Writers have been dissing gas grills for years, maybe decades for all I know. But of all the haters, Robert L. Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and former Food section columnist, may have delivered the most crushing blow to propane when he wrote in 2004:
Each molecule of burned propane produces four molecules of water. In a typical 40,000-Btu-per-hour gas grill, that translates to 1 1/2 quarts of water being given off per hour. The bottom surface of the meat is thus being steamed, and its temperature cannot get as high as with dry-burning charcoal. No wonder you can’t quite achieve that flavorful, seared, brown crust that charcoal produces.
Earlier this week, Time magazine’s “Taste of America” columnist Josh Ozersky ventured into this well-trodden territory with an over-the-top rant against gas that bordered on parody (perhaps when he compares gas grillers to Darth Vader, with the winking implication that they’re destroying whole worlds with a twist of a propone handle?). Writes Ozersky:
Gas is pabulum, Soylent Green, a medium for medicating hunger and killing time. It’s nihilism in a tank, and it has to stop now.
Such hyperbole, I think, deserves a few more opinions to help America’s legion of gas grillers deal with the character assassination. I asked three well-known Men of the Grill to respond to Ozersky’s column. Their remarks are after the jump.
Mark Bucher, owner of BGR: The Burger Joint:
Imagine there are two types of cars out there. Let’s pick a minivan: practical, roomy, reliable. And the Range Rover: beautiful, unpractical, un-economical but, man, the thought of driving vertical ignites the senses. Same holds true for grill choices. The propane-fired box heats fast, allows man’s primal instinct to shine with few flare ups, offers great heat control but delivers, umm, an average-tasting result. But, oh man, it’s reliable, quick and can feed a family of four in 20 minutes start to finish. (Images of Tony Soprano poolside come to mind.) The other choice is primal: cooking over wood briquettes or charcoal fire! Its uneven heat and (sometimes) lighter-fluid flavors ignite our inner cavemen. Dinner planning can take hours as we make sure to have: a) a bag of charcoal; b) newspaper to light the charcoal; c) matches to light the newspaper; d) lighter fluid to keep the fire going. Oh, the joys of summer! Oh, and which neighbor’s yard shall I dump the coals and run?! So, yes, Mr. Ozersky’s rant about gas is valid for a few. For the rest of us suburbanites, turn on the tank, brush down the rack and go get ‘em. I’d rather you try and partially succeed in your ultimate grill quest then fail and deliver food that tastes like lighter fluid. Of course, all this being said, at BGR, we use gas grills modified to hold charcoal above the flames to replicate the backyard traditions of yesteryear. Yes, Mr. Ozersky, yesteryear.
Michael Landrum, owner of the Ray’s empire:
There are few pleasures in life greater than a thick steak or a beautiful piece of fish cooked over an open flame or hot coals while enjoying the open air of the outdoors, and shared with as many family and friends as possible in that moment. Some methods of cooking may be considered superior or yield different technical results of varying desirability. But I don’t see where anyone has the right to dictate or judge for others what the one right way may be, any more than he has the right to judge the worth of one’s friends and family.
Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin :
In the grand tradition of barbecue fanatics (and can you really be into barbecue if you are not a fanatic?), Ozersky’s hyperbole is deliberately provocative. The barbecue world is bloated with grandiosity. The outrageousness is part of its charm. A person, I suppose, could nitpick the stuff about San Quentin and Soylent Green. But why? It’s cartoony for impact. Sure, we can make the big-tent argument, and we do. All are welcome: gas, electric, what have you.
But to get a barbecuer to turn on his deepest love, the hardwood fire? Well, from the left I would ask, “What side are you on, boys? What side are you on?” And from the right, I would intone: Extremism in the defense of real barbecue is no vice.
In other words, me, I like a good rant on behalf of the dying arts and genuine flavors (whether those be barbecued meats or fresh tomatoes), from a guy who would rather put in the hours over an oak fire than one who flips a switch, from a keeper of transcendence over peddlers of convenience. That was probably a little over the top. But I guess, as loony as he is, Ozersky, this time out anyway, is my loon.