The Grate Outdoors Turn up the heat and grab some meat. We picked the best grills on the market
(MONEY Magazine) – Grilling, barbecuing, cooking out--by any name, Americans do a lot of it. Some 14 million grills were sold in 2003, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, and that figure is expected to surpass 15 million this year. To help you make a smart choice, MONEY spoke to cookbook authors, chefs and retailers. We cast a skeptical eye on grill manufacturers' claims as we compared dozens of brands. And yes, we cooked our share of steaks, chicken, even a whole hog, all in the name of research.
Charcoal grills are pretty straightforward--we recommend our favorites on page 136--so most of our buying tips deal with gas grills, which have 60% of the market. Experts disagree on whether gas grilling can match the flavor of charcoal, but nobody argues with the convenience of gas: no coals to light, no ashes to clean up afterward, and you can adjust the heat by turning a knob. But with so many similar-sounding brand names--Broil King, Char-Broil, Broilmaster--it's easy to get confused. Many people solve this problem by opting for the brand that has become synonymous with grilling: Weber. But Weber's reputation was built primarily on its charcoal kettle, and while its gas grills are good products, they're hardly the last word on the subject. Here's what to keep in mind when buying a gas grill.
--CROSS THE GREAT GRILLING DIVIDE. Eighty-three percent of the gas grills purchased cost less than $300. Unfortunately, most grills in this price range are not built to last. They may work fine for a year or two, but you'll soon be stuck buying another one. That said, you don't need to spend thousands of dollars to avoid this pitfall: Virtually every expert we consulted identified $500 as the price point where good value kicks in. In fact, it's hard to buy a bad $500 gas grill.
--DON'T SKIMP ON SIZE. "Grilling is a very active form of cooking," says Bruce Aidells, president of the Aidells Sausage Co. and author of The Complete Meat Cookbook, "so you need enough surface area to move things around." Obviously, don't buy a huge grill if you're just going to cook a burger once a month, but trading up is often worth it. "Get double what you think you need," say Bill and Cheryl Jamison, whose latest cookbook is Chicken on the Grill. "It's a good value because having, say, a third more space doesn't cost a third more."
--DON'T OBSESS OVER BTUs. Salespeople love talking about a grill's power output as measured in BTUs. But grills with identical BTU specs can perform differently, depending on their size and configuration. "I don't even know how many BTUs you need," says celebrity chef Bobby Flay, host of the Food Network's Hot Off the Grill. "I just know you need to get some serious heat going." And virtually any grill in the $500 range or above can do that.
--GET A GOOD GUARANTEE. "One of the biggest differences between the lower- and higher-end grills is the warranty," says Joe Salvaggio, owner of Big Apple Barbeque, one of the largest grill dealers in New York City. Granted, Salvaggio has an interest in selling high-end products, but his basic point is well taken: The more you spend, the better the warranty tends to be. Look for lifetime coverage on the castings (the hood and the firebox) and at least five years on the burners and grates.
--BEWARE THE "CUP HOLDER" FACTOR. Our experts agree that extras like side burners and rotisseries are often just expensive toys that few people actually use. "It's like buying a car based on the cup holders instead of the engine," says Flay. If you really want a side burner, fine, but base your purchase on the basics, not the extras.
Best luxury grill
Dynamic Cooking Systems BGB48-BQR ($5,226; dcs-range.com; 800-433-8466). Whether you're a serious chef or just want to make your neighbor green with envy, this grill has it all: a large cooking surface, gleaming stainless-steel construction, a smoker tray with its own burner, a patented grease-management system and a lot more. Even nonessentials like the two built-in side burners and the rotisserie rack with a dedicated burner get serious treatment. In short, it's a piece of professional-grade kitchen equipment for your backyard.
Best all-purpose grill
Broilmaster P3 ($989; broilmaster.com; 800-851-3153). It costs more than a comparably sized Weber, but it's worth it, in part because the company's unique mix-and-match ordering system lets you build a grill with your choice of accessories. You want fold-out side shelves but no front shelf? Check. You want one of those side shelves to be wood and the other to be stainless steel? Check and double-check. Meanwhile, the castings, burners and cooking grates (which are nonstick, porcelainized cast iron and adjust to three heights--a huge plus) all come with a lifetime warranty, which makes this great grill a great value to boot.
Best grill for chicken & fish
Weber Genesis Gold B ($549; weber.com; 800-446-1071). Weber's basic gas grill line, the Genesis series, uses a burner configuration that makes it hard to adjust the heat from one part of the grill to another--an annoying limitation. But the setup is perfect for the indirect-style cooking for which Weber is best known, and that makes it particularly well suited for chicken and fish. "I was startled by the difference between the Weber and other grills I've used," says John Manikowski, author of Fish Grilled and Smoked. "The heat distribution was very consistent." Among the several Genesis models, we like the Gold B, which offers stainless-steel fixtures; the Gold C adds a side burner for $50.
Best steak-lover's grill
Golden Blount Texas Sizzler II ($3,295; goldenblountinc.com; 800-833-1139). Wondering why your backyard steaks never quite match up to the ones at your local steakhouse? One reason is that steakhouse broilers get a lot hotter than conventional gas grills, most of which top out at 600º or 700º. But the Texas Sizzler II uses infrared ceramic burners, an expensive but increasingly popular technology that can heat the grill all the way to 1,600º, ideal for getting that quick sear that seals in the juices. This isn't the best grill for chicken, fish or vegetables--you're liable to incinerate them. But for the serious beef addict with the passion (and the cash) to do things right, this is the grill industry's equivalent of a prime, dry-aged T-bone.
Best budget grill
Broil King Royal 1 ($250; broilkingbbq.com; 800-265-2150). Broil King is a Canadian manufacturer whose grills are widely available in America, and its Royal 1 model is small but high quality. "This is the one lower-price grill I recommend to my customers," says Joe Salvaggio of Big Apple Barbeque. "It puts out plenty of heat and it's well made." It also has a lifetime warranty for the castings and a five-year warranty for the burner--unusual for a grill at this price. Serious grillers will want something bigger, but this is a good option for the solo or occasional griller.
Best basic grill
Weber One-Touch Gold, 22 1/2 inches ($139; weber.com; 800-446-1071). This is the classic Weber kettle, renowned for having revolutionized American grilling. Leave the lid off and sear a steak; put the lid on and roast a chicken. As Bobby Flay says, "The classics are classics for a reason."
Best gas compromise
Weber Performer ($399). If you love charcoal cooking but hate the hassle, the Performer offers a novel twist: a small gas pilot burner that lights the coals. No lighter fluid, no chimney---just push a button. You still have to wait for the coals to heat up, but it's a nifty mechanism.
Big Green Egg ($800; biggreenegg.com; 404-320-2066). Wood chips will create smokiness in any grill. But serious smokehounds should consider the aptly named Big Green Egg. It's not ideal for items like steaks and burgers, but its ceramic shell is terrific for roasting and smoking.
Best upscale grill
Hasty-Bake Legacy 131 ($889; hastybake.com; 800-426-6836). If you want to look beyond Weber, experts recommend Hasty-Bake; its grills have a hand crank so you can adjust the space between the coals and the food ("Always the one problem with the Webers," notes Flay).