Backyard grilling really started to take off during the housing crisis and boom following World War Two. In those days built-in brick and kettle grills were your only option, and they exclusively burned charcoal.
Over the years new fuel sources have become readily available and sometimes even more affordable. Today the grill marketplace is awash in options to fit just about every price point.
Trying to figure out just which type of fuel and size of the grill is right for you can be staggering. The first step in the process is to ask yourself some basic questions.
How Will I Use The Grill Most Often?
If your grill is going to live on the deck or patio, you might be considering a medium to large grill. If you need something that you exclusively take camping or tailgating, you might want to look for a smaller portable grill. If you want a grill that does both, you might be looking for features that pack up easily or detaches from the base.
How Big Of A Grill Do I Need?
To answer this question, you first need to look at the number of people you will be grilling for. If you are a swinging bachelor or you are just grilling for you and your spouse, you can get by with a smaller grill. The more people you need to feed, the more square inches of cook space you will need.
As a general rule of thumb, a primary grill grate of 400 to 500 square inches will let you grill for four to six diners at one time. Keep in mind that this is “Primary” grill grate space. With most grills, the warming rack is not feasible for direct-heat cooking. Some grill manufacturers will state “Total Square Inches” and combine the two. So, you might want to take a closer look at the product description when you shop for a new grill.
Let’s also not forget about the grill’s footprint. If you have a small deck or patio an expansive grill with dual side tables and a giant cabinet might eat up too much space. Fortunately, there are grill manufacturers who specifically design grills with small footprints, pedestals, and side tables that fold down when not in use.
This is one of those times when you need to take out a measuring tape and play around with some dimensions. You might even find yourself feeling nostalgic about those times you sat in high school math class and said: “When am I ever going to use this stuff in real life!”
To calculate the total square inches is length multiply by width.
What’s Your Budget?
Some basic grills are inexpensive, yet you tend to get what you pay for in the long run. Some high-end expensive grills are truly built to last. A hallmark of these units is the manufacturer backing it with a robust warranty.
Some manufacturers and online grill retailers sell units with affordable monthly payments. Though most offer their grills as a one-time purchase. Make sure to take the time to think about how much you are willing to spend. You might want to also factor in the cost of the fuel. In the long-term bags of charcoal, canisters of gas, and wood pellets can also add to the price of grilling.
What Is The Best Fuel Source?
This is probably the biggest contemplation most prospective grill buyers face. Grill manufacturers and fuel providers have done their best to keep all the options competitive. To help you whittle down your options here are some pros and cons for each.
Charcoal grills are the classic grilling method, that attracts and retains purists. However, they do take longer to light and you have to deal with the ash. Larger charcoal grills can double as a barbecue or smoker, which can increase their potential value
- Classic smoke and fire-kissed flavors
- Grills often cost less
- Large units can double as barbecue/smokers
- Some have offset smoker boxes
- Charcoal typically costs less than gas per unit
- Takes longer to light
- Ash cleanup
- Potential fire hazard especially for portable grills
These days gas grills are available in propane or natural gas models. Some manufacturers sell conversion kits to change from one type of gas to the other. You should never attempt to use natural gas in a grill set up for propane and vice versa. Gas grills also tend to be easier to light. Some come with a built-in electronic ignition system.
- Easy to light and preheat
- No ash cleanup
- Generally cheaper than charcoal per unit
- Less smoke
- Less of a fire hazard, especially in portable grills
- Doesn’t have the same smoky flavor as charcoal
- More complicated construction
- Most cost more than the charcoal equivalent
- Sometimes hard to tell how much gas is left
- Natural gas is not available in a tank only from a municipal source
Electric cooking appliances may have started indoors with clamshell grills like the famous George Foreman, they have since grown up and expanded from the kitchen to the outdoor patio. Some of these grills offer as many square inches of cooking space as their gas and charcoal counterparts.
Some outdoor electric grills have a solid Nichrome (Nickle & Chromium Alloy) heating element. This type of grill often struggles to make a strong sear on meat. They also tend to have non-stick, Teflon coated cooking surfaces which need to be carefully maintained.
Some outdoor electric grills have an exposed element that is essentially a giant electric resistor. The exposed element grills impart more direct heat for searing, but they tend to burn out faster. Especially if you are grilling things with a lot of grease or excess dripping marinade.
- Reasonable price
- Electricity cost is generally less than charcoal and gas
- Less smoke
- Easy cleanup
- Approved by some apartments for balcony grilling
- Prone to element burnout
- Doesn’t sear as well as gas and charcoal grills
- When grill suffers a malfunction it’s usually a total loss
These relative newcomers to the grilling world use quality design and construction to make the most out of the heat produced by a relatively small charcoal fire. However, there are some manufacturers who do offer kamado grills with interchangeable elements. Yet most still rely on charcoal.
Their double-walled construction and sophisticated airflow controls mean you burn far less charcoal than you would in a traditional grill. Many also include special inserts or water pans, that when dialed down low let you use them as a barbecue smoker. On the other end of the spectrum, you can dial them up to high heat for doing things like baking pizza or searing thin-cut pork chops.
- Compact with a small footprint
- Very versatile
- Very efficient
- Saves on charcoal costs
- Visually appealing
- Costs more than traditional gas and charcoal grills
- Might be too small for a large number of diners
- Takes time to dial in the heat control
Wood pellet grills started out as a bit of an anomaly in the world of grilling. They are more smokers than they are grills, in that they use indirect heat to cook the meat. This means if you want to sear a steak you will have to first heat up a perforated cast iron griddle. However, some manufacturers now offer wood pellet grills with a sliding sear plate.
They work by feeding small wood pellets from a large containment hopper to a fire pot, via an automated internal auger. A small electric element starts the fire, and a small internal fan makes sure it is fed the appropriate amount of air. The heat and smoke then rise into the primary cooking chamber.
- “Set-it and Forget-it” heat control
- Highly efficient
- Works like a high-quality smoker
- Costs more than traditional grills
- Complicated and long assembly time
- Wood pellets cost more than charcoal
- Most don’t allow you to directly sear meat
In the 1980s, if you didn’t live in the southern United States, smoked meat and barbecue were largely limited to restaurants and commercial kitchens. It has since grown in popularity and many grill manufacturers sell smokers or grills that have some type of smoker attachment.
If you plan to smoke a lot of meat, you might want to prioritize a wood pellet grill or a dedicated cabinet smoker. If you want a grill and occasionally want to smoke a whole chicken or the occasional rack of ribs, you might want to look for a charcoal grill that comes with an offset smoker.