Buying your first grill, or fifth? There’s a lot to consider: charcoal or gas, huge or petite, spendy or budget. Here’s how to select the grill that’s just right for you!
At any backyard gathering, the grill is the center of the action. There’s probably no other piece of cooking equipment that provokes such fierce debate and loyalty.
If you’re buying a grill for the first time, how do you know what’s right for you? Should you get an expensive model, or something basic? What about gas or charcoal?
There’s a grill out there that’s just right for you, and we’re here to steer you in the right direction! Don’t be swayed by bells and whistles; a solid grill that makes sense for your lifestyle is the best starting point.
GAS GRILLS VS CHARCOAL GRILLS
Even though there are a handful of grill styles, grill selection is essentially a question of gas or charcoal. Either can give you excellent results. Below we break down the merits and drawbacks of each.
With these grills, you light a fire with charcoal (either lump or briquettes). You need a supply of charcoal on hand in order to work a charcoal grill, so if you don’t have that, you can’t grill on a whim. Also, he next day after you grill, you’ll need to dispose of the leftover ash.
The tradeoff for that inconvenience? Flavor. Charcoal smoke infuses your food with that irresistible backyard-cookout taste. The flavor is not so apparent with quickly grilled things like chicken breasts and burgers, but low and slow foods like ribs (which need hours of gentle heat over the coals) pick up terrific notes of smoke and wood.
A charcoal fire, at least when it’s first lit, also generates far more heat than a gas grill, so if you like a nice sear on your steaks, that’s a good thing to keep in mind!
Unlike a gas grill, you can’t just tweak knobs on a charcoal grill to adjust the heat; instead, you use vents and dampers to control air intake, which will either fuel or subdue your flames. This takes some getting used to, but when you get the hang of it, you’ll feel really cool—like a fire maven!
Pros of charcoal grills:
- Usually less expensive than gas grills
- Burns hotter at first for a better sear on meat
- Creates more flavorful foods from wood smoke
Cons of charcoal grills:
- Temperature is harder to control
- Need to keep briquettes or charcoal on hand
- Messy: Charcoal is powdery, ash is a pain to clean
- Lead time of getting fire ready (takes about 30 minutes to heat properly)
Over 60 percent of Americans who own grills have gas grills. They’re convenient and have a gentle learning curve.
You can get a decent gas grill for under $200. You can also spend more than $2,000! You can get a free rusty one on Craigslist. I did, once. It looked awful but worked fine.
Gas grills use easily obtainable 20-pound propane tanks that will deliver around 25 hours of fuss-free grilling. You can also convert many propane grills to run on your house’s natural gas line.
Unlike charcoal grills, gas grills heat quickly. You ignite them and, depending on what you need to grill, they’re often ready to go in less than 10 minutes.
If you want convenience and the ability to grill at a moment’s notice, gas is the way to go.
You can also control the heat with a mere twist of a knob. And since most gas grills have multiple burners, you can effortlessly create distinct areas of the grill where it’s hotter and cooler. This is very handy when you’re cooking multiple types of food all at once.
Since there’s no charcoal burning, there’s no smoke. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get wonderful results from a gas grill; food cooked in one just won’t have that campfire-kissed essence.
However, gas grills don’t get as hot as charcoal grills. BTUs (British Thermal Units) measure how much energy a gas grill can put out, but it does not necessarily translate to how much heat hits your food. So, when shopping for a gas grill, consider other factors beyond an impressively large BTU.
Pros of gas grills:
- Easy to control temperature with knobs
- Multiple burners for effortless different temperature zones
- Allow you to grill on a whim
- No messy disposal of ashes
Cons of gas grills:
- Don’t get as hot as charcoal grills
- Food has less of a smoky flavor
- Generally more expensive than charcoal grills
TYPES OF CHARCOAL GRILLS
Weber’s kettle grills are iconic. You can get many sizes and features, but they all have the same shape, with a round grilling surface. These grills have stood the test of time, and their trusty performance has earned a following. Their classic 22-inch grill runs about $100.
A rectangular hibachi grill is for tabletop grilling. These are meant to take along on picnics and such for direct-heat grilling (burgers and hot dogs). Some are quite flimsy; spending an extra $20 can really be worthwhile with these. Expect to drop $40 for a decent one.
I’m a PK girl, myself. Portable Kitchen grills are hefty cast aluminum charcoal grills, and they last for ages. I know, because mine is older than me—my parents bought it in the 1960s. At $370, a new one is an investment. If handing a workhorse of a charcoal grill down to your grown children is important to you, this is the grill to get.
TYPES OF GAS GRILLS
Weber and Char-Broil are two of the most popular brands of gas grills, but there are tons of specialty and boutique brands, too. The average entry-level gas grill will run you about $250. After that, the sky’s the limit.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT GRILL IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
If you’re a hands-on, curious cook who is all about the process, get a charcoal grill. You’ll probably enjoy building the fire, positioning the coals to create the flow of heat you need, and appreciate the nostalgic aspect of charcoal burning. That smell evokes carefree times outdoors like absolutely nothing else.
