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Grill buying guide: how to buy a grill to fit your needs
Nothing says outdoor get-together like grilled meats and vegetables. But if your grilling experience is filled with more flare-ups, rust and frustration than fun, you should invest in a new grill.
Instead of purchasing strictly on price or recommendations, select a grill that matches your style. Are you into convenience and speed? Or do you grill leisurely and try to maximize the smoky flavor? Selecting a grill goes beyond choosing gas or charcoal. Our grill buying guide will point out key features that can help influence your purchasing decision and fit your needs.
To begin, use the following questions to help navigate through the key components of buying a grill. Find in-depth information on the topics listed below by simply clicking on any of the following links:
- What is the difference between gas grilling and charcoal grilling?
- What types of cooking grates are available & how do they differ?
- What size grill do I need?
- Which fuel type is best: natural gas or liquid propane?
- What color & design options are available?
- How does grill design impact cooking performance?
- What accessories will enhance my grilling experience?
- What are some new and unique features available on today’s grills?
- How can I further protect my investment?
When it comes to the epic battle of gas grilling versus charcoal grilling, the bottom line is: grilling is grilling – no matter what fuel source you use. Both involve the radiant transfer of heat from the fuel source to the cooking grid. Drippings come off of the food, land on the heat source and sizzle and smoke. The smoke rising into your food creates barbecue flavor.
So really, it all comes down to personal preference. Our goal is to highlight some of the features that make cooking with each fuel source unique. If, after reading, you aren’t convinced that one or the other is right for you then you may want to purchase both and enjoy every type of grilling possible!
Gas Grill Cooking:
Gas grills require that a liquid propane tank or natural gas line be connected to provide fuel for the burners. Gas burners feature variable temperature controls which allow for high temperatures (ideal for searing) and low temperatures (ideal for indirect cooking). The burners are covered with a shield to protect them from drippings, minimize flare ups and maintain set temperatures.
One great advantage of a gas grill is ease of use. Electronic ignition provides a quick and safe way to get the grill going. With the push of a button or a quick strike of the match, the gas grill quickly and safely lights. For easy cleanup, simply run the grill on high heat for an hour or two with the lid closed. The grill will burn internal byproducts to ash. Then a brass brush can be used to easily scrape away remaining waste.
When it comes to specialty applications, gas grills are the way to go. Many gas grills have infrared burners ideal for rotisserie cooking. Others feature sear plates which can reach high temperatures very quickly. Side burners are also an option on most gas grills. A side burner comes in handy when preparing extra dishes and it can also be used to keep food warm until ready to serve.
Charcoal Grill Cooking:
Charcoal grills require manual ignition – generally achieved through the aid of lighter fluid and old newspapers. Much like a gas grill, food cooks on a grate over the charcoal. The drippings sizzle and smoke, creating barbecue flavor. Heat is controlled by the amount of charcoal, its placement in the grill, and a wheel or other mechanism that regulates interior airflow. Greater airflow introduces more oxygen into the grill chamber, allowing the charcoal to burn at higher temperatures.
The primary advantage of charcoal cooking is unique flavor. The smoke generated by the food drippings ignite over the coals to create a deep and distinctive taste that cannot be replicated by a gas grill. This taste is particularly noticeable in meats.
A charcoal grill is much less mechanical than its gas counterpart. There are no burners to clog, burner shields to rust, or igniters to fail. So long as the lid, hinge, and basin are intact there’s not much that can go wrong. Those with apprehensions about the safety of propane tanks or gas connections may prefer the simplicity of a charcoal grill. return to top
There are three types of cooking grates: coated aluminum, cast iron, and stainless steel. Like cookware, each type offers unique grilling advantages, though user preference should ultimately determine which is best.
Coated aluminum grates are cost-effective and the most commonly type. Aluminum is thermally responsive, making it a great conductor of heat. On the down side, aluminum is less durable than cast iron or stainless steel and is more likely to warp, become brittle, or lose its enamel finish over time.
Cast iron grates have become increasingly popular in recent years. Though cast iron is less conductive than aluminum, it retains heat better than any other grate type – providing consistent temperatures on the grilling surface. On the down side, cast iron can crack due to thermal shock and material can suffer external damages over time.
