In their heyday during the 1970s and 1980s, lava rocks were a common sight nestled in most gas grills. Hailed for their heat distribution and flavor-enhancing properties, they were all the rage.
Yet today, you’d be hard-pressed to find any new gas grill that’s designed to fit lava rocks in it, and for good reason. This change has been driven by advances in grill design and the quest for better cooking efficiency.
On the surface, lava rocks seemed like a win-win for gas grill users.
An inexpensive way to increase the grill’s heat retention, reduce the risk of flare-ups, and add a smokey flavor to food? Sign us up!
But over time, it became clear that lava rocks presented some pretty gnarly drawbacks that led them to fall out of favor.
But why exactly have lava rocks become a rarity in modern grills, and what has taken their place?
In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about lava rocks, how they were used, and why you’re unlikely to find any gas grills that use them these days.
We’ll also dive into some other options you can use on your gas grill to achieve similar results without the health risks of lava rocks.
Ready to dive into this hot topic? Let’s go!
- Evolution in Grilling Technology: Modern gas grills have adopted advanced systems like ceramic briquettes and flavorizer bars that offer more uniform heat distribution, eliminating the need for lava rocks.
- Maintenance and Efficiency: Lava rocks can accumulate grease, leading to inconsistent heating and potential flare-ups. Newer alternatives are designed to minimize these issues and reduce maintenance efforts.
- Flavor and Cooking Experience: While lava rocks were known for heat retention, modern solutions like ceramic briquettes and flavorizer bars enhance the grilling experience by adding a smokier flavor and preventing drippings from causing excessive smoke.
Table of Contents
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What Are Lava Rocks?
Lava rocks are natural volcanic stones that form when lava cools and solidifies during a volcanic eruption.
They are porous, lightweight, and have an irregular, rough surface. Because of their porous nature, they have excellent heat retention and distribution properties.
Lava rocks are a natural heat diffuser: they absorb and distribute heat very well. They are also quite strong and durable, just as you would expect from anything born from magma.
Why Were Lava Rocks Used in Gas Grills?
Once gas grills started becoming popular, it became clear that they couldn’t hold a candle to charcoal grills when it came to even heating and the unique flavor created when juices dropped down onto hot coals.
The solution? Lava rocks!
The concept fully emerged as gas grills began to gain popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, and there was a need to mimic the heat distribution and flavor-enhancing benefits of charcoal grills.
The method was more of an industry response to the demand for a better-tasting grilling experience. Over time, different manufacturers and grill enthusiasts started experimenting with lava rocks, leading to their widespread use in gas grills during that era.
When placed between the grill’s burners and grates, lava rocks helped achieve a few different benefits:
Heat Retention and Distribution
Thanks to their use of direct heat, gas grills aren’t as great at heat retention as their charcoal counterparts.
Lava rocks helped give them a boost in that department by retaining heat from the burners and reflecting it back up to the cooking surface. This meant the grill chamber could hold a consistent temperature, and the entire cooking surface would be more evenly heated and free from hot spots.
Lava rocks can even retain heat after the burners are off, which is a huge plus for anyone utilizing indirect cooking.
Cost-Effective and Durable
Lava rocks are relatively cheap and can withstand high temperatures, making them an economical choice for gas grills.
They are also incredibly hard and durable, which means as long as they’re maintained properly, they can hold up for a long time.
This was a huge benefit for grill users since they could, in theory, buy lava rocks once and use them for up to two years on their grill.
As fats and juices dripped from the food onto the heated lava rocks, they would vaporize, creating smoke that would then be absorbed by the food.
This smoking effect added a smoky flavor to the food, mimicking the taste you’d get from traditional charcoal grilling.
Lava rock’s porous surface makes it like a hard little sponge, ready to absorb any fat and food drippings that fall from the cooking surface.
This absorbency helped reduce the risk of flare-ups since the grease would be trapped in the rock instead of splattering and potentially coming in contact with the flame.
Protection for Burners
Lava rocks acted as a barrier between the food and the gas burners.
They prevented direct contact of dripping fats and juices with the burners, reducing flare-ups and potentially prolonging the life of the burners.
Why Don’t Gas Grills Use Lava Rocks Anymore?
If lava rocks are so durable and fantastic at absorbing heat and grease, why don’t we use them with our gas grills anymore?
