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How to Buy a Grill (Print this and Take it Shopping)

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The snow has melted, the robins are back, and it's time to recycle that old piece of junk out back and get serious about amping up your outdoor cooking chops. But an online search or a trip to the big box store can be daunting. There are too many grills to count, too many options. There are small disposable units for tailgating, and huge monsters that attach to your tailgate and have as many wheels as your SUV.

And they range in price. A nice hibachi that can make great steaks (really) can be had for only $15, and not long ago I saw a stainless steel job with six wheels in my neighborhood hardware store that said "Financing Available"!

2011-04-06-BBQKing.jpgA good grill is an essential tool for the modern cook, not just as a backyard diversion, but a second oven. What it does best is create meat, seafood, and vegetables with a unique flavor, and, because of the high heat, it can come closer to turning out steakhouse meat than anything you can do with most indoor ovens. If configured properly it can even smoke roast 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 your self what you want to cook. Ribs? Steaks? Two very very different cooking processes are needed.

Things to look for

Fuel. Fuel. Decide if you want gas, charcoal, wood pellet, or electric. Let's do a process of elimination.

Electrics do not impart the same flavor as grills that actually have combustion going on, like charcoal, gas, or pellets. Combustion gases create flavor. Nor do they get hot enough to get red meats to a dark brown surface without overcooking the interior. I recommend them only for people in buildings where gas and charcoal are not allowed.

Wood pellet burners are the most sophisticated with digital thermostat controls. They are great for smoking, although the smoke flavor is delicate and not as powerful as charcoal fueled smokers. On the down side, they give everything a smoke flavor, and sometimes you just don't want it. Nor do they get hot enough for a great sear on steaks. I recommend them as a second grill to people who love smoked foods. Click the link for more on the subject. This is a hot new category.

That leaves gas and charcoal. Now this is a debate like Mac vs PC or Democrat vs. Republican or Omnivore vs. Vegan. It is a quasi religion fueled by a lot of misinformation. Each has advantages and disadvantages and the choice is not as easy as proponents would like you to think. For the facts, read my article on Charcoal vs. Gas. Please do so before you comment below "Charcoal Uber Alles!" Here's a quick summary:

Gas is really easy to get up to temp and there is little cleanup. But only those with sear burners or infrared burners get hot enough to do steaks properly (click here to read more about the special techniques needed for cooking steakhouse steaks). But for chicken, fish, veggies, they are as good as charcoal if not better.

Charcoal takes longer to set up and clean up, but it generates more heat and imparts a slightly different flavor.

But when it comes to direct heat grilling, the fact is that, if all things are equal such as cooking temp, most folks can't tell the difference in the taste between charcoal and gas grilled food. That's a big if. Because most gas grills cannot achieve the same high heat as charcoal, charcoal is superior for getting that great dark crust on steaks. If you use strong flavored rubs, marinades, and sauces, you will never notice taste differences especially because they hamper browning (read my article on marinades). You may think you can, but blind tastings have shown that you probably can't. So if there is little taste difference, the choice comes down to functionality. That's why I use both gas and charcoal.

2011-04-06-ique.jpg
Temperature control. The key to successful cooking is temperature control. A good grill should allow you to setup multizone, lid down, roasting with at least two zones. One zone for high heat cooking, another for slower, lower heat cooking. For more on this important concept, read my article on 2-Zone and Indirect Cooking.

Charcoal grills should allow you to push the coals on one side and leave the other side without coals. They need tight lids and dampers that can be opened or closed to control oxygen to the fire and thus control the heat. Some have the ability to raise and lower the coals. This is a very good thing because heat dissipates according to the inverse square law which states that the energy delivered to the meat is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of the energy. In plain English, this means that means that if the charcoal is 2" from the meat there is 4 times as much energy delivered to the meat than when the coals are 4" away, not double.

For gas grills, you want at least 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, very few gassers seal tightly. You also want even heat across the cooking surface. Watch out for hot spots over the burners.

Pellet Grills are the most advanced of them all. They usually have digital thermostat control. Set it and forget it. Some even have ports for plugging in meat thermometers. The day is not far away when this will come to other grills.

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 heat dissipates rapidly the further you get from the flame, 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 grate. Square inches are calculated by multiplying the length by the width of the primary cooking surface. When deciding how much surface you need, remember that you do not want to crowd a grill, that you should leave at least an inch between steaks or other things being cooked.

Rule of thumb: Allow about 100 square inches (10" x 10") per person. Ask yourself how many people will you normally be cooking for. Don't forget the July 4 party.

