Chicken nibbles grilled on a Weber barbecue

Gas vs charcoal: BBQ taste test

Once again, our annual barbecue test shows Weber makes exceptional outdoor cooking systems. They cook things easily and evenly, and its popular Q-series barbecues are small enough to fit on an apartment balcony. But how does a Weber stack up against other barbecuing techniques?

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A Weber barbecue efficiently circulates heat inside the dome, acting like an outdoor oven. In fact, its instructions say to leave the lid down during cooking to make sure the food’s cooked properly. This makes Webers practically idiot-proof. As a friend of mine once said: “It’s so easy cooking on the Weber, it’s just boring.”

While these barbecues can’t be faulted for their technical abilities, you could be wondering if there’s any difference between a sausage cooked on a Weber or in an oven.

The answer is flavour. It’s a tautology, but any food cooked on a barbecue should taste like it’s been barbecued: slightly smoky and a little charred, not just grilled. I decided to see how food prepared on the Weber stacked up against more “traditional” barbecuing techniques.

Our experiment

To assess how different tastes are imparted by different barbecuing techniques, I cooked on 3 systems and then served the results to groups of tasters.

Aaron Wagstaff, chef at Kāpiti restaurant Salt & Wood Collective.
Aaron Wagstaff, chef at Kāpiti restaurant Salt & Wood Collective.

To serve as my expert judge, I brought in Aaron Wagstaff, chef at Kāpiti restaurant Salt & Wood Collective, known for its American-style, smoked barbecue food. I also roped in a group of friends, and another of co-workers.

All food was blind-tasted, with one group sampling it hot and the other trying the leftovers cold. Everyone then said which version they preferred.

The barbecues used were:

  • a Weber Family Q
  • a Broil King Keg 5000, and
  • a basic 4-burner barbecue with a smoker box on the grill.

On each of these, I slow-cooked a brisket. On the Broil King and the Weber, I also cooked 2 different flavours of chicken wings. This was to see what the difference was (if any) between a gas grill and charcoal and if you could replicate the flavours of charcoal on a gas barbecue. All the meat was free-range and supplied by Island Bay Butchery.

For each BBQ, I used a digital thermometer to monitor the meat and ensure it was at the right temperature internally at each stage.

Catching fire

Fire, in some form, is what every barbecue uses to cook and what gives barbecued food its unique flavour. Each type of barbecue harnesses fire in a different way, and that changes how you cook with it.

Gas gives an easily controlled flame. This means it’s simple to make changes to temperature. However, a downside is some gas barbecues have hot spots – but once you know where they are, you can adjust your cooking technique accordingly.

Charcoal is a more temperamental fuel. Coals give an uneven heat across the grill and temperature is harder to change. So why would anyone ever cook with it? Two reasons: low heat and smoke.

Charcoal can keep a constant temperature for a long time. This means you can cook food for longer at lower temperatures, or more food at higher heat, all without adding more fuel. While you can control temperature easier on a gas grill, it’s hard to get the low heat you need for long, slow cooking.

The other element, smoke, is more obvious. Gas flames don’t give off smoke and any barbecue flavour comes from charring the meat instead. Charcoal mixed with woodchips is how you get the traditional barbecue flavour.

You can simulate this by using a smoker box on your gas grill, which is what we tried in our experiment. A smoker box is an enclosed metal box lined with woodchips. The meat sits above the chips on a rack. A smoker box is great for smoking fish or chicken but also does well with darker meats. You can buy one from most hardware stores for less than $50.

Brisket

Brisket is a cheap cut of meat that needs cooking for a long time over a low heat to break down tough connective tissue (exactly how long depends on the size of the meat, but usually at least 6 hours). The result should slice easily but not disintegrate. For each barbecue, I used soaked apple, hickory and mesquite woodchips (soaking woodchips means they smoulder instead of burn, and each wood type gives a different flavour).

The Weber, loaned to us by Wellington BBQ & Fire, required lots of work to act as a smoker. The Weber has 2 burners: a ring around the edge of the grill and a single burner through the centre. It was difficult keeping the barbecue’s temperature low enough using the ring, so I had to constantly monitor the single burner to keep the heat under 150°C.

To get the smoke flavour, I placed woodchips in a tinfoil roasting dish, covered the dish with a rack, and then placed the brisket on top. This makeshift smoker didn’t work as the chips never really started smoking (In retrospect, I felt I needed to keep the chips dry and use a more direct heat on them).

The brisket on the Weber was the first to reach the right internal temperature, which isn’t desirable as faster cooking can mean tougher meat.

The Keg, loaned by RetailLinks, is a type of barbecue I had never used before. It was simpler to use than I expected. Once I got the coals to the right temperature, I scattered woodchips over the top and added the meat to the grill. The double-walled Keg kept everything at a mostly constant temperature. I had to adjust the vents only a few times to ensure the heat stayed consistent.

The bottom vent let air flow in, and the top vent let air, and smoke, out. Having the both vents open as little as possible was the best way to maintain temperature.

A downside was the Keg’s shape, which meant the coals were directly beneath the meat. The only way to counter this would be to put a water tray in the bottom first, then arrange the coals around that.

