Sure, summer is wrapping up, but there is still time to get your grill on. And holding out to buy a new grill until August or September ensures you will get the best price while still having weeks of enjoyable outdoor cooking – for that matter, who says you can’t happily grill your way through the winter? Might as well throw on a hat and some gloves, and have a seared steak to celebrate the first snow day.
If you’re buying a grill, whether to replace an old buddy or as your first foray into the joy of grillmarks, you need to ask yourself: what type of fuel do you want your grill to burn? Do you want gas, charcoal, wood pellet or electric? Electric simply won’t give the same flavor as combustion grills, and really are best only if you live in a building that won’t allow gas or charcoal. Wood pellet grills are terrific for smoking, though the flavor won’t be as intense as a charcoal smoker. And everything they produce will taste smoked. Gas vs. Charcoal is where debate gets heated (pun intended). Gas is easiest to heat to temperature and is easy to clean. Charcoal can generate more heat in the end and gives a different, some would say simply more, flavor. Beyond that, the two camps can turn into the Mac vs. PC debate. Basically we support whichever side of the Great Divide you come down on and are happy to talk about the nuances of the decision all day.
Ask yourself then how much you can spend, and how long you you need your grill to last. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (we want to go to their Christmas parties), the average gas grill costs less than $300 and lasts about 3 years. Prices can range though from $100-$300 for a good charcoal grill, to gas units around $200-$400. However, the classic indestructible Weber Kettle is available for less than $100, and you can spend up to $5,000 for a professional-level gas grill.
If you want to get more years from your grill, check out its construction and sturdiness carefully, as well as the warranty on the burners (the most replaced part on any grill). Stability is important for longevity as well as safety, so give any candidate grills a nudge or two to see if they teeter or hold their ground.
The longest-lasting grills are made from cast iron, cast aluminum, enamel bonded steel and stainless steel. Cast iron can rust; enamel won’t unless you chip it. The best stainless steel and aluminum won’t rust, though they will discolor with age and use. Look for metal that’s heavy enough to hold heat if high temperature searing is important to you (generally NOT stainless steel) as well as durable welds, legs, latches and paint. Consider how much effort you want to expend cleaning up after the cooking is done. If you want to keep clean up to a minimum – and who doesn’t – find something with easily removable trays and grates, and easy access nooks and crannies.
Size also matters. It just does. It relates to price, but also to how large the grill’s footprint will be on your balcony or patio. Look at how many square inches of primary cooking area there is, not counting any warming racks or side burners. It’s all about the main grate. As a general rule of thumb, give 100 square inches (10” by 10”) per person you normally cook for.
Finally, check out ease of assembly. Most of the time, the grill will arrive in pieces and needs to be put together. If the assembly is daunting and time is short, stores often will assemble it for you for a price. Peruse the manual as well; some of these are more mystifying than the Dead Sea Scrolls and even less useful.
Whatever grill you choose, the most important thing is to actually use it. There’s nothing sadder than a neglected grill, pining away on the patio for something to add a little sizzle to. So get out your manliest set of tongs and get grilling.