It’s the heart of grilling season, and every time you go outside you smell the delicious scent of backyard barbecues wafting from your neighbors’ backyards. You want to join the fun and buy your own grill, but the sheer number of choices out there makes it intimidating to figure out what kind of cooker is right for you. This buying guide will tell you everything you need to purchase the perfect grill and start treating yourself to smoky, delicious gourmet meals.
THE MYTH OF PERFECT GRILL?
Grilling enthusiasts are opinionated people, and there’s a good chance you’ve been at a cookout somewhere where the host cornered you to talk about the unrivaled superiority of his choice of barbecue. While persuasive arguments can be made for the unique advantages of several kinds of grill, the truth is that there is no single perfect type of cooker. The thing that matters most is to buy something that suits your needs. The nicest stainless steel gas grill in the world still can’t replicate the unique things a tiny charcoal hibachi can do, and vice-versa. Don’t be lured into a decision you regret by grill propagandists!
BUYING A GRILL: GENERAL THINGS TO LOOK FOR
Whether you decide to go for charcoal or gas, there are some features that you should look for in any grill. A cooker that can’t do some of the things listed below will seriously hamper your ability to cook delicious food.
- TEMPERATURE CONTROL
Many people think of grilling as exclusively a high-heat cooking method for steaks, burgers and sausage, but being able to raise and lower the temperature is essential if you want to cook more than the old cookout standbys. With gas models, the temperature can be controlled simply by increasing or lowering the flow of fuel to the burners using the controls on the grill. Temperature control on charcoal grills is more of an art, requiring careful maintenance of airflow using adjustable vents.
Pretty much every gas grill comes with a lid, but some very cheap or very old-school charcoal cookers are sold without them. Lids are essential for properly controlling temperature and putting down flareups when cooking with charcoal, so if you see a charcoal grill being sold without a lid, look for a different model.
- TWO-ZONE COOKING ABILITY
Cooking big chunks of meat requires the ability to sear on one part of the grill and then finish the cooking process over lower heat. With gas, that means having at least two independently adjustable burners. For charcoal, you need to have a grill that’s large enough to push the coals over to one side to create two temperature zones.
CHARCOAL GRILLS: THE GUIDE
CHARCOAL GRILL TYPES
There are fewer options for bells and whistles with charcoal than propane, but there are still many different choices out there. This list explores each of the major types of charcoal grill, moving from least to most expensive.
Hibachi is a term for the smallest (and usually cheapest) type of charcoal grill. Hibachis generally just consist of a metal box on legs that holds coals and a grill grate. This type of grill often does not come with a lid. Since hibachis are so small and lack temperature controls, they are only really good for searing applications. They do get screaming hot, so they can turn out great steaks, chops and grilled veggies. However, if you want to try more advanced grilling techniques or even just cook things like bone-in chicken that require medium heat, you’ll want to get a kettle grill instead.
Kettle barbecues are the most popular kind of charcoal grill. Kettles range from tiny portable 12-inch models to huge cookers fit for cooking for a crowd. No matter the size, all kettles follow basically the same form. The coals are supported by a grate at the bottom of a hemispherical metal container on legs. The grill is covered with a curved lid that completes the classic round “kettle” look. Most kettles have adjustable intake and exhaust vents on the bottom and lid. Even smallest models have enough cooking area to create two heating zones, and the vents on the lid and bottom allow for precise temperature control.
“OIL DRUM” STYLE GRILLS
This style of grill is named because it looks like (and sometimes is actually made of) a 55-gallon oil drum turned on its side. These barbecues often have a chimney-style exhaust vent and adjustable dampers on the side. Oil drums are the preferred style for many competition grillers because they offer a lot of grilling real estate, allowing for multiple heat zones and precise temperature control. Oil drums are, as the name suggests, usually very large. They are really too bulky to be practical unless you plan on regularly barbecuing for dozens of people at a time or joining the competitive grilling circuit.
