Every culture has grilling or BBQ traditions – from local satay, Indian tandoori and Japanese yakiniku to Chinese shaokao, American barbecue (BBQ) and asado. Tossing raw meats and vegetables onto a fire as sustenance has gone from being a means of survival to an art form.

With a myriad of options out there, choosing the right set-up doesn’t just depend on your cooking preferences but also on practical factors like space and environmental constraints, according to grill and BBQ retailers we spoke to in Singapore.

Where does the flavour come from?

The charcoal versus gas debate ignites repeatedly. Charcoal fans insist the carbonaceous material produced by burning wood under low-oxygen conditions provides a superior char flavour since it produces more smoke and smoke equals flavour. That argument is partly right.

Flavour-wise, some experts say the difference is minimal if food is properly cooked on a gas grill. “Charcoal is just a source of heat. It’s the grease that renders and drips down onto the hot charcoal that combusts into smoke that wraps around the food to flavour it,” says Desmond Tan, founder and grill master of Fyregrill that launched its store and grill academy in May this year.

Many Singaporeans, who grew up grilling over open BBQ pits, mostly at condominiums and at East Coast Park, have definitely burnt a chicken wing while the interior was still raw, says Tan, also a chef and grill instructor for over eight years now.

Outdoor Grilling
Desmond Tan, founder and grill master of Fyregrill.

“Grilling is an art as much as it is science. Understanding heat control is as important as understanding the different heat transfer methods such as conduction, convection and radiation,” Tan explains in a 60-minute Introduction to Grilling class during which participants worked on a whole chicken, steak and salmon.

While the terms grill and barbecue are often used interchangeably, the former refers to cooking smaller cuts of meats like steaks and sausages hot and fast while the latter refers to cooking bigger and tougher cuts like beef ribs and briskets low and slow – at a lower temperature and usually over several hours. Smoking is like the latter but with smouldering wood chunks or chips at an even lower temperature and over a longer time to ensure the smoky flavour infuses the meat.

While charcoal and binchotan can burn at 500 to 1,000 deg C and a good gas grill can max out at 400 to 500 deg C, it is unnecessary to cook at such high temperatures, Tan explains. Thinner cuts of meats, vegetables and seafood are better grilled at around 250 deg C.

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Chef-scientist Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of the groundbreaking 2,438- page multivolume Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, told GQ magazine: “There really is not a difference in taste. There’s less romanticism about a gas flame, but it does essentially the same job.”

Just remember to get your cooking grates searingly hot before you place any food on them.

One of the major drawbacks of using charcoal is that it will bellow with smoke for a good 30 to 45 minutes – the time it takes for the charcoal to be properly ready for grilling – and almost throughout the entire cooking time. You’ll require good air ventilation and forgiving neighbours, especially if you didn’t invite them.

For that reason, as well as fire hazard concerns, some condominiums prohibit the use of charcoal while others even disallow open flames, including gas grills on balconies. Alternatives would be an electric or infrared grill, says Sim Hock Seng, director of Cookaburra BBQ, who has been dishing out advice to customers for almost 10 years.

Electric and electric infrared grills, often marketed as indoor grills, however aren’t able to achieve consistent high temperatures and the same degree of smoky flavour offered by gas or charcoal grills.

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Convenience vs experience

For many, it will probably come down to these factors. How much do you enjoy starting and managing a fire and getting your hands dirty with charcoal? Or do you just want to get on with the actual grilling? Learning to manage and control the temperature of a charcoal grill takes practice while a simple turn of a knob can control gas grills.

Sim, who operates five shops, including three Weber stores and the Weber Grill Academy, says it’s more common for charcoal users to switch to gas than the other way around because of the convenience.

For those leaning towards gas but fear missing out on the smoky flavour, Sim recommends experimenting with wood chips such as hickory, oak, maple and mesquite that produce different flavours to enhance food.

Types of grills

Aside from budget, size is the primary consideration when choosing a grill. The space you have on your balcony, garden or backyard will narrow down your options considerably. A kettle grill that uses charcoal is usually more compact than a gas one with an accompanying LPG tank.

Essential tools

Outdoor Grilling

Digital instant-read thermometer

Using a thermometer will help you improve the safety and doneness of your food by gauging this without having to cut into it to check. Tip: Start testing the meat 5 to 10 minutes ahead of time and remove the food from the heat when it reaches 3 to 5 deg C less than the target temperature as the meat will continue to cook as it rests.

Smoker box

Add soaked wood chips to the smoker box and place it indirectly over charcoal or a gas burner to enhance the flavour of your food. Wood chips come in a variety of options such as apple, cedar, hickory and walnut that impart different flavours to your food.

Chimney starter

Using a chimney starter will get the charcoal ready in 30 to 40 minutes, shaving a significant amount of time off without using an accelerant like lighter fluid which may cause an unpleasant taste.

(Related: How to cook restaurant-quality steak at home)