Choosing a Grill
To many people, a warm evening, a nice patio, and the delectable smell of dinner cooking on the grill approaches perfection. While many expert reviewers and consumers swear by the fancy features, luxury designs, and long-term durability of top-end grills, those looking to partake in this beloved backyard ritual without burning thousands of dollars have plenty of options. Our research found a variety of outdoor grills -- charcoal, gas-fueled, portable, and even electric -- that fall at or below the $300 mark, come with desirable features, and deliver solid performance -- for a few summers, at least.
Grill BrandsThe demand for backyard grills is vast, and manufacturers oblige BBQ-happy consumers with a range of models, styles, sizes, and prices. Big names in the business include Weber, Char-Broil, and Char-Griller, which together dominate the offerings of big-box retailers and major ecommerce vendors. Smaller but also respected brands include Dyna-Grill and Nexgrill. At the opposite end of the supply chain, high-end nameplates like Napoleon, Broil King, and Blaze are the standouts. Some companies best known for budget-priced grills have been extending their product lineups into the higher reaches, with grills that incorporate new technologies, more frills, and sturdier builds.
Gas GrillsFor this buying guide, we researched primarily freestanding gas grills that run on liquid propane, sometimes known as LP models. Natural gas grills are another option, but this type is less readily available and less in demand (a nearby natural gas hookup is required). The price of a gas grill often climbs well into the thousands of dollars, and some high-end models effectively serve as the linchpin of outdoor kitchens.
Gas grills are popular because they take little time to heat up and provide more precise control over the flame and, thus, the cooking temperature. Many gas grills, including cheaper models, come with features such as side burners, side shelves, and warming racks to make preparing food easier. They generally have two to five burners under the grilling grates with individual controls. Within the same model "family" -- that is, grills with the same features -- prices rise with the number of burners.
Charcoal GrillsMany grilling aficionados extol the virtues of charcoal fire over gas. Inconveniences aside -- such as less heat control, slower cook times, and more cleanup (all that ash has to go someplace) -- using charcoal briquettes (and perhaps wood) as fuel imparts an authentic smokiness undetectable with a gas grill. There's just no comparing the flavor or the sear on meats with a standard gas grill, charcoal fans assert. Plus, charcoal models typically take up less space than gas grills.
Prices for the best entry-level charcoal grills top out at about $200, but some can be had for less than $100. Again, the size of the grill (here, the diameter) affects the price; for example, a 14-inch grill in one model "family" will be cheaper than its 22-inch sibling. The tags on premium models can hit $700 and beyond, and they may include features like electronic ignition, timers, and higher-quality components. While charcoal grills generally cost less than gas grills up front, some experts say buying charcoal is costlier in the long run than filling a propane tank every couple of months.
Infrared GrillsInfrared technology has been around for a while and shows up in some product lines. While gas and charcoal grills rely on heated air to cook the food, infrared grills direct heat toward a solid surface that sits below the grates, radiating infrared waves to the food above. This barrier allows the grill grates to sit closer to the direct heat source for super-quick searing and minimizes charring caused by flare-ups. Meats and vegetables tend to retain more moisture because of the reduced reliance on airflow, which can dry out food. Infrared grills also claim to prevent hot and cold spots, cooking food more quickly and evenly. They are almost exclusively fueled by gas. While these models were once much more expensive, several infrared models now fall into the Cheapism price range.
SmokersUnlike traditional grills, which cook food directly above the flame and expose it to high heat, smokers -- whether electric, gas, or charcoal-powered -- cook meat at low temperatures in a closed, thickly insulated casing for even heating. Casings come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from bullet to barrel, from offset to cabinet. In general, smoking meat takes much more time than gas or even charcoal grilling. True enthusiasts agree that the rich, complex, succulent flavor can't be achieved any other way, but most people searching for a cheap BBQ grill simply don't have the time to devote to slow-cooking or the money to splurge on a dedicated smoker, which can run from $100 to $10,000 depending on the make, model, and amenities. Instructions from Weber can help you get started smoking on a standard charcoal grill.
Kamado GrillsThe modern descendant of an ancient Japanese cooking urn, kamado grills are egg-shaped and very well insulated. The ones on the market these days are most often made from ceramics and sometimes steel. Their high domes catch the heat and redirect it to the food cooking below, while an insulated shell helps hold temperatures steady. Kamado grills are fuel- and oxygen-efficient -- they use less of each than traditional grills -- and can produce very low and very high heat. Leftover coals (be sure to use natural lump charcoal rather than briquettes) can be reused, and with less air circulating, meats stay juicy and tender. These grills excel at smoking, roasting, and baking, and are available at all price points. Big Green Egg is perhaps the best-known maker of kamado grills, with prices starting at about $400 for a mini version.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Grill Reviews: What We Considered
In researching our picks, we checked grill reviews from sources such as AmazingRibs.com, BBQGuys.com, The Spruce, and TopTenReviews, which judge grills on factors such as overall quality, durability, value, and performance. These reviewers are familiar with so many models that they know what kind of craftsmanship, features, and end results make a grill stand out from the rest.