This type of grill is named after a traditional Japanese ceramic oven. Modern kamado-style barbecues look quite similar to kettles except for the fact that the walls and lid are made from high-fiber ceramic rather than metal. Ceramic is a much better insulator than metal, so kamado cookers are great for hold in heat and maintaining a constant temperature during low-and-slow cooking methods like smoking. Unless it is very important to you to have the insulation and heat retention of ceramic, a kettle can do most of the same jobs for a fraction of the cost.
CHARCOAL GRILL ACCESSORIES AND ADD-ONS
You can choose to power your charcoal grill with natural lump, briquets, or some combination of both. Lump charcoal boosters like to tout the fact that this kind of charcoal is made without additives, and claim that it burns hotter than briquets. Many of the most common brands of briquets are bound together with chemical adhesives that you may not want to cook your food over. There are, however, natural briquets that use natural starch binders for those concerned about the ingredients in traditional briquets. Briquets tend to be a little cheaper than natural lump charcoal.
Unless you buy a grill with a built-in starter like the Performer, you’ll need some way to light the charcoal. Although many people choose to use lighter fluid to start their fires, this is less than ideal because it imparts an unpleasant gasoline flavor to the food. Chimney starters are a much better option. Chimneys are simply metal cylinders with a grate placed towards the bottom. You insert bunched-up paper under the grate and pour charcoal on top of it, then light the paper to start the fire. Once the coals are all alight, you pour them from the chimney into your grill.
ASH DISPOSAL SYSTEM
Cleaning out leftover ash is one of the most annoying parts of grilling with charcoal. An ash removal solution like a hinged door or an ash can makes cleanup much less of a hassle.
GAS GRILLS: THE GUIDE
It’s harder to separate gas cookers into distinct categories like you can with charcoal ones, so this list discusses different attributes you should look for in a gas grill.
Gas barbecues range from tiny hibachi-sized models to enormous units that take up as much space as a small car. The smallest models, which usually run on small Coleman camp stove-sized propane tanks, should really only be used if you literally can’t fit a larger grill on your apartment balcony. The small gas cookers often lack the capacity for two-zone cooking because they only have one burner. If you have the space, you will be better-served by at least a mid-sized grill.
Since gas barbecues on average cost a few hundred dollars, and can cost up to several thousand, you’ll want to invest in a grill that will last for a long time. The most common materials for the exterior of barbecues are cast iron, coated steel, aluminum, and stainless steel.
Cast iron holds and distributes heat well, but is prone to rust, so it’s not the most desirable material. Normal steel rusts as well, but most cookers made from this material are coated in either an enamel or polymer powder coating. These coatings do a good job of protecting the grill from rust while they last, but can crack or chip over time, allowing the elements to penetrate and damage the grill.
Aluminum and stainless steel are both rust-proof. Generally, stainless steel does a better job of containing and distributing heat from the fire, and will ensure that your grill cooks evenly. Both aluminum and stainless steel discolor over time, so don’t expect the shiny look you get when the grill to last for long.
Regardless of what material you choose for your grill’s exterior, it should be relatively thick, both to help hold in heat and to enhance durability. Steel thickness is expressed in gauge numbers, with lower numbers indicating thicker metal. The steel used for barbecues generally falls somewhere between 10 and 18 gauge. Check your grill manufacturer’s website for information about the thickness of the exterior metal.
In addition to the material that the exterior of the grill is made of, the material of the burners is important too. Burners are generally made from stainless steel, brass, cast iron, or aluminum. Brass and stainless steel offer the best corrosion resistance. Most gas cookers also incorporate burner covers to help distribute heat and protect the burners from dripping food juices. These are made from metal, stone, or ceramic. Regardless of the material, these covers will degrade over time and eventually need to be replaced.
If you’re going to use your gas grill for both low-heat and searing applications, you should consider buying a model that comes with a searing or infrared burner. The normal burners on gas cookers don’t usually put out enough heat to get a solid, crispy char on a steak.
