If you’ve ever envied a picture of perfectly-seared steak, or stared in awe at a video of impossibly symmetrical grill marks on a pork chop and thought, Well that’s just because they have a fancy grill, this is for you.
The first thing you should know is that nice grills aren’t just for professionals or New Balance-clad Instagram dads—everyone who’s looking to up their cookout game should strive to use the best grill that fits their budget and space requirements. And while it’s certainly possible to make a delicious meal on a miniature George Foreman or the beat-up charcoal grill you had in your backyard growing up, investing in a grill that matches your needs will lead to better meals and greater long-term enjoyment.
Not sure where to start? Don’t worry—we’re here to help. We called on a few outdoor cooking experts to help guide you through the grill-buying process. We rang up Steven Raichlen, author of the newly released Brisket Chronicles, and Paula Disbrowe, author of Any Night Grilling and Thank You For Smoking, to pick their brains. Whether it’s your first grill or your fifteenth, check out some of these tips and recommendations for buying the best grill, straight from the experts.
What Kind of Grill is Right For You?
“When it comes to grills, there’s no one model or size that fits all,” Raichlen says. “The ‘best’ grill is really the best grill for you.” He explains that when looking for a grill, it’s important to consider the following factors: How often you cook outdoors, how many people you typically serve, what sort of grilling or smoking you do, and how much you enjoy the actual grilling process. Oh, and Raichlen says not to forget one more factor—looks. “Let’s be honest, for most of us, a grill isn’t strictly a utilitarian object. There’s also the wow factor—some guys look at a grill as a Porsche you can park on your patio.”
Obviously, if you only plan on grilling once or twice a year, you might not want to blow your entire checking account on a super fancy grill. (Or maybe you do—in that case, we’re here for it.) But if you’re on a first-name basis with your local propane or charcoal provider, springing for a higher-end model is probably in your best interest. In terms of size, the more people you usually cook for, the bigger you want your grill to be. It’s also important to consider the kind of cooking you plan on doing, Raichlen says. He lumps everything into two categories: Grilling and barbecue.
“Grilling is a direct, fast, high-heat method used to cook small, thin, tender, quick-cooking foods, like steaks, chops, chicken breasts, fish fillets, vegetables and sliced fruit,” Raichlen explains. “Barbecue involves cooking large, tough, and/or fatty cuts of meat over—or more commonly next to—a low fire for a duration measured in multiple hours. True barbecue foods include North Carolina pulled pork, Texas-style brisket, and Kansas City-style ribs.” While Raichlen mentions that it’s theoretically possible to cook barbecue on a charcoal grill (he says you can forget about gas) the device of choice for BBQ is a smoker, or a “pit.”
Gas vs. Charcoal
While grill enthusiasts could go on forever about the great debate that is gas versus charcoal, we’ve simplified things a bit and highlighted the pros and cons of each style.
“Charcoal burns hotter than gas, which gives you better searing and better caramelization of the plant sugars in vegetables and the proteins in meats and seafood,” Raichlen says. “It’s also a lot easier to burn food on a charcoal grill than on a gas grill.” And contrary to popular belief, simply cooking with a charcoal grill won’t impart a smoky flavor into your food—that comes from adding wood chips or wood chunks to the coals. “If you go with charcoal,” Raichlen says, “you’ve got to know what you’re doing.” Gas, on the other hand, offers the convenience of push-button ignition and turn-of-the-knob heat control, he explains. Unfortunately, lots of smaller, cheaper gas model are woefully under-powered, which means it’ll be more difficult to get the same sear and caramelization you would on a charcoal model.
“Personal temperament is a factor, too,” Raichlen says. “If you like messing around with fire and waltzing food from hot spots to cool spots—you’ll feel most satisfied in front of a charcoal grill. If you’re more a results-oriented sort of person, you’ll probably feel more at home with a gas grill.”
And if you’re really having a hard time deciding between charcoal and gas, Raichlen offers a quick fix—spring for both! Charcoal can be used on those days when you want to spend a leisurely afternoon grilling, while gas can be fired up on a weeknight for a quick dinner after work.
Criteria to Look For
Perusing online shops or walking into a real-life grill store can be intimidating if you don’t know what to look for. Luckily, we’ve got a few tips. For both gas and charcoal grills, Raichlen recommends looking for models with sturdy construction, stable legs, and side tables for extra workspace while cooking. The next thing to keep an eye out for is a heavy metal grate. “In descending order of preference,” Raichlen says, “I personally prefer cast-iron, stainless steel bars, pressed stainless steel, and—last of all—thin chrome bars and porcelainized enamel.”
The final thing you want your model to have is a multi-year warranty on parts and labor, as your grill is bound to undergo some wear and tear during its tenure.
How to Choose a Gas Grill
For gas grills, you should look for models with at least two—but preferably three or four—burners. Multiple burners are hugely important if you want to do any sort of indirect grilling. Next, check to see if the grill you’re looking at has a large, deep, and easy-to-empty drip pan for collecting grease. Then, a gas gauge is helpful for preventing a mid-cookout trip to the store, and a built-in thermometer is key for knowing exactly how hot your grill is. Raichlen says to keep your eyes peeled for models featuring rotisseries that have a separate dedicated burner, preferably in the back of the grill. And finally, for those interested in smoking, a smoker box with a separate dedicated burner. (Raichlen’s pro tip: No gas grill works as well as a charcoal grill for smoking, but a smoker box will make you feel better.)
How to Choose Charcoal and Wood Grills
If you’re interested in purchasing a charcoal grill, it’s a little more straightforward. Raichlen says to look for models that have tall, tight-fitting lids for indirect grilling, as well as adjustable vents in both the top and bottom for controlling the heat. Charcoal grills that feature a hinged grate or door in the front of the grill to allow for the addition of fresh charcoal and wood chips are great too, he says. Finally, make sure the grill has an ash catcher for easy cleanup.
Best High-End Gas Grill: Fire Magic Echelon
This five-burner grill features an insertable charcoal basket, a griddle, and a pizza stone. It’s also complete with hot surface ignition, a rotisserie, and a dedicated wood chip smoker drawer. Plus, the unique “flat diamond” grates give you a superior sear and grill marks. This grill is perfect for serious outdoor cooks with serious outdoor space.