Well, there are a few good reasons why you won’t find these little guys in gas grills these days.
To start, the evolution of gas grills has introduced more efficient and cleaner methods of heat distribution and flavor enhancement.
But those aren’t the only reasons why gas grills have moved on from these once-must-have additions.
Lava rocks are great at holding on to heat and grease — but also bacteria and mold. While long-lasting, lava rocks really need regular cleaning after several uses, which many people tend to overlook.
Even with cleaning, fat deposits and bacteria could hang on to the rock and increase the risk of food poisoning if that nastiness leached into the food.
Even if you plan on cleaning your lava rocks after a few uses use, the process is tedious and requires a long drying time.
So, say you just want to get straight to grilling and skip a cleaning or two, leaving fat and drippings behind in the rocks. Pretty soon, the moisture and fat in those drippings will get moldy — and nobody wants that in their next round of burgers.
As grease drips down and hits the lava rocks, it creates a good amount of smoke, particularly when they become saturated with drippings from food like fatty meats.
Over time, as more drippings accumulate and the rocks become more saturated, the amount of smoke produced can increase.
On the one hand, this is great since it gives the food the charred flavor gas grill users were missing.
However, if the lava rocks are not cleaned or replaced periodically, the smoke can become excessive and give the food an unpleasant, overly smoky, or burnt taste.
Regular exposure to that much smoke can also lead to lung damage, which we would argue isn’t worth the smoky flavor.
Requires Regular Cleaning
Regular cleaning is also required to unlock the lava rocks’ potential to absorb and retain heat.
Lava rocks that are not cleaned regularly can become saturated with grease over time. This not only can cause uneven heating but also increases the risk of flare-ups and fires when the trapped grease ignites.
As we mentioned earlier, the cleaning process can get long and obnoxious, involving boiling the rocks in water and detergent and allowing them to sit and dry out completely.
Skipping that cleaning process can open the door to subpar performance, food poisoning, and moldy rocks, which are all good reasons to leave lava rocks behind for good.
And modern alternatives are so much easier to clean and maintain.
There Are Better Alternatives
Modern gas grills often come with specially designed heat tents, flame tamers, or ceramic briquettes.
These are designed to distribute heat more evenly than lava rocks and reduce the risk of flare-ups. They are also easier to clean and maintain making them a better choice.
We’ll talk more about the alternatives to lava rocks in the next few sections and explain why they are a better option.
Are Lava Rocks That Bad?
At the end of the day, grilling with lava rocks isn’t the worst thing you can do with your grill.
They’re inexpensive, can help improve grill performance, and add a delicious smoky flavor as long as you’re committed to regular cleanings.
But in today’s gas grill market, there are a variety of other and better options that you can choose for the same benefits without the risk of food poisoning!
Better Alternatives to Lava Rocks
While lava rocks were once the go-to solution for enhancing heat distribution in gas grills, the gas grill has evolved.
Over time, new materials and designs have emerged, promising not only improved heat distribution but also durability and easier maintenance.
Still want to use your gas grill but crave the smokey flavor that charcoal grills provide? There are quite a few alternatives to lava rocks that offer the same smokey flavor and fantastic heat retention!
Ceramic briquettes are probably the closest alternative to lava rocks that you’ll find.
They’re small and shaped somewhat like charcoal briquettes and perform very similarly. Just like lava rocks, they are great for absorbing and radiating heat, but they tend to last longer and are less porous, so they catch fewer drippings.
While they’re still on the market, they’ve become much less common, and many gas grill models don’t have the space to accommodate them. So, if you opt for ceramic briquettes, get ready to do a bit of research online to find them!
Flavorizer Bars, Heat Shields, Heat Tents, or Vaporizer Bars
Flavorizer bars, heat shields, heat tents, or vaporizer bars are built-in features of gas grills that sit below the grate, just above the burners. They are the most common lava rock alternative used in modern gas grills today.
They’re usually shaped like tents and protect the burners while radiating heat upwards. When drippings hit them, some will be vaporized into a delicious, smoky flavor, while any remaining grease will be channeled into the grill’s grease trap.
High-quality, heavy-duty grill grates made from materials like cast iron or thick stainless steel can also work great for even heat distribution, eliminating the need for lava rocks or other heat diffusers.
A good example is the Grill Grate Set.
Some modern grills come with infrared burners, which cook food by radiating intense heat. This system provides even heating and can cook food faster than traditional methods.
