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Grilling 101: All About Grill Fuels

Grill fuels don't just determine what sort of maintenance a new grill needs, they also cook foods differently, take varying times to heat up and have differing costs. It's no surprise that when most buyers think about getting a new grill they first consider what type of fuel they prefer. So whether you're looking for a cost-effective option, trying to branch out with your grilling techniques, or just want to compare options, here are the different grill fuels available today and what makes them unique.

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CharcoalPhoto: Zoom Team/Shutterstock

Charcoal

Charcoal, typically in the form of briquettes, is the classic grill fuel that everyone knows. The concept is simple: light the coals and cook your food. But the execution tends to be more complicated than that. As experts can attest, everything from the placement of the charcoal to how you light it and how long you let it heat up can have a notable impact on your cooking experience. Charcoal is the fuel that rewards you for experience, patience, knowledge and attention. Keep in mind that, when choosing a charcoal grill, you aren't limited to just one style. Charcoal grills can be open (in traditional BBQ style), closed off, built with deep heating chambers, constructed as smokers and more. It's very easy to find a charcoal grill that matches your unique cooking style. When it comes to cost, charcoal is in the middle of the road: You can buy many different bags of briquettes at varying prices. However, if you grill frequently or want especially fancy briquettes and wood chips, prices quickly go up. Also, keep in mind the maintenance on your end: Charcoal grills must be regularly and thoroughly cleaned and emptied, which makes them more work-intensive than other grills.

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Propanetab62/Shutterstock

Propane

Propane is the traditional gas grill option, a modern fuel with many advantages. Attach a small tank of propane to your grill, open it up and you have an instant source of heat that you can easily control. Propane grilling is based on burners that channel and light the gas with ignition systems. Some grills have one or two small burners, while larger versions can have much bigger arrays. This makes propane ideal for larger grill stations and parties where you have to cook multiple foods at different temperatures, setting one burner for patties and one for veggies, for example.

Because of the ease of use, propane is a great option when first learning how to grill or when choosing a low-maintenance, easy grill that you can take out on a whim. The grill won't produce the same delicious smokey flavor that charcoal and wood chips can impart, but it gets results fast and grill models quickly scale up with plenty of extra room, advanced sensors and more.

Propane is also quite affordable, albeit slightly complicated to manage. You can buy a 20-pound tank for around $30. When the tank starts to empty, you can take it to a store and exchange it for a full version. Today's tanks are quite safe as long as you practice proper maintenance and protection. However, they are more complex than charcoal grills, which means a greater chance of something going wrong.

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Natural GasPhoto: Kondor83/Shutterstock

Natural Gas

Natural gas grills aren't common, but some grills are designed to convert to natural gas if the fuel is available. This means you need a natural gas connection made specifically for your grill, typically built when your house or deck is constructed. Hook up your grill to this gas line, and then it acts just like propane. It's easy to see how this limits your grilling experience: You can only grill where you have a safe gas line connection, which means never taking your grill on road trips or camping excursions. You also can't move your grill around your patio or deck to different locations. A natural gas setup is best suited to an outdoor kitchen, luxurious grilling space or other situations where a larger, permanent grill is called for. On the plus side, natural gas is an extremely easy fuel to use. You never need to refill or replace anything, and it's typically the cheapest fuel around. Want to convert a propane grill to natural gas? Here's how!

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PelletPhoto: Pro3DArtt/Shutterstock

Pellet

Made popular by the Traeger brand, these grills use wood pellets for fuel and an electric ignition system to start them. Pellets burn slow and hot, with an even flame that provides excellent flavor without the uncertainty of charcoal—it's no surprise that this has become an increasingly common fuel source. Like charcoal, wood pellets also have a lot of flexibility—most notably, they can be used to smoke meats thoroughly if you have enough time. Pellets are more expensive than charcoal when buying per bag, but they do have their own advantages: They tend to last longer, and you can choose a variety of wood blends to impart the exact flavor that you want to your meats instead of trying to work in wood chips. If charcoal takes too much time and you prefer a simpler fuel, look into a pellet upgrade.

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ElectricPhoto: kazoka/Shutterstock

Electric

You don't see many electrical grills outdoors these days. Most are small versions that don't take up much space, ideal for a kitchen counter. Some are hybrids that can convert to electricity for indoor use. These grills are typically used in small spaces like apartments, where there just isn't room for anything else (always check apartment rules for grilling, as many locations are very strict about this). These grills use a heating element that turns electricity into heat through current resistance. It's a fast way to heat up a grill, but not a great fuel choice. Electricity tends to be inefficient, and you typically spend more money (via your energy bill) for it than for fuels like gas. It doesn't impart any additional flavor and struggles to bring out flavors in many foods. However, technology is improving this type of fuel, and there are some options, like electric yakitori grills, which show promise. Want to bring electricity to an outdoor kitchen? Check out this guide to burying underground cable.