Lava rocks were highly popular in the past with the owners of gas grills. But do you need them today? It’s 2021, of course.
In this grilling guide, I’ll explain:
- What lava rocks are
- What they do
- Why were they so popular in the past
- Why you don’t need them now
And a lot of other interesting stuff you might not know.
An old LifeHacker article from 2012 popularized the idea of using lava rocks to give your grill an extra boost, especially if your grill is an older model or has issues with the regulator.
This raises the question:
What Are BBQ Lava Rocks?
Lava rocks are exactly what the name implies – rocks made from lava. Specifically, they are made from lava when a volcano erupts. Once the lava is cooled, it turns into rocks.
What Is the Purpose of Lava Rocks?
The idea behind them is that they absorb the heat and give a constant and even heat output, providing more steadier heat than what your burners would normally provide.
Does the Lava Rock Trick Work?
Yes, the lava rock trick does work, but not all grills need them. If your grill is pretty new, or if it is performing just fine, chances are that you don’t need that extra heat boost. So if your grill is fine, all you’re doing is wasting 20 minutes of propane to give yourself extra heat to work with when you preheat your grill.
If you have an older grill and you’re not ready to replace it yet, or if your regulator doesn’t allow the grill to get hot enough, then you should use the lava rock trick to basically act as burner boosters, providing even, steady heat that was accumulated during the warm-up period to cook your food.
Why Lava Rocks?
Lava rocks are made from hardened lava, so they’ve literally been constructed by liquid fire, and as such, they are great retainers of heat.
They’re also relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain, leading to their popularization.
Generally, you can obtain them from home improvement and construction stores, by the bucket-full at rock suppliers, and sometimes from grocery stores in the summer, in the summer goods section with the gas and grills.
Why Do Gas Grills Not Use Lava Rocks Anymore?
Newer grills have flavorizer bars, such as Weber. These bars have the same function, so putting lava rocks would be redundant.
So, Do I Need Lava Rocks for My Gas Grill?
If you have a newer grill that is working fine and the temperature of the grill is not an issue, then you don’t need them.
But if your grill isn’t giving you the heat performance that you want, then you should try them.
How Do You Put Lava Rocks in a Gas Grill?
You can use these rocks by stacking them underneath your grill grates, around, or just above your burners. Turn the grill on and instead of grilling immediately, give the grill an extra 20 minutes to heat up the rocks, and then you grill.
Do Lava Rocks Prevent Flare-Ups?
They don’t prevent them completely, but reduce them dramatically.
The rocks are between the burners and the food – they act as a barrier that catches any oils and fats that would hit the flames.
If the rocks are packed tightly, then they would prevent flare-ups indefinitely.
Can Lava Rocks Be Cleaned?
Not really, no. They are porous, meaning they soak up everything it touches them. The only kind of cleaning you can do is to burn off all of the germs and debris which is basically every time you fire up the grill.
Lava rocks don’t ever touch your food, so there’s no reason for concern with germs or food safety. And from the rock’s perspective, anything that drips down onto it is going to be instantly cooked, sanitized, and basically cauterized onto the rock, so while the rocks may get dirty, they’re not getting germy.
What About Turning Them?
When your rocks get dirty enough they don’t provide the same amount of heat output as they used to.
When this happens, simply move and turn them so that a new, clean, porous side is facing upwards towards your food before you use your grill again.
Do Lava Rocks Cause Cancer?
Lava rocks themselves don’t cause cancer because no one eats them and because a normal, clean lava rock won’t emit any fumes or chemicals.
But what we do eat is the smoky fat that’s been stored and reheated multiple times on the lava rock as it floats upwards and into your grilling food. This stored and heated, reheated, and heated again fat begins to develop carcinogen elements that can contribute to cancer development, either benign or malignant.
To prevent this, you’ll want to turn them so that the greasy sides are not facing up after every few uses.
How Long Do Lava Rocks Last?
When your rocks are dirty on all sides, you’ll want to look at replacing them with new ones, as this is much easier than trying to clean them. They are inexpensive and easy to obtain.
Sources disagree on how often you should change them. Some say once all the sides are good and covered, and some say that you can stretch their use a season or two.
What About Grills That Aren’t Gas?
If your grill isn’t a gas grill, then things get tricky. For an infrared grill, you definitely don’t need lava rocks because the heating works differently. In infrared grills, basically, the entire interior of the grill is designed as a lava rock – that is, with the same heat-retaining and radiating properties – so adding more rocks wouldn’t benefit you, but only take away from the specifically designed grill to radiate heat in certain spots.
In a charcoal or wood pellet grill, the rocks aren’t going to benefit you either, and it would be better to simply shuffle the fuel and add more as needed. You do not want to use them in wood pellet grills as this messes up the chemistry and heat control of how a wood pellet grill is supposed to work. They are only used for propane gas or natural gas grills.
What’s Better: Lava Rocks or Ceramic Briquettes?
Ceramic briquettes are superior to lava rocks in many ways:
- They last longer
- Are self-cleaning
- Hold the heat in for longer
It doesn’t come as a surprise that briquettes are more expensive than lava rocks because of this. Pound for pound, ceramic briquettes cost roughly 50% more.
Can You Use Lava Rocks in a Weber Gas Grill?
Absolutely not. Doing this voids your warranty. Also, there would be no effect as Weber grills have flavorizer bars, which have the same role as the rocks, as mentioned at the start of this article.
Lava Rocks Are Yesterday’s Technology
I hope that this article answered all of your questions about cooking on gas grills with these rocks. Personally, I feel that the cost trade-off between lava rocks and propane time makes them not worth the trouble, but then again, I do prefer newer grills that don’t really have any issues.
Ever used lava rocks before?