Infrared burners are known for their even heat distribution. The consistent high heat ensures that there are fewer cold spots, leading to more consistent cooking results.
You can learn more about the benefits of infrared burners for gas grills in this guide: What Does an Infrared Burner Do on a Gas Grill.
These are typically made from cordierite or ceramic and work similarly to lava rocks, absorbing, and then evenly distributing heat.
They come in various shapes, from flat discs to pyramid-like structures.
One of the main advantages of heat stones is their capacity for even heat distribution. They absorb the heat from the burner below and radiate it uniformly across the grilling surface.
Just like ceramic briquettes, they are very easy to clean and maintain.
Benefits of Using Ceramic Briquettes
Ceramic briquettes are great at keeping grease off of the burners, absorbing and distributing heat, and vaporizing drippings for a delicious flavor.
Their best feature is that they’re nonporous, so unlike lava rocks, they don’t absorb and trap grease and can last a long time without needing to be cleaned.
Here is a closer look at the many benefits of using ceramic briquettes in a gas grill.
- Even Heat Distribution: One of the main advantages of ceramic briquettes is their ability to distribute heat evenly across the grilling surface. Their heat-retentive properties cut down on hot spots, leading to more consistent cooking results.
- Heat Retention: Ceramic briquettes have excellent heat retention capabilities. Once they’re heated up, they maintain a consistent temperature for extended periods.
- Flavor Enhancement: Just like lava rocks and heat stones, ceramic briquettes help in vaporizing drippings from the meat. When these drippings vaporize, they circulate back onto the food, adding a smoky flavor reminiscent of traditional charcoal grilling.
- Reduced Flare-Ups: Ceramic briquettes catch and slowly vaporize grease and other drippings. This process not only adds flavor but also reduces the chances of sudden flare-ups.
- Longevity and Durability: Ceramic briquettes are designed to last. Unlike some other grill accessories, they don’t degrade quickly under high temperatures. With proper care, they can last a long time.
- Easy Maintenance: While they can accumulate grease over time, cleaning ceramic briquettes is relatively straightforward. Turning them over and allowing the grill to burn off residues is a common practice. For a deeper clean, soaking in a vinegar solution and scrubbing can be effective.
The only real downside to ceramic briquettes is that they can be broken easily if dropped are mishandled. For example, accidentally dropping a grill grate onto them can cause the ceramic to shatter.
Benefits of Using Flavorizer Bars
Since flavorizer bars are metal, they obviously won’t hold onto grease the way that lava rocks do. They’re also easy to remove and clean, so you know you’re starting from a clean slate every time you use your grill (you are cleaning your grill after each use, right?).
Their uniform, tent-like shape is also better at distributing heat and protecting the burners from drippings than lava rocks are.
Here are the main advantages of using Flavorizer bars:
- Flavor Enhancement: When cooking juices and fats drip down from the food, they hit the hot Flavorizer bars. This causes the juices to vaporize, creating smoke that then rises back to the food, giving it a smoky flavor similar to charcoal grilling.
- Reduced Flare-Ups: By intercepting drippings before they hit the burners, Flavorizer bars minimize sudden flare-ups.
- Even Heat Distribution: The bars are designed to spread heat more evenly across the cooking surface, minimizing hot spots and helping to produce a consistent grilling temperature.
- Protection for Burners: By covering the burners, Flavorizer bars act as a shield against drippings, which can cause blockages or corrode the burners over time. This can extend the life of the burners.
- Easy to Clean: Made typically from stainless steel or porcelain-enameled steel, Flavorizer bars can be easily cleaned. Residue can be burned off by turning the grill on high for about 15 minutes, and then any remaining debris can be brushed off.
- Durability: High-quality Flavorizer bars, especially those made of stainless steel, can be very durable and resistant to rust and corrosion if properly cared for.
Flavorizer bars and heat shields are by far the most common replacement for lava rocks in modern gas grills today.
Can You Still Use Lava Rocks?
Even though you’ve just read about how hard lava rocks are to clean and how they can increase the risk of mold, food poisoning, and lung damage, you still want to use them. So what now?
The answer is yes, you can still use lava rocks, but we advise you to think really carefully before you do this.
Aside from the drawbacks we already mentioned, today’s gas grills are just not designed to accommodate lava rocks, so you’d need to be very careful how you place them.
