Part of my annual spring cleaning ritual is to debate with myself over whether or not I need a new grill. Truth be told, it isn’t much of a debate: I do need a new grill if I hope to cook good food. But as soon as I get to the hardware store I am overwhelmed with the options of grills to choose from. Every option looks the same and I have no clue how many BTU’s I need to cook a burger. Should I switch to gas, stick with charcoal, or invest in an expensive kamado grill? What’s the deal with those egg-shaped grills anyway?
I generally end up leaving frustrated, resolved to make my little grill work for another summer.
This year, that cycle ends, and hopefully, not just for me. I want you to be able to know exactly what you are looking for in a grill. Furthermore, I want you to be able to buy one knowing it is absolutely the right piece of equipment for your cooking and budget.
To do that, let’s look at the three major groups of grills: charcoal, gas, and kamado.
This tried and true “purist” style of grilling, smoking, and slow cooking. It requires more attention and practice that it’s gas counterparts, but the flavor is amazing. Oaky char is far superior to anything butane can produce. Charcoal grills are blank canvases, allowing you the freedom to gill over a variety of woods and charcoal, create a variety of heat zones of perfectly cooked meats. The problem with charcoal is that it is messy, is more difficult to maintain consistent heat, and requires clean a lot of clean up.
Despite the drawbacks, charcoal grills are simple machines that will not break the bank. The good folks over at America’s Test Kitchen rigorously tested seven grills under $400– their favorite only cost $150.
In short, charcoal is messy and requires practice but offers the cheaper and more flavorful grilling option.
Gas grills are a luxury step up from their charcoal cousins. The cooking is clean, requires minimal cleanup, and allows simple and precise temperature control. That allows you to slow cook meats with confidence and gives you the freedom to leave the grill, confident of your end result. The problem is that the grills are not engineered well, often releasing a lot of heat and not distributing heat evenly over the grill surface. That means that your grill will always have cold spots that never cook well and that you will pay more to cook less.
That being said, there are some excellent options for under $500. The American Test Kitchen tested gas grills like they did charcoal and also gives you some practical things to look for while gas grill shopping. Spoiler: BTU’s are not the most important thing to look for.
Gas is the no-fuss option that gives everyone the confidence to cook excellent food.
3. Kamado (Ceramic) Grills
Kamado is a Japanese-style ceramic grill that can create an extreme amount of heat and is quickly becoming the favorite of backyard grillers. They have been shown to cook at a high level and allow users to dial in specific, even heat to cook everything from fish to whole turkeys. There are some significant downsides with kamado, though. They require specific, and expensive lump coal, which in turn requires more clean up. They can get really hot, but once they do you have little hope of cooling the off anytime soon. They do not allow you to creating heating zones, working more like ovens than open grills. To cap it all off, they start around $600 while the more recognizable brands with leave your wallet $1500-$4000 dollars lighter.
You have to be very committed and disciplined to go for a Kamado, but those who do swear by them. Also, these grills can last a lifetime. This could easily be the last grill you ever buy and gives you the ability to become an expert griller.