If you primarily grill low-and-slow foods like ribs, get a charcoal grill. Low and slow foods that need hours of gentle heat over the coals will pick up those smoke and wood notes, which makes using charcoal worthwhile.
If you want to want to grill food basically right away, get a gas grill. I’ll be honest: I’ve had gas grills before, and I grilled a lot more frequently when I did. If it’s cold or rainy or I’m not wanting to wait half an hour to get a bed of coals going, I don’t mess with a charcoal grill. With a gas grill, you can be grilling in 10 minutes.
If you primarily grill quick-cooking foods, get a gas grill. Wood smoke is great, but it does not permeate things like steaks, burgers, sausages, or veggie kabobs, because they’re not on the grill that long. If those foods make up the bulk of what you intend to grill, go for a gas grill.
Pellet grills run on electricity but burn specially-made hardwood pellets for the actual heat (and smoke). You feed the pellets into a hopper, which dispenses them as needed to keep a steady temperature. They can give you the best of both gas and charcoal grills.
Traeger is the best-known manufacturer, and their grills can run between $800-$2000.
Cambria’s in-laws have owned their Traeger for 15 years. They say this about it:
We get smoke flavor with ease as it burns wood pellets with no ash or cleanup, and there are many varieties of pellets easily available such as hickory, mesquite, cherry. We’ve used our Traeger to smoke a brisket, which is very easy and imparts a mouthwatering smoky flavor. Also, chicken breast is the juiciest you’ve ever tasted and always turns out perfectly!
Kamado-style grills are beefy, handsome, and shaped like eggs. Some are stainless steel, but most are encased in ceramic or earthenware. There are gas and charcoal models of these, but the brands with the most prestige are charcoal. They are very heavy and heat evenly.
You don’t need to use as much charcoal to get a fire going—and lasting. Most of these grills are round, so it’s tricky to set them up for two-zone heat (the coals banked on one side) because of the shape and the heat distribution of the ceramic. They give steady heat, but this also means it’s hard to get their temperature to go down if you get it too hot. They work best for direct grilling, and as foxy outdoor ovens (think pizza and paella).
The most popular type of kamado grill is the Big Green Egg, which sells for around $1,300.
Electric grills don’t cook over flames or coals. They are really just bigger, stronger George Foreman grills (hardcore grilling aficionados snort at them derisively). They won’t deliver the flavor or heat of charcoal or gas grills. However, if you live in a place where neither is allowed and you’d like to cook outdoors, an electric grill could be the viable option.
Smokers are their own beasts. A grill can be a smoker but a smoker is not always a grill. Confused? You can set up most any grill to smoke meats, but for people who really love smoking meat, dedicated smokers allow more control over temperature and smoke release, and often offer more surface area to hold foods.
You don’t fire up a specialty smoker to cook a few burgers. Usually, people fall in love with grilling, learn to smoke on their grill, and then branch out to investing in a smoker.
Smokers start around $150 but can go way higher than that.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A GRILL
PORTABILITY: If you frequently go car camping, on picnics, or tailgating, do you want a grill you can take with you? Perhaps you’d like to stash your grill in a shed when you’re not using it. Some grills are easy to wheel from one corner of the patio to another, while others are unwieldy. Consider how portable or permanent you need a grill to be.
Side shelves connected to your grill can be very handy. However, if you need a grill with a small footprint because you don’t have a lot of room, you can always use small folding tables if your grill doesn’t come with any side shelves.
A chimney is an invaluable way to get a charcoal fire going quickly. A grill chimney is a metal cylinder with a handle. You fill it with charcoal, then put scrunched-up paper in the cavity beneath. After lighting the paper on fire the concentrated heat and flames ignite the charcoal. Once the charcoal is covered with white ash (10-15 minutes), you dump out the coals in the pit of the grill. No flammable liquids or cheater sticks required!
Lighting fluid and self-lighting charcoal are made with petrochemicals, and when they burn, they smell like petrochemicals. Food cooked over them tastes like chemicals. We don’t recommend them. So, spend about $20 on a chimney and you won’t need to worry.
Any grill involves fire, so there’s always a safety concern. Propane gas is explosive.
Some condos and apartments don’t allow charcoal grills because of the fire hazard. Make sure you do your legwork before you buy.
You can splurge on grills kitted out with extra burners, griddles, powerful lights for night grilling, and even Bluetooth enabling. But ultimately, a grill is only as good as the skills of the person using it. Thankfully, we’ve got tips on that, too!
ALL SET TO GRILL? WE HAVE DOZENS OF RECIPES FOR YOU.
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Sara Bir a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and the author of two cookbooks: The Fruit Forager’s Companion and Tasting Ohio. Past gigs include leading chocolate factory tours, slinging street cart sausages, and writing pop music criticism. Sara skates with her local roller derby team as Carrion the Librarian.
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