The simplest gas barbecues are simply ignited with a match held close to the burners. A box of long barbecue matches is an essential accessory for these types of grill to avoid burning your hands on ignition.
Most modern gas cookers are equipped with either an electric starter or a button starter that produces a spark by mechanical means. Electric starters get the fire going slightly more quickly, but run on a battery that will need to be occasionally replaced. Mechanical starters take a little bit longer to ignite, but the difference between the two types of starter is really only a matter of a few seconds. Regardless of which kind of starter you choose, make sure that your grill has a match hole for manual ignition in case the starter fails.
As noted previously, gas barbecues can run either on liquid propane tanks or a natural gas line. Natural gas is ultimately cheaper, but requires an initial investment to run a line out to the backyard and necessitates that the grill stay in one place. With propane tanks, you can wheel your grill around to wherever you want it. Other than these differences, the two fuels behave identically.
FREESTANDING vs. CUSTOM INSTALLED
If you’ve ever perused a home design magazine or been in the home of someone who lives their whole life to entertain outdoors, you’ve probably seen beautiful, stone-lined custom grill installations where a cooker is incorporated into some kind of masonry feature in an immaculately-kept backyard. While these sorts of installations look nice and can provide a great customized cooking experience, they have a major shortcoming. Even the best grill will probably have to be replaced at least once in your lifetime, and by the time the cooker in your custom installation fails, there’s a very good chance that you won’t be able to find another one that will fit in the same space. You’ll have to knock down that expensive masonry and start again from scratch.
GAS GRILL ACCESSORIES AND ADD-ONS
Some high end gas units come with rotisserie capabilities pre-installed. If your grill didn’t come with this feature, there’s a very good chance that you can buy one as an add-on. Rotisseries consist of two parts: an electric motor that rotates the food during cooking, and a spit that holds the rotating food. Your grill will need to be located within extension-cord distance of an outlet to cook rotisserie-style. This method of slow, indirect cooking is great for whole animals like chickens and turkeys.
WHEELS AND CARTS
Many gas cookers are attached some some kind of cart that allows them to be wheeled around. This is great for portability, but you want to make sure that the cart is sturdy and well-built and that the wheels won’t fall off two years after purchase.
If you want to use your gas grill for smoking, or even if you just want to add a little woodsmoke flavor to normal grilled foods, you’ll need to add wood chips to your fire someway. While there are ways to jerry-rig a smoking solution, the best way to incorporate smoke into your gas rig is to get a grill with a dedicated smoker box. This usually takes the form of a small metal box or drawer that you can fill with wood chips that will ignite during the grilling process and add smoke flavor.
Electric barbecues don’t get hot enough to impart a hard seared crust to meat, nor can you smoke with them. However, if you live in a place where cooking over an open flame isn’t an option, these cookers can be a good alternative to a traditional grill.
ELECTRIC GRILL TYPES
TABLETOP INDOOR ELECTRIC UNITS
These units look somewhat like a waffle iron or a panini press, but with nonstick plates with raised grill lines instead of waffle plates. These cook food from both sides simultaneously, so they prepare meals fast. Look for models with built-in thermostats that can reach temperatures of at least 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Models with floating hinges are good because they ensure maximum contact between the grill plates and the food. Removable cooking plates make it much easier to clean this type of grill.
These models tend to mimic the same look as gas or charcoal barbecues, except the grill grate is heated by an electric element rather than by flames. Try to find a model with enough power to recover heat quickly when the lid is opened or new food is added, and that reaches 600 degrees. Also, if you plan on using it outside, make sure the cord is long enough to reach an outlet.
Although you can smoke adequately in a normal charcoal or gas grill, if you want perfect long-smoked food you might want to invest in a purpose-built smoker. Generally, you want the same things out of a smoker as you do a normal grill: temperature control, thick walls to hold in heat, and adequate food capacity. You also want to make sure your smoker has tight seals between the lid/door and firebox to ensure that the smoke stays trapped next to the food and imparts its flavor. Generally, smokers are not as good for searing as normal barbecues are.
