Barbecue University™

A Crash Course on Gas Grills

Gas grill

In North America, gas is king. Developed by utility companies, gas grills hit the barbecue scene in the 1950s. Today, almost 70 percent of American families use gas grills. There are two types of gas grill: those that burn natural gas, a fossil fuel based primarily on methane, and those that burn propane, a refined petroleum product comprised of hydrogen and carbon. So why grill with gas? In a word—convenience. The convenience of push-button ignition. The convenience of turn-of-a-dial heat control. Gas is less dirty to handle than charcoal and burns cleaner than improperly lit charcoal.

Whether fueled by natural gas or propane, gas grills tend to burn cooler and wetter than charcoal grills, so you don’t get quite the same searing and browning as with the heat from charcoal or wood. However, it must be said that the newer, higher powered gas grills come very close to bridging the gap. Still, smoking on a charcoal grill is easy; on a gas grill it is virtually impossible. Of course, the biggest problem with gas may be image. Grilling over gas just doesn’t look as cool as burning wood or messing with charcoal.

Gas grills

Propane cylinders will give you 12 to 18 hours of grilling, depending on the heat, the altitude, and what you’re grilling. After that time you need to refill the tank. The first time you fill a propane cylinder, have it “bled” (flushed out) by a professional. To get the propane cylinders home from the hardware store, stand them in plastic milk crates; this keeps them from rolling around in your trunk. Store propane cylinders outdoors, away from the grill, and in an upright position. Always have an extra full propane cylinder on hand; the cylinders have the perverse habit of running out of fuel right in the middle of a grill session. If you have a large underground propane tank to run your furnace or water heater, you might want to ask your gas man to hook up a line from it to your grill.

To grill with natural gas, your grill needs to be specially outfitted, including having larger holes in the burner manifolds. However, natural gas has the advantage of being piped right into your home—no more empty propane cylinders to take to the hardware store.

One final note on the safe way to light a gas grill:

  1. Make sure you have gas in your cylinder. Many grills have gauges to tell you how much gas is in the tank. One low-tech way to check is to pour boiling water down the side of the tank. You’ll see condensation on the part of the tank with gas behind it.
  2. Always have an extra propane tank on hand. There’s nothing worse than running out of gas during a grill session.
  3. Open the lid before you light the grill. This is very important, as lighting the grill with the lid closed can cause a gas buildup and explosion. (I’ve seen it happen.)
  4. Turn the burner knob to start the gas flowing. (Make sure you opened the shutoff valve at the top of the cylinder.)
  5. Click the igniter and keep clicking it until you hear and see ignition. Note: behind most igniter buttons you’ll find an AA battery. Check it from time to time: the grill won’t light when it’s dead.
  6. Wait 20 seconds after you hear ignition and see ignition. Then hold your hand about 6 inches over the grill and leave it there until you feel heat. This makes sure the burners not only lit but stayed lit.
  7. If the grill fails to ignite for any reason, open the lid and air out the cook chamber. Wait a minute or so and start steps 1-5 again.

Adapted from Planet Barbecue! For more information on the tools, fuels, and techniques of grilling, click here.

Planet Barbecue cover

Try these tools:
Propane Gas Meter with Glow-in-the-Dark Dial
The Original Grill Gauge
Natural Gas Quick Connect Hose

Learn more:
Buying a Grill or Smoker? 8 Questions to Ask Yourself
A Guide to Vertical Gas/Propane Smokers
Types of Charcoal for Grilling