Choosing The Right Portable Grill Let’s You Cook Food Anywhere
Special occasions and grilled food go together like peanut butter and jelly. This prompts many people to look for ways to take the grilling experience with them when they are away from home or looking to spice up a special occasion.
Back in the 1950’s when modern-day grilling was starting to take hold in American food culture, outdoor grills were seen largely as permanent features. In some parts of the country a large brick enclosure with a cast iron grill grate was often seen as a key selling feature in high-end new construction homes.
As the years have gone on smaller, less permanent grills started to grow in popularity. This trend transitioned grills out of the realm the construction industry and into the retail arena. Tinkerers, metalsmiths, and appliance companies were encouraged to develop grills that could cook a great meal at home, while also being able to travel with you when you went on the road.
Today modern innovations, cooking shows, and ever-present demand have created a diverse range of grills to meet every need and occasion.
Where Are Portable Grills Popular?
In many cases portable grills are essentially smaller versions of their big brothers living on the back deck or patio. You can pack them in your camping kit, toss them in the trunk, or bring them with you to cook lunch at a parking lot tailgate party before the big game.
Tailgating Grills For The Beach
A day at the beach is a chance to relax, soak up some sun, and play in the water. Many people who want to spend a full day at the beach or the park like to bring a grill with them. It gives you the opportunity to set up a spot where you can enjoy the whole day, without having to worry about going back to the car and driving somewhere just to catch a bite to eat.
Some public beach spots and parks offer archaic box grills made from cast iron or other thick gauge steel. They are often left to face the weather year-round. While you can usually use them for free, they’re often unappealingly dirty and some have simply fallen into rusty disrepair.
Bringing your own grill ensures that you’re using a clean and properly functioning surface. You also don’t have to worry about a public grill being taken by another group when you want to cook.
Portable charcoal and propane grills tend to be traditional for beach cooking. They allow you to heat them up or start a small fire to grill up some hot dogs or make a handful of burger patties. Just enough to keep everyone fed, without having to pull up your beach chair and umbrella.
Portable Grills For Travel
The classic road trip has evolved from the days when everyone got in the family roadster, only to have mom and dad yelling at the kids to be quiet, while keeping their eyes peeled for a motel with an open vacancy sign. Today families and groups of friends hit the open road seeking out unique and memorable experiences.
Of course, this can sometimes leave you in places where there isn’t a restaurant in sight. Maybe you even decide to do a little tent camping which means you need to be able to cook up a meal to strike out for that hike at dawn.
For a moment like this a gas grill designed to work off of a one pound canister of propane might be small enough to easily pack with you, while still having the heat capacity to cook a basic meal or warm up a percolator of coffee.
Portable Grills For Camping And RV
RV tourists and people who go camping on a frequent basis also find portable grills attractive. It allows you to avoid spendy restaurant trips while also getting to soak up the ambiance of your campsite.
Some RV’s come with a built-in propane range. However, they tend to heat up the interior where you want to be cool and comfortable. Some are simply too small to prepare a meal for a family of three or four. In a situation like this, you might want to invest in a larger propane grill that allows you to cook on a nearby campsite picnic table.
Many of these units can run off the same propane tank used for the interior range. This gives you the ability to grill and cook food, without heating up the same area where you sleep.
If you’re concerned about rain and your campground offers a power post, a portable electric grill might be just the thing you need to cook up a wonderful meal, without having to pull up stakes and head to town.
Portable Grills For Tailgating
Tailgating and grilled meat have been best friends for many decades now. Droves of people hold on to very fond memories of bonding with friends, family, and fans in the hours before walking into an historic big game.
Bringing your own grill with you is also a great way to fill up on the cheap, compared to feeding a hungry group at an expensive concession stand. It can also serve as a bonding experience with fellow fans.
In the past charcoal grills were the traditional choice for parking lot tailgate parties. However, fire and other safety issues have prompted many municipal parking lots and areas outside of stadiums to ban charcoal grilling.