Moderate-to-high priced grills often feature stainless steel cooking grates. Stainless steel is the most durable of all grate types. Its shiny finish makes it easy for grillers to see browning food and it is also the easiest material to clean due to its resistance to corrosion. Though an excellent cooking material altogether, stainless steel does not have as high a conductivity of aluminum, nor does it retain temperature as well as cast iron. Over time, the finish may discolor or pit. return to top
The primary factor in determining grill size is cooking area. Cooking area is expressed in terms of square inches. A typical three burner gas grill features 450-500 square inches of cooking area, which is generally sufficient for the average household. People that entertain often or have large families may want a grill that offers five or six burners and features 550-650 square inches of cooking area.
In addition to cooking area, the footprint of a grill should be considered. Most barbecue grills feature side shelves that can be removed or collapsed. As a safety measure, manufacturers require the grill to sit 2-3 feet away from the house and other combustible materials. It’s important to ensure that your deck or patio can accommodate your new grill’s wingspan prior to purchasing.
A variety of accessories are available to enhance a grill’s cooking area without increasing its footprint. For example, a half shelf can provide up to 50% more cooking space by adding another level to the cooking grid. Another example is warming rack which hangs from the top of the grill. This rack, set further away from direct heat, is ideal for toasting food items at lower temperatures. return to top
While liquid propane has been the standard fuel type for many years, an increasing number of customers are having natural gas lines installed. The advantage of using natural gas is having a constant gas supply. Liquid propane tanks require maintenance as they must be exchanged periodically when the tank runs out.
However, despite the extra maintenance required with LP tanks, there are still advantages to using them. Propane grills can be easily re-located and the cost of using liquid propane tanks versus installing a gas line is far more economical. LP tanks have also been standardized, making them adaptable to fist most gas grills.
Grills must be ordered with a specific fuel type: natural gas or propane. With rare exception, it is not easy to convert from one fuel source to another. If the need arises to alter the fuel type after original purchase, conversion kits can be purchased at additional costs. The process of conversion can be labor intensive, even with the aid of the kit. return to top
While cooking performance is the top concern of grill manufacturers, they are also making efforts to transform what was once considered a backyard eyesore into an attractive, stylish outdoor fixture. To achieve this, today’s grills are designed using a combination of porcelain enameled steel and polished stainless steel to accentuate contours and curves. Many models are constructed entirely of stainless steel for a more sophisticated, commercial appearance.
Much like indoor appliances, an increasing number of custom colors are introduced each year in the grill lineup. Green, copper, cobalt blue, brick red, and bronze are just a sampling of color choices. These models often use stainless steel as an accent color, providing striking contrast in the overall grill design.
Some brands offer a wide selection of built-in grills which allow for ultimate flexibility in design. Built-in grill heads or storage cabinets can be inserted into a prefabricated island area – generally built of brick or stone. Built-in grills are best used in an outdoor kitchen setting. If the prefabricated area is made of a combustible material, such as wood, insulation jackets can be purchased at an additional cost. return to top
Bottom line: not all grills are created equal. Uneven heat distribution, inconsistent temperatures, and uncontrolled flare-ups have been known to baffle even the most knowledgeable chef. Some grills are engineered with distinct features to minimize such deficiencies and increase the overall quality of cooking.
Flare-ups are caused by the combustion of natural food grease that drips onto the burner from the cooking rack above. In some ways, flare-ups can be good as they provide high temperatures for searing and blackening meats. But uncontrolled, flare-ups can lead to inconsistent cooking results, cause food to burn and in worst case scenarios, start grill fires.
Features that help reduce flare-ups:
- Metal burner shield – this helps by shielding the burner from falling juices.
- Ceramic briquettes – lined on the bottom of the grill on top of the metal shroud, the briquettes absorb juices before they can cause flare-up. Note: briquettes must be burned off periodically and then replaced because they retain odor and if unmaintained, can catch fire.
- Burner port location – when burner ports are located on the sides of the burner, rather than the top this helps by reducing clogging and flare-ups.
- Limited heat output – prevents the shroud from becoming too hot.
