Grill Buying Guide: What to Look For in a BBQ
From fuel types and ignition quality, to material and maintenance, to BTUs and beyond, there are lots of things–big and small–to consider when you are buying a gas grill, charcoal grill or wood-pellet grill. Whether you are an old pro at barbecuing and looking for a replacement grill, or you are in the market for your first, it is wise to mull over your options and do your research before making a purchase. After all, this item will be the source of many family meals (and memories!) for years to come, so you want to find the best BBQ grill out there that fits your needs and your budget!
Let’s start with the basics. First and foremost, where will you be placing your grill? The answer should be somewhere that is safe and convenient. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission suggests at least 10 feet of space between the grill and your home, or any other building for that matter. It is also recommended that the grill be placed out in the open — not, as the CPSC states, in a breezeway or a carport, on a porch or beneath a surface that could catch fire. The corner of a deck or patio works well. A small, roofless bump-out or extension of the porch is also an option. Of course, if you are purchasing the item as a built-in grill/a component for an outdoor kitchen island (rather than a standalone grill cart), you probably already have a good idea of where it is going. Keep in mind that an outdoor kitchen that sits in an enclosed area may need some sort of ventilation system.
Once you have decided on the perfect location for your grill, another decision is the type of fuel you are leaning toward. Charcoal and propane fires are popular choices, but there is also natural gas and wood pellets to consider. Some people believe that charcoal gives the best flavor. Others feel the ease of a natural gas or propane grill (don’t forget, the latter requires tanks that need refilling) is unbeatable, as they tend to heat quickly and are easy to clean. Charcoal can be messy, and takes longer to heat, a factor that may make it less likely the family will enjoy grilled meals year-round (especially in the Northeast). Wood pellet grills are usually more expensive than gas barbecue grills. They offer room for creativity in that there are different types of pellets (cherry, hickory, maple, oak, etc.) to choose from. For these you will need an outlet to plug in, so the cooking process would be interrupted if you lose power.
Pricing is another piece of the puzzle when you are looking for the best BBQ grill. A basic grill at an affordable, local hardware store could run a couple of hundred dollars, while something geared more for the grill-master who considers barbecuing his or her hobby could spend as much as $5,000 on a grill. It really all depends on everything we have mentioned so far, plus lots more. For example, size and price are related. As you peruse the endless number of grills available online and in stores, think about what you will be cooking and how many people will be enjoying that meal. You will want to avoid crowding the burgers or other food items that you are cooking, and you also do not want to grill too close to the edge of the main grate. Grill experts usually suggest between 70 and 100 square inches (from a 7×7-inch square to 10×10-inch square) per person.
Another tip to keep in mind is that more BTUs (a measurement of heat, this term stands for British thermal unit) do not necessarily mean better quality; that the equipment will heat up faster; or that the equipment will maintain heat better than a grill with a lower BTU. BTUs should be proportionate to your cooking needs. Grill masters suggest about 80 to 100 BTUs for every square inch of the cooking space on a gas grill.
Other factors one would want to consider when in the market for a grill are ignition and burners. To generate the initial spark, gas grills typically rely on traditional Piezo-style igniters (which need cleaning, as dirt and grease buildup can affect the electrodes) or on battery-powered spark generators (one thing to watch for here is that the battery does not corrode inside the spark generator). The process begins with either a push button, a rocker switch or a spring-loaded dial that rotates. When it comes to burners, the more you have, the more items you can grill at different heat levels. Gas grills may have anywhere from two or three burners to seven or eight. Side burners and infrared burners (great for searing those steaks!) may be convenient for your setup, too, depending on your BBQ endeavors!
As far as material goes, porcelain finishes are popular features for charcoal grills. Stainless steel is common for gas grills because, although it is expensive, it resists rust. Porcelain grill grates are another feature you may see when shopping, as they retain heat well. However, they are more expensive and require careful and consistent maintenance (chips are the enemy here!). There are also aluminum grills, but some believe they do not look as nice as the stainless steel. Still, they retain heat and are typically more affordable.
No matter the grill you are considering, be sure to inspect the sturdiness of the grill and the quality of the material: How thick or thin is the metal? Is most of it welded, or are there many fasteners? How stable are the wheels? Are different parts of the BBQ grill made of different materials? The smaller parts of the grill, are they made well? What gauge is the stainless steel? Is there sufficient storage area? What about work surfaces and side tables? What are these areas of the grill made of? A thorough examination of the equipment is always a good idea, as is keeping in mind the importance of maintaining and cleaning your grill regularly to ensure it stays in good condition.
Last but certainly not least are accessories! These may include everything from griddles, seafood racks and rotisserie rods to pizza stones, skillet baskets and smoker boxes. Perhaps you are looking for a grill for your outdoor kitchen island, and you know you will be whipping up a few pies. In that case, a pizza stone is a definite for you. Similarly, if you plan to use your grill as an oven (this requires a good, controlled heat — see what other buyers have to say about this aspect of the grill as you do your research and read grill reviews online, and keep in mind that the more you use your grill, the more of a handle you will have on operating it properly), you will definitely want to buy a BBQ that is equipped with a thermometer, perhaps in the lid. On the other hand, if you are unsure of what sort of add-ons you will need, it is a good idea to wait until you have purchased the grill and used it a few times. That way you can get a realistic idea of what sort of accessories you will need (and actually use) to make the most of your cooking equipment. The one accessory we always recommend is a grill cover. It is one of the most basic items you can use to help keep your grill in tip top shape.
We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas! Please leave them in the comments! And grill masters, feel free to share your tips, too!
About the author: Ashley Tarr is a blogger contributing to Eastern Jungle Gym and Best in Backyards.