In these situations you might want to choose a portable propane or infrared grill to prepare your pregame meal. Some venues offer power posts in assigned areas that you can rent, which would make a portable electric grill possible, as well as convenient.
Understanding Your Fire Options
Man’s mastery of fire arguably extends back 600,000 years to our ancient ancestor Homo erectus. Since that time the human genome has evolved to create and control fire in a wide variety of forms. Choosing the fuel type for your portable grill will go a long way toward helping narrow down the type of unit that’s right for you.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that a lot of public and privately-owned grilling spaces, have rules that limit what type of fire is allowed Back in the 1970’s and 80’s it was perfectly acceptable to have a big charcoal grill roaring at a parking lot tailgate party. When the doors opened to the stadium you’d pour some of your beverage onto the fire and let it smolder out while you waited in line at the gate.
Today parking lot attendants, stadium rules, campgrounds, and public parks frown on this kind of cavalier grilling. Some places require you to only use propane, or if you want to grill with charcoal there might be a specific area with specific rules. So, if you have a specific place in mind for where you want to bring your new portable grill, it would help to check the rules in advance.
Certain types of grills also need additional considerations. Portable electric grills need a reliable source of power. Some gas grills also need additional equipment.
Portable Charcoal Grills
Charcoal is sort of the classic option most people think of when it comes to outdoor cooking. 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.
The type of charcoal you source can have a direct effect on the fire your portable grill produces. High-quality briquettes tend to provide a more consistent and hot fire compared to low-quality briquettes. Small pieces of lump charcoal tend to burn hot, fast, and inconsistently. However, jumbo lump charcoal is nearly on par with the consistency of briquettes.
Some portable grill enthusiasts will choose charcoal briquettes that have been impregnated with lighter fluid or other flame accelerants to be able to light the fire quickly. At the same time there are others who look down on this type of briquette complaining that it imparts too much artificial flavor to the food being grilled.
Lighter fluid is one of the more common methods for starting a charcoal fire. Soaking the briquettes for a minute or two before lighting them can help reduce the chances of a major flare-up in your portable grill. Yet you shouldn’t be surprised if you still have a significant fire for a few minutes while the briquettes ignite.
A charcoal chimney can make it easy to light briquettes or lump charcoal without the conflagration of lighter fluid. However, it does require you to pack yet another thing with you. The simple metal cylinder has two separated chambers. The lower chamber is meant to hold a sheet or two of crumpled newspaper, while the upper chamber holds the charcoal. When the paper is lit the fire gradually starts the charcoal burning.
Opponents of the charcoal chimney method often complain about its knack for burning away all the newspaper before the charcoal is sufficiently lit. However, you can compensate for this by lightly drizzling a tablespoon or two of inexpensive vegetable oil on the newspaper before crumpling it. The additional hydrocarbons of the oil both maintain the fire and slow the rate of the burn.
What Are The Advantages Of A Portable Charcoal Grill?
The big draw with charcoal is the classic fire-kissed and smoky flavor it imparts to the food being cooked. Some people choose portable charcoal grills to keep in line with tradition. It’s what their father used every time they went camping or tailgating and passing on the vignette of those memories to another generation is an important part of the experience for them.
Charcoal also tends to advertise to the sense of smell, which can be a factor for things like a beach grill-off competition, or just to drawing the attention new friends.
What Are The Disadvantages Of A Portable Charcoal Grill?
Portable charcoal grills have been slowly falling out of favor in recent years due to several factors. You need to haul your own charcoal and possible charcoal chimney. The fire it produces is arguably very smoky, which might not be what the people nearby want to deal with.
It also leaves behind a significant amount of ash which can be problematic to deal with when you are on the go. Hot coals and embers can linger in the ash for a long time after any noticeable fire or heat has gone out. The general fire hazard and cleanup issues has a lot of public places and outdoor cooks moving away from portable charcoal grills.
