It's time to strap on the apron and grab the tongs because it's grilling season. Whether it's a charcoal, gas, electric grill or a smoker you're thinking about purchasing, here are a few shopping tips and safety reminders.
Types of Grills
Grilling is the natural cooking choice for those who believe that things just taster better outdoors. There are lots of choices for the grill shopper, but the main decisions are which type and what size. Whatever your needs, you’ll find a grill to feed your cooking passion.
Charcoal grills use charcoal briquettes, wood or a combination of both.
- Cooking on a charcoal grill imparts a more intense, smoked flavor.
- Cooking over charcoal requires time. After lighting, you should be ready to cook in 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the grill and the number and type of briquettes.
- Sizes range from small models great for tailgating or camping to large grill/smoker combinations.
- Higher-end grills have air vents or dampers to control cooking temperatures and igniters to eliminate the need for matches.
- Most charcoal grills are metal, but ceramic is a newer option.
- When using a charcoal grill, ashes need to be disposed of regularly.
Gas grills use liquid propane (LP) or natural gas.
- Gas burns cleaner and is less expensive per use than charcoal.
- Gas grills ignite quickly, with a push-button, rotary or electronic lighter that's integrated into the grill. After a few minutes of preheating, you'll be ready to cook.
- Side burners on gas grills allow you to prepare an accompanying dish without running back and forth to the kitchen.
- A standard tank of LP holds 20 pounds of fuel. Since propane gas is heavier than air, don't be surprised if it feels like it weighs 40 pounds when you pick it up.
- A full LP tank usually lasts about nine hours – of course depending on the cooking temperature and number of burners working.
- Grill owners with natural gas available should consider a direct hookup to power your grill. There are no tanks to replace, and you can eliminate the chance of running out of fuel in the middle of cooking.
Some gas grills are equipped with infrared burners as an additional cooking feature. Infrared heat is from a radiant heat source, rather than hot rising air (convection) used in conventional grilling. Infrared elements heat up faster and therefore cook faster. So, if you’re new to infrared grilling - experiment, follow directions carefully and keep an eye on your food until you master the technique.
Electric grills must be near an electrical outlet.
- If you live in an apartment or other area that can't accommodate charcoal or gas, you can still cook out with an electric grill.
- Newer electric grills do more than just put a stripe on your food. Using ceramic briquettes and a good marinade, you can produce some excellent cookout cuisine.
- If an extension cord is needed, be sure to select the right type.
Smokers are available in charcoal and electric models.
- Smokers offer the ability to cook up to 50 pounds of food at a time.
- Available cooking area ranges from 376 square inches to over 750 square inches.
Still another option for the outdoor cooking aficionado is an outdoor stove. These freestanding one- to four-burner units are great for stews or seafood boils.
You can find everything from small hibachis for tailgating to trailer-mounted units built to handle a side of beef. Grill and smoker combinations are made for regular or slow cooking. Before shopping, determine:
- Will you be cooking entrees only or an entire meal? Most grilling cookbooks have recipe ideas for an entire menu from appetizers to dessert. Don't let your menu be limited by your equipment.
- How many people will you be serving? When looking at grill capacity, consider the entire cooking area. Keep in mind that manufacturer's specifications for the cooking area often include the warming rack or side burner on gas grills.
- What will you cook? Steaks, chicken breasts and vegetables can be cooked in a small space. If you plan on cooking larger items, such as briskets, you'll need a large grill or smoker.
- How often will you be grilling? Remember that charcoal grills may take 10 to 15 minutes longer than gas grills to heat. Weekend users have the luxury of time, but if you grill a lot during the week, gas or electric may be the way to go.
- How much space is available for the grill? A grill with side burners can take up a lot of space on a patio. Before you go shopping, measure your available space.
- What's a Btu? A gas grill's heat output is rated in British thermal units (or Btu). Because this measurement is related to the size of the burner, it can be difficult to compare Btu ratings of different grills. A large grill with a high Btu rating cooks at a similar temperature as a smaller grill with a lower Btu. The ability of a grill to reach and sustain cooking temperature is more critical than how hot it can get. To ensure the best cooking performance, look for burner controls that allow specialized cooking.
- How many burners are available? To help control the location of the heat, most grills are available with two individually controlled burners. Higher-end grills have at least have three burners and may have up to six for even more control. Look for stainless-steel or porcelain-coated burners for rust-resistance.
Take care when placing your grill. The heat from cooking can be harmful to the siding of the house, particularly vinyl siding.
The cooking grid is available in different styles:
- Porcelain-coated, cast-iron grids are the most desirable for heat retention and ease of cleaning. These grids wear extremely well, are rust-resistant and last longer than other grids.
- Stainless-steel grids are rust-resistant, but they may allow food to stick.
- Porcelain-coated grids are the best bet for nonstick cooking. However, the porcelain glaze can chip and rust if not properly cared for.
- Cast-iron grids require curing like cast-iron cookware to prevent rust. These heavy grates wear well, cook well and distribute heat more evenly than the other grids.
Grill Rocks, Stones and Plates
The familiar flavor produced by charcoal grilling comes from the juices of food dripping onto the hot charcoal. Gas grills use several materials to produce the same effect:
- Lava rock heats quickly and disperses the heat to the interior of the grill. Lava is porous and allows grease to accumulate, lessening its efficiency and increasing flare-ups. Replace lava rock yearly, or turn it over to expose a fresh surface.
- Pumice stone operates like lava but collects less residue.
- Ceramic briquettes stay clean in the same manner as a self-cleaning oven—the residue is baked off. Ceramic is more expensive than rock but lasts much longer.
- Heat plates or bars are made of metal and allow heat to rise. The dripping juices dissipate when they fall on the hot metal
Outdoor Grill Accessories
Grill accessories range from basic to specialized. A grill cleaning brush, tongs, spatula and fork are must-haves. Cooking baskets and skewers make cooking smaller foods more efficient. Rotisseries are available to fit some grills. An absorbent grill pad is a nice addition to prevent grease from staining patios.
If you plan on cooking poultry or large cuts of meat, invest in a quality meat thermometer. A grilling light also helps you make sure food is not over- or undercooked.
Replacement parts make some grill repairs easy. With proper care, a good grill can last for years. A lined grill cover is also a good investment.
Want to assemble it yourself? New quick-assembly grills can be assembled in less than 30 minutes. All other grills can normally be assembled in less than an hour. Lowe's can also assemble your grill.
Always keep two important safety concerns in mind when grilling:
- Fire is an obvious hazard. Always use caution when lighting the grill and while cooking. Keep an eye out for children. A gas grill can generate over 800°F of heat in the interior, so the outside inevitably gets very hot. Combine fire with petroleum products and the danger increases dramatically. When lighting charcoal grills, use only starter fluid specifically for charcoal or use pretreated briquettes. Never use gas or kerosene; it's unsafe and your food may taste like a carburetor. As an alternative, use an electric starter or a chimney starter, which uses paper.
- Bacteria. Food-poisoning cases increase exponentially during the summer months when cooks head to the deck or patio. Keep food chilled and covered when it's outside. Even better, don't bring it out until it's time to cook. Don't rush the cooking process. Have appetizers ready to keep the hungry guests appeased. If it's dark, don't try to judge how thoroughly cooked the food is, especially meat or poultry. Use a meat thermometer. Always keep your utensils and cutting board clean.