Electric Grill or Charcoal Grill–Does Taste Vs Health Matter?
You’re looking at a new grill, but you’re undecided about taste vs health when choosing.
Charcoal is becoming less popular, while electric grills seem to be sky-rocketing.
What it really comes down to for people like you and me, is how it’s going to make the finished product taste.
I don’t mind if it takes a bit longer to cook meat; I want it to taste good and make me want more. I was succulent, not rapidly prepared in place of flavor.
So what’s the difference?
There are a few, and while they affect the taste, at their core they are health-related topics and how these different methods affect your food.
Let’s pore over all of it so you can draw a fair comparison based on this information.
The Science Behind Grill Cooking
The heat hits the food, and it cooks it—that’s all that most people know, but when you realize the actual change in your food that happens while cooking, it’s pretty astounding.
It makes you look at grilling, and cooking as a whole for that matter, in an entirely new light.
When you grill to cook meats, which is most of the reason people grill in the first place, you’re extracting fat in its liquid form.
Fat has its own composition, but when it hits the source of heat that’s forcing it to be extracted from the meat in the first place, it changes.
The fat that’s coming out generally makes up about 5% of most meats, but that’s not all the liquid that’s coming out.
In fact, most of what you’re eating is water, about 75% of it, while the remaining 20% is protein.
Protein reacts to heat in a unique way. If you tried to chew on a raw cube of steak, you’re going to have a harder time than chewing on a cooked cube of steak.
The reason being is that protein compounds are basically bunched up (in the shape of coils), and when the heat is introduced, they loosen up.
This is what makes the meat go from rough to tender, and it’s why using a tenderizer works—it breaks up those compounds manually before heat is introduced.
Once the heat is introduced, those muscle protein compounds break up, but they also shrink at the same time.
They shrink from fat and water being released from the fibers, which is why no matter what cut of meat you get, it’s going to shrink a bit before it’s done cooking.
It’s also why you might notice that your well-done steak is smaller than your friend’s medium-rare steak.
The more you cook it, the more dehydrated it gets, and the smaller it becomes.
Heat is the culprit, not briquettes, and not a griddle top.
That being said, having a lot of flare-ups in a cooking session is like drying out different spots of your meat, meaning that it’s going to be dehydrated in some areas if you have a wildfire.
If you can control your charcoals, then this isn’t even something you need to worry about it.
But heat is heat, right?
Well, not so much.
There’s direct heat, such as flare-ups and direct contact with fire, and indirect heat, when it’s transmitted through another heated object, like an electric griddle.
Direct would be over a fire (charcoal), indirect would be through a griddle (electric).
Electric Cooking Maybe Less Flavorful
Indirect heat may provide a more thorough and consistent level of cooking throughout, let’s say, an 11 oz steak, but it’s not going to get that nice rich crust on the outside.
In cooking, when you sear something, you’re putting it in contact with a ton of heat to rapidly caramelize the sugars located in the carbohydrates of the fat cells.
Then you get a nice golden, crispy color, and resort to a slower cooking method for the remaining cook time. You’re capitalizing on getting the best of both worlds with this one.
The crispy, flavorful exterior is a result of direct or high levels of heat, and the interior is a result of indirect heat.
If you solely use indirect heat, you might just have bland, gray steak all the way through.
If you only use direct heat (consistently cooking it over the flame, not just hot coals) then you’re going to char the outside while still leaving the inside tender or uncooked, because the heat it working from the outside in, without raising the total temperature of that meat.
Carcinogens and Charring from Charcoal
One of the biggest reasons that charcoal-cooked meats taste the way they do is because of the effect of carcinogens.
When fat drips from the meat and hits hot coal, it rapidly changes its chemical makeup.
It’s not just fat that burned to coal; it’s now polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, and heterocyclic amines, or HCAs.
These are both two powerful and dangerous carcinogens.
These are just two categories of carcinogens with the most harmful effects, and each has different subcategories.
For instance, there are approximately 25 different HCAs that form on direct heat, charcoal-cooked foods. That’s quite a lot.
You’re also tasting soot. I know that’s not good news, but it’s the truth.
Soot is created when fossil fuels—of which charcoal (wood) is apart of—are burned.
It releases different soils, metals, and chemicals that change during charcoal production.
Then this rises in the form of particles, carried by heat (which we know carries things through the air), and it lands on your food.
You’re ingesting soot when you use charcoal, which comes with its own health concerns.
It’s also what gives charcoal-specific flavor, but soot (not charcoal grilling in general) contributes to over 20,000 deaths in the United States every single year, or about 55 people every day.
Psst, You Still Ingest Carcinogens from Pan Frying and Cooking
If you thought that this was just a post about me shooting down your charcoal grill dreams, you’re mistaken.
The fact is that you still ingest carcinogens when you cook the meat through an indirect method, such as pan-frying.
Charcoal creates soot, but carcinogens are made from the chemical change in fats that drip onto those charcoals.
The carcinogens in question, being HCAs and PAHs, are actually already in the meat. It’s unavoidable.
Cooking meat and turning it from red to brown is what creates carcinogens, there are considerably less with pan-frying because of the mitigates chemical change.
When a drop of fat hits hot coal, (or a screaming hot pan that’s up too high), it goes through that rapid chemical change we talked about earlier.
Here’s some food for thought—you might actually ingest more carcinogens through breathing when pan-frying indoors than you do from grilling outside.
You can fire up the grill and leave food on it unattended for a while, but when you’re cooking in the kitchen, you’re in a confined space that’s filling with these airborne carcinogens.
That’s why it’s always important to have your hood vent fan on while cooking indoors, especially if you’re cooking meats.
So it’s unavoidable that you will ingest carcinogens, whether you use an electric grill or a charcoal grill (though charcoal creates about 25 different HCAs while electric grilling creates 17).
At least, if you’re cooking meats. It changes the way the carbohydrates and sugars caramelize the food.
How to Keep Your Meats Moist During Cooking
Yes, it’s that simple—salt.
Don’t use too much, but when you use salt, you’re iodizing the muscle in the meat you’re trying to cook.
This forces those muscle fibers—the ones that unravel during exposure to heat—to retain more of the water because as we all know, salt absorbs water.
The term “water weight” exists for a reason.
You might find plenty of recipes that require you to salt meat and leave it out, and that’s for good reason.
It gives time to let the salt work its way through the fibers in the meat, while the room temperature slowly elevates the internal meat temperature (out of the 32° F to 41° F safe range that your refrigerator keeps it at).
It absorbs into the meat, traps moisture, and you get a more succulent and juicy steak out of it.
This works on electric grills as well as charcoal grills.
It’s not certain what it does to the carcinogen count, but it definitely makes the food taste a heck of a lot better, and keeps it tender.
That’s the Short Version
We could get into the deep science behind all of this, but in short, this is what you need to know to go into this grilling season.
Use salt (but not too much), aim for indirect heat, and understand that you’re going to consume carcinogens regardless of what cooking style you use.
Electric grills provide indirect heat, while charcoals provide direct heat.