On a technical level the wisest method for making sure a charcoal grill is completely out is to shut down 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.
Of course, when you’re sitting at the beach and your kids starting to get a sunburn, the last thing you want to do is pop the lid on a hot grill, slam it in your trunk and go speeding off down the bumpy highway.
In a pinch, a metal bucket, metal scoop, and decent amount of water can help do the trick. The first step is to close the dampers and vents right after you are done cooking. Once the fire has completely died down you can address any remaining hot coals, by adding water to the metal bucket, and scooping the coals into the water. You don’t want to pour water directly into the grill as wet ash is corrosive, which can lead to rust issues and shorten the lifespan of the grill.
Once all the coals have stopped smoking, you can carefully scoop the ashes into the bucket and stir to make sure everything is fully saturated. A metal bucket with a lid can help with packing the coals away.
What To Look For In Portable Charcoal Grill
Thin metal is often the bane of cheap charcoal grills. They allow the cold of the outside world to have an influence on the heat of the fire and also make the grill dangerous to even the most casual touch. At the same time thin metal or weak legs on a charcoal grill can significantly increase your chances of accidentally spilling a very hot coal bed.
With these factors in mind, it’s best to look for a portable charcoal grill made from thick gauge metal, with sturdy legs, and solid welds. Handles and dampers should also have some kind 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 close to help starve the charcoal grill of oxygen when needed.
Portable Gas Grills
Gas grills have been growing in popularity in recent years. It’s important to keep in mind that there are essentially two different types of gas to choose from. Natural gas is growing in popularity around the country through municipally provided lines. Propane is a byproduct created in the process of refining petroleum into gasoline and other products.
While it is naturally occurring and trending upward as a popular energy source for home heating and energy, natural gas has nearly a third of the energy density of propane. This means that it is currently only available through municipal gas lines, which of course prevents it from being used in portable grilling.
If you do happen to find a small natural gas grill that you love for home use but its lack of portability puts it off your list, you might want to ask the retailer or manufacturer if it is compatible for a propane conversion kit. It takes a little time and some handiness, but a dual fuel conversion can usually be performed in under an hour.
By and large propane is the more popular gas used for portable grilling. Some portable grills are even small enough that you can fuel them for a modest grilling session from an inexpensive one-pound propane tank. If you need to grill for a longer period of time, or you need the grill for something like a week-long camping trip you can buy a short hose and a larger propane tank.
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. Some of these stations charge a flat rate. If you have a 25-pound propane tank and you need to put in roughly 10 more pounds, they will still charge you for 25-pounds of gas!
Telling just how much gas you have left in a tank can be a little bit tricky. If you’re just planning a trip to the beach and you want to quickly grill up some hot dogs, you can tell if there’s enough propane left with a simple lift and swish. However, if you’re going on a camping trip deep in the bush and you’ve been using your 25-pound tank for your home grill, the last thing you want to do is run out of gas while you’re cooking dinner and swatting away mosquitos!
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.
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 sparker which helps start the fire without needing to bring along matches or a lighter. A grill with a broad temperature range can also be helpful if you’re going to be grilling a lot of different things. For example chicken wings often need a low fire early on, and a hot fire at the end to crisp the skin. At the same time a steak will benefit from a quick high-heat to sear the outside, while leaving the interior a beautiful pink shade of medium rare.
What Are The Advantages Of A Portable Gas Grill?
Gas grills offer several advantages for someone looking to take their grilling experience with them. Most parks, campgrounds, and other public places where grilling is popular approve or even prefer propane grills.
Depending on the size of the tank you use, they are often much lighter than charcoal grills and require less equipment. They leave less mess, sparing you the inconvenience of ash cleanup. Gas grills also cool down much faster which means you don’t have the fire hazard concerns associated with charcoal embers.
In general, they can cook just about anything that a portable charcoal grill can cook, while also heating up in a shorter amount of time.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Portable Gas Grills?
