Things to Think About When Choosing a Grill
For many of us, grilling is just about the most satisfying form of cooking out there – maybe because it’s just about the oldest form of cooking out there. There’s a primal pleasure involved when tending the fire (even if that ‘tending’ takes the form of just turning a knob occasionally) and watching a hunk of meat or a spread of root vegetables or a flatbread darken and crisp over a flickering flame or pulsing coals.
Part of the joy, too, is the out-of-doors element to the cooking: again, something that seems to touch us deep in the blood and the bone. While the northern climates tend to restrict grilling to the Memorial Day to Labor Day timeframe, here in the beautiful Lowcountry, grilling is a year-round sport. We all know that you can grill in the snow….but who would want to??
You’ve never had so many options when it comes to a grill, which is, all things considered, a good thing, but also an opportunity for confusion and indecision. There’s a good chance you’ve been disappointed in the past with a grill purchase, too. After all, even those Webers aren’t what they used to be!
Herein we’ll spell out some of the basics of choosing the right grill for your needs. Let’s emphasize that point, though, right here the outset: the right grill for your needs. You can be happy with any number of different grill types and setups, so long as they check the boxes for your personal preferences and match the kind and amount of grilling you’ll be doing.
For some topnotch local guidance on grill-buying 101, we turned to a stone-cold expert: Jamie Horner, owner of Summer Breeze Outdoor Kitchens in Bluffton, SC. Jamie and his crew are responsible for some of the most amazing outdoor kitchens in the Lowcountry!
Here are some of the basic considerations to mull over when embarking on a grill-selecting quest.
What Do You Like to Cook?
Your cooking preferences will help determine which grill is best for you. If you’re a bit on the obsessive side about steak, you’ll want a type and model that does well with high-temperature searing. If you’re keen on slow-cooking and smoking, you want one able to maintain lower heat.
Of course, many of us are into variety when it comes to grilling: we’re not going to be exclusively focused on one kind or cut of meat, and we’re likely going to want the ability to flame-kiss veggies—and maybe pizza and flatbreads—to perfection as well.
If that describes you, you’ll want a grill that can perform well at a wide range of temperatures.
Keep in mind that the BTUs (British Thermal Units) per hour given for a gas grill refer to how much fuel it consumes, and isn’t a terribly useful indication for how much heat it gives off.
Also consider the grill lid’s clearance if you’re interested in exploring indirect cooking or smoking of, say, whole poultry.
How Much Stuff Will You Be Grilling?
Size matters when it comes to grills. One of those little 14-inch portable kettle grills may do just fine for a one- or two-person meal, but there’s a good chance if you get into grilling (or are already an avid grill-master) you’re likely going to be firing up the coals – or the gas – for a whole party’s worth of people at some point.
Consider the square inches of a given grill’s primary cooking surface when determining whether it offers the area sufficient for your needs.
Grills with multiple burners and more precise temperature modification allow you to more efficiently cook a number of items requiring different cooking times and heat levels at once. (Obviously you can grill in stages – sometimes you’ve got no choice – but that’s inherently more time-consuming and risks items that are cooked and off the grate early going cold or drying out while you’re finishing the rest.) Grill models that come with side burners, warming racks, and other accessories expand the space you’ve got to play around with.
From cast iron and aluminum to enamel-coated metals and ceramic, grills are made from a number of different materials. Given the harsh salt air of our Lowcountry climate, rust- and corrosion-resistant stainless steel is typically the best choice – and that includes for the grate, grid, and burners as well.
But that material encompasses quite a bit of variety, as Horner notes. “Not all stainless steel is created equal: The grade, gauge, and finishing all play a role in how durable and long-lasting your grill can be,” he says. “Take for example how salty the air is here in Hilton Head. Some grills just can’t withstand the corrosive salt air as well as others. Some of those brand-new shiny grills will look like a rust bucket after one season.”
Lower-gauge stainless steel is thicker and less prone to corrosion, and in terms of grade, the 300 series offers an excellent degree of both rust- and temperature-resistance. It’s hard to go wrong with 14-gauge 304 (aka 18/8) stainless steel when it comes to grills for use in this part of the country.
