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Buying a grill can be an exciting new purchase, but if you've never bought one before, choosing one can be intimidating. Even if you're an experienced grilling enthusiast, figuring out exactly what you need for your outdoor cooking needs could prove a daunting task, and it's even moreso if you're new to the whole grilling game. But don't worry! We here at AppliancesConnection.com are here to help you keep your head above water with our comprehensive grill buying guide. We'll talk you through the questions you need to ask and how best to answer them. By the time we're done here, you'll be talkin' smokers versus gas grills with the best of 'em!
So sit up, buckle in, and get ready to ride.
Good to start right at the beginning, huh? Grilling is a form of cooking in which you apply dry heat to the surface of food. The use of direct, radiant heat means the food cooks pretty quickly, at temperatures usually in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which gives it a distinct taste and aroma. The taste can be affected by the fuel source as well, as the smoke from burned wood or charcoal can infuse a particular flavor into the meat, for example, while gas grills tend to not contribute anything to the taste.
Grills can work through several different processes, cooking food through direct convection, infrared radiation, or thermal radiation.
It's called grilling, by the by, because the food is usually placed atop a metal grate or grill, which has by extension given its name both to the entire apparatus and cooking process, although it can also be placed on a griddle or grill pan. It can also be called barbecuing, but barbecue is often used to describe a specific grilling method, so we're going to stick with grilling.
It's generally best to start simple, so if you're new at grilling, let's talk about the American classic kettle grill. Kettle grills were invented in the early 1950's, and are essentially enclosed metal boxes containing a heat source such as charcoal and a grill to hold the food. Originally designed by George Stephen of the Weber Grill Company, the basic design has been widely emulated, and today can be found at every price point from numerous manufacturers.
These are simple, effective, no-nonsense grills that almost anybody can use with great results. The lid gives you increased control over heating and smoking, but it doesn't have any fancy-pants dials or settings beyond how much you open the lid and the top vent. These are solid grills for someone just starting out on their grilling adventure even as they remain a solid, versatile cooking tool for experienced grilling gourmets.
Well, that's the ten-thousand dollar question, isn't it? There are lots of different kinds of grills out there, so this can be a complicated choice. So take a deep breath and tell yourself "I can do this," because I believe in you.
Grills can be broken down in four basic categories. There's a lot of variation within them, but for our purposes, there are only four grills in the entire world: freestanding grills, built-in grills, portable grills, and smokers. So what sets them apart, and how do you know which one is the one you need? Let's break it down.
Freestanding grills are single-unit grills in any variety of configurations, but which are independent of any other setup you might have. A freestanding grill doesn't need to be attached to your house or any outdoor fixtures except, possibly, a fuel line. These range from simple kettle grills to elaborate and powerful stainless steel gas giants. Odds are this is the basic category you're looking for if you don't have something specific in mind.
"Something specific" would include built-in grills. A built-in grill is intended to be installed in a full outdoor kitchen setup. So, if you're planning on building a complete outdoor cooking suite, a built-in grill will provide you with consistent design aesthetics without sacrificing performance; there's really no reason to go with a freestanding grill in that situation.
Portable grills are small, lightweight, low-to-mid-range grills that are easy to transport and are great for tailgating, barbecues in the park, or apartment balconies. While not as powerful as heavy-duty grills, these are perfectly serviceable products designed to provide you with a versatile grilling solution in areas you might not otherwise be able to cook those hotdogs the way you want. These include everything from hibachi grills through to small kettle grills, many of which are often themselves small freestanding grills including light frames.
Smokers are a completely different beast. Eschewing the high, intense temperatures normally used in grilling, smokers use a much lower level of heat to induce wood or charcoal briquettes to smolder in such a way was to smoke without actually igniting. Within their sealed container, the heat slowly builds while the chamber fills with smoke, both slowly cooking your meat while infusing it with the flavor of the smoke. This creates a unique, distinctive taste that you can't achieve any other way.
After the basic categories listed above, fuel type is the single most important factor in grill selection. It affects everything about your grill -- how you use it, where you install it, and how your food tastes afterward. As above, there are four basic fuel categories, and one special category we'll get into at the end.
Your most basic grill category is the charcoal grill. Charcoal, despite its name, isn't actually the same thing as coal; it's actually wood which has been heated in a sealed steel or clay box to temperatures in excess of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, removing all water and volatile hydrocarbons and leaving behind carbon and ash minerals. This allows charcoal to burn efficiently and smokelessly. Charcoal is easy to heat and cooks effectively, making charcoal very common in grilling at all levels. Charcoal grills require no special installation; simply dump some charcoal into the bottom and set it aflame. This makes charcoal grills great for homes without natural gas connections. Further, the charcoal imparts a distinct taste to anything you cook over it thanks to the fact that it's still a wood product, so you may wish to use charcoal because you enjoy the taste.
Gas grills are a bit more complicated, but they also offer you a much more profound level of control so you can cook exactly the way you want to cook. And the convenience can't be beat; there's no futzing around with charcoal briquettes, no struggling to build a flame, no starter fluid, and no mess at the end. You have to do is flip a switch and turn a knob and you've got a grill that's ready to go.
