All over the northern hemisphere, the temperature is rising and with it, our thoughts turn to the best foods for summer eating. One of the most exciting summer initiations is when grilling aficionados rip off the cover and fire up the charcoal or gas for the first official grill of the season. Nothing beats the feeling of being enveloped in sunshine and warm air as you hear and smell the burgers, chicken, veggies, and more happily roasting on the metal tines.
If reading that last sentence makes your mouth water and you’re in the market for a brand new grill this season, you may be wondering what the right grill is for you. There are so many brands and types out there that understanding the differences between grills may have you feeling overwhelmed. This easy and handy guide should have you firing up a new grill of your very own in no time.
grilling newbie and don’t understand–or want to understand–the difference between heat zones? Do you have the time or patience to wait for charcoal briquettes to arrive at their perfect temperature? Do you want cleaning to be a snap or are you okay with a little more work in order to keep your grill in top condition? And most importantly, what is your ideal flavor profile? Answers to all of these should factor into your decision-making. Depending on your preferences, certain grills will have serious benefits and drawbacks that may sway your decision.One of the best ways to help narrow down what type of grill you should get is by weighing a few different personal factors that may seem simple, but will likely affect how often you actually use your grill. For example, are you a
Typically when one thinks of a barbecue grill, charcoal is the first that comes to mind. In the US, it’s pretty traditional and for a while was really the only type of home grill one could buy. Charcoal grills cook with only use the use of charcoal briquettes and a starter such as lighter fluid. Charcoal grills impart that traditional smoky flavor one thinks of when thinking of grilled food. The learning curve is not too difficult with charcoal grills, once you get the hang of how to start it and how to use the vent on top to help control the temperature. There is definitely an art to grilling if you want to go down the rabbit hole of how to pile the charcoal, how to zone for different temperatures, and more, but for basic grilling, it’s an easy choice.
- Inexpensive: Charcoal grills can be one of the most inexpensive types of grill because they have few fancy components.
- Small: They do come in different sizes, but if your outdoor areas is space-constrained, a charcoal grill can often fit easily into a corner.
- Tasty: Charcoal grills give foods fantastic flavor, and throwing in some wood chips for extra smoke is easy to do.
- Portable: Unlike many other types of grills, charcoal is easily portable. You can buy a mini one and take it to a park or beach with you for a party.
- Time-intensive: Briquettes can take a very long time to heat up, and often have to be actively tended to insure they all fire up or that the flames don’t go out. If you don’t have the time or inclination to tend to your fire, a charcoal grill may not be the right one for you.
- Messy: Charcoal grills make a ton of ash. Though cleaning the metal grates aren’t any more difficult on these versus other types of grills, you have to be careful not to let coal ash build up, which can be dangerous. Cleaning out the grill can be a messy business.
- An art: Sure, if you’re happy to just fire it up and throw a few burgers down, a charcoal grill is a-okay for that. But if you pride yourself on nuances in temperature, such as quickly searing meat and then putting it over a lower temperature for a low-and-slow finish, or cooking two foods at the same time that need different temps, you’ll have to know how to zone your heat. Also, unlike a gas grill where you can adjust the heat at-will, you can’t just turn the dial on charcoal up or down with a knob. If you’re interested in having this kind of control over your cooking but fear a learning curve, you may want to consider a different kind of grill.
Types to consider:
Gas grills are exactly what they sound like: grills that use gas instead of charcoal to cook your food. Built-ins can easily use the gas line attached to your house, but many require a propane tank which you fire up with a push-button starter. Some will argue that the flavor isn’t quite the same, but others disagree. You can still get the same char on your meat and veggies with a gas grill than you will find with charcoal, but for non-purists, a gas grill has a number of advantages.
- Quick: No need to mess with briquettes, lighter fluid, and a long time to get to temp. Literally press a button to get the flame started, close the lid, and wait mere minutes for your grill to heat up. You don’t need to stand and tend to it. For someone like me who gets home late from work and wants to grill something quickly, the convenience of gas means I use mine all summer long.
- Easy to clean: Not needing to dump used ash can be the make-or-break factor for some grillers. When you’re done, simply turn the gas knobs to the “off” position, clean out any food that has fallen on the inner mechanisms, clean your grates, and you’re done.
- No expertise needed: Most gas grills have at least two gas controls, which means if you need a hot side and a cool side, you can easily set those without needing to specialty-zone them like you do with charcoal.
- (Potentially) apartment friendly: If you live in an apartment or condo with a deck or balcony where you want to put your grill, be sure to check your lease or condo docs to see what may be allowed. Many buildings outlaw charcoal grills, in which case a gas version may be your only option.
- Bigger: In addition to the grill itself, you need space to put the propane tank. Tanks come in different sizes so you don’t necessarily need a giant one for a tiny grill, but that space has to exist somewhere. Also, many gas grills come as a package complete with attached side tables for your tools, condiments, and plates. If you have a small outdoor space, that may not work for you.
- Flavor: Maybe, maybe not. Determine how much that “authentic” grilled flavor is important to you.
- Tank refills: Nothing is worse than realizing in the middle of your grilling session that you may be out of gas. Typically the biggest cash output is when you buy your first propane tank, but often gas stations or hardware stores will do a tank refill or exchange for a low cost. However, it’s not always easy to tell when you’re running low because the tanks themselves are kind of heavy (and if you need help hauling it up the stairs, that’s something else to consider). Get a sense for how long you can typically run your grill on one tank, and then plan for future refills appropriately.
