The never-ending “gas vs. charcoal” grill debate continues to rage. Aficionados of traditional charcoal grills cannot imagine subjecting even a cheap hot dog to a gas grill. Gas fans cannot believe that anyone would struggle with charcoal and lighter fluid to make a tray of hamburgers. The BBQ world (note that we are distinguishing real, slow-cooled BBQ from grilling) is the site of a similar dispute. While some trumpet the cost efficiency and flavor of foods made on a charcoal BBQ smoker, others insist that only a big wood-burner can create world-class “Q”.
So, what is the truth about cooking with a charcoal BBQ smoker? Can you really prepare great meat this way or should you eschew briquettes in favor of logs or wood chips?
Let us start with some brutal honesty. You can have the greatest charcoal BBQ smoker in the world and it still will not be able to rival the delicate smoky flavors obtained by those who rely on wood instead of charcoal briquettes. There is a reason why all of the best-known BBQ restaurants and award-winning competitive teams spend hours selecting and tending to their wood instead of grabbing bags of briquettes from the supermarket shelves. Wood creates superior flavor. Period.
However, that does not mean you cannot create some wonderful meals with a charcoal BBQ smoker. Many readily available units, including a number of offset barrel smokers, create credible BBQ while relying on charcoal. Even when the fireboxes are not supplemented with wood chips, the meat can be surprisingly tender and tasty.
Charcoal has a few advantages over popular BBQ woods, too. Initially, charcoal is readily available at reasonable prices. Additionally, it tends to be more consistent than wood in terms of burn time and heat output. Charcoal smoothes the rough edges of BBQing, making it more predictable and easier to manage, especially for novice pitmasters.
Should you buy a charcoal BBQ smoker instead of investing in a slightly more “serious” model? The answer to that question will hinge both upon your experience and your flavor preferences. If you cannot imagine smoking a brisket over anything but your own special combination of oak and pecan woods because of the special flavor they impart, you will not be happy with a charcoal unit. If you are new to BBQ or are simply more interested in creating a nice, juicy final product than you are in the precise details of flavoring, you will probably be happy with a charcoal BBQ smoker.
The charcoal vs. wood debate is a perfect case of an argument with two winners. Wood may be impossible to beat, but charcoal has a lot going for it, as well. The BBQ community’s intelligentsia may claim that wood is the only real BBQ option, but the average meat-eater will probably be happy with a briquette-burning smoker.