to cook food more quickly than with traditional charcoal grills due to propane’s higher cooking temps. In this case, the solution may be either a dual grill or one that accommodates a smokebox that allows you to use coals.
But, to be clear, you never want to use coals in propane grills not designed for this purpose. It’s better to spend a bit more and do it the safe way rather than learn the hard way.