Buying a new grill can be a big investment, whether you’re spending a few hundred dollars on a simple charcoal grill or over twenty grand on a gas behemoth and yes there are grills that cost that much and no they don’t come with their own professional chefs.
That’s why the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re shopping for a new grill is that you’re not looking for the perfect grill, you’re looking for the right grill for you. To help you on your way we’ve split up the grill buying process into a few simple questions to help you focus on the features you’ll use and a price you can afford.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of what to look for, there two questions that should guide your search:
- What are you going to cook on the grill?
- How much do you want to spend?
The reason it’s worth thinking about what you’re going to make on the grill, is most of the extra features on grills today are designed for specific types of cooking, if you’re never going to use them, don’t spend the money to get them.
The reason it’s worth having a range for what you want to spend upfront is shopping for a grill is a lot like buying a new car. Almost every manufacturer has a line of grills that go from basic to deluxe to ridiculously cool, which makes it very easy to talk yourself into upgrading from a nice $800 grill to a ridiculously cool $1,800 grill faster than either of them can heat up. Know what you want to spend and don’t go above that amount without a good reason.
Size matters when it comes to grills, buy one that is too small and it will take four hours to grill hot dogs for everyone at your Fourth of July party, buy one that is too big, and you’ll be burning through propane tanks every other week.
Almost every grill lists the amount of cooking area it has in square inches, of course not all manufacturers calculate total cooking area the same way. For some total cooking area includes warming racks and side burners and for others it just covers the main grill area. Check the label; most reputable manufacturers will list the amount of cooking area by type.
Not to get bogged down in geometry, but it’s worth keeping in mind that manufacturers only tell you the amount of surface area and not the grill’s volume. This doesn’t matter much if you’re only cooking burgers and steaks, but the height inside a grill starts to matter when you’re grilling a turkey for Thanksgiving or sticking beer cans up chicken butts.
The height inside the grill also matters if you’re a fan of rotisserie cooking. A good rule of thumb is to make sure there are twelve inches between the grate and the top of the grill. It’s also worth looking at where the holes are for the rotisserie set up, to make sure there is enough clearance to deliciously spin the critter of your choice.
The Heat is On
When you’re buying a new grill, don’t get wrapped up in how many BTUs or British Thermal Units the grill has. What BTUs really tell you is the total amount of heat output, by all the burners per hour, which has almost nothing to do with how well a grill cooks food.
The ideal grill should be able to heat up quickly and hold whatever temperature you want for as long as you want. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to measure how well a grill does on low heat or how evenly a grill heats up.
What would be nice is if grill manufacturers had an agreed upon time to temperature, similar to how car makers use 0 to 60 and a way to measure how well a grill maintains a specific temperature. The reason these measurements would be more helpful than the BTU rating is because the secret to great grilling is temperature control.
There are a few things to look for that will give you an idea of how easy it will be to control a grill’s temperature. In general, the more burners a grill has, the easier it is to control the temperature in different parts of the grill. This is really important if you like to cook more than one thing at a time and the things you’re cooking need different temperatures.
Another factor for temperature control is how well a grill is constructed, in general, the better the construction, the thicker the material, the better a grill will be at maintaining a specific temperature.
Shake, Rattle, and Roll
It might look a little strange, but a good test when you’re looking at grills is to grab the handle and shake it, the grill, not your, you know. One of the biggest differences between grills is how well they are the constructed. It’s also one of the biggest factors in the cost of a grill.
Take a look at what material the grill is made out of, in general, heavy duty stainless steel is the most durable material, followed by porcelain-enameled cast iron. Check to see if the firebox is welded or held together with nuts and bolts. A good grill should have some heft to it.
When you’re weighing all of these things ask yourself: how long are you going to keep the grill and how often are you going to use the grill?
If you want a grill to last forever, look for something made with heavy duty stainless steel and welded construction. If you only grill once or twice a year and could care less if your neighbor Steve walks off with the grill, buy a cheap grill from a big box store.
Look Under the Hood
There are a few things to look for when you open up a grill. Start by looking at the burners and the covers over the top of the burners. Look for covers that have a peak in the middle to help drippings, juice, and grease go straight to the bottom of the grill, rather than collect on the cover and cause flare-ups.
Also look and see whether the grates are stainless steel, cast iron, or porcelain-enameled cast iron. Each brings something different to the grilling process. Stainless will last the longest, cast iron can enhance the flavor of whatever you’re grilling, and enameled cast iron is an economical middle ground.
The last thing to look for under the hood is where does the grease go. Lots of models have drawers or trays that you can pull out that make it easier to clean the grill.
Shiny Things Are Nice and Cost Money
There are all sorts of amazing accessories for grills these days, which makes it easy to get lost in the world of shiny things. Unless you have unlimited resources, try and divide accessories into three categories: need to have, want to have, and worth bragging about. Then make sure to get all of your need to haves and one or two of the others.
It’s also worth thinking about which accessories you need to buy with the grill and which ones you can buy down the road.
Starter – This is an easy need to have, in general, electric starters are better than rotary ones, but either way make sure your grill has a built in starter. Some high-end grills now have a starter for each burner.
Side burner – There are two types of side burners. Some grills have a regular burner, which can be helpful when you’re making a side dish and grilling at the same time. A lot of manufacturers are starting to include sear burners, which are usually ceramic burners that heat up to around 1,800°F and are for searing the outside of steaks, chicken, etc. while leaving the inside tender and juicy.
If you decide to get a side burner make sure it has a cover, otherwise the birds and bees and everything else will get into it and make it hard to use.
Wheels – Make sure to check out what kind of kicks a grill has, from a mobility standpoint four wheels make it easier to move a grill around, just make sure they are heavy duty and can be locked in place, so your grill doesn’t roll away.
LED Lights – A relatively new feature is the inclusion of LEDs in the controls so you can see how high the burners are set when you’re grilling at night. A few manufacturers also include lights on the inside of grills, something we’re pretty skeptical of, and on the handles of grills, so when you lift up the lid, you can see what you’re cooking. There are a lot of after market handle lights, so don’t worry about spending a ton of money on a grill, just to get a fancy handle light.
Propane gauge – Some high-end grills include a propane gauge with their grills. There are a lot of these available from aftermarket sources, so it’s not a big deal to add one. The piece a few manufacturers have that would be nice to have is a slide out tray that makes it easier to switch propane tanks.
Rotisseries – For us, a rotisserie set up is a must have because we think this is one of the best ways to cook. If you’re not like us, and here’s hoping for your sake, it’s worth seeing how easy it is to add a rotisserie setup later.
Side Tables & Storage – There are all sorts of side table options available. Some things to look for are: are they big enough for how you grill, how sturdy are they, and do they fold up and down?
This is one of those areas like under grill storage where manufacturers have found all sorts of interesting ways to use the space under and around the grill, which is great if you use it, but otherwise is a waste of money. So when you’re looking at these features think about how you like to grill and be realistic about what features you’ll use and which ones you’ll regret paying for later.
Bottle Openers – We only found one grill with a built-in bottle opener, which we thought was pretty genius, so we’re mentioning it here to encourage other manufacturers to steal this idea because we think the world be a better place with more built-in bottle openers.
When you’re buying a new grill make sure to shop around and to try and get a feel for what it would be like to cook on each grill and then pick the grill that feels right to you.
Umami has a wide selection of grills and grill accessories available in the Umami Market.
Mark is Umami's publisher