There are too many grills to count. There are small disposable units for picnics and huge monsters that attach to your tailgate and have as many wheels. A good grill is an essential tool for the modern cook, not just as a backyard diversion, but as a second oven. What a grill does best is to 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. Before you go shopping, ask yourself what you want to cook. Ribs? Steaks? Two very very different cooking processes are needed. Read my comments here and on the other pages of the buying guides, and you can figure it out yourself.
Things to look for when you shop
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 the total cooking area and that includes the “warming” rack suspended above the primary cooking area. Yes, you can cook up there, but its distance from the flame means food cooks differently up there even though the temp is not a lot lower. A removable warming rack is a nice feature, but the important measurement is the square inches of the main cooking grate.
When deciding how much surface you need, remember that you do not want to crowd a grill.
Also, remember that the single most important technique you need to learn to up your grilling game is 2-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.
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. But keep in mind, quality does not necessarily increase with price. A lot of the $1,000 units I’ve seen do not outperform some $400 units.
.Remember to budget for a cover and for thermometers. The dial on most grills is worthless and a good digital probe that can be placed next to the meat can make a huge difference.
You will want enough room to smoke a turkey, so make sure there is at least 12″ of headspace between the cooking grate and the inside of the lid. If there is a warming rack, it should be removable.
There are now six fuel types to choose from. You need to decide if you want charcoal, gas, logs, wood pellets, or electric. If you like to grill steaks and other red meats, you want to be able to get high heat for searing. You want charcoal or gas.
The key to successful cooking is temperature control. If you cannot easily create a 2-zone setup, you are severely handicapped.
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. You also want even heat across the cooking surface. If the burners are too far apart there will he hot and cold spots.
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. If you cook a lot of steaks, and you prefer gas, this is a feature you should consider.
The distance of the heat source from the food can be important. The closer the better for searing, but if gas burners are close to the surface and far apart from each other, you will have hot spots.
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. Gas grills usually don’t have tight lids in order to allow combustion gases to escape and flammable gas to escape in case of a flameout. You can still smoke on them, you just need more wood.
On gas grills, aluminum burners corrode 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.
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.
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.
Materials and durability.
The best grills are made from cast iron, powder-coated steel, vitreous enamel bonded to steel, cast aluminum, and high-quality stainless steel. Heavy steel holds and distributes heat better than thin steel or cast aluminum.
Regular steel and cast iron can rust. Even if painted with a high quality heat resistant paint, this is the least desirable coating since it chips and peels easily.
Another excellent coating is vitreous enamel. A glass-like powder is sprayed on the metal and melted. It is durable under heat and doesn’t fade, but it is a bit brittle and can crack if you bend or drop it, and rust will form in the cracks.
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.
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.
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 are buying liquid propane (LP) gas grill, check to see if it can be adapted to household natural gas (NG) and if the adapter kit is included or extra. NG is cheaper, but you need to pay for the installation of the pipe and then you can’t roll the grill around. Some new grills have one side for gas and the other for charcoal.
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.
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. 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?
Wooden shelves rot. Are the shelves sturdy?
A side burner is a handy, but not necessary feature.
Does it come with a cover? Most do not. Will the cover last more than a week? Is it so loose-fitting it will blow off in the wind?
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.
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.
Propane fuel gauge? Night lights? Cutting boards? Griddles? Woks? Steamers? Drink holders? Can openers? Surround sound?
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