Experts used to judging more expensive grills tend to have fairly high expectations and can be somewhat harsh in their judgments of more basic models. Grills they deem "passable" may more than satisfy the average bargain shopper, however. Given that value pricing and real-world functionality are Cheapism's primary concerns, we supplemented the expert perspective with reviews from consumers posting on sites including Amazon, Home Depot, Lowe's, Walmart, and manufacturers' product pages.
ConstructionThe main difference between cheap BBQ grills and their upmarket counterparts is the materials, which affect durability and cooking performance. High-end grills tend to have more durable materials both inside and outside. They're typically made of stainless steel, while some budget grills are made of lower-grade painted steel and are not quite as sturdy.
The composition of the grill grates determines whether food is likely to stick, as well as how evenly the heat disperses and, thus, how well the food cooks. Experts dole out the highest praise for porcelain-coated cast iron. Cast iron grill grates heat up quickly, hold the heat on the surface, and last a very long time. However, they must be oiled to keep food from sticking too much. A high-quality porcelain coating serves the same function, cutting down on maintenance. Not surprisingly, cast-iron cooking grates tend to be more plentiful at higher prices, although some of the best budget grills boast porcelain-coated cast iron grates. Others have simple steel grates that may or may not feature porcelain coating. While our picks certainly can't match the durability standards set by $500 grills, many consumers provide positive feedback on the lifespans of the BBQ grills on our list.
Cooking SurfaceThe size of the cooking surface depends on both price and grill type. Less expensive grills typically measure between 200 and 700 square inches; the higher end of that range is generally reserved for gas models. It's important to note that a side burner or warming rack is often counted in the cooking surface area listed in the specs, so look for distinctions between measurements for total cooking surface and primary cooking area.
BTUsOne of the most prominent features of a gas grill is its BTU rating (specifically, British thermal units per hour). Manufacturers make it sound as though the grill with the most BTUs is the most powerful, but the size of the primary cooking surface must also factor into any comparison. Experts generally say a gas grill should feature a range of 80 to 100 BTUs per square inch. For example, a three-burner grill with 36,000 BTUs (total of all burners) and 370 square inches of primary cooking space boasts about 97 BTUs per square inch.
There is some leeway to this rule of thumb, as the grates affect heat transfer. A grill with wire grates may need more BTUs than one made with cast iron, because the lower-cost grates won't hold heat as long as the cast iron grates. All told, buyers should be wary of grills that swing too low or too high in BTUs per square inch -- any lower than 80 and the heat output may not be sufficient, while a higher number suggests an inefficient design that allows heat to escape.
Infrared grills are different. Because of the high radiant heat of infrared burners, gas grills that employ this technology require fewer BTUs -- only 60 to 80 per square inch -- to achieve desired temperatures. Char-Broil, for example, advises those using its Tru-Infrared gas grills to plan to decrease the heat settings they're used to by about one-third and to expect food to cook in about half the time.
Temperature ControlHeat control is an important component of cooking -- there has to be a way to regulate those BTUs. On gas grills, knobs attached to each burner can modulate flame levels and the heat directed at different surface areas. It's a pretty basic setup that affects how evenly food cooks. All our picks offer individual control over each burner.
With a charcoal grill, heat regulation is more difficult. It depends how close the grates are to the coals, as well as the configuration of the damper and air vents that control how much air circulates during cooking. Users open the damper to let in additional oxygen to fuel the fire and close it to lower the heat.
As noted above, infrared grills require less fuel to achieve higher heats. Learning to regulate the temperature on these grills may take some getting used to. Once mastered, however, many users assert that the results are well worth the trial-and-error learning process.
Most new grills have lid-mounted thermometers that ideally let you monitor the heat, and adjust it if need be. Experts caution that they're notoriously inaccurate and suggest using an accessory thermometer.
ExtrasConvenience features to look for on grills include warming racks, side tables, and utensil hooks for those essential tools. Cheap models may scrimp on the extras, and charcoal grills tend to be the most austere when it comes to add-ons. That said, one accessory that we'd highly recommend is a grill cover to protect your purchase against the elements and prolong its life -- most grills, regardless of price, don't come with one. It's up to owners to decide whether it's worth paying for a custom cover from the manufacturer that's specifically designed for the particular make and model, or whether to save a bit on a generic brand.
AssemblyEvery model has its quirks, but for the most part, it's not difficult to get the grills on our list up and running. That said, user feedback indicates that some may be tougher to assemble than others. Problems tend to arise from missing screws or bolts, poorly drilled holes, or parts that just don't align correctly.
According to the reviews we read, the instructions drive some people to distraction. Grill assembly instructions often are conveyed through visuals, but many consumers express frustration with the diagrams and make a plea for written directions that provide logical and clear sequencing. Figure on a good hour or two, and possibly more, when setting up a gas model.
If putting a grill together is a concern, consider buying from a retailer that will assemble it. Home Depot, for example, offers free in-store assembly for some models. Otherwise, factor the cost of assembly into the purchase price.