Charcoal vs. propane vs. hardwood. This debate is really not as dire as some would have you believe. Only purists would argue that you should only use one. I, however, think that all three have their place for different types of cooking. I'll talk about charcoal fi
Charcoal is great if you have the time. It also affords you some really spectacular flavors that propane can't. There are some very common misconceptions about Charcoal grills; the biggest being the use of lighter fluid and "match light" charcoal. I have seen several taste tests on the subject and I have experienced it countless times myself. They say that lighter fluid doesn't taint the food. It does. Plain and simple. The best thing you can do is get yourself a Chimney Starter. I use this one:
You can find these at just about any place that sells grilling supplies. You simply fill the top 3/4s up with charcoal and put a little paper in the reservoir in the bottom and light it. After about 20 minutes your coals are white hot and ready to rock.
As far as charcoal, you can use regular formed briquettes but anything worth doing is worth doing right. I prefer hardwood, lump charcoal (most decent places will have this alternative. I like "Cowboy" brand). Traditional briquettes are just pressed sawdust and don't add much more to the food than heat. Lump charcoal however is made up of irregular hunks of actual hardwood charcoal. It is made by taking a large batch of wood pieces, lighting them and then closing off the air supply to the chamber. The wood then slowly carbonizes and becomes charcoal. The end result is a fuel that imparts a nice wood flavor and burns at a higher temperature.
As far as cooking with charcoal, there really isn't much it can't do. A high heat application will give you wonderfully smokey steaks and burgers, indirect heating allows for baking, poaching, roasting and braising and the inclusion of hardwoods allows for some of the best barbecue you can imagine.
There are two main downsides to charcoal grilling. The first is time. It can take up to a half an hour to get the old girl up to temp. Now this is only a downside if you do not have a tasty local microbrew in your hand to pass the time, so plan ahead. The other is there's a large amount of super high temperature material at the bottom. Unattended, it is VERY easy to have a flair up and ruin the flavor (or straight up burn) whatever you are cooking. Checkout "On Grilling" for more info on Flair Ups.
The upside to charcoal is definitely the flavor. Nothing is able to replicate that classic grilling taste like high quality charcoal. The ability to do light smoking on the grill is a plus as well. You can either add soaked wood directly to the coal or placed in a packet of aluminum foil with holes punched in the top.
Next time we'll talk about propane grills and cooking with hardwoods.