Time for a new BBQ grill. So you head off to the local home improvement superstore and are faced with a dizzying array of choices. How many BTUs do I need? What size is right for me? Do I want a charcoal grill or a gas grill? Propane or natural gas? Am I really going to need that built-in refrigerator and a sear burner? It can be overwhelming, so let's try and bring some clarity.
Charcoal or gas? This is an argument that you don't want to get in the middle of, as there are hardcore proponents on both sides. Each method has it's advantages and drawbacks. Ultimately, it's really a matter of lifestyle. I personally feel there's a time and place for both.
Charcoal grills are very inexpensive and will produce fantastic food with wonderful flavor. You can easily reach temperatures of 700 degrees, a challenge for many gas grills, but necessary for getting a great sear and char. With a little practice a charcoal grill can double as a smoker, cooking with smoldering wood at low temperatures for an outstanding bbq flavor that simply can't be reproduced by any other cooking method.
Charcoal is king among BBQ pitmasters. However, it's time consuming, there's somewhat of a learning curve involved, it's not as foolproof as gas, it can be messy and you have to deal with lighting charcoal and everything that it entails. Do you want to be able to fire up the grill and be eating in under 30 minutes? If the answer is 'yes', charcoal probably isn't for you.
For outdoor cooking convenience and ease of use, nothing beats a gas grill. Being able to simply turn a knob, press a button and have the grill at the proper temperature in 10 minutes or less is very useful. Do you need to spend $1000 to get a good unit? No, you don't. As with most things in life, a good basic rule of thumb is "keep it simple". A side burner may come in handy but ask yourself, how often do you really believe you're going to use that infrared rotisserie?
Here are a few things to look for:
1. A good, efficient grill is heavy. It should heat up quickly, and hold that heat. How does the lid fit to the body? Is it a close fit? Does the unit feel well constructed and solid overall?
2.Multiple burners are the best and easiest way to control your temperatures and create cooking zones. Make sure the burners are an appropriate size for the housing too. Burners that are too small will create too many hot and cold spots.
3. Cast iron cooking grates are best for holding an even, high temperature and for making beautiful, well defined grill lines, but they do require a bit of maintenance to keep them clean and rust free. A good low-maintenance option are the cast iron grates that are porcelain coated. A grate that has nice, wide bars makes it easier to cook smaller, more delicate foods too.
4. If a grill is efficient and solidly constructed, look for about 80-100 BTUs per square inch of cooking area. But don't get too hung up on BTU ratings. BTUs are a measurement of how much fuel a grill burns, NOT how hot a grill will get or how fast it will get there. Don't be fooled when reading those advertisments either. The only BTUs that really matter are the ones that are used by the main burners, the ones that are actually used for grilling. Not the ones in the side burners, rotiserrie, sear burner etc. Manufacturers will try and fudge the BTU rating by combining all the burners together, making you think you're getting more output than you actually are. Likewise with the cooking area. The square inch measurement of the main cooking grate should be the only relevant number, but manufacturers will often list the "total area" which includes warming racks, and other surfaces above and around the true cooking area, making you think you're getting a bigger grill than you actually are.
5. Running out of propane in the middle of a barbecue is no fun, so it's always good to have a full spare tank on hand. Better yet, get a grill that can be adapted for natural gas and have a plumber hook it up to the gas line in your home. You'll never have to think about having an adequate fuel supply on hand again.
So which features or grill will create the best BBQ? None. The grill itself is only a tool. Practice, patience and the experience of the person holding the spatula and tongs produces the greatest grilled foods. So get out there and start grilling!
Feel free to post comments/questions below and I will do my best to answer them. And come back next week for my Tips on Cooking for Your Summer BBQ.