You know summer has started once you can smell that smoky goodness coming from the outdoor grill. Whether you’re in the market for a portable grill to tote around at tailgates, or you’re looking for the ultimate gas grill to thrill at your Sunday barbecue, we’ve put together this bbq grill buying guide to help choose your ideal grill.
Understanding Grill Types
First things first, you need to know what type of grill you want, which is based on the type of fuel it uses. No one type is better than the other, and they all have their pros and cons… depending on how and when you plan to be grilling. Take a look at the most popular types of grills:
Charcoal is number one if you want that dark crust on your steak, but it does take significantly more time to set up, heat, and clean up. Charcoal briquettes are inexpensive and easy to get, and burn with a slow, high heat and natural flavor that passes on to your food. You’ll need to plan, though – charcoal takes 15 to 30 minutes to reach proper heat levels.
Sizes of charcoal grills range from super-small travel grills ideal for camping trips and tailgates to full-size grills and smokers capable of cooking at volume. For the most manual, and most “traditional” grilling experience, choose a charcoal grill.
Gas grills are extremely popular at home and professionally for their low operation cost and high ease-of-use. Gas burns clean and hot and ignites immediately with built-in lighters, meaning you can cook on-demand with less waste. The advanced designs of many gas grills let you carefully manage temperatures across the grill surface with easy knob controls. It heats up fast and is great for chicken, fish, and vegetables. If your primary concern is steak, then it’s important to know that gas grills don’t get as hot as charcoal. There are two types of gas grills to choose from.
Propane-powered gas grills mostly use standard 20 lb. tanks, easily filled for around $20 at your local grocery store or gas station. A full LP tank lasts around 9 hours of cooking time, of course dependent on how many burners are running and how much gas is flowing.
Natural gas hookups make your outdoor grill part of your home’s existing natural gas system, the same that powers your hot water heater and other appliances. This option is the cheapest, and there’s never a risk of running out of fuel. For the lowest-maintenance gas grilling experience, choose a natural gas or natural gas convertible grill.
Electric grills don’t actually use fuel. In fact, they depend simply on an electrical outlet, which is ideal if you live in a place where gas and charcoal aren’t permitted. The downside is that you won’t get that signature smoky flavor.
Electric grills haven’t always had the best reputation, but that’s changed. For the apartment-dweller or occasional griller, these compact and efficient cookers bring the advantages of high-heat cooking on demand.
Even though an all-purpose charcoal grill can serve as a smoker, a dedicated BBQ smoker will make your eyes roll back when it comes to cooking the tastiest ribs, salmon, bacon, and pulled pork. BBQ lovers who want to create the perfect smoke ring on their prize barbecue meats know that you can only achieve this with a smoker. A BBQ smoker also gives you the flexibility to smoke vegetables, side dishes, and even cheeses on their own racks.
Within the BBQ smokers category you can choose a smoker fueled by charcoal, propane, electric, or wood. Sizes and smoker features vary greatly by model, so there’s something for every level of smoker cooking enthusiast. If you’re not ready to commit to a full-time smoker, you can also look for a gas or charcoal grill that features a built-in smoker unit.
If you’re looking to expand your grilling skills, consider testing out an oval-shaped cooker known as a Kamado grill. Originally found in Japan, today’s Kamado grills are a modern version with high-fire ceramics covered in insulated steel and refractory materials. Because of its superior heat retention the Kamado uses much less charcoal than a normal grill.
The Kamado houses a ceramic or stainless steel bowl to hold the charcoal and wood, and the bottom of the grill has a draft opening to feed oxygen to the coals plus an adjustable vent to control exiting air or smoke. It’s these two vents and the Kamado’s penchant for retaining heat that make it perfect for both charcoal grilling and smoking. Read our Kamado Grill Buying Guide for more details on this versatile grill.
You’ll get a nice smoky flavor with a wood pellet grill, and it can provide more comprehensive and fine-tuned control with a digital thermostat. With most pellet grills, all you need to do is load the hopper with hardwood pellets, set the thermostat, and close the lid. An auger-fed burner sustains your desired temperature by feeding the right amount of pellets for consistent and even convection, while an induction fan circulates the smoke throughout the cooking chamber for even heat and flavor distribution.
A pellet grill requires an electrical outlet as well as hardwood pellets, which you can select based on your flavor preference and to complement the meats in the grill. Many users love the simplicity of using a pellet grill to automate the BBQ cooking process.
A portable grill is made to travel and is smaller than a standard backyard grill. Having a compact grill lets you take your cooking skills anywhere, whether it’s to the next camping trip or the stadium tailgate. You’ll find portable grills in both tabletop styles and standing grills with foldable legs or a portable cart option. Many portable grills use charcoal or small cans of propane to operate, and some are electric.
