As a kid growing up in a coastal New England town, I thought a cookout meant a drive to the beach to snag one of those big square grills mounted on a post next to the picnic tables. Those open braziers with the movable cooking grates aren’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, I recall some lip-smacking good steaks from those days), but after checking out what’s available in grills today, I’m now more likely to pick a more versatile grill and one that gives me more control over my cooking. Over the last few years, the choices for home grillers have multiplied. Prices have risen significantly, too, as manufacturers try to market luxury models with features galore. A top-of-the-line outdoor cooker today might sport enough extras to turn your new grill into a virtual backyard kitchen.
That kind of feature-loaded grill can be an exciting way to broaden your cooking options, but keep in mind that all the extras in the world mean nothing without the right foundation: a good-quality grill that suits your cooking style.
“A 27-inch Weber kettle is the best thing that’s ever been invented. Period.”
—A. Cort Sinnes, author of The Grilling Encyclopedia
Ask yourself how you plan to use it
In summer, you can find a wide range of barbecue grills everywhere from discount department stores to high-end patio shops. And there are catalogs that feature grills year-round. Where you look depends on the kind of grill you want and the level of customer service you need. Before you start to shop, ask yourself some questions to help focus your search.
How often do you expect to use the grill? If you plan to cook out every weekend and even some weeknights, your grill may become more like another kitchen appliance than a special-occasion tool. In that case, you’ll probably appreciate a fast ignition system and easy cleanup, which are advantages of gas grills. If you think you’ll be cooking out once or twice a month, you may want to go for a less costly but still sturdy grill, which is easier to find in charcoal models.
How many people do you usually grill for? For you and a friend, you can probably make do with a grill with a small cooking area, even a portable hibachi. But if you’re cooking for a family or to entertain, you’ll need a grill with a very large primary cooking area. (City dwellers with fire escapes or tiny balconies might have to limit their search to small models.)
Does convenience matter? If you feel comfortable lighting fires and don’t mind cleaning up ashes, you could be a charcoal fan. But if you get impatient waiting 30 or so minutes for coals to get hot, consider gas.
What’s your style of grilling? Those who stick to typical barbecue fare—burgers, ribs, chicken wings—can certainly survive with a basic, no-frills model. Cooks who like to experiment might want to consider the more versatile styles, perhaps a grill that doubles as a smoker or one with a rotisserie. If you grill bulky items like whole turkeys or roasts, be sure that the grill has a tall lid and that any extra racks (like those used to keep bread warm) can be removed.
What’s your budget? Grills range from just a few dollars for disposable supermarket hibachis to many thousands for a stainless-steel construction that will stand like a trophy in your backyard. Charcoal grills are more affordable, but they can run to several hundred dollars or more. Gas grills start at around $100, but you may have to spend much more than that to find one that approaches a respectable value.
“Two of the best grills out there are your Weber and your Kingsford. Your Kingsford is easy to cook on. I like the capacity and the way it’s set up.”
—Paul Kirk, author of Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces
You found the grill you want—now, does it measure up?
In interviews with more than a dozen professional grillers, I kept hearing the same three things: make sure the grill can get really hot, that it has a very large cooking area, and that it’s well built. As you shop, keep these ideas in mind.
The grill should be able to deliver searing heat and maintain it even after the food is added. Intense heat quickly sears the surface of the food, browning it and creating that slightly sweet crust. While some grilling methods do use more moderate heat, you need the option of fast searing.
Charcoal and hardwood burn hotter than gas, and their coals can be spread out, which means you can maintain a more even bed of high temperature along the entire grilling area. Getting high heat from a charcoal grill is usually just a matter of adding enough fuel. Natural hardwood briquettes and lump charcoal burn hotter than some less expensive briquettes, and they don’t have chemical additives.
The design of gas grills makes maintaining high and even heat more problematic. The gas jets lie below the grill surface. They may be straight bars or oblong shapes, but no matter how they’re positioned, some cooking areas will always be directly above the heat and others a few inches away. Heat-spreading elements like lava rocks can help disperse the heat, but some areas will still be hotter than others.
Compare the heat potential of various gas grills by checking total Btu (British thermal units), which range from 22,000 to 72,000. Because of all the variables involved involved (small grills have fewer total Btu than large grills, but more Btu per burner), it may be simpler to just use the “hand test.” If you can hold your hand two inches above the grate for only one or two seconds, you have high heat. Ask the salesperson to hook up the grill to a gas tank before you buy. (You may have to head to a high-end patio shop to find a salesperson willing to accommodate this request.)
The corollary to heat intensity is heat control. Neither gas nor charcoal offer a perfect way to control or even measure the heat, so experience will be your best guide. Some grills offer temperature gauges, but since they only measure the temperature of the air, they’re not an accurate indicator of the heat that’s actually reaching the food.
