Finding The Right Outdoor Grill
The sun shining on your face, a refreshing beverage in your hand and the telltale sizzle that happens when meat meets fire herald an afternoon at the grill. Some Days it seems like even a bad day at the grill cooking for family and friends is better than a good day at the office!
Twenty or thirty years ago the backyard grill was primarily used to cook for large groups of people. You pulled it out of the garage or took the tarp off it when it was time to have a summer cookout. It spent the rest of the year laying in wait for the next time it would be called into action.
Fast forward to today and many households use their grill as an extension of their kitchen cooking arsenal. Not only can an outdoor grill provide flame-kissed flavor to meats and vegetables, it’s also a great way to prepare a meal when you don’t want to heat up the kitchen on a hot summer day.
Of course, kitchen appliance and grill manufacturers are well-aware of this trend and they have been burning the midnight oil to flood stores with a wide range of grill options. The truth is individuals looking to buy their first outdoor grill or upgrade from their old grill are spoiled for choice!
What Kind Of Outdoor Grill Is Right For Me?
This is a question for all seasons! For some people outdoor grilling is still just a summertime thing or a way to prepare fire-kissed meat for the big cookout, for others the grill is a four seasons way to make a great evening or weekend meal.
When our ancient ancestors started cooking meat there only option was to hand a big hunk of beast over an open wood fire. In the centuries since then modern technology has expanded our options. Today there are several different heat and fire sources for you to choose from in an outdoor grill. Where you live, how you want to use it and how often you’ll use your grill may be important factors to consider.
How often you’ll be using it and how many people you’ll most often be cooking for will factor heavily into the size and type of grill features you prioritize. If you are just cooking for yourself or your significant other a small kettle grill might be all that you need. On the other hand if you have a big family or you host the watch party every week for the big game, you might be looking for a large grill that can also double as a smoker.
Take some time to measure the area you intend for the grill on your deck or patio. Then think about how many pieces of meat or how large of a piece of meat you’ll be grilling.
If you will frequently be grilling for several people you might want a grill with a grate and cooking area that is at least 400 square inches. Some of the larger units can even offer up to 1,200 square inches! On the other hand, if you will need a grill to cook a handful of hamburger patties or brats from time to time a 22-inch kettle grill might be all you really need.
Once you have a basic idea of the size, you can turn to other important characteristics such as fire type, quality materials, and accessories.
Insights On Charcoal Grills
Charcoal is the classic choice of fire for most grilling enthusiasts. The type of charcoal you use can have a significant impact on the fire your grill produces. The fire is supplied by either industrially prepared charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal created from heating pieces of natural hardwood without the presence of oxygen.
Quality briquettes often provide a consistent and hot fire compared to lower quality briquettes. At the same time small pieces of lump charcoal will give you a hot fire that is prone to flare-ups and burns out quickly. Yet, jumbo lump charcoal is nearly on par with the consistency of briquettes.
Things To Consider For Lighting A Charcoal Grill
Lighter fluid is one of the more common methods for starting a charcoal fire. The easiest way to use it is to soak the briquettes for two minutes before introducing an open flame. Reapplying once the fire has started can cause major flare-ups and can also be a fire hazard.
A charcoal chimney can make it easier to light charcoal without the potential flare-up of lighter fluid. It is a simple metal cylinder has two separate chambers. The lower chamber is designed to hold a modest amount of crumpled newspaper, while the upper chamber holds the charcoal. When the paper is lit the fire gradually starts the charcoal burning.
One common complaint with charcoal chimneys is their knack for burning away all the newspaper before the charcoal is fully light. However, you can compensate for this by lightly drizzling a tablespoon or two of inexpensive vegetable oil on the newspaper before crumpling it, which will allow the flame to actively burn for longer.
What Are The Advantages A Charcoal Grill?
Charcoal’s major draw is the classic fire-kissed and smoky flavor it imparts to the food being cooked. The smoke and smell of grilling meat is also great advertisement and enticement for your fellow diners. Since it’s considered the classic grilling option, many people will choose charcoal over other fire types as a matter of tradition.
There are also people who will argue that with a little creativity charcoal grills set up for indirect cooking can also double as an improvised smoker. Though barbecue purists would contest this.
What Are The Disadvantages Of A Charcoal Grill?
There are several factors that have started to cause charcoal grills to slowly fall out of favor. For one depending on where you live a charcoal grill might not be allowed. Most apartments won’t let you have an open flame grill on the patio and some homeowner’s associations shun them in their covenants due to the smoke that fills the neighborhood.
A charcoal grill can also leave behind a significant amount of ash that makes for extra cleanup and leaves you with the question of how to dispose of potential embers. Hot coals and embers can linger in the ash for a long time after any noticeable fire has gone out. To make sure it is not a fire hazard in your garbage can you will need to completely seal all the dampers and vents to fully starve the fire of oxygen. You should then wait at least 24-hours before transferring the ash to a metal bucket or fire safe garbage can.