What are Grilling BTUs?
A gas grill or burner measures heat output in BTUs, which stands for British Thermal Units. A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat or cool 1 lb. of water by one degree Fahrenheit. Very generally, you want about 100 BTUs per square inch of cooking space. A grill that puts out 40,000 BTUs on 400 square inches heats about the same as one that puts out 90,000 BTUs on 900 square inches. So, it’s best not to focus on BTUs when you’re considering what to look for in a grill. Instead, look for a burner that lets you easily control heat.
For example, you can control a gas burner simply by turning down the knob of a gas tank, whereas a charcoal grill requires that you know how to use air vents or dampers to lessen and increase heat. But pure power isn’t the whole story. When choosing a grill, it’s important to consider several additional factors:
Choosing Grill Size and Cooking Area
You want to choose a grill with enough surface area to cook the meals you typically grill, plus the versatility to add more food on special occasions. Here’s our rule of thumb: how many burners do you think you’ll need? Get a grill with at least one more than that. Here are a few tips on choosing grill size:
- Check the size of the burners themselves – are they large enough that they cover the entire cooking surface? Even heating is important.
- For gas grills, remember you never have to use all the burners at once. They also offer specialized zones for different types of cooking and super-hot infrared zones designed to sear meat.
- Look at the grill’s maximum total temperature — a good grill should be able to reach at least 600° F.
- If you want to cook multiple dishes at once, some grills have extra side burner attachments so you can customize your setup.
- The cooking grids are your food’s point of contact with the grill, so how they’re made matters. Steel cooking grids are nice, and resist warping and chipping well. Porcelain-coated steel grids are even nicer, using the power of the porcelain to distribute heat evenly and protect the material for years and years. And cast iron cooking grids are the best, heating super-evenly and cooking your food with unequaled grace.
Different Grill Materials and Durability
Most grills you find – charcoal, gas, smokers, electric – will have a steel housing. It’s the material we trust to handle the high heat and high stress environment that cooking requires. Traditional models are flat-painted or powder-coated black, and more modern and high-end grills are built entirely from stainless steel. The best grills on the market are rendered in chef-quality commercial-grade 304 stainless steel and are gleamingly easy to clean.
When shopping, pay attention to the construction of the grill housing. How is the grill body made? It should be completely sealed with high-quality welding and made from steel. You’ll also want to consider the pros and cons of each grill material:
- Cast aluminum: While aluminum will not rust, it will discolor over time.
- Cast iron: Cast iron is extremely durable and heavy, but it can rust if it doesn’t have a good paint job.
- Enamel-bonded steel: Like cast iron, enamel-bonded steel won’t rust unless it gets chipped. Thoroughly inspect it for any nicks.
- Stainless steel: Steel won’t remain shiny forever, but it will last you over the years. Check the alloy makeup of metals, as this will impact the grill’s heat retention. Stainless will show dust, grease, and spots easily.
Cleaning & Protecting Your Grill
Just because a grill stays outside doesn’t mean you can ignore its maintenance. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Cooking on the grill brings out grease and salt in your food and high heat lets these things build up and harden. A dirty grill can be an unhealthy breeding ground for bacteria, so you’ll want to choose a good grill brush and follow our tips for How to Clean a Grill.
Depending on the type of grill you choose, cleanup and maintenance differ. As you shop, think about the following:
- Can you remove grease or ash easily?
- Are the grates removable?
- Can you easily reach the burners?
If you’re properly cleaning your grill, keep it covered and it’ll last you for years. Getting a lined cover for your outdoor grill should be one of the first accessories to invest in. Doing so helps protect the grill from corrosive elements, the sun, dirt and debris, etc. Our favorite grill covers offer full coverage and cinch at the bottom to keep the cover in place.
In addition to a grill cover, look into what grilling essentials you think you’ll need right away and what accessories to consider later. Here are a handful of add-ons that you might want to add to your grilling tool set:
- Grill baskets and pans
- Grill cleaning tools
- Pizza stones and accessories
- Grill rotisseries
- Meat thermometers (some are even Wi-Fi enabled so you can check temps on your smartphone)
- Grill smoking accessories
- Food prep tools
- Grill carts
If you’re just jumping into the world of grilling, don’t skimp on doing your research. Consider your grilling needs, preferred fuel type, and when and where you’ll be grilling. You may want to start small and learn what your cooking preferences are before making a big investment, or you may be ready to purchase your ultimate grill. Hayneedle has a wide selection and all the top grill brands to choose from, so you can find everything you need to kick your BBQ up a notch.