These usually look like mini-fridges made of stainless steel, with a front door through which you load food onto smoking racks and a bottom compartment that you load wood chips into. These heat up wood using an electric element, so the wood never fully combusts. Electric smokers are very easy to use, as you can set a temperature and the smoker will do the rest for you. However, since no combustion occurs the food from electric smokers tends to lack the deep woodsmoke flavor of other cooking methods.
These look similar to electric smokers, and often contain an electric temperature control unit like their electric cousins. The main difference is that the wood in the bottom compartment is heated by gas jets rather than a heating element. This provides the flavors of combustion missing in electric units. Gas smokers are very easy to use and convenient, and can be purchased for a couple hundred dollars.
There are many different shapes of charcoal smoker. Some share the same refrigerator-esque form factor as electric and gas models, and come with temperature controls. These models tend to be very expensive. On the lower end, you can purchase an oil-drum or bullet style smoker, which consists of a large metal tube in the bottom of which you place wood and charcoal. On top of the fire there are several metal grate shelves on which you place the food. These smokers require a great deal of babysitting, as temperature must be controlled manually.
GENERAL GRILL ACCESSORIES AND ADD-ONS
Most barbecues some with cheap wire grates. Although some grilling enthusiasts dislike these types of grates, others find that the cheap wire grates are actually the best for searing food and minimizing sticking. If you are unsatisfied with the performance of the grates that came with your grill, you might want to experiment with replacing them with cast-iron grates. Some people swear by cast iron, but others report increased sticking issues and difficulty bring grates up to proper searing temperatures. If you want a gas grill, you might find it useful to buy a model with a secondary grate placed about a foot above the main cooking grate. This feature allows you to keep food warm on the grill after it has finished cooking,
To cook food precisely, it’s very important to know how hot your fire actually is. Many cookers come with a thermometer embedded in their lids, but these are usually cheap and unreliable. Their location on the lid also means that they don’t accurately measure the temperature at the level where you food is actually being cooked. You’ll want to get a high quality, accurate digital thermometer with a probe you can keep at grate height in order to measure cooking temperatures. It’s also a good idea to purchase a second probe thermometer to measure the doneness of meats accurately.
GRILL SIDE BURNERS AND SHELVES
Side shelves can be a great staging area for stashing platters of food while you’re in the middle of grilling, but you should make sure that if you get a grill with shelves that the shelves are sturdy and spacious enough to be useful. Stay away from wood shelves that will just rot over time. Some high-end charcoal barbecues incorporate a gas-powered side burner for heating up side dishes or sauces. These can be handy, but often increases the expense of the grill more than they are worth. You can get a standalone side burner very cheaply if you want that added functionality.
Metal barbecues stored outside in the open air will rust out very quickly. A simple waterproof cover will extend the life of your grill by years or even decades. Make sure that your grill cover is sturdy and fits snugly enough to your grill that it won’t blow off during a storm.
GAS vs. CHARCOAL: THE ETERNAL DEBATE
Grills can be heated by a wide variety of fuel sources. You can find cookers that use charcoal, propane/gas, wooden logs, electricity, or wood-based fuel pellets. However, for most backyard hobbyists, the choice really boils down to two options: charcoal and gas. Each fuel has its own strengths and weaknesses. Grilling enthusiasts tend to be charcoal partisans, while casual weekend grillers and families prefer the ease and simplicity of gas.
YOUR GRILL, YOUR CHOICE
You now have all the information you need to go to your nearest hardware store or garden center and purchase the grill that suits your needs. Whether your an urban dweller looking for a little hibachi or mini-kettle to have cookouts on the balcony of your condo or a suburbanite looking to host epic all-day cookouts, you’ll be able to find a grill to suit your specific needs. The most important questions to ask yourself when you shop for a new outdoor cooker are what sort of foods you want to cook, how many people you want to cook them for, and how much money you want to spend. As long as you know the answers to those questions and follow the advice in this article, you’ll have no problem finding a cooker that brings you years of joy and deliciousness.