I live by one simple motto: "Friends don't let friends by crappy BBQ gear." That's why I'm here to help you.
April is the month when big box discount stores, home improvement centers, and warehouse clubs are stocked to the rafters with more outdoor cooking merchandise than at any other time of the year.
There's a lot to look at and drool over, but you've got to keep a level head and only plunk down your hard earned cash for items that deliver on the promises of quality, performance, and convenience.
The purpose of this three-part series is to help you formulate your decision criteria and purchase strategy. In this first installment we will consider general decision criteria. The second story will focus on the purchase of a charcoal grill. The third and final post will cover the selection of a gas grill.
One quick note before we get into the details: this series deals only with grills. Evaluating smokers is an even more complex proposition than studying grills, so we'll have to get to that at a later time.
Thinking About a GrillAcquiring in a new grill is a serious proposition, mainly because you will be investing in your outdoor cooking enjoyment for years to come. You want to make sure that your selection satisfies your immediate requirements yet meets your long-term needs as well.
The secret to making the best decision is introspection. You've got to ask yourself a lot of questions about what you want out of a grill. It would be impossible to capture every possible question, but here are the big ones that I would ask if I were sitting at your kitchen table to devise your purchasing strategy:
- Size – How many people will you cook for at one time? How much food will you need to prepare all at once? How much space do you have to use and store a grill? The primary dimension of a grill is cooking surface area, and this will determine how many burgers, steaks, or chops you'll be able to prepare simultaneously. So whether you're cooking for two people or a dozen, choose the size appropriately. Separately, the footprint of the grill should also be evaluated to make sure that it will fit in the available space.
- Location – Where will you do most of your grilling? On your deck? On your patio? On the road? If you want to cook on your wooden deck, a gas grill is safer because you don't want to burn your house down with a stray hot briquette from a charcoal grill. A patio surface such as concrete or stone is safe for charcoal. The question about cooking on the road brings up the consideration of a portable grill or a larger size unit that is still somewhat convenient to transport.
- Frequency – How often will you cook on your grill? Five times a year? Five times a month? Five times a week? If you're only planning to cook a few times a year, then don't invest in some large and very expensive rig. It's simply not worth it, so buy a less expensive grill. If you're a five times a month person, then I recommend investing in a very good grill. But if you're a five times a week person, then you'll definitely want to invest in a unit that is going to deliver outstanding performance and reliability over the long haul.
- Convenience – How much meal preparation time will you typically have? For example, are you always in a rush throwing together your evening dinner, or do you have the luxury of moving at a more leisurely pace. The objective should be to minimize the hassle (either real or perceived) of cooking outdoors, and if you're rushing around to make dinner, then you're not going to have time or patience to light off a batch of charcoal. You're going to want to turn the knob on the propane tank, press the ignitor, and be ready to cook in less than 10 minutes. But if time is not a concern, then charcoal becomes a very good option.
- Seasonality – Will you cook year-round or only in fair weather months? This is sort of an offshoot of the frequency line of questioning. Year-round grillers are typically in the five times a week category, so a serious evaluation and investment are warranted. Gas grills have a slight edge because you'll spend less time outside getting the fire going in winter months, although charcoal grills are perfectly fine for cold weather diehards. Those who will put their grills into a hibernation mode for the winter should be aware that gas grills will need to have a little maintenance performed on them after sitting idle for several months.
- Capabilities – What features and functionality are must haves? Which are simply nice to have? You've got to get a good idea of what you want to do with your grill and what you want it to do for you. Basic attributes such as size of the available cooking surface and construction quality are important, but you've also got to look at operational aspects such as ease of starting a fire, temperature evenness across the entire cooking surface, and ease of cleaning (including dumping ashes on charcoal models). Functional considerations should also be made, such as a built-in side burner (gas grills), rotisserie, and other add-ons that are available from the manufacturer in the standard package or as options.
- Budget – How much can you afford? I suggest having two numbers. The first should be your preferred maximum expenditure. The second should be your stretch number, some higher amount above the maximum that you would be willing to pay for your ultimate grill. The thinking here is that if you discover a unit that is perfect in every way except that its price exceeds the preferred limit, you then give yourself license to purchase it as long as it doesn't exceed the ultimate limit. You should spend be prepared to invest wisely without necessarily taking the el cheapo route.
There are myriad other considerations, of course, but the factors cited above are the main ones to keep in mind as you contemplate your many options.
Charcoal vs. GasAs you are probably aware, there are two schools of thought about fuel. On one side you've got the folks who believe that charcoal is the one and only fuel that should ever be used to grill meat. Lined up on the other side are those people whose belief system sees gas as the only way to true grilling enlightenment.
Get over it, people! Seriously. My view is that charcoal and gas are both great but for different reasons. In fact, I think that every serious griller should own at least one charcoal grill and one gas grill in order to respond to the full spectrum of grilling scenarios. The next two posts will cover the particulars of charcoal and gas, respectively.
And while electric grills are clearly outside the scope of this series (and my outdoor cooking life in general), they do deserve the slightest mention here. An electric grill is often the only option available to apartment dwellers whose landlords strictly forbid the use of either charcoal or gas.
Got questions? Just send me a message and I will gladly respond.
Next Post: Part 2 – Buying a Charcoal Grill
Coming Soon: Part 3 – Buying a Gas Grill