From charcoal, wood, and compressed-sawdust pellets to gas and electricity, you’re not hurting for options when it comes to fuel for your grill. There are advantages and drawbacks to each. Charcoal imparts an inimitable flavor but is inherently messier and more demanding than gas, for instance.
Here, as with so much of choosing a grill, your own preference plays a role. Some grillers enjoy the hands-on quality of shaping and starting a charcoal fire and feeding the coal bed, while others appreciate the no-hassle convenience of gas burners.
- Charcoal: Charcoal delivers fantastic flavor courtesy of its profuse, organic smoke, and all else being equal, gives you a hotter grill – great for searing steaks, for example. Good features to look out for in charcoal grills are multiple vents and/or dampers for better airflow control (oxygen is key), special doors or hinged grates for easily moving or adding coals while the grill is going, and adjustable grates so you can cook at a broader range of temperatures.
- Gas: It’s hard to beat a gas grill for sheer ease-of-use. While gas doesn’t typically give you the same high-heat potential as charcoal, you can get around this by opting for a gas grill with sear-friendly, infrared burners. More burners on a gas grill and a broader range of temperatures give you the maximum flexibility for grilling more food (and different foods) at once, and for employing indirect-cooking methods. Pay attention to the BTUs per burner and the arrangement of the burners when selecting a gas grill.
- Pellet: Pellet grills use compressed sawdust processed from hardwoods such as oak or mesquite to deliver what’s basically a combination grill/smoker.
Free-standing vs. Built-in Grills
Maybe you’re looking for a highly portable grill for tailgating, or at least a reasonably portable one for moving around your property. Free-standing grills shuttled around via wheels or casters give you that freedom (unless you’re hooking one up to your household natural gas line). But you might also choose to install a built-in grill to anchor an outdoor kitchen: a fine idea for anyone looking to crank up their outdoor-cooking game, or planning on doing a lot of entertaining in the form of backyard, pool, patio or garden parties.
If you go for a built-in grill, keep in mind that there’s some commitment involved. In many cases, if you end up deciding to replace, upgrade, or alter the grill, you’ll often have to recut or change its seat. Horner explains: “If you ever have to replace a built-in grill and they no longer make that model, you’re stuck with cutting counters and stone.” But some manufacturers are better than others in this regard, he continues. “Bull, for example, has kept the same dimensions for more than 22 years, so even if you want a new grill it will fit in your old opening.”
There’s a whole smorgasbord of accessories you can opt for to deck out your grill or increase its versatility: from side burners, warming racks, and rotisseries to griddles, pizza stones, and lava rocks. These may be built-in features for a particular grill model or add-ons for others, but either way they’re going to affect the overall price tag. Horner recommends thinking carefully about whether you’ll actually use certain accessories so you’re being as cost-effective about things as possible.
“Deciding on accessories is an important factor – not just for usability, but price,” he says. “I personally use a rotisserie all the time, but if you really don’t see yourself spinning chickens or a pork butt, save the money for other options or a bigger grill.”
Speaking of cash, there’s a pretty staggering price range when it comes to grills. You can spend $30 or thousands. A more expensive grill doesn’t always mean a better or more satisfactory one, but there’s definitely something to be said for paying a bit more for a unit that’ll not only churn out fantastic-tasting food, but will do so for years and years. You get what you pay for, after all, and a cheaply made grill from Lowe’s or Walmart is unlikely to have a long lifespan – especially subjected to the rigorous elements of our coastal climate.
Remember, too, that a higher-quality grill purchased from a dedicated retailer will not only perform better in the long run, but also typically come protected by a more comprehensive warranty. “Just like anything else,” Horner notes, “service after the sale is vital. Have you ever made a major purchase at a big-box store, only to need service, a repair, or an exchange? It’s a nightmare. Buying from a specialty company and one that carries reliable equipment will add to the overall experience of your purchase. One reason we carry Bull Grills is their lifetime warranty.”
Buying a grill, like any big purchase, can be a challenge. If you take to heart some of our tips above and go armed with our advice, I am sure you will pick a good one. If you are really stressed, check for local BBQ Classes, many of these cooking lessons will give you a chance to use different grill types and you will be able to get a feel for them before you buy. Also, many grill manufactures have “road shows” where the give grilling demonstrations, this is another great opportunity to try before you buy, or at least see many models up close and personal.