Your grill is the jewel in the crown of your outdoor kitchen. The right grill will give you many years of delicious meals cooked and served outdoors, eaten with family and friends, on weeknights and summer weekends. The wrong grill, however, could give you and your guests little more than frustration and upset stomachs.
With so many grills on the market, at so many different price points, and with so many different features, how do you choose the right one? Grills these days can have as many bells and whistles as cars, and they can cost about as much, too. But you don’t need to drop a house down payment to get a high-quality grill — you just need to know what type of grill you want. Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular grill types, and their pros, cons, and features.
Charcoal grills use smoldering charcoal briquet embers to heat food. They’re a classic and popular choice because they give food a distinctive smokey flavor that many barbeque enthusiasts love. If you’re the kind of person who likes to grill on the go — say, on a camping or hiking trip — you can pick up a small, portable charcoal grill for cheap. The fuel is affordable, too.
However, charcoal grills have kind of a learning curve — most grilling newbies need some practice to figure out how to light a charcoal grill correctly and get the coals to a point where they’re hot enough to cook over. A chimney starter can help with this. It’s also easy to use too much lighter fluid, which can give the food a petrochemical taste that isn’t what you’d call mouth-watering.
Charcoal grills can also take a long time to heat up — the coals usually need about half an hour to get hot enough for cooking. And the coals heat the grill unevenly — that can be a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it. You can cook meats and vegetables over the hottest parts of the grill, and keep the already cooked items warm over the coolest parts.
Gas is popular because it’s quick — you just press a button to light the grill, turn up the burners, close the lid, and wait 15 minutes — and the heat is even and consistent. You don’t get the smokey flavor you get with charcoal (or wood pellets), but you do get a cooking experience that’s much more like cooking on your kitchen stove. Most gas grills use bottled propane. They’re easy to clean, they come in a range of sizes, and you can get gas grills with lots of features. They’re also easy to use. However, they tend to be more expensive than charcoal grills, and the tanks require special care. Gas grill propane tanks can be dangerous if handled incorrectly.
Combo grills offer both gas and charcoal cooking options, so they’re the best option if you can’t decide or if you want the option to do either gas or charcoal grilling. Many grilling fiends choose a combo grill because they want the convenience of gas when they’re pressed for time, but the flavor of charcoal when they have the time to light it and get it burning properly. Combo grills tend to be rather large, but they can also be kind of pricey. If you get one, look for a model with an ash disposal system that makes it easy to switch from gas to charcoal. If you’re a more experienced cook and want to experiment with smoking meats, look for a model with a smoker box.
Most grills aren’t designed for cooking with real wood, but wood pellet grills like the popular Traeger grills can offer the taste of meat cooked over a real hardwood fire, which enthusiasts say is even better than meat cooked on a charcoal grill. These grills are pricey, and you have to buy special hardwood pellets to fuel them, but they’re worth the investment if you’re a die-hard fan of cooking over a wood fire. They do tend to slow-cook meats, but that can be a feature rather than a bug, and you can use different kinds of wood pellets to get different flavors.
Features to Look for in a Grill
Unless you’re going for a simple, portable charcoal grill — and there’s nothing wrong with that — you’re going to want certain features in your grill. Most gas, combo, and wood-pellet grills, as well as many of the fancier charcoal grills, will include offer some features you’ll want, such as:
- Side shelving, so you can put down your meat, condiments, tongs, and such while you’re cooking
- A built-in thermostat
- A grill cover
- 600 to 900 square inches of cooking space — or more, if you have a big family
- At least 12,000 British thermal units (BTUs) per burner
Skip the electric charcoal starter and get a chimney starter instead. A smoke box can be fun, if you want to smoke meats, but you don’t need one and if you’re not already interested in smoking meats, you might never use it. If you’re not sure what grill to get, buy a simple model and work your way up to the fancier stuff.
Choosing a grill can be intimidating, especially when you get a look at some of the features many of them offer these days. Choose the right type of grill for your tastes and needs, and you’ll get many years of great use out of it.