Features that help maintain even heat distribution:
- Metal burner shield – helps maintain even distribution of heat
- Burner location -having burner set lower in the grill (further from cooking surface) helps to ensure even cooking temperatures across the entire grid
- Ceramic Rods – grills made by DCS feature a series of ceramic rods placed evenly below the cooking grid. These rods help to evenly distribute heat as well as reduce flare-ups.
Other considerations related to heat distribution:
- High BTU Burner -some grills feature high BTU burners located close to the cooking surface. This enables cooking at temperatures required for true searing.
- Indirect Cooking Ability -grills with three or more burners can achieve proper indirect cooking to allow for grilling more delicate foods like fish, chicken or vegetables. Example: Place fish on center of cooking rack with the center burner turned off. Turn left burner on very low setting and right burner on high setting. This creates a convection-like cooking environment which enhances flavor. return to top
Some new features are designed to enhance cooking performance and versatility, while others increase the convenience of use.
A rotisserie motor mounts to the grill, and the spit extends across the surface of the grill. Many rotisserie kits ship with a counterweight that attaches to the end of the spit to provide consistent and even turning. Premium models feature a rear infrared burner designed to deliver the most-consistent, evenly distributed heat for rotisserie cooking.
The process of searing creates an attractive, blackened crust that provides a unique contrast to a meat’s juicy interior. A searing zone uses a powerful burner to reach high temperatures quickly. Once seared, the meat finishes cooking on the main grate.
Many grilling purists swear by charcoal grilling, but an increasing number of gas grills come outfitted with smoker boxes to infuse foods with a distinctive smoky flavor. The burning chips (prepackaged hickory or mesquite chips) produce smoke that envelops the food during the grilling process.
Side burners allow convenient preparation of side dishes and sauces. They run off of the same propane tank or natural gas line and operate similarly to a gas burner on a conventional range. Not only can the burners prepare barbecue sides, they can maintain low heat to keep food warm until it is ready to be served.
Levels of accessibility and storage can vary in barbeque grills. Commonly, two access doors cover the storage compartment. This compartment typically houses the propane tank and the drip tray, which contains leftover cooking byproducts and greases. High-end grills sometimes incorporate pull-out drawers and condiment trays.
Most grills have automatic electronic ignition, and a way to safely ignite the grill with a match should it fail. Another common feature, external thermostats, read an exact internal temperature for best cooking results.
Night-time grilling gets some help from built-in lighting. Some grills made by Vermont Castings feature a small retractable LED light, while DCS grill models feature bright halogen floodlights for operation even in darkest environments. return to top
The most popular grill accessory remains a heavy-duty, all-weather cover. While most manufacturers work to engineer a durable and resilient exterior finish, most grills will weather quickly when left to the elements. Covers should snugly fit the contours of the grill with heavy-duty vinyl, which can withstand harsh climates.
To clean food residue from cooking grates, invest in a high-quality brass brush. Brass is stringent enough for baked-on mess yet won’t wreck the cooking grate’s finish as stainless steel might. Barbecue tools like tongs, knives, spatulas and barbecue forks keep the main kitchen tools indoors where they belong.
Natural lump charcoal
For the charcoal user, a steady supply of charcoal should always be on hand. Charcoal is typically sold in two formats: briquette and natural lump. Natural lump charcoal is 100 percent wood (as opposed to a briquette, which can be up to 70 percent sediment) and will burn cleaner and last longer. It is generally considered superior to the briquette for grilling performance, but it is more expensive.
For grilling multiple racks of ribs.
Ceramic place setter
Deflect heat for higher-quality indirect cooking and serve double duty as a stone cook surface for pizzas or calzones.
Digital meat probe
Inserts into meat and registers interior temperature. A digital meat probe the most accurate way to determine if a meat is done cooking, despite its exterior appearance return to top
Most manufacturers offer a one year limited warranty on their product. For as little as $50 Warners’ Stellian offers a Product Protection Guarantee designed to keep your new grill preparing your family’s meals for years to come. Our Product Protection Guarantee covers all functional parts and labor on your new appliance for up to two, three or five years. return to top
We hope you have found this buying guide to be useful and informative and we appreciate the time you took to read through it. If you have questions that were not answered by this guide, please feel free to contact us.