If you want to dual purpose a natural gas grill at home and also use it as a propane grill when you travel, you will have the added expense and maintenance of a conversion kit. In a situation where you are going to be traveling for a significant amount of time, you will also need to invest in a larger propane tank. While the cost might not be prohibitive, having to lug an extra tank and hose might be cumbersome.
While it’s largely a matter of personal preference, some grilling purists complain that propane simply cannot compete with the fire-kissed, smoky flavors of charcoal. Small propane grills can also struggle to light and stay lit on a very windy day, which can be frustrating and requires constant attention.
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.
What To Look For In A Portable Gas Grill
If weight is a factor for you, you might put preference on a gas grill that is designed to run off of a simple one-pound propane tank. Some sort of windscreen or baffle can also be helpful for keeping a windy day from blowing out the fire.
Efficiency is also a factor with portable gas grills. Take a look at the BTU rating of the unit. Ideally you want something that equates to 80 to 100 BTUs-per-square-inch of cooking surface. A portable propane grill with an exceedingly high BTU rating might have efficiency issues that will cause problems if you plan to heat it from one pound propane tanks.
Portable Electric Grills
In recent years electric grills have started coming into their own as a sound alternative to traditional gas and propane grilling. They also offer a mode of grilling that is more likely to be approved by apartment rules and other multifamily housing covenants. Indeed, many people with electric grills use them indoors on their countertop.
An electric grill is essentially a sophisticated electrical resistor. The heating element inside is made from an alloy of nickel and chrome, known as nichrome. When current is passed through it, the element warms up and safely transfers the heat energy to the non-stick grill grate.
What Are The Advantages Of Portable Electric Grills?
Their compact size makes them easy to move and attractive for portable grilling. You don’t have to lug a bag or charcoal, lighter fluid, or a propane tank. They tend to heat up much faster than other grills which allows you to get cooking sooner rather than later. Cleanup also tends to be minimal.
Since they don’t produce any fire, they are often acceptable for public places that might have rules against open flame grilling. Electric grills also cool down quickly, so if you need to store it away there’s much less of a fire hazard.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Portable Electric Grills?
An electric grill absolutely needs reliable access to electricity. If you are renting a pavilion at a local park it might come with power outlets you can use, some campgrounds offer power posts with every site. However, many do not.
This means you either need to do some extra research into electric availability for the site, or you will have to invest in a small generator, which comes with its own costs and limitations. It’s also worth noting that some inexpensive electric grills have a reputation for not providing the intense heat needed to quickly sear something like a steak or crisp the skin on a chicken breast.
What To Look For In a Portable Electric Grill
Reliable energy is critical when using a portable electric grill. Some campgrounds or public places that provide electricity might not always keep their outlets in tiptop shape. An electric grill with a firmly grounded cord helps address safety concerns.
Take a little time to consider size and what you’ll be cooking most often. If you will frequently be grilling for more than two people, you’ll need to look for an electric grill that’s large enough to handle multiple hamburgers, steaks, and chicken breasts. If you are just going camping with your significant other, a smaller unit might be called for.
An adjustable dial and thermostat that uses increments beyond a simple low, medium, and high is always a nice feature as it allows you more control. Just like most new appliances you will likely develop an understanding of the grill’s temperature range for different foods you want to prepare.
Take a moment to look at the grill’s grates to make sure they are either Teflon coated or that the manufacturer has taken other measures to make sure they are non-stick.
A built-in drip tray helps catch grease, and things like excess marinades for easy cleanup. It also helps reduce the risk of gunk building up by the electric element. Take a moment to see how easy it is to remove, as you will likely need to pour it off into a sealable container after you are done grilling.
Infrared Portable Grills
Infrared light exists just beyond the red end of the visible light spectrum. Our sun produces it, which is what causes sunlight to feel warm on your face. However, this is not the only source of infrared radiation in our world. In fact, when certain materials are heated up they start to emit infrared heat, which is just as safe as the microwave that warms up your bowl of chicken noodle soup.