If necessary you can keep the coals in a metal bucket, for 24 hours and apply a little water. Just don’t add any water to the grill’s firebox as ash and water can cause corrosion issues.
What Should I Look For In Charcoal Grill?
Thick gauge metal is always preferable over thin metal which can allow the outside world to have an influence on the heat of the fire inside the coal box. You also want to check the legs to make sure they feel firm and won’t risk wobbling or a catastrophic tip over.
Handles and dampers should also have some type of padding or special cover to keep from burning your fingers. You also want to make sure the seals on the lid are tight and the dampers fully closed to help starve the charcoal grill of oxygen when needed.
Insights On Gas Grills
Over the course of the last twenty years gas grills have continued to grow in popularity. It’s important to note that there are essentially two different types of gas to choose from. Natural gas and propane.
Natural gas is growing in popularity around the country through municipally provided lines. It tends to burn cleanly and efficiently. However, it is not available in a portable tank, which means a natural gas grill will not be portable and you need to also make sure natural gas is available at your home or intended grilling location.
It’s also important to note that natural gas has roughly one-third of the energy density of propane. This means that a grill set up for one type of gas cannot safely use the other without first installing a conversion kit.
Propane is a byproduct created in the process of refining petroleum into gasoline and other products. It is available in various size tanks rated by weight. Many retailers offer a exchange program, where you make a one-time purchase for a full propane tank. When it runs out, you simply return to an affiliated retailer where you pay a small fee, and they take the spent tank away while handing you a full one.
This has become the preferable option over hunting down a gas station or commercial company which will charge you by the pound.
Determining just how much propane you have left your tank can be a little bit tricky. If you have a tank that locks in place under your grill it can be a hassle to pull it out and shake it or estimate the weight. In a pinch you can fill up a glass of piping hot water, and pour it down the side of the tank, then feel where the metal changes from hot to cold. This will at least give you some insight as to how much propane is left in the tank before you start cooking.
What Are The Advantages Of A Portable Gas Grill?
Gas grills offer several advantages for those who want to grill at home or take a smaller unit along on a camping trip. They are often much lighter than charcoal grills and require less equipment. Gas grills are also very convenient, easy to light and produce far less mess than a charcoal grill. They also tend to cool down quickly after you are done eating, and don’t come with the fire hazard concerns associated with charcoal embers.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Gas Grills?
While it’s largely a matter of personal preference, some grilling purists complain that propane simply cannot compete with the sear and smoky flavors provided charcoal grills. At the same time small propane grills for camping or cooking at the beach can also struggle to light and stay lit on a windy day.
If you plan to use your portable gas grill on a frequent basis, and you didn’t invest in a high-quality unit, then chances are good you will need to replace a few worn out components at some point. This is a potential added expense that you don’t see with a basic charcoal grill.
A propane grill does require some additional accessories in the form of the tank and a hose. Depending on how far away you want the tank to be from the grill the hose can increase in price. Also, the cost of propane can fluctuate just like the price of gasoline. A natural gas grill needs the presence of a utility line, which may not be available, so you’ll want to do your research in advance of making the purchase.
What To Look For In A Gas Grill
When you’re shopping for a propane grill, also take a moment to look at the control dial. Some units come with their own built-in sparking system which helps start the fire without needing to use matches, or a stick lighter. A grill with a broad temperature range can also be helpful if you’re going to be doing a lot of hybrid grilling. For example, chicken leg quarters often need a low fire to cook them through and soften the connective tissue, then applying a hot fire at the end helps to crisp the skin.
Energy efficiency can also be a significant factor with gas grills. Take the time to look up the BTU rating of any propane or natural gas grill you are considering. Ideally you want something that equates to 80 to 100 BTUs-per-square-inch of cooking surface. A gas grill with a very high BTU rating might have efficiency issues that could significantly increase the amount of gas you use, which will impact the operating cost of the unit.
If you are considering a gas grill made with stainless steel, you will want to take a close look at the gauge of the metal. A lower number indicates that it is thicker which can influence the price.
304 stainless steel
is created from a blend of nickel, chromium, and other trace metals. It offers great quality and protection against rusting. It is sometimes referred to as “commercial grade” stainless.
430 stainless steel
incorporates a blend of high carbon iron with at least 10.5% chromium. It is commonly found on lower-quality and seemingly inexpensive outdoor grills. It has the tendency to tarnish and rust faster than 304 and 443 stainless steel
443 stainless steel
includes chromium as well as other trace metals, which makes it very similar to 304 stainless steel while also being less expensive. It has become increasingly popular with grill manufacturers.
316 stainless steel
is known for being very high quality as well as expensive. A grill made from 316 might be overpriced for what you get in functionality.
