Barbecue Buying Guide

Barbecue Buying Guide: Charcoal Grilling,

Charcoal vs Gas Grill

A barbecue buying guide should start with the charcoal vs gas grill issue because that must be decided first. For most of us, anyway.

If you live in an apartment or condo that restricts fumes and smoke, you may have no option but an electric grill. But the vast majority of barbecue buyers choose between charcoal and gas grills and need a barbecue buying guide more.

According to the HPBA (Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association)...

  • gas grills account for about 60% of the market
  • electric grills account for 7% of the market
  • charcoal grills claim the rest of the pie.

And, they say, "owning a charcoal grill and a gas grill is also common." That's one solution to the gas vs charcoal question. 

Charcoal vs Gas Grill vs Electric

Taste or convenience?: The charcoal vs gas grill issue is largely a taste vs convenience issue. Or is it? Taste tests actually reveal no significant flavor difference between gas and charcoal grills.

A gas grill is ready when you are, just turn it on. It's easy to clean and there are no ashes to dump or messy coals to deal with. And features? You'll never use all the features available. Bottom line: The majority of barbecue grill owners have gas grills and love them.

On the other hand, every barbecue cook-off contestant swears by charcoal grilling. They wouldn't dream of using anything else. Charcoal grills are simpler and less expensive, and they're gaining in features and convenience, too.

But if it's not a matter of superior taste, (and we're not saying yea or nay) why would anyone fool with charcoal? Admit it, you love being Master and Commander of the Coals. It's not an easy job, but satisfying.

Environmental concerns: There is another issue, an environmental one, where the electric grill shines. Electric grills have no open flame, so they are perfectly safe for the environment. Just plug them in and go. On the other hand, they have no open flame. Is that really barbecuing?

Charcoal grills are the worst environmentally because of their smoke and noxious lighter fluid fumes. But you can eliminate fumes by using a charcoal chimney starter to light your coals. It's simple and inexpensive, around $12 to $20.

Gas grills are somewhere in between. They use propane or natural gas which are at least natural products and only mildly noxious.

Charcoal gas grills are a modern option. They are charcoal grills with a small propane tank for lighting the coals, just like a gas grill. The best of both worlds?

Barbecue Buying Guide Basics

  • Buy a grill with a known brand name, good customer support and a long warranty. If you do that, everything else will fall into place. With a long warranty from a reputable manufacturer you can even take advantage of great online deals without worry. You know you can count on solid construction, which is most important.
  • Choose a grill with at least 400 sq. inches of cooking space. Anything less is inconvenient for cooking whole meals on the grill. Even if it's just the two of you and all you do is grill a couple of steaks now and then, don't settle for less. The first time you cook for company or want to cook the meat, veggies and bread at the same time, you'll be glad. Which brings us to another good point...
  • Choose features wisely. Inconvenience dampens the thrill of the grill. If you are going to have your barbecue grill for a long time, choose convenience features that you will want later as well as now, like work surface and storage. Purchase the best grill you can afford without going overboard on features you are not likely to use. And look for safety features like stay-cool knobs.
  • Easy assembly. Better-made grills require little assembly and have easy-to-follow instructions. (Of course you can always opt for the $10,000 custom stainless steel grill that comes with an assembly team and a chef to show you how to cook on it, but most don't.)

Let's take a look at the features and pricing part of the barbecue buying guide for individual grill types.

Charcoal Grill Review

Charcoal grills are relatively inexpensive. High end units range from $300-400, charcoal-gas combos a little more. A basic unit costs between $50 and $150. But the rule of thumb with charcoal grills is "spend a hundred dollars more." For $100 more you can get enough features to keep the average griller happy for a long time.

Minimum features your charcoal grill should have:

  • Sturdy steel construction with a baked-on porcelain-enamel finish.
  • Heavy-gauge charcoal grate.
  • Deep, easy-to-remove ash catcher for easy clean-up.
  • Adjustable-height heavy-gauge nickel or chrome-plated aluminum cooking grate, hinged for adding coals easily.
  • Portables should have a locking lid for safety when transporting.

Upgrade Features:

Step-ups include shelves and warming racks, smoking ability, workspace, storage space, larger cooking grids, rust-proof ash-catchers, and porcelain-enameled cooking grates. High end grates are made of cast iron, porcelain-coated aluminum or even stainless steel. Gas-charcoal combination.

Gas Grill Review

Gas grills start at about $100 and end at around $10,000 for the gourmet/entertainer who wants all the bells and whistles. Quite a range. You can purchase a very nice model with lots of premium features for $700-$1500. The most popular models are under $300, but grills in the $400-$600 range are gaining in popularity, according to the HPBA.

Minimum features your gas grill should have:

  • Again, sturdy steel construction with a baked-on porcelain-enamel finish.
  • Heavy-gauge nickel or chrome-plated aluminum cooking grate.
  • 2 separate burners, with 2 separate control knobs for greater heat control.
  • BTUs: 20,000 for small, portable units, 30,000-40,000 for a medium-sized model, and 50,000-60,000 BTUs for very large appliances. But note, these are relative figures. A well-engineered grill uses fewer BTUs but is more efficient, for instance. In general, the larger the cooking surface the higher the BTUs. But don't get sucked into paying for 100,000 BTUs if you don't need them. More is rarely better, just a waste of gas.
  • Flare-up control system to quickly burn or divert drippings. This increases the life of the cooking elements.

Upgrade Features:

Step-ups include shelves and warming racks, flip-up workspace, enclosed storage space, large cooking areas with up to 6 burners, improved cooking grates (as above), side burners for cooking sauces, rotisseries and infrared cooking abilities, smoker boxes or drawers, and stainless steel construction. You have custom design and built-in options that include the use of natural gas, if you have it, for convenient, no-refill barbecuing.

Electric Grill Review

Small electric grills start at about $100 and full-featured units tip the scales at $2500.

Electric grills have most of the features of other grills, although it is harder to find one with a large cooking area. The size and other features of your grill will depend largely on your circumstances. But to get the most out of your grilling experience, look for a unit with very high cooking temperatures, 600° or higher, a non-stick cooking grid, and a smoker box. Step up to stainless steel construction, rotisseries, and built-ins.

You don't really need a barbecue buying guide to tell you to use common sense when buying a grill. You get what you pay for, so buy quality.

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