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Written by Matthew Eads, author of Grill Seeker - Basic Training for Everyday Grilling.
We’ve come a long way since the caveman days of cooking over an open fire (though you will find a fun caveman technique on page 93. Outdoor cooking has evolved from a necessity to a hobby for many and even a competitive event for some. There are a number of different types of grills used today, all providing various advantages and, not surprisingly, all coming with some drawbacks. One of the biggest drawbacks is how confusing finding a grill that works for you can be. Don’t worry, that’s one of the reasons you bought this book—I’ve got you.
Below you’ll find a brief description of some popular types of grills aimed at arming a new griller with the basic knowledge needed to make the best grill choice for his or her lifestyle and cooking needs. The most important part of choosing a grill is finding one you are comfortable operating on a regular basis. The “coolest” grill may be one that you’ll dread using after the newness wears off because of the effort or time it takes to use and maintain it. And if you’re not going to use it, you’ve just invested in a really cool lawn ornament and you still won’t have dinner on the table.
I use various grills for various things because it’s my hobby and passion, but I recognize that won’t be true for everyone (but if you get into the hobby with my help, feel free to blame me when explaining your second or third grill purchase to your significant other). Be practical with your decision, and don’t be influenced by creative marketing or the coolest new gadget your neighbor has. In short, do you.
There’s nothing more classic or timeless than the good old metal charcoal grill. These have been around for a long, long time and for good reason—they generally work well and are pretty budget
friendly. I say “generally” because there are some cheap knock-off brands on the market these days (below the $89 price point) that aren’t built well and don’t work well, and you’ll be lucky if they last a single summer. In those cases, I’d say don’t waste your time or money. These are commonly the models that are found at the local five-and-dime or on a display at the grocery store.
I recommend a more time-tested and consumer-proven model, like the classic Weber kettle or the traditional PK Grill, which can be purchased for between $200 and $350. For slightly more than what you’d pay for an el cheapo on the discount rack, you’ll have a grill that will last you for thirty years or more. Indeed, there are plenty of 1950s vintage PKs and Webers in use today, passed down from one generation to the next like Grandma’s old cast-iron skillet. These grills are lightweight, are heavily supported via online community groups, work extremely well for everyday grilling, and are portable enough for taking to the beach or a sporting event. They work well with either briquettes or lump charcoal, and the temperature control is managed by manipulating the intake and exhaust vents. Further, there is no shortage of accessories for either grill. While they can be used for smoking (large cuts like brisket and pork shoulders can indeed be smoked on a standard metal grill), they are generally better suited for straightforward grilling. Of course, there are exceptions to this, like with anything else. These grills offer quick heat-up and cool-down convenience for a budget that most are comfortable with. They do have some drawbacks. Most prominently, because of poor insulation they are affected by the weather, and a strong breeze or rain can significantly affect their performance.
If you’re shopping for a new grill this season, it would be hard not to come across the ceramic option during your research. Kamado-style cooking has gained massive popularity in recent years, and it has become all the rage due to the versatility these grills offer. There are three major players in the ceramic grill community: Big Green Egg, Primo, and Kamado Joe. All offer better all-weather performance than the standard metal grill, and each has an abundance of support via online forums and user groups.
Because two-zone cooking is essential to grilling, many prefer the Primo. Its patented oval design offers users better control and the widest variance for two—or even three—distinct temperature zones. It’s also the only ceramic grill made in the United States. That said, if you’re a gadget person, it’s hard to beat the made-in-China Kamado Joe in terms of accessories and innovation. Indeed, Kamado Joe sets the pace for innovation. Being made in China isn’t a bad thing, by the way—plenty of terrific products come from China—I only point it out as a comparison point. If you’re looking for the largest online community, the Big Green Egg (made in Mexico) is the clear-cut favorite. Big Green Egg also benefits from the largest name recognition of the three and is likely the most readily available. You really can’t go wrong with any of the three.
The main drawbacks to ceramic grills are cost and reaction time. They are slower to heat up and take longer to cool down. That said, users can grill, smoke, roast, and bake on these, and weather has little effect on their performance because they are so well insulated. Their superior insulation is also why they maintain moisture so well, so the days of dried-out meats from the grill are over. Like the standard metal grill, temperature adjustments are made via intake and exhaust vents. It’s recommended that you use the slightly more expensive lump charcoal with these grills, and they are more expensive than the standard metal grill. Entry to market on a quality ceramic grill is about $800 at time of publication. I say “quality” because the market has recently flooded with knockoffs at big box stores that are much cheaper—for a reason. Be sure to check into the warranty and return policy on any of the discount ceramic grills, and even then, consider the logistics of returning such a heavy grill.
As much as I, and others like me, enjoy stoking up the coals or wood splits and cooking over live fire, there’s no denying that gas grills are still king. Sales numbers year after year support this, and there are plenty of reasons to cook on a quality gas grill. Most notably is the convenience. With the turn of a knob, your grill is ready to go. Unlike charcoal grills that use airflow through intake and exhaust vents to control temperature, gas grills achieve this by introducing more or less gas into a burner when the knob is turned. When you’re done cooking on a gas grill, you simply turn it off.No excessive ash cleanup, no extended cool-down period— it’s literally like using the gas range top in your kitchen . . . kinda.