The Keg had the most noticeable “stall”. “Stall” is when the internal temperature of the meat stops rising. It’s a side effect of humidity inside the barbecue. When you notice this happening, wrap the meat in tinfoil and put it back in. The final temperature of the meat should be well-done (about 90℃).

For the smoker box, I positioned it at one end of the gas barbecue, with all 4 burners on their lowest settings. The box can handle direct heat to get the woodchips smoking, but then you should switch to the burners that aren’t beneath the box (and adjust the temperature as necessary).

The smoker box required the least amount of attention as it’s a set-and-forget method. However, a windy day can disrupt gas burners set low and you need to make sure you don’t run out of fuel.

Chicken

After the brisket was done, I turned the heat back up on the Weber and the Broil King and covered the grill area with wings (half were lemon-pepper-flavoured and the rest were covered in barbecue sauce).

From our barbecue test results, I knew the Weber would have no trouble delivering consistent temperature on the grill, but I wanted to assess if people found the chicken tastier if it had been cooked over coals.

While the Broil King Keg was able to cook the chicken at a constant temperature that required less monitoring, the Weber did the job faster, with tastier results.

Chicken cooked on the Weber.
Chicken cooked on the Weber.
Chicken cooked on the Broil King.
Chicken cooked on the Broil King.

The results

The first group tried the brisket hot, after it had rested for 15 minutes. It soon became clear the charcoal barbecue was the favourite, while the smoker box came second.

The next group, who tried the brisket cold the next day, had a wider range of opinions, with the smoker box being slightly more favoured over the charcoal Keg. This was mostly due to the meat from the Keg retaining a overly smoky flavour.

The Weber shone for the wings, with a clear majority preferring them when cold. However, the group was split between the 2 systems for the hot wings, with the lemon pepper on charcoal and barbecue on the Weber coming out on top.

Horses for main courses

The results of our experiment showed the barbecue you should get depends on how you like to cook and your taste buds. The Broil King Keg is my pick of the 3 for smoking meat or long, slow cooking. It kept its temperature well enough that it’d work if you were cooking lots of food. It did this so well, the ashes were warm the next morning when I cleaned them up. On the flip side, it’s not good for simple barbecuing. Mucking about with charcoal is a chore when all you want to do is grill some sausages.

The Weber may be “boring” but it performs exceptionally well. Want to cook a bunch of steaks at a picnic? The Weber fits in the back of your car and can be fired up quickly. Even with a grill covered in chicken wings, there was no need to worry that some were burning while others were raw. It was even easy to clean, despite the barbecue wings sticking to it like glue.

Neither of these barbecues are cheap. The Weber Q’s base barbecue is $1010 and Weber-branded accessories are pricey. While the Keg 5000 retails for $1800 – so you’d need to be pretty keen on your barbecuing for that, especially as a half-decent 4-burner gas barbecue could set you back about $500, with a smoker box an extra $50 or so.

An expert in smoke

Salt & Wood chef Aaron Wagstaff knows what makes a good piece of smoked meat. He researched in the US, where barbecuing is an art form. The beast of a smoker he usually uses weighs a few tonnes and uses an indirect method to slowly cook meat.

“Our brisket is just salted and then we cook it for 8-10 hours. You should be able to cut a strip [roughly a centimetre thick] and rest it over your finger and it just breaks. That’s perfectly cooked,” he said.

He complimented the bark (the charred exterior of the meat) on the smoker box brisket and liked the flavour and texture of the Keg’s brisket.

“Don’t read too much into the smoke ring,” Aaron said, referencing the dark pink band at the edge of a slice of smoked meat. “While it looks good, it’s not an indicator of quality or even smoke. You can get a really tasty piece with no ring and a piece with a thick ring without even using smoke.”

Despite preferring the brisket from the other 2 systems, Aaron still praised the Weber. “It’s great for quick stuff or even if you want to do something like a roast chicken in it.”

We did have a laugh over the official recipes online for things like hot cross buns made in a Weber. “Just use an oven!”

My dry rub

The dry rub I put on each brisket is a basic recipe that’s not too spicy but adds a nice flavour. It’s easy to make: just combine all the ingredients in a bowl.

  • 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Chilli (to taste)

Cover meat in rub, wrap in cling film, and refrigerate overnight. Some people add a slather of mustard and vinegar to the meat before coating. This adds another layer of flavour, but it can be tricky getting the right balance.

My wings recipes

I made 2 seasonings for the wings in our taste experiment, 1 sauce-heavy version and 1 that that wouldn’t be as sticky on the grill. Both recipes are for a kilogram of wings.

Lemon-pepper Wings

  • 4 tablespoons lemon-pepper seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons crushed garlic
  • Olive oil

Place wings in a bowl. Add lemon-pepper (more if you like it really lemony) and garlic. Toss the wings through the seasoning until well coated. Cover liberally with oil and toss again. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Barbecue on a medium heat.

BBQ Wings

This is a basic barbecue sauce. It cheats a little by using tomato sauce and liquid smoke, but this is my “quickly thrown together sauce that always works”.

  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon wholegrain mustard
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon crushed garlic
  • 2 teaspoons liquid smoke
  • Chilli to taste

Combine in a bowl until fully mixed. Add wings. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (the longer the better). This sauce will make a mess of your grill, so be prepared to have to clean it.


By Hadyn Green
Technology Writer




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