Our sun produces infrared light, which is what causes sunshine to feel warm on your face. However, this is not the only source of infrared radiation in our world. Indeed, when certain materials are heated up they start to emit infrared heat, which has the ability to safely heat up and cook food.
Infrared grills have several things in common with propane grills. Indeed, the primary heat source is fueled by propane. As the burner heats up a special element, it emits infrared radiation with temperatures that are potentially twice that of a regular propane burner.
What Are The Advantages Of A Portable Infrared Grill?
Infrared grills are capable of the kind of high heat that can quickly create a delicious sear on a brat or develop a flavorful crust on a steak. Infrared heat also affects meat and many other foods in a different way than you get with a charcoal or gas grill.
Traditional grills create convection heat, which affects the food’s natural moisture barrier to cook the interior. This can cause a significant loss of moisture, leading to dry meat as well as a potentially tougher texture. Infrared grills don’t affect the moisture barrier which allows them to retain more of their natural moisture.
What Are The Disadvantages Of A Portable Infrared Grill?
Just like with propane grills, you have to lug a propane tank with you while you are on the go. Infrared grills also tend to produce an intense heat that might not make them a good choice if you want to slow cook or smoke something.
However, there are some manufacturers who offer hybrid grills with a propane burner on one side and an infrared element on the other. This allows you to grill a thick salmon fillet or chicken drumsticks over a low propane fire, before marking and crisping the skin over intense infrared heat.
What To Look For In A Portable Infrared Grill
While you should certainly take a close look at things like welds, handles, and grates for signs of quality workmanship, the largest factor to consider is the element type.
A ceramic infrared burner system typically features a stainless-steel propane burner with a ceramic element installed directly above it with the grill grate just above that. Once it is fully heated, the ceramic surface emits a swath of tiny flames which generate a consistent and even heat.
The temperature range on the grilling grate can potentially reach between 600 to 1,000 degrees. This allows it to directly sear the food while also cooking the interior of the food for maximum moisture retention.
This system is ideal for fast searing meats, yet it often isn’t capable of grilling at lower temperatures for something like bone-in chicken or a delicate piece of fish. To address this need, some manufacturers have developed infrared burners capable of operating at lower temperatures down to 300 degrees.
Radiant glass panels sit atop a radiant heat element which is positioned over a durable stainless-steel propane burner. The system offers even heat distribution and the intense, high heat. It also reduces any contact between drippings and the fire which helps prevent flare-ups.
The radiant glass panel system provides a broad temperature range which can reportedly go as low as 200, while also being able to offer searing high heat up to 900 degrees. This allows you the versatility of a traditional gas or charcoal grill, while also being able to provide you with the kind of high heat that you usually only see in a high-end steakhouse.
Heat emitter systems feature a stainless-steel burner tube that has been fitted with a metal heat emitter panel which sits above the burner and the cooking grate. It generates consistent and even heat and virtually no flare-ups.
This type of system can provide temperatures ranging between 300 and 650 degrees, which can handle cooking thicker cuts of meat, while also being able to provide a nice sear.
Wood Pellet Grills
Wood pellet grills are a somewhat recent innovation in grilling technology. They are designed to incorporate most of the functionality of a traditional gas or charcoal grill with the benefits of a smoker. They are designed to provide consistent heat and smoke throughout the cooking process by carefully delivering specially-made wood pellets to a carefully controlled heat source.
The food is then cooked in a separate chamber while also taking on a pleasant smoky flavor. The process is largely automated by a thermostat control that operated an internal auger which delivers the wood pellets to the fire at a consistent rate.
Insights On Indirect Heating
Wood pellet grills use indirect heat to cook the food, which differs somewhat from the direct heat used by traditional charcoal or gas grills. This makes it more effective and efficient at cooking meats and vegetable dishes that benefit from the slow-and-low cooking method. However, the absence of direct heating means that the wood pellet grill does not sear foods like steaks and hamburgers.
The indirect heat allows it to not only barbecue meat, but it can also roast and bake. When a small pot is added to the cooking chamber a pellet grill can even be used to braise and simmer. With some practice a wood pellet grill can even bake a fresh pizza!
What Are the Benefits Of A Pellet Grill?
A wood pellet grill comes up to the desired temperature rather quickly and with little effort. They typically exceed the preheating speed of traditional charcoal and gas smokers. Most wood pellet grills have a thermostat or some other means of temperature control that is linked to the internal auger which delivers the wood pellets to the contained internal flame. Some may use variable heat settings or a digital thermostat to increase the auger rate or the fan that feeds oxygen to the fire.
At the same time Indirect heat not only works to smoke meat and vegetable dishes it also allows you to employ other cooking methods such as braising, roasting, and baking.
Wood pellets also produce a pleasant level of smokiness. They are also produced with consistency to further reduce problems with flare-ups.
