The LTB Barbecue Buying Guide Part 2
Okay, so this is going to be part 2 of my all encompassing, world-renowned LTB Barbecue Buying Guide. Part 1 is over here and it is directed mainly at people who already have a barbecue and have decided to buy a new one but don’t really know where to start.
This section of the guide is for people in a slightly similar but yet radically different boat – those of you who haven’t actually purchased a barbecue before.
What? You’ve never owned a barbecue? How is that possible? What do you mean? I’m sure you’ve heard it all before. I heard it all when I was in the 5th grade and wanted to try my hand at Little League. Well, the questions were about baseball, not barbecues, but the gist was the same. Hopefully for you you’ll have a great experience buying and enjoying a barbecue, unlike my summer playing Little League (still don’t like baseball).
Perhaps you’re starting out on your own, just moved out of your parent’s house, been borrowing a friend’s or family member’s grill from time to time or perhaps you grew up as a vegetarian in a vegetarian house and now simply want to try something different. Maybe you’re trying to buy a gift for someone. Whatever the reason, suddenly you find yourself in the market for a barbecue grill and, like many people new to the world, dazzled by the options available.
We’re here to help.
There’s going to be lots of things to figure out before you get to the point of plunking down your hard earned cash (or well-worn plastic) but once you start to wrap your head around them, it’ll get easier.
Location Location Location
The first consideration you should figure out is where you will be using your grill. This will affect all others, so think well. Outdoors or indoors? Balcony or deck? Apartment or house? Dorm room, RV or boat? Being able to use a grill outdoors in the backyard of a house is going to open up many many options in regards to which grill to choose. If you have your heart set on grilling but only have a small area on a balcony to use, then you’re going to be rather limited. However, don’t think that by limited we mean no options. There’s always options, and luckily in the world of the barbecue grill, some of those options are going to be great.
A secondary consideration to where you will be using it is going to be where you plan on storing it. If you’re able to let it sit outside without worrying about it getting stolen then you’re set. If you’ve got a garage or storage area you can easily put the grill in at night after it’s cooled down and cleaned up then you’re golden. However, if you’re going to have to