With charcoal grills, your options for heat control are top and bottom air vents, adjustable cooking grates, and adjustable fireboxes (the containers that hold the fuel). Gas grills have a simpler mechanism: one or more knobs that can be turned to low, medium, or high. That’s easy enough to do, but you’re still not completely in control of the heat reaching the food.
Choose a grill with as vast a cooking surface as possible. A large surface area means more flexibility and control. Imagine that you’re searing salmon steaks and vegetable kebabs for dinner. Your nose begins to sense a faintly bitter smell, warning you that the outside of the food is about to burn. If you have a small grill and there’s no free cooking space left, you’re out of luck. But with a larger grill space, you can move the food to an area of lower heat, or indirect heat, to slow down the cooking.
As you compare surface areas among grills, be sure to calculate the primary cooking area, which receives direct heat, not the total cooking area, which can include extra warming racks that are higher than the actual grill surface. Most rectangular grills have primary cooking areas between 225 to 450 square inches. Round, kettle-style charcoal grills usually have 13 – to 27-inch diameters, or 132 to 572 square inches of cooking space.
The cooking grate’s rods should be wide and heavy so that more surface area can touch and sear the food. The weight of the material is also important. Scott Rambo, a manager at Barbeques Galore, a chain of upscale grill stores, says he prefers porcelain-coated cast iron for strength and durability. After that, he’d choose stainless steel, raw cast iron, porcelain-coated steel, and, finally, chrome-plated steel.
The grill should look and feel like it’s built for durability. Donna Myers, editor of the BackYard BarbeQuer newsletter and spokesperson for the Barbecue Industry Association, recommends using the “tire test” to check the quality of the grill’s construction. “Kick it, lift it, move it,” she says. Does it hold together? Does the lid close snugly? Are the handles positioned wisely (so you can open the lid without burning yourself)? Are the wheels sturdy and wide? Do the vents seem like they’ll take abuse? Does the cart wobble?
“Go rattle the demo in the store,” says Melanie Barnard, who wrote The Best Covered Grills & Kettle Grills Cookbook Ever. “It’s got to be as solid as a rock; otherwise, you know that your dog, the wind, or your kid is going to knock it over.”
Note the materials used for each part. A base of porcelain-covered steel, cast aluminum, or stainless steel will last.
On a gas grill, the quality of the burners is an issue. All should feel heavy. Scott Rambo thinks the best burners are made of cast brass, followed by cast iron, stainless steel, and aluminum. The shape of the burners matters, too, with oval and H-shaped burners at the low end, and parallel bars or long S-shaped burners at the upper end. Remember that more burners mean better temperature control, which means better grilling.
Above the burners are heat dispersers. These are often lava rocks or ceramic briquettes, which help spread the heat and shield the burners from dripping grease. Lava rock is a light, porous material that traps grease and will probably need replacing sooner than solid ceramic briquettes.Another option is the V-shaped metal runner system (Weber calls them “flavorizer bars”) that collects and directs grease, minimizing flare-ups while vaporizing juices for flavor.
For any grill, consider the manufacturer. Besides checking the specifics of warranties, you want to be confident that the company will exist a few years down the road when you need that replacement part.
“I like simple, heavy-duty grills. I don’t understand these bells and whistles, and I don’t think the people who design them do, either.”
—Chris Schlesinger, co-author of The Thrill of the Grill
Extra features can be useful, but they don’t make the grill
There’s nothing wrong with a bell and a whistle, but don’t get so enamored of gadgets that you forget what’s really important. Here are some of the features that may be included in the grill, or else offered as supplements.
Rotisserie. If you’ve been rigging up your own rotisseries until now, this might be something to consider. Powered by electricity, these add-ons are available for gas and some charcoal grills.
Side burners. An expensive convenience on gas grills, side burners can keep you from having to run into the house to melt butter for lobster, boil water for pasta, or warm up a pot of chili. But they can be vulnerable to gusts of wind.
Smoker boxes or drawers. As the interest in smoking foods picks up, smoker drawers and boxes are becoming standard accessories on gas grills. They hold soaked wood chips (or other flavor enhancers, such as fresh herbs). You can throw the chips directly onto charcoal briquettes, but they’ll clog the burner ports of a gas grill, so a smoker box is mandatory if you want to do this sort of outdoor cooking with gas. They usually cost less than $20.
Glass windows. These are a weak spot in the lid and they turn black very quickly. Pass.
Ash catcher. A feature on charcoal grills, this is a deep, mug-shaped cylinder that hangs below the coals, holds ashes, and can be removed for emptying and cleaning.
Hinged, lift-up grates. This smart feature allows you to add more charcoal during cooking without removing the entire grate.
Condiment holders, utensil hooks, towel racks. All are useful, but they don’t add much value to the grill, and you can improvise your own.
Cover. A waterproof vinyl cover is definitely a wise investment, and probably the most important thing you can do to extend the life of your grill.