What Are The Disadvantages Of A Wood Pellet Grill?
Most of these units are too large to take with you, so they can’t multi-task as a portable grill. Also, the automated auger, fan, and the internal igniter require reliable electricity, which means you’ll need to have a grounded electric plug-in nearby. It also means it cannot be used in the case of a power outage.
The Indirect heat created by wood pellet grills is generally ineffective for searing and sautéing foods. While it will indeed cook something like a steak or a hamburger you will not have sear marks or crust like you would get from a traditional grill.
However, this can be overcome by keeping a small propane or charcoal grill or a hibachi nearby. This would allow you to do some hybrid grilling like slow cooking chicken drumsticks on indirect heat, and then searing them on a small traditional grill to mark and crisp the skin.
What Should I Consider When Shopping For A Wood Pellet Grill?
Like all grills and outdoor cooking devices you want to keep a close eye out for quality construction. Make sure to take a close look at the relationship between the lid and the base. You want a tight seal to maximize the smoke and trap the indirect heat that is so critical to the cooking process.
If you have access to a display model, take a close look at the welds and fasteners used to hold the wood pellet grill together. You want them to be strong and durable. You should also look at firepot and the triangular diffuser above it. These components can become prone to corrosion and metal fatigue in the long term. While stainless steel isn’t necessary, it is a sign of quality and may help prolong the life of the grill.
Wood pellet grills also have some moving parts and components that will need periodic cleaning. Check to make sure they are easy to access.
Overall size and cooking area are also key factors to consider. It can be helpful to measure the outdoor space intended for your wood pellet grill. You should also think about what you intend to cook. Racks of ribs, brisket, whole turkeys and other large pieces of meat will need a significant amount of space which would require a larger unit.
As a general rule of thumb a small family doesn’t need much more than 450-500 square inches of grill space. If you are single and you will be making a lot of individual portion meals or the occasional dinner for a small group of friends, you might want to look for a slightly smaller wood pellet grill. A secondary rack might also be nice for keeping side dishes and keeping warm pieces of meat that get done early.
Other Considerations When Choosing An Outdoor Grill
The surface area and portability of the grill grate and the overall size of the unit is a major factor to consider when you are shopping for a portable grill. If you are going to be cooking on a public picnic table or bringing your own table, you want to think about the grill’s footprint on the tabletop. A large unit might dominate the available surface area leaving little room for preparation trays or serving platters.
You should also think about what you’re going to be grilling most often, as well as the number of people you will be grilling for. If you just need to grill up a pair of steaks at the tailgate for you and your buddy with the other season ticket, a modest size grill grate might be all you need. If you need to be able to grill for a family of four on a week-long camping trip, then a larger portable gas grill might be a better idea.
You should also think about how much additional gear you’ll need to pack with you. This could also include little tricks to minimize what you need. Maybe you can preload your charcoal chimney and bag it before you leave, to spare having to carry an entire bag of charcoal with you. If you don’t like the idea of lugging a 25-pound propane tank and hose with you, maybe you want to prioritize a gas grill that can easily run on a one-pound cylinder.
Wind resistance is also a major factor with many portable grills. Charcoal, propane, and infrared grills need consistent fire to maintain the grilling process. Windy conditions can make it hard to start a fire or maintain heat. Even once a charcoal grill has started burning a strong gust of wind can potentially blow coals out into the open air, risking a fire hazard.
When you are shopping for a portable grill, think about the locations and possible weather conditions you’ll be using it in. Something as simple as a side shields can often help protect the burner element or the coal bed of a grill from the wind.
With a charcoal grill also check the dampers to see just how tightly they can seal and how far they open. In windy conditions, quality dampers can make a big difference in controlling the temperature of the fire while also reducing your risk of fugitive embers escaping.
Local rules and regulations might also apply depending on where you live. Apartments and other multi-family housing units often prohibit or restrict the type of grill you can use. The last thing you want to do is buy a charcoal grill for your apartment’s large deck, only to have a warning or eviction notice on your door after the first time you use it.
At the same time some homeowner’s associations will restrict the type of grill you can use. Some will not allow or discourage charcoal and pellet units that produce a significant amount of smoke, which neighbors might find offensive. Many HOA’s also restrict where a grill can be kept, limiting them to the backyard or other out of sight locations.
Outdoor grilling is one of life’s special experiences. It’s an opportunity for meat to meet fire in a way that harkens back to our ancient ancestor’s way of cooking, as well as fond memories of our own past cookouts. Being able to prepare a delicious grilled meal for friends and family also helps bring us together, so you want to make the most out of the investment.
Take the time to think about the size and type of grill you want. Make sure to look into all applicable regulations that might pertain to outdoor grilling in your area. Armed with the right questions and the information in this article, you are sure to find the grill that’s just right for you!