A grill is "the remote starting-point, the very genesis of our art... gradually intelligence supplanted rude instinct; reason began to deduce effects from supposed causes; and thus cooking was launched upon that highroad along which it has not yet ceased steadily to advance." Auguste Escoffier, called the "king of chefs and chef of kings," from his landmark 1907 cookbook
The daffodils are in bloom and at the hardware stores, grills and smokers are sprouting in every aisle, guarding the entrance, shiny and sexy, calling your name. This summer let's amp up our outdoor cooking. It starts with a good grill.
A good grill is an essential tool for the modern cook, not just as a backyard diversion, but a second oven. It is even important in emergencies. Ask people how they cooked after the hurricane. Try using that line on your spouse.
What a grill does best is create food with a unique flavor, and, because of the high heat, it can come closer to turning out steakhouse steaks better than any indoor oven. Configured properly it can even smoke low and slow as well as a dedicated smoker.
This article is a guide to helping you decide what features you want when shopping for a grill. But there is no single answer to the question "What is the best grill?" because the question lacks two essential words: "for me." Before you go shopping, ask yourself what you want to cook. Ribs? Steaks? Two very very different cooking processes are needed. After digesting this info, then go to this equipment reviews and ratings database and look up some candidates that meet your criteria and see how they rate.
Things to look for when you shop
Size matters. The first decision is size, which relates to price. Start by looking at the number of square inches of primary cooking surface. That's the main cooking grate. Some manufacturers list total cooking area and that includes the warming rack suspended above the primary cooking area. Yes, you can cook up there, but it is usually a lot cooler up there, so food will not cook very quickly on the upper rack. This can be good, and a removable warming rack is a nice feature. But the important measurement is the square inches of the main cooking grate.
If the cooking surface is square or rectangular, the formula is easy:
Area = Width times Depth
So if the width is 28" and the depth is 14", then
Area = 28 x 14 = 392 square inches
If the cooking surface is round the formula is
Area = pi times the radius squared
Pi can be rounded to 3.14. The radius is the diameter divided by two, so measure the diameter across the widest point through the center and divide by two. To square a number, you multiply it by itself. So the area of a 22.5" Weber Kettle is calculated like this:
Area = 3.14 x (22.5 ÷ 2) x (22.5 ÷ 2) = 397.4 square inches
When deciding how much surface you need, remember that you do not want to crowd a grill, that you should leave at least an 1/2" between things being cooked. A useful guide is to allow 20.25 square inches for a burger (that's a four inch raw burger with 1/2 inch space on all sides).
Also remember that the single most important technique you need to learn to up your grilling game is two-zone and indirect cooking.
This is a system where you get one side of the grill hot with the heat source directly beneath the food. The other side of the grill has no direct heat below it, and the heat gets there via convection flow of hot air from the hot side. To do this properly, you should be able to get the food on one half of the surface, so if a chicken cut into parts takes up 12" x 12" or 144 square inches (cutting chicken into parts is the best way to grill it and you must leave space around the meat for it to cook properly), then ideal size is 288 square inches for one chicken. If you will be cooking veggies or other sides, then you need more space.
Rule of thumb: Allow about 72 square inches total per person, about nine inches by eight inches, about the size of a dinner plate.
As background, I strongly recommend you first read these articles:
1) Thermodynamics of cooking
2) 2-zone and indirect cooking
3) Cooking temperatures and the reverse sear
4) What fuel is right for you?
5) Charcoal grills vs. gas grills
6) Buyer's guide to charcoal grills
7) Buyer's guide to gas grills
8) Buyer's guide to tailgate and portable grills
Ask yourself how many people will you normally be cooking for, and don't forget the July 4 party. You can do some foods in batches, like burgers and dogs, but to do them right, chickens take longer and doing them in batches could be really slow unless you have adequate cooking surface. Allow space for the veggies, too.
Head space. You will want enough room to smoke a turkey, so make sure there is at least 12 inches of head space between the cooking grate and the inside of the lid. If there is a warming rack, it should be removable.
Fuel. The decision is not just Charcoal vs. Gas anymore. There are now six fuel types to chose from. Selecting a fuel is almost as hard as selecting a lightbulb. You need to decide if you want logs, wood pellets, charcoal briquets, lump charcoal, gas or electric. I have written an article summarizing the fuel options.
Temperature control. The key to successful cooking is temperature control. A good grill must allow you to use a two-zone setup. One zone for high heat cooking, another for slower, lower heat cooking and as a safe zone. If you cannot easily create a two-zone setup, you are severely handicapped. For more on this vital concept, read my article on two-zone and indirect heat cooking.
