In researching the best cheap grills, we read product reviews from sources such as AmazingRibs.com, BBQGuys.com, Consumer Reports, Wirecutter, and Top Ten Reviews, which judge grills on factors such as overall quality, long-term durability, value, and grilling 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.
Accustomed to judging expensive grills, experts tend to have fairly high expectations and can be somewhat harsh in their judgments of basic models. Grills they deem merely passable may more than satisfy the average bargain shopper, however. To get the best sense of real-world functionality and value, we supplemented the expert perspective with reviews from consumers posting on sites including Amazon, Home Depot, Lowe's, Walmart, and manufacturers' product pages. Scores of consumers provide positive feedback on both the cooking prowess and the life expectancies of the grills on our list.
For this buying guide, we researched primarily freestanding liquid propane gas grills, sometimes known as LP models. Gas grills, which can cost from less than $100 to well over $1,000 for commercial and high-end models, are popular because they take little time to heat up and allow more precise control over the flame, which means the cooking temperature is easier to regulate and you get more even heat distribution than you would with a charcoal grill. Many of the best gas grills, including cheaper models, come with convenient features like side burners, side shelves, and warming racks to make preparing food easier.
Gas grills generally have two to five burners under the grilling grates, ideally with individual controls. Within the same model "family" — that is, grills with the same features — prices rise with the number of burners. Natural gas grills are an increasingly popular option — they're more environmentally friendly and burn cleaner than liquid propane grills, and they can save quite a bit on fuel costs in the long run — but a nearby gas hookup is required. Many grill models will be available as both liquid propane gas grills and as natural gas versions, although the natural gas units frequently cost a little more than their LP counterparts.
Many 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 when you cook 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 and, by extension, how much cooking space you'll have for grilling, affects the price; for example, a charcoal grill with a diameter of 14 inches in one model "family" will be cheaper than its 22-inch sibling. The tags on premium charcoal grills can hit $700 and beyond, and they may include features like electronic ignition, timers, and higher-quality components.
Infrared technology has been around for a while and shows up in some product lines. While most 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 as they cook because of the reduced reliance on airflow, which can dry out food. Infrared grills also claim to prevent hot and cold spots, providing more even heat distribution for more consistent results and cooking food quicker. Typically, infrared models are liquid propane grills, but you'll see the technology appear on a few other makes, as well. While infrared grills were once much more expensive, several models now fall into the Cheapism price range.
Unlike 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.
The 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 $500 for a mini version.
The main difference between cheap grills and their upmarket counterparts is the materials, which affect long-term durability and cooking performance. High-end grills tend to have more durable materials, like stainless steel, both inside and outside. Frequently, 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. Cast-iron cooking 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 grill grates tend to be more common on pricier models, although some of the best cheap grills boast porcelain-coated cast iron cooking grates. Others have simple steel grates that may or may not feature porcelain coating.
The size of the cooking space depends on both price and grill type. The cooking area on less expensive grills typically measures 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 as part of the cooking space when listed in the specs, so look for distinctions between measurements for total cooking surface and primary cooking area.
One 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 area 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 cooking grates affect heat transfer. A grill with wire grates may need more BTUs than one made with cast iron cooking grates, because the lower-cost grates won't hold heat as long as the cast iron grill 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 of cooking space — 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.
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 for the best gas grills offer individual control over each burner. With a charcoal grill, heat regulation is more difficult. It depends how close the cooking 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. But experts caution that they're notoriously inaccurate and suggest using an accessory thermometer.
Convenience features to look for on grills include warming racks, side shelves, and utensil hooks for those essential tools. 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.
Every 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 grill. Some retailers will assemble your grill for free or for a small fee.
Warranties on low-cost grills range from one year to 10 years, depending on the manufacturer and the model. Some warranties cover the components differently: five years on the burners and two years on other parts, for example. Manufacturers also tend to provide longer warranties on cheap charcoal grills than on gas, and there's a lot more that can go wrong with the latter.