Gas grills do come with some drawbacks, though. Charcoal purists would say the flavor from a gas grill is never as good as that from a charcoal grill. I don’t buy into this completely, especially for things like burgers, hot dogs, and thinner cuts of meat. The kinds of foods that people cook most often aren’t over charcoal long enough to take on much, if any, flavor from the coals, so in large part that’s just purist talk. I like to think of myself as a realist as opposed to a purist, and realistically, a gas grill will do 95 percent of what a charcoal grill will do, while providing more convenience and requiring less cleanup. I’m convinced that I could make almost anything on my gas grill and 99 out of 100 people wouldn’t be able to tell that it wasn’t done on a charcoal grill.
There are some important things to consider when buying a gas grill in order to prevent wasting your money on disappointment. Unlike charcoal models, where a cheap unit will get the job done temporarily but won’t last long, a cheap gas grill won’t get the job done OR last long. I’ve tested countless budget gas grills, and most of them simply don’t get hot enough to create the kind of sear that you get from charcoal. Add to that the flare-ups that happen with most budget model gas grills, and the entire experience is underwhelming and disappointing. A high-end gas grill can set you back a decent amount of scratch, but it’ll last a lifetime and produce the type of heat needed for excellent food. The list of manufacturers for high-quality gas grills is short, and I’ve had the best performance from the Lynx grills lineup. The trident burner they offer is capable of producing heat of over 1200°F, which is more than any backyard or professional chef would need—unless they’re planning to forge some metal while their burgers are cooking. Additionally, this intense heat all but eliminates flare-ups. That said, it’s also capable of very low temperatures for grilling delicate things like fish. It’s made in America and is backed by a warranty that’s second to none. Add to that the versatile Lynx lineup, and you can outfit an outdoor kitchen that would fit just fine into an Architectural Digest spread.
Barrel cooking has been around for many, many years, but it has only recently become popular in the mainstream. Initially, these smokers were built by do-it-yourselfers making use of old 55-gallon drums and were dubbed Ugly Drum Smokers or UDSs. While many still make use of 55-gallon drums today, the UDS has been refined over the years, and now there are a number of manufacturers that build out-of-the-box-ready drum smokers at price points ranging from sub $200 on the low end to about $800 for a premium model.
Barrel cookers are used primarily for smoking, but some can also be used for grilling in the right configuration. What makes these cookers unique is the way meat is placed in the barrels. Aside from the traditional placement on a wire rack, barrel cookers also allow users to hang food from hooks inside the barrel for a nice smoke bath. The hanging method accomplishes two goals: First, by hanging vertically as opposed to sitting horizontally, the capacity of the cooker is greatly increased. It wouldn’t be difficult to hang sixteen racks of pork spare ribs in a full-sized barrel cooker. Second, and equally (if not more) important, is the effect the juices dripping on the coals has. The food hangs high enough above the coals so as not to burn, but when the juices drip onto the coals, they create steam, which helps cook and infuse flavor into the meat. Beyond that, it’s just a fun way to cook! I use this style of cooker all the time at tailgate events, and the crowd is always mesmerized by this method.
I’ve used all kinds of barrel smokers, and the budget-friendly brands work well, some being built better than others, which leads to a longer service life. For someone who is serious about the craft of barrel smoking, I’d suggest investing in a higher-end model. Both Gateway Drum Smokers and Hunsaker Smokers make top-shelf barrel cookers that will last a long, long time and have plenty of capacity. Hunsaker may get a slight advantage for its vortex fire box, but Gateway offers the option of having it custom painted, which can also be fun. Really, you can’t go wrong with either unit, both made in America.
The downside of the barrel cooker is that while it can be used for grilling, that’s not its main purpose, so doing a burger or steak isn’t as easy as it is with other types of grills. If your main interest is smoking meat, while only occasionally grilling, this might be a great option. On the other hand, if your main interest is grilling, this probably isn’t the right type of cooker for you.
With the help of clever marketing, widespread availability, and ease of use, pellet grilling has gained popularity at the pace of a stock car circling a NASCAR super speedway. Though it is similar to a gas grill, “purists” discount this style grill because it doesn’t use charcoal or wood—or even gas. Instead, it uses compressed wood pellets to generate heat and smoke. This type of grill has truly broadened the field of users who enjoy and excel at outdoor cooking.
The grill requires electricity to run an auger that feeds wood pellets to an igniter. Unlike other grills that use a vent system or gas valve to control temperature, the pellet grill generally has a touch pad or dial to select the desired temperature, and the grill then essentially operates like an indoor oven, only outdoors. Set and forget is the concept, and people have definitely embraced it. Pricing on these units ranges dramatically, and there is no shortage of suppliers for these grills. Going cheap on one of these may not be advisable, given the number of moving parts and opportunities for failure, so consider spending a little extra for a higher-end model. Companies like Yoder Smokers and Green Mountain Grills make extremely well-built products. Similar to the barrel cooker, the downside to these units is their poor grilling performance. Most manufacturers will claim that their pellet grill can both smoke and sear, and that may be technically true—depending on your idea of what searing is. The bottom line is that these units make much better smokers than grills.