Charcoal grills need tight lids and dampers that can be opened or closed to control oxygen to the fire and thus control the heat. Some grills have the ability to raise and lower the coals. This is a nice feature for when you want the coals just below a steak for a solid dark sear.
For gas grills, you want a minimum of two burners so one can be on and one off. But the more the better. With three or four burners you can have hot, medium and low zones. You also need a lid that closes fairly tight for smoking. Alas, gassers do not seal tightly due to laws to prevent them from building up explosive gases. You also want even heat across the cooking surface. If the burners are too far apart there will be hot and cold spots.
Price. What is your bottom line? Know what you are willing to spend before going shopping. Just as with a car, the more options, the more expensive. You can get a good charcoal for less than $300. The old reliable, very capable, versatile and indestructible Weber Kettle can be had for under $100. High end charcoal grills can go for $2,000. My current fave is the Hasty Bake Gourmet for $1,300. You can get a really nice gas grill for $200 to $400, and be the envy of the neighborhood for $800. Prices can go up to $5,000 for some. But keep in mind, quality does not necessarily increase with price. A lot of the $1,000 units I've seen do not out perform some $400 units. On the other hand, quality will last. I had a Weber Genesis gas grill for 15 years until I gave it to a nephew and he has had it for five years before he gave it away and bought a new grill. It's probably still out there churning out fine dining. I know someone in my family who buys a new grill every five years because he keeps buying big shiny stainless steel rigs from discount stores, and they fall apart.
High heat. If you like red meat with a nice dark crust and red to pink inside, even on thin steaks, then you want a grill that can get hot. Charcoal grills can usually do steaks beautifully, especially if you raise the coals to just below the cooking surface. Most gas grills cannot hit that temp unless they have the new infrared or sear burners. Infrared burners use a gas flame to superheat a ceramic, glass, or metal plate that radiates more heat than normal burners, in the 700°F plus range. If you cook a lot of steaks, this is a feature you should consider.
The distance of the heat source from the food is important. Heat dissipates rapidly as the food moves away from the fire. The closer the better for searing, but if gas burners are close to the surface but far apart from each other, you will have hot spots.
Smoking. Can the grill do smoking? If it can, you don't need a separate dedicated standalone smoker. To smoke properly, you must be able to control airflow. For example, the Weber Kettle charcoal grill does a fine job of smoking because it has excellent airflow control and a tight lid. Add the inexpensive Smokenator and you can compete on the BBQ circuit. Gas grills usually don't have tight lids in order to allow combustion gases to escape and flamable gas to escape in case of a flameout. You can still smoke on them, you just need more wood.
Burners. On gas grills, aluminum burners burn out and cast iron burners rust. You want stainless steel or brass burners. Stainless 304 is the best grade. If you will only have one grill, try to get one with an infrared or sear burner so you can do steaks properly. Also, pay attention to which way the burners line up, left to right, or front to back. I prefer burners that line up front to back because it is easier to set up multiple heat zones, hot, medium and low for cooking different foods at once or for indirect cooking. Gas grills usually have a heat diffuser over the burners to protect them from dripping grease and to distribute heat more evenly. Some use metal plates. They can rust and occasionally need replacing. Others use lava rocks or ceramic rocks. They eventually saturate with grease and need replacing.
Starter or igniter. Gas grills need a starter or igniter. Some are electric and need a battery. Others use a button or dial to generate a spark. Crossover ignitions work by lighting one burner first, and the flame crosses over to other burners. Electronic starters are faster, but this is not a deal breaker. There should also be a manual ignition hole so if your igniter breaks you can insert a wood match or stick lighter. Keep long wooden matches on hand in case the ignition fails as it occasionally does.
Materials, workmanship and durability. The best grills are cast aluminum, cast iron, enamel bonded to steel, powder coated steel, and stainless steel. Quality stainless steel and aluminum will not rust, but they do discolor with use and age. Your shiny new stainless grill will never look as good as the day you bought it. Click here to read what you need to know about stainless steel. Nonstainless steel can rust, but if it is properly coated with powder coat or enamel, it should not rust unless you chip it. Ask: How well is it painted? How are the welds? Does it have sharp edges? Sturdy legs? Big hinges and latches? A lot of plastic parts? Do the moving parts look like they'll last? How heavy is the metal? Heavy steel holds and distributes heat better than thin steel. Is the metal thick enough that it will not warp?
The thickness of steel is expressed in "gauge" numbers. The lower the gauge number, the thicker the steel. Here are some common gauge numbers of steel used in making grills.
