An illustration of a grill under drawings of gas, pellet, and charcoal fuel

All grills typically use one of three sources of fuel for heat: charcoal, propane gas, or wood pellets. And each has its own distinct set of advantages—and imparts a flavor all its own. 

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Charcoal loyalists insist that coals impart a distinct flavor that’s unmatched by gas. Gas grill enthusiasts feel that gas grills offer better control than charcoal, so you don’t scorch food or overcook it.

They also claim that the minimal flavor imparted by a gas grill lets you taste the food. Other backyard chefs argue pellet grills offer the best of both worlds—the wood pellets they burn impart a flavor reminiscent of charcoal, and even wood chips or chunks, while the digital thermostat provides superior control.

CR's Grill Experts Settle the Score

To help end the debate, CR decided to have a little grill-off. We cooked identically prepared foods on three high-scoring grills: a gas, a charcoal, and a pellet.

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On each, we cooked boneless skinless chicken thighs and sliced zucchini, all prepped with just a small amount of oil and salt, so as not to mask any flavors imparted by the different types of grills. 

Next, we asked 113 staffers to sample either food—or both if they were hungry—without knowing which grill each came from. We asked them to state their preferences, as well as to guess which foods were cooked on each grill.

The Results

It was almost an even split, but the gas grill had a slight edge in our taste test for chicken, getting 36 percent of the vote. The pellet grill was a close second, with 34 percent; charcoal came in at 30 percent. Of the 31 folks who tried zucchini, almost two-thirds favored the gas grill. That’s surprising, because charcoal and pellet grills are designed to impart a distinct flavor to food. One possible explanation is that gas-grilled foods might be the most familiar-tasting—gas grills account for the lion’s share of all grills sold.

Another surprise: Only about a third of CR staffers correctly paired their food to the grill that cooked it—though even that may have been due to chance. So if you’re not firmly in one camp or the other, our experts say to choose your grill based on ease of use, cost, and construction, rather than on any flavor promise.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.