Head space. You will want enough room to smoke a turkey, so make there is at least 1' of head space between the cooking grate and the inside of the lid. If there is a warming rack, it should be removable.

2011-04-06-vermont_castings.jpgPrice. What is the bottom line? Prices can go up to $5,000 for some gas grills. Remember, the more options, the more expensive. Good charcoal grills run $100-300. The old reliable, very capable, versatile, and indestructible Weber Kettle can be had for under $100. You can get a really nice gas unit for $200 to $400, and be the envy of the neighborhood for $800. But keep in mind, quality does not necessarily increase with price. A lot of the $1000 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. I was too lazy to put a cover on it, ever (not recommended). I know smoeone in the family who buy a new grill every five years because his keep rotting out.

High heat. If you like red meat with a nice dark crust (caused by the Maillard reaction) and red to pink inside, even on thin steaks, then you want a grill that can get 600°F or more. Charcoal grills can usually do this, 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" 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. Or you can add it later with GrillGrates. I have retrofitted all my grills (don't ask how many) with them.

The distance of the heat source from the food is crucial. Heat dissipates rapidly as the source moves away from the food according to the inverse square law. This is a law of physics that says that strength is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source and it applies to all forms of radiation including light and sound. Imagine a campfire floating in air with a steak floating above it. If the temperature at the surface of the underside of the steak is 500°F with the fire 4" below, by moving the steak 8" above the heat will drop to 125°F, not 250°F, or 1/4 the heat. If you move the steak another 4" higher, the temp would be 1/9, or 56F. This formula is altered slightly by the fact that the inside of a barbecue grill is reflective so some of the heat is captured, but you get the idea.

2011-04-06-hastybake.jpgSmoking. Can the grill smoke meats? 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 $50 Smokenator and you can compete on the 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 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 run, left to right, or front to back. I prefer burners that run 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, although some cooks I know think they cook their best with they are really greasy.

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 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. Cast iron can rust if it is not painted properly. Enamel will not rust unless you chip it. How well is it painted? 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? 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? Stainless is all the rage, but it shows dirt, dust, grease, and rainspots. If you are a neat freak you'll go crazy polishing your stainless grill. Also, stainless tends to be thinner and provides less heat retention. Not all stainless is the same. Some are thicker, and some have more chromium and nickel in the alloy, both desirable contents. Look for 304 or lower number stainless. Magnetic stainless will pit and corrode faster so bring a magnet when you shop and use a cover. Stainless is also more expensive. I prefer steel or cast aluminum. They hold heat better, are cheaper, and are not such a pain to clean.

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 good crunchy grill marks. Chrome or nickel coated wire grates don't leave a wide mark and tend to rust. Cast iron grates conduct heat to the meat well but they need to be oiled to keep them from rusting. I like baked-on porcelain or stainless grates where each rung is about 1/4" wide or more. They give great wide grill marks and they are easy to clean. Best of all: Porcelain coated cast iron. But you will need a forklift to remove them. Just handle porcelain carefully, it can chip or crack if you drip it. I know. I know. 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 like my faves, GrillGrates.

2011-04-06-ez_que.jpgRotisserie. 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 and cooks it in the center. Rotisseries usually cost extra. If they only have the spear model, skip it and get a basket type from Weber.

Thermometer. Most thermometers on grills are bi-metallic and not accurate. Usually the temp at the meat height is different than the temp in the hood where the thermometer lives. Get a good digital thermometer on a cable that you can place next to the meat. If you do, then it doesn't matter how bad the grill's thermometer is.

Dual fuel. If you are buying a liquid propane (LP) gas grill, can it be adapted to household natural gas if you want to do this? How much does the adapter kit cost?

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. You may want to move the thing when you set it up, so it should have wheels or come apart easily. 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.

Assembly. Most grills come knocked down and they can be tricky to assemble. 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 someone who does not speak English very well?

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 collection 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 ten years. What is the dealer's reputation? Is there a phone number and email for tech support? 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?

Footprint. Can it fit in on your condo's balcony?

Other accessories. Cover? Natural gas adapter? Propane fuel gauge? Night lights? Cutting boards? Storage? Griddles? Woks? Steamers? Drink holders? Can openers? Surround sound?

Color. I ask my wife.

A question for the manufacturers

Would it drive the price too high for you to ship an extra screw or washer or two for klutzes like me who drop them between the boards on their deck?

A question for readers

What kind of grill do you have, how old is it, and when do you think you'll be buying another?

All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2011 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved

For more of Meathead's writing, photos, recipes, and barbecue info please visit his website AmazingRibs.com

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