Outdoor Grills 101

Get ready for barbeque season with our introductory class on outdoor grills. We break down each type and give you the pros and cons so you can get the most out of your investment.

We humans have been cooking over an open fire since the dawn of man. You’d think by now we’d know everything there is to know about outdoor grills. But thanks to ever-changing grill technology and design, we spend most of our time scratching our collective heads trying to figure out which one best suits our needs and budget.

We will help your decision-making process along by breaking down the three main types of grills based on how they work, their strengths, weaknesses and average price tag.

Grilling purists swear by the simplicity of the charcoal grill. Based on its name, this type of grill relies on chunks of charred wood (carbon) to cook your food. If you have a leisurely afternoon or evening to prepare your meal, charcoal grilling is perfect for you. This method takes time but the end result is definitely worth the wait. There’s nothing quite like the flavor of a steak cooked over charcoal embers.

When you hit the stores or online retailers, these features are a must: purchase one with stainless steel, porcelain or ceramic grates to make clean up easier. Design choices are wide and varied. The ubiquitous kettle grill is one of the most popular, followed by barrel styles and egg-shaped—plus many of shapes in between. The kettle grill is mainly for cooking up a quick dinner. Barrel and egg grills are more along the lines of smokers that rely on low and slow grilling.

The Good: Charcoal tends to cook hotter than gas or electric which is great for searing meat and getting a tasty char on veggies. This keeps foods moist and juicy while creating a nice flavorful crust on the outside.

The Bad: As we mentioned earlier, charcoal grilling take a bit of patience to the coals glowing. The traditional method takes at least 30-45 minutes to get the coals hot and ready for cooking. You could use a lighter fluid, but it’s not a healthy option and gives the food an extremely unpleasant taste. Use an electric wand or chimney starter to help speed up the process. At the end of your meal, it takes time to clean out the grill and properly dispose of the ashes.

The Cost: Cheap charcoal grills are out there for as little as $20. However, those of higher quality can fall within the $160 to $350 range. If you want the best available, high-end models can be had for $1000 and more.

Traditionalists may consider gas grills cheating, but  most admit that grilling with gas is quicker and easier than charcoal. Statistics show almost 60% of Americans purchase gas grills versus charcoal or electric. If you are a renter, you probably run your gas grill via a propane bottle. Homeowners with natural gas can hook up their grill to an exterior line, eliminating the need to run out at the last minute or during cooking to refill the propane tank.

Basic gas grills feature black powder coated aluminum and can have either one or two burners. For the occasional outdoor chef, these meet most of your requirements. If you take care of your basic gas grill, it can easily last for 10 years.

Higher end gas grills often have stainless steel cases and multiple burners to allow for indirect grilling. Plus, your grill will probably have a side burner or two and stainless steel or porcelain grates. Top of the line models feature warming shelves, a rotisserie function, heat zone separation, wood chip drawers and built-in digital meat thermometers.

The Good: These grills heat up in a matter of minutes, making them the perfect option for getting out of the kitchen on warm summer evenings to prepare a quick and easy meal. There’s really no messy cleaning involved—burn food particles off the grates and empty the grease trap once the unit has cooled.

The Bad: Less expensive models don’t have all the bells and whistles, and you don’t get quite the same smokiness of a charcoal grill. The cost of propane and especially natural gas can make gas grilling less attractive if you are on a tight budget.

The Cost: Basic gas grills start at about $150. If you’re looking to impress, you can find them upwards of $10,000.

While they may not be everyone’s go to grill, electric versions do provide a viable alternative to those who live in apartments or high rises with restrictions on gas and charcoal grills. These types of grills are compact and operate with electric elements that produce high heat instead of flames.

Your food either rests on a griddle type surface or a ceramic grate. Infared technology has made electric grills more efficient and popular. They not only maintain even heat distribution for juicy cooking, they also prevent big flare-ups.

The Good: Electric grills are compact, portable and will work wherever there is an electric outlet. The cooking technology in the electric segment has improved greatly.

The Bad: You won’t get the smoky flavor like you do from charcoal and gas grilling. You can, however, add a pan of wood chips to add a little extra zip. Depending on your local electricity rates, it could be costly to operate.

The Cost: Electric grills range anywhere in price from $60 for a tabletop model to over $1,000 for a deluxe smoker.


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