It’s Spring day! It’s starting to get warmer and sunnier – and in South Africa that means that it’s time to start hauling out the Braai. And dammit, do I love a braai – there’s little better than a hunk of perfectly grilled meat.
But here’s where I get contentious. For a long time, I was a charcoal loyalist. The flavour grilling over coal imparts is superior, right? There’s a weird sort of elitism in grilling circles over charcoal, and those who favour other methods are asked to “hand in their man cards.” There’s a belief in the mystical power of coal, that it somehow magically imbues food with extra flavour. Over the years though, I’ve transitioned to gas grilling. It was a move borne out of necessity. I moved to a complex in an upstairs unit, so cleaning out a coal braai is just not feasible. And for me, gas is better in almost every way.
But the flavour is better with coal, I hear you shout, probably vociferously. And you’re probably right. It took me a while to find a gas braai that actually made food taste like… well, braai. My first gas braai was terrible. It was essentially just a hotplate, and I may as well have been cooking my meat in a frying pan on the stove. Absolute garbage – and it’s gas braais like that that are probably the cause of much of the disdain.
See, the flavour from a braai doesn’t come from the coal itself. It comes from two things: The Maillard Reaction; “chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavour”; and the stuff that drips from the meat as you cook it. This is where charcoal usually has an advantage. As fat and juices drip on to the hot coals, the fat, sugars and proteins burst in to flame and create a vapour that rises back up and coats the meat. The flavour doesn’t come from the charcoal itself.
If you have a gas braai that uses lava rocks or heat stones, you get much the same thing. Without them, you have a glorified hotplate.
Speaking in food bible Modernist Cuisine, food scientist and award-winning barbecue champion Nathan Myrvold said that “Carbon is carbon; as it burns, it imparts no flavor of its own to the food being grilled.”
He added that “It shouldn’t be about which charcoal is best. It should be about whether charcoal is necessary at all.”
Gas has other advantages too. I braai a lot. I can start up the fire at 6pm on a Wednesday night, and have dinner on the table in 30 minutes. Clean up is also simpler, and a bottle of gas, which is the price of two bags of charcoal, lasts long enough to have 20-30 braais.
I still like charcoal though – especially if it’s an event, with guests. There’s a bit of ceremony to it all that’s missing from gas braais: lighting the fire, sitting around as it gets to a good temperature and having a laugh with friends over a beer or seventeen.
You tell us! Are you a coal loyalist? Do you despise the very idea of gas grilling? Or have you evolved like the rest of us and accepted that gas is great?
Last Updated: September 1, 2017