Types to consider:
Charcoal/Gas Hybrid Grills
These kinds of grills are exactly what they sound like. They look like a gas grill, but with the added benefit of the extra smokiness of charcoal. They also combine the best of both worlds because they eliminate a lot of the cons of a charcoal-only grill. You can use a gas starter to fire up the charcoal and keep it burning, eliminating a lot of the uncertainty with trying to light and maintain charcoal briquettes. If you just love the idea of having a charcoal grill with less of the muss and fuss, a hybrid may be for you.
- Convenience: As mentioned above, it eliminates a lot of the downsides of a straight charcoal grill.
- Flavor: you can use briquettes and/or wood chips to add additional flavor.
- Price: Hybrid grills can be significantly more expensive than a single gas or charcoal version.
- Cleaning: Yep, since there is charcoal, there’s still that annoying clean up you need to do.
- Maintenance: Not only do you have to make sure you have enough charcoal in the house, you also need to make sure you have enough propane, which could require multiple trips depending on how quickly you use one or the other.
Types to consider:
Smokers are a special type of grill designed for smoking large quantities of food over a long period. Smokers cook at low temperatures, via indirect heat, that creates a smoky environment which infuses the food with flavor and typically makes food more tender over the long run. Many smokers function differently than other grills, using wood chips instead of charcoal for the flavor and a water basin to control the temperature. While charcoal and gas grills can be hacked, in a sense, to function as a smoker, a smoker can not function as a regular grill. So if you want quick and easy, or to make many different types of foods at once, a smoker may not be the right apparatus.
- Flavor: for those who love the super smoky flavor and tenderness of foods like brisket or ribs, a smoker is a great device to cook those in a fall-off-the-bone way.
- Low-maintenance: While cooking, that is. Unlike a gas or charcoal grill where you need to stand and tend your food, with smokers you can set it and walk away for hours while your food turns into the perfect meal.
- Great for giant cuts: Looking to cook a whole hog? A giant brisket? A roast or five racks of ribs? Smokers are great for these giant cuts because the low and slow process means you won’t torch the skin while leaving raw meat on the inside. Also, many smokers are designed so that these large cuts fit comfortably.
- Single-purpose: If you want a smoker but also love to grill, you will have to get both devices. Again, a grill can function as a de-facto smoker if need be, but the reverse is not true.
- Slow: If you want to whip up a quick barbecue for dinner or for friends, smokers cannot be rushed. A grill will give you fast results if needed.
- Versatility: If you’re looking to make foods that require different temperatures, such as a steak (high heat) and veggies (low heat), smokers cannot be zoned.
Types to consider:
Remember the George Foreman grill of yore? Yep, that is an example of an electric grill. As you can probably surmise, electric grills require none of the heat from charcoal or gas. Typically these types of grills use flat or ridged plates where the open metal grate would be, and an electric heating element provides the power needed to cook foods. They may not all have that slant to drain the fat that George Foreman grills are known for, but they are considered a clean, easy, and some say healthier way to grill your favorite foods. These come in both outdoor grill-type forms or countertop versions, and some have just one heating surface while others come in a clamshell style, where a top heating surface can close onto the bottom. Clamshells mean you can cook your food in half the time because it cooks from two sides at once.
- Healthier (maybe): There have been some studies that indicate that grilled foods contain carcinogens from the carbon created while cooking. If you love grilled food but the potential health risks are a concern for you, an electric grill may be a better solution.
- Lower maintenance: You don’t need to buy charcoal, lighter fluid, or propane, so nothing to have to continually restock! Also, many electric grills have non-stick coatings which can make cleaning a breeze.
- Small: Though electric grills come in sizes big enough to rival your more traditional grill, they can also come in portable or tabletop versions. If you are space-constrained, want to grill during inclement weather, or don’t even have an outdoor space, electric grills can provide many of the benefits to fit your situation.
- Flavor: If you were to do a blind taste test with a steak that’s been cooked on a traditional grill versus an electric grill, it’s likely that you’d be able to tell the difference between the two. Electrics don’t quite impart the same flavor as other types of grill.
- Portability: The downside to having an electric grill is that you need electricity. If you want an outdoor version and don’t have outlets nearby, or wish to haul it to a park or beach for a party, you may be in trouble.
Types to consider:
Kamado grills are less known in the west but becoming more popular every year. They are the closest to an all-in-one cooking device you can find: they grill, smoke, roast, and can even cook like an oven. Using lump wood charcoal instead of traditional charcoal briquettes, kamado grills are often oval or round in shape and while traditionally made out of clay, ceramic is very common. They have two air vents, one for allowing air in and another for letting it out, in order to control the heat. Because of how it is designed, kamados absorb and radiate heat very efficiently, which helps to hold the temperature steady and keep foods from drying out. If you’ve heard of The Big Green Egg, one of the most popular commercial versions, you’ve heard of a kamado grill.
- Versatile: Were you sad when you read above that a smoker can’t also be a grill? You should consider a Kamado. It does both as well as cooks like an oven, so if you want to make a pizza, it’s a great multi-functional device for which you don’t need multiple grills.
- Multi-size: Kamado grills can come in “normal” grill size or super crazy giant. If you’re someone who loves outdoor cooking and grilling and wants to have parties for a cast of thousands, there’s a giant Kamado grill out there for you.
- Expensive: Because of its special design, kamados can get very expensive. If you are on a budget, this is likely not the grill for you.
- Heavy: Also due to their unique shape and ceramic materials, kamados can get extraordinarily heavy. If you wish to be able to move yours around, you’ll need to purchase a custom-designed stand with wheels. If you have an elevated back deck that has a weight limit, you’ll also want to look into whether a kamado will work for you.
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