Backyard BBQs are a quintessential summer activity throughout Silicon Valley and beyond. Having the right outdoor grill to meet your culinary needs is equally as important as the food you select. The success of the meal depends on the quality of the grill (and of course, the gastronomic prowess of the cook!)
Gas grills offer ease and convenience, charcoal grills give the cook control of the heat, and pellet grills merge the taste of cooking with wood with the precision of a digital thermostat. So, which do you choose — a gas, charcoal, or pellet grill? Below are the features to look for in each to help guide you toward an informed purchase.
A favorite among many outdoor cooks, gas grills are convenient and quick. Gas grills come in a variety of sizes, from portable units great for camping and picnics to large units that allow 28 or more burgers to be cooked at once. When purchasing a gas grill, in addition to size, take these qualities into consideration.
Grills with a broad range of temperatures offer the greatest versatility. A basic gas grill works well for those looking to cook burgers and hot dogs but for those who want to cook steaks, ribs, fish, and roasts, temperature range is important. Grills that are able to sear and have the ability for indirect cooking allow the most versatility.
As the most replaced part of a gas grill, if you are an avid griller, you may wish to choose a grill with burners that offer a warranty. Most burners have a two to ten-year lifespan.
Infrared burners don’t offer any additional searing benefits than the basic gas burners.
Stainless Steel grills with welded joints are far more durable than powder-coated grills held together with nuts and bolts. Look for units with four wheels on axles to allow for easier mobility when needed.
Steer clear of grills with sharp edges or corners and handles that place your hand too close to the grill lid. It is also beneficial to have distance between the grates and burners to minimize flare-ups.
Other Desirable Features
- Gas grills can be basic or offer considerable luxury features that can make the cooking experience easier and more enjoyable.
- Gliding drawers for storing utensils, spices, hot pads and more
- Pull-out grease tray for easy cleaning
- Heavy-duty grates: Stainless Steel and coated cast iron offer durability, temperature consistency, and better searing
- Side burners allow other dishes to be prepared or kept warm
- Electric igniters are easier and more reliable than other options
- LED-lit controls are ideal for grilling after the sun goes down
- Fuel gauge lets the cook know when the tank is running low
- Pull-out propane tank tray offers easy replacement
- Duel fuel or natural gas conversion kit
There are those who swear by the classic charcoal grill. Part of the grilling experience is creating the perfect coals on which to cook. Others enjoy the smoky flavor charcoal infuses in meat and fish. Below are the important aspects to consider when purchasing a charcoal grill.
Size & Shape
Charcoal grills come in three different shapes: the classic kettle, barrel grills, and kamado (egg-shaped) grills. Kettle grills are smaller and the deep bed allows for searing and slow cooking without needing a lot of charcoal. Barrell grills are larger and hold more food and kamado grills are airtight, offering a precise level of control for both searing and low-and-slow cooking. Kamodo grills are often made from ceramic and can be heavy.
Ample airflow is needed to regulate heat. Look for a unit with a secure, tight-fitting lid along with multiple, solid vents and dampers.
Access to the Coal Bed
Look for a grill that provides easy, safe access to the coal bed during cooking. Since the coals reach maximum heat after about 15 or 20 minutes and coals lose their potency after about 90 minutes, the ability to add additional fuel is a necessity.
A handle or crank that allows the coal bed or grates to be raised or lowered during cooking allows for better heat control and thus, a better end result of your meal.
There aren’t typically any extra built-in safety measures in charcoal grills but cooks should use long-handled utensils, wear tight-fitting, short-sleeved clothing, and have a fire extinguisher nearby. (Note: water will not put out a grease fire.)
Other Desirable Features
- Charcoal grills tend to be more minimalist than gas grills and most don’t offer drawers, side burners, or other such luxury add-ons.
- Easy to clean ash trays
- Four wheels for mobility
- Multiple vents for added airflow
The new kid on the block when it comes to outdoor grilling, pellet grills offer the cooking flexibility of charcoal and the convenience of a gas grill. All types of food can be cooked on a pellet grill. Thanks to their airtight design and wide range of temperatures, these units can sear, slow-cook, and smoke foods. The pellets, which are the fuel source, come in a variety of wood types including hickory, mesquite, and applewood, infusing food with a distinct wood-smoked flavor. When comparing pellet grills, these are the primary items to consider.
Pellet grills require electricity to operate. Be sure you have a location close to a standard outlet. It is best to avoid plug the unit into an extension cord.
This is where the pellets are stored. The larger the hopper, the more pellets can be stored and the longer the unit can go without adding additional fuel. A thermometer in the cooking chamber signals the controller to precisely regulate pellet delivery.
Just as with the other units, the broader the range of cooking temperatures, the more versatile the grill. A grill that offers a range from 160 degrees to 600+ degrees can sear as well as slow-smoke.
Pellet grills come in a variety of sizes and the size chosen should be based on the amount of cooking. Are you feeding primarily your family or do you typically grill for larger groups?
Pellet grills are simple and convenient for smoking meat and fish. Add the pellets, set the temperature, (225 degrees or below) add your meats, and voila! There is no need to add or redistribute coals like with a charcoal unit.
Some pellet grills have heat deflectors, which are designed to reduce flare ups and minimize burning. These additions can make searing difficult to acquire as they create indirect heat. If the unit you like has deflectors, remove them to expose the food to the flame to achieve a favorable sear.
Other Desirable Features
- Pellet grills come with two difference temperature control units: Non-PID (proportional integral device) and PID controllers.
- Non-PID typically offer up to ten pre-determined temperature settings and are less precise then their PID counterparts. PID controllers maintain a constant temperature within five degrees of the setting compared to a 30-40 degree spread for the non-PIDs.
- PID-Plus Grills-Offer WiFi and Smartphone apps to monitor cooking and send alerts
- Touch-screen with recipes and step-by-step cooking guides
To learn more about pellet grills, the BBQ Guys have a great article that is worth a read.
Choosing the best outdoor grill for your summer lifestyle can make cooking, entertaining, and dining that much more enjoyable.