But gas grills carry with them their own disadvantage; the convenience and versatility of use comeswith a much larger footprint. Gas grills tend to be considerably bulkier than their charcoal brethren, and have many more parts. When a charcoal grill breaks, all you have to replace is a chunk of metal, but when a gas grill breaks, repairs can get fairly involved. What's more, gas grills require an external fuel source, either a liquid propane tank or a connection to your home gas line. And finally, gas grills don't impart much if any flavor to the meat at all.
All of that being said, a gas grill carries with it a certain amount of gravitas and are usually easily customizable with side burners, racks, and rotisseries, among other accessories. And, because gas flame is easily adjustable with the turn of a knob, you can change heating settings at the drop of a hat without having to worry about tending the flame.
Traditional grills rely on convection to cook food. This basically means that the flame or heated element heats the air in the grill, which circulates around the food, transferring heat as it does so. If this sounds terribly inefficient, that's because it is. We're relying on a heated medium to heat our food -- heating the air so that the air heats the food. But what if -- stick with me now -- what if we could go around the air? What if we don't need the air at all?
That's crazy talk, you tell me. But thanks to the magic of technological innovation, we're not just controlling flame anymore. We're controlling the heat itself.
Everything in the entire universe that's at least slightly warmer than absolute zero emits some infrared energy. Ever notice how the sunlight on your skin feels warm? That's because the Sun emits a particularly large amount of infrared energy, and it's heating the air, yes, but it's also heating your skin directly. So instead of feeling warm air, you're simply heating up under the infrared radiation.
So what we do is we heat up a ceramic or stone element directly, which then gets so excited on an atomic level it starts emitting a considerable amount of infrared radiation, which heats up your food directly without relying on the air to do the heavy lifting for it. This means that you don't have to wait for the flame to heat up the air and then wait for the air to heat the food; the end result is food that gets cooked considerably faster.
However, caveat emptor. Infrared grills can absolutely demolish fish and vegetables which may not be able to withstand the brutal heat, and while the heat is adjustable, it will never reach the lows of smoldering charcoal or the simmer gas can offer. Thankfully, more and more manufacturers are offering dual infrared-convection models to offer the best of both worlds in a single unit.
Infrared is the wunderkind of grilling these days, and with good reason. It's a powerful and fast-cooking process which promises to redefine the entire industry. But because it's still a relatively new and uncommon technology, you need to understand that you won't necessarily cook the best steak with it on your first go around. Like any cooking process, infrared has its own idiosyncrasies and techniques you'll need to learn over time, with guidance or through trial and error. It's unwise to assume that one bad steak means you have a defective grill.
Kamado grills are a style of ceramic grill originating in Japan and brought to the United States after the Second World War. Shaped like large eggs and constructed out of material including fire clay, terra cotta, and double wall insulated steel, the grills are designed to retain their heat more efficiently than standard grills. Thanks to the strong insulation offered by materials such as fire clay, heat is only allowed to escape through a small upper. This means temperatures simply last longer rather than dissipating into the air, whether it's the hottest of hot or the lowest smolder. Kamados can even work as smokers.
Kamados are versatile and efficient grills available in a wide range of sizes and capacities.
Electric grills are generally small-scale indoor grills. Think the George Foreman Grill and its ilk. These small grills include a metal grill plate that's heated by an embedded element, and features a drip-pan to capture excess fat and grease. They're usually small enough to place on a countertop, and are generally very portable. This makes them great for small homes and apartments in urban areas where full-scale grilling is impossible, but these are not comprehensive grill replacements; they're usually intended for small-scale cooking, not a complete cookout.
That's a tough question. We're going to talk about gas grills, because they're easier to quantify than charcoal grills, and also display a wider range of sizes.
How big a grill you need depends on how you use it, and how many people you intend to feed of it regularly. If you're generally cooking for two, you really only need two burners. A small-scale grill for a small serving size. Then you scale up appropriate. Three burners are great for a small family -- upwards of four people. If your family is a bit larger than that, try four burners. If you're occasionally cooking for small gatherings of friends, five burners would be appropriate, and if you frequently have large groups of guests over -- perhaps you are, in fact, the King or Queen of the Neighborhood -- you'll want to go as high as six burners. But there are all rough guidelines; everything depends on how you cook, what you cook, and what you assess your needs to be.
Side burners are excellent accessories that frequently come with gas grills. A side burner is a small electric or gas burner like you might find on a stovetop where you can easily make and maintain sauces or other side dishes without having to run back and forth from the kitchen. While not strictly necessary, these are useful, functional additions that can do wonders for you if you often find yourself cooking complex meals, allowing you the freedom to focus without worry. Whether or not you need one depends on how useful you think you'd find it.
A rotisserie is another great, useful addition to any grill. Essentially a long skewer which rotates meat over an open flame, rotisseries are a spectacular way to ensure even cooking on large dishes, including whole chickens. If you often find yourself making large roasts, a rotisserie would be a welcome addition to your cooking arsenal; even if you don't, you may find a rotisserie opens you up to new meals and recipes you hadn't considered before. As always, you must assess your needs before making any significant purchases.