Portable 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.
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.
Insights On BTU’s
BTU stands for British Thermal Unit, which is a standard unit of measurement related to the heat capacity and efficiency. In the case of portable grills it primarily applies to the propane and infrared grills. You will often see BTU’s rated on grills per square inch.
As a general rule of thumb, a quality propane grill should be able to provide you with 80 to 100 BTUs-per-square-inch. This will allow it to heat up fast while also maintaining consistent heat. In the case of infrared grills, which tend to be more efficient, you should look a range between 60 to 80 BTU’s.
It’s worth noting that a unit with an exceptionally high BTU rating might have quality flaws in the venting, lid, or some other efficiency factor. A portable grill with a very low BTU range might struggle to provide consistent high heat. Propane grills with low BTU ratings also have a tendency to struggle in windy conditions.
A Note On Cleanup and Maintenance
Portable grills tend to not be used very frequently. A camp stove used for vacation or a tailgating grill might only get use during a single season. Keeping it clean and storing it away properly will go a long way toward extending its lifespan, while also making sure that it will start reliably the next time you want to use it.
A charcoal grill should be completely emptied of any ash. Grates need to be scraped clean. If your portable charcoal grill has cast iron grates glazed with porcelain be sure to give all the little contours a good cleaning. If necessary, you can soak porcelain glazed or stainless-steel grates in warm soapy water to scrub away stuck-on material. They should then be thoroughly dried before being stored away.
A propane grill also needs some basic attention. Grates need to be thoroughly cleaned and any gunk or burned on material on the burner elements need to be brushed away. Any grease or spatter on the exterior also needs to be wiped away before storage.
An electric grill needs to be unplugged and allowed to thoroughly cool before cleaning. If it only has a small amount of mess might need more than a gentle wipe down with a damp nonabrasive sponge. If it has a more significant amount of stuck-on material you might need to remove the grilling plate before soaking and lightly scrubbing them with a nonabrasive sponge in warm soapy water. You should never submerge an electric grill as this will likely damage the heating element and other internal electrical components.
The drip tray also needs to be emptied and washed in warm soapy water. Any spatter on the outside of the grill needs to be wiped away. When storing it be sure to disconnect the power cord and store it with the unit. Sometimes you can even fit an indoor electric grill back into its original packaging.
An infrared grill also needs some basic care and cleaning after each use or before storing it away. Once it has completely cooled down you should start by removing the grilling grates. Depending on what they are made of, most grates can be lightly scraped with a wire brush or soaked and washed in warm soapy water. If your grates have been coated with a non-stick material like a porcelain glaze, you should be careful not to chip or scratch them.
If you have a some dried debris on the infrared heating element you can gently brush it away with a soft-bristled brush. You shouldn’t scour with steel wool or anything abrasive. If you have a hybrid grill with a secondary propane burner you can lightly scrub it with an abrasive sponge.
Excess gunk on a burner or a radiant glass panel can be cleaned away by spraying it with an ammonia-based kitchen cleaning spray. You may need to give it a few moments to loosen the debris before gently wiping away with a soft sponge.
You might also want to check your owner’s manual for any other special cleaning tips to address any of your grill’s special features. If you have an accessory such as a rotisserie or a smoker box, you should also clean them per the manufacturer’s recommendation.
Grilled food may not be a necessary part of life. It can never take the place of water or air. Yet grilling when you’re on the go, at the beach, relaxing at camp, or getting ready to cheer for your team, can add magic to life’s most cherished memories.
Taking the time to think about where you’ll most often be grilling, what you’ll be grilling, and how many people you’ll be grilling for, will help you prioritize the features that are right for you. Once you have narrowed down your options, you should look for quality construction, thoughtful wind protection, as well as other factors that can make the difference between a frustrating day of dealing with little headaches and an outdoor experience you’re sure to remember.