Is there anything better than the smell of juicy hamburgers and hot dogs sizzling on a grill on a hot summer day? If there is, I can’t think of it.
Spring is the perfect time to make sure you’re prepared for a season full of amazing culinary experiences. If you don’t have a grill, you’re ready to upgrade the grill you have, or you’re looking to try out a different type of grill, read this guide before you go shopping.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the display of shiny, new grills, and while many of them appear similar, their prices and quality can vary dramatically. In order to find the best grill for your budget, you need to understand the advantages and disadvantages of different types of grills, as well as the different materials used to construct them.
Different Types of Grills
1. Gas Grills
This is the most popular type of backyard grill. They can run either on bottled propane or natural gas from your utility provider. Most gas grills are designed for propane, but can be converted to natural gas fairly easily. Some people argue the merits of propane or methane, but there is very little difference between the two. If you have access to a natural gas line, utilizing it is certainly more convenient and less expensive than refilling propane tanks.
Best for: The impatient chef who wants to quickly fire up the grill and cook a meal without having to worry about the preparation and cleanup of charcoal.
Disadvantages: Flavor and price. Although some gas grills have small smoker boxes, you will only get a hint of smoke flavor compared to a genuine charcoal grill or smoker; you really can’t smoke meats without a charcoal grill. While inexpensive gas grills do exist, the mechanisms involved ensure that they will always be more expensive than a comparable charcoal model.
What to Look for: In the lower end of gas grills, you will find black, aluminum bodies with one or two burners. I have a Char-Broil Quickset that I paid about $100 for over 10 years ago, and I still use it regularly. With proper maintenance, it will continue to serve me well when I am looking to cook a quick meal. I leave mine outside and uncovered since the painted aluminum will not rust or corrode easily. Also, look for a porcelain covered grate made of steel bars. They produce great grill marks and are much easier to keep clean than the cheaper, stamped steel grilling surface that some models have.
As you move into the higher end of gas grills, you can expect 3-5 burners, a nice stainless steel body, and the option of a side burner for heating pots and pans. The grilling surface may be made of:
- Porcelain covered steel bars
- Bent stainless steel sheets
- Iron grates
- Stainless steel bars
While porcelain covered bars are acceptable, I would avoid steel sheets. Bent steel sheets look nice when new, but they distribute heat poorly and are very difficult to clean. Iron grates are of higher quality, but they need to be removed and cleaned by hand. Stainless steel bars make for the ultimate grilling surface, but they are usually only found on grills that cost at least $500. They are durable, can be cleaned with a wire brush, and can make fantastic grill marks. The Weber Genesis S-330 (~$1,000) or the Weber Summit S-420 (~$1,500) are great high-end options.
Price: Ranges anywhere from $100 to a few thousand dollars.
2. Charcoal Grills
These grills use charcoal briquettes as the fuel and fire power for cooking. Cooking with charcoal is more time-consuming and expensive than a gas grill, but some people will always prefer the taste of cooking with charcoal, especially when it is made of natural wood.
Best for: The purist. If you long for that smoky, grilled flavor or you enjoy smoking meats, the only way to achieve both is with a charcoal grill. Charcoal burns at a higher temperature than gas, allowing a skilled grillmaster to easily sear meat. Finally, cooking with charcoal has a distinct romance that is clearly lacking with a modern gas grill.
Disadvantages: Time involved and the expense of charcoal. With a charcoal grill, you can’t just fire it up and throw something on it. Getting the grill ready to go takes at least 45 minutes of starting the coals and pre-heating the grill. You will also need to spend some time cleaning up your grill and disposing of the ashes when you’re done. Purchasing charcoal is also quite expensive when compared to gas.
What to Look for: The classic charcoal grill has always been the round, kettle style grills that were originally sold by Weber (e.g. Weber 751001 22.5-Inch One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill). However, other companies sell variations in different shapes and sizes. Kettle grills can provide great smoke flavor, but are best used for shorter cooking times as they retain much of their heat. Another popular style is the horizontal barrel grills. These were originally built from steel oil barrels that were cut in half. When you add a side firebox, they are ideal for smoking meats at lower temperatures for longer durations. I use my horizontal barrel smoker to make Texas style briskets that cook for 12 hours. Many horizontal barrel grills feature a charcoal tray that can be raised or lowered to vary the intensity of the heat, a feature not found in kettle grills.
As with a gas grill, it helps to have a nice cooking surface. Plated steel or porcelain coated steel bars are the standard for charcoal grills. They produce classic grill marks and are easy to clean with a wire brush. Iron bars can be great if you don’t mind removing them for cleanup. They will always need to be cleaned and re-oiled after each use. Stainless steel bars are ideal, but difficult to find on most charcoal models.
Price: Starting at $100, most charcoal grills are reasonable in the $150-$250 range. But the very high-end ones can go upwards of $2,000.
3. Electric Grills
These grills are powered by electricity and cook meat using heated grill plates – no fire required. There are indoor and outdoor varieties available.
Best for: City dwellers who are prohibited by fire regulations from using gas or charcoal grills. Check your local laws and building regulations to make sure that the grill you buy doesn’t violate any codes.
Disadvantages: Taste. Electric grills can produce results that look similar to their fire-powered cousins (grill marks are easy to come by), but they are not a replacement for the traditional grill. The smoky flavor is all but lost when using electricity.
Price: There are several models of electric grills that sell for less than $100 and can range up to $500.
4. Portable Grills
These grills can run on propane or charcoal, but have one thing in common – they are easily transported from one location to another.
Best for: The tailgater. If you love a good outdoor picnic or a perfectly cooked brat in the parking lot before the big game, this is the grill for you. You can buy portable grills of all different styles for picnics or for tailgating. Weber and others make miniature charcoal kettle grills, and there are some smaller propane grills on the market as well (e.g. Weber 1520 Propane Gas Go-Anywhere Grill pictured above).
Disadvantages: Size. You can’t cook hamburgers for all 50 of your closest friends and fans at the same time. And if you’re cooking for a large crowd, you might just be on grill duty all day.
What to Look for: A grill that is lightweight, but also durable. You don’t want one that will get dinged up on the first outing. Also, if you know you will always be cooking for at least a certain number of people (4 or 6), look for a grill that has the surface area to cook that much meat at once.
Price: Ranges from about $30 to around $200.
By pinpointing what’s most important to you in a grill (i.e. time to set up, smoky flavor, portability), you can choose the grill that best suits your lifestyle and budget. Use the above guide to make sure you’re getting the perfect outdoor cooking machine for your money, and you’ll be sure to have the best (and tastiest) summer yet.
Did you buy a new grill in preparation for the summer barbecue season? Which type did you choose and why? Share your thoughts and reviews in the comments below.
(photo credit: Shutterstock)