Lava rocks are meant to go between the grates and the burners, but if you simply toss them on the top of the burners, you could block the holes and damage your grill. If you put the rocks around or below your burners, they won’t be able to protect the burners from grease or absorb and radiate as much heat.
You can install a rock grate, which is specially designed to hold lava rocks in an even layer. Before adding them, check your grill’s manufacturer guidelines to see if they’re compatible or if doing so could void any warranty.
Here is a good article explaining how to use lava rocks in a gas grill: An Easy Hack to Make Your Gas Grill Burn Hotter
So, while you can technically still use lava rocks, you’re much better off relying on flavorizer bars instead. If you like the look of lava rocks, they make a great addition to landscaping!
Using Lava Rocks in Gas Grills FAQs
Still curious about lava rocks in gas grills?
Learn more in these frequently asked questions!
If you don’t find what you’re looking for, leave your question in the comments below or send me an email and I will get back to you.
Who knows, I might even add your question to this guide.
For a more in-depth frequently asked question guide, check out this article: The Ultimate Gas Grill FAQ.
How Often Do Lava Rocks Need to Be Replaced?
Lava rocks should be replaced when they become overly saturated with grease or show signs of deterioration, typically every one to two grilling seasons. Regularly turning them after use can extend their lifespan. If they cause excessive flare-ups or retain strong odors, it’s time for a replacement.
How Do You Convert a Gas Grill to Hold Lava Rocks?
To convert a gas grill for lava rocks, remove existing heat tents or bars. Place a lava rock grate at the bottom, ensuring it sits above the burners. Spread lava rocks evenly on the grate, with gaps for flame. Always consult the grill’s manual before making modifications for safety.
Can Lava Rocks Damage the Grill?
Yes, lava rocks can damage your grill since they don’t create a moisture-proof barrier and can allow grease to slip through and settle in and around the burners. Regular cleaning and correct positioning are important to prevent issues and extend your grill’s lifespan. Always follow manufacturer guidelines when using them.
Do Lava Rocks Prevent Flare-Ups?
Lava rocks can dramatically reduce the risk of flare-ups by absorbing drippings, but they don’t prevent them completely. Over time, the accumulated grease on lava rocks might cause flare-ups if not cleaned or replaced regularly. Proper maintenance is important when using lava rocks in your gas grill.
What's Better: Lava Rocks or Ceramic Briquettes?
Ceramic briquettes are better than lava rocks since they last longer, hold heat for longer, and are self-cleaning and environmentally friendly. Both lava rocks and ceramic briquettes distribute heat evenly in gas grills. However, ceramic briquettes are less porous, reducing grease buildup.
Where Do You Put Lava Rocks in the Grill?
If you use lava rocks in your grill, they should be placed on a specialized rock grate that holds them between the burners and the cooking surface. Ensure they are spread in a single layer for even heat distribution. Always consult your grill’s manual to see if it’s designed to accommodate lava rocks.
Final Thoughts on Why Don’t Gas Grills Use Lava Rocks Anymore
Looking back, the era of lava rocks in gas grills was marked by their innovation and efficiency for their time. But as with many things, technology and design evolve.
While there may still be some diehards out there, in our opinion, the drawbacks of using lava rocks in a gas grill far outweigh the benefits.
While they once served as a popular heat distribution and burner protection technique, modern advancements like ceramic briquettes and heat shields or flavorizer bars are more user-friendly and don’t come with the risk of holding on to bacteria and moisture that can cause food poisoning.
If you’re looking for improved heat distribution or a way to infuse your gas-grilled foods with a smokey flavor, there are plenty of options out there that don’t cause health risks. So opt for those, and save the lava rocks for your landscaping! Read this article for a good example of adding smokey flavor to a gas grill: How to Use Wood Pellets on a Gas Grill – 4 Simple Methods.
While lava rocks had their heyday, the grilling world has moved on to more refined methods.
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A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, self-proclaimed grill master and I’m Living The Grilling Life!
I have a passion for cooking with live fire and smoke, no matter the weather. I’m a real person just like you, who loves outdoor cooking and BBQ. Food, fun, and time spent with family and friends are what it’s all about! It is my mission to take my passion and knowledge for outdoor cooking and all things BBQ and share this expertise in techniques and grilling equipment with you. In other words, Living The Grilling Life!