10 gauge = 0.1345" thick
12 = 0.1046
14 = 0.0747
16 = 0.0598
18 = 0.0478
Grates. Most grilling is by radiation or convection, but where the food is in contact with the grates, the cooking is by conduction and that's how you get dark grill marks. There are a variety of materials used for grates ranging from cheap wire grates, stainless steel, porcelain coated, cast iron, expanded steel and even extruded aluminum. There is a fanboy cult around cast iron, but I am not among them. Click here to read my article about grill grates and to see which ones I like best. On charcoal grills, some manufacturers offer hinged grates or access doors so you can easily add more coals when necessary. But don't let crappy grates kill the deal. You can always buy replacement grates. They are not expensive.
Rotisserie. Rotisserie cooking is an excellent method for cooking whole chickens and turkeys. Most charcoal grills cannot be outfitted with a rotisserie and most gas grills can. You need access to electricity for their electric motors to run. A good rotisserie should have a sturdy motor and a counterweight to balance the load. The best rotisseries are basket types rather than the more common spear that pierces the meat, but they are hard to find. Rotisseries usually cost extra.
Thermometer. Most thermometers on grills are bimetal dials and not accurate. Manufacturers buy the cheapest model they can find and then mount them up in the dome, a long way away from the food, even higher than the warming rack. If you ever hope to make great meals on a grill, and you can and I can help, fit good digital thermometers into your budget. You need one to place on the cooking surface near the meat, and another to check the meat temp. Click this link to read about how thermometers work and see which ones I recommend.
Dual fuel. If you are buying a liquid propane (LP) gas grill, check to see if it can be adapted to household natural gas. NG is cheaper, but you need to pay for installation of the pipe and then you can't roll the grill around. If you want to go this route, find out if there is an adapter kit for the grill you're eyeballing and how much the adapter kit costs. Some new grills have one side for gas and the other for charcoal. This is a great idea since gas is known for convenience, temp control and easy cleanup, and charcoal for searing heat and smoky flavor. Alas, most of the combos are cheaply built and are compromises on all fronts.
Built-in grills. You might want a grill that can be permanently mounted into an outdoor kitchen. Think carefully about this strategy. When it dies, you will almost certainly be unable to find a replacement that fits into the same slot as the old one. If you decide you want a newer model, or something larger, or you want to switch from gas to charcoal, you're stuck. There is no standard size for these and it is doubtful the replacement you want will fit. Click here to read more about designing an outdoor kitchen.
Carts and wheels. Many grills come on carts. They should be well built, with sturdy welds and bolts. Some carts are enclosed for storage. You want sturdy shelves and doors. Check to see if they are rainproof. You don't want your charcoal or pellets getting wet. On really rainy days I roll my gasser right up to the back door so I don't have to go out. If it has wheels, how sturdy are they? Rubber or plastic? And are they large enough to roll smoothly on a rough surface such a deck, concrete, pavers or the lawn?
Side shelves. Wooden shelves rot. Are the shelves sturdy? Will they hold a turkey?
Side burners. A side burner is a handy, but not necessary feature. They're great for making side dishes or warming sauces. A few even have a griddle that sits over them, perfect for eggs, fish or grilled cheese sandwiches. Most have trouble maintaining a low simmer, so they can burn your sauces. Instead of paying $200 for a built-in side burner, you can buy a standalone burner cheap.
Cover. Does it come with a cover? Will the cover last more than a week? Is it so loose fitting it will blow off in the wind?
Assembly. Most grills come knocked down and they can be tricky to assemble. And you will lose a screw. If you don't have the necessary time or tools, or aren't confident in your skills, many merchants will assemble for you. For a fee.
Manual. Is there a manual? Was it translated from Chinese by a high school English student?
Cookbook. Some grills come with a nice cookbook. If not, you'll have to buy my book when it comes out.
Ease of cleaning. Can you remove ash or grease easily? Some charcoal grills have ash collectors, and most gassers have grease collectors. Do the grates come out easily? Can you get at the burners to clean or replace them? Does the grease tray come out easily?
Warranty and support. What kind of warranty and/or guarantee does it come with? On gassers, check the warranty on the burners; sometimes they have a separate warranty than the rest of the grill. You want five to 10 years. What is the dealer's reputation? Is there a phone number and email for tech support or are they hiding? Is the website informative? How about the manual? What if you need parts? How long have they been in business?
Safety. Is it child and pet safe? Are electrical parts safe from rain and snow? Is the grease pan right where the dog likes it?
Footprint. Can it fit in on your condo's balcony? And speaking of balconies, some buildings have restrictions on they type of grill you can use. Check them out before you whip out that credit card.
Other accessories. Propane fuel gauge? Night lights? Cutting boards? Griddles? Woks? Steamers? Drink holders? Can openers? Surround sound?
Color. I ask my wife what color I want.
All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2013 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved. For more of Meathead's writing, photos, recipes, and barbecue tips & technique, please visit his website AmazingRibs.com and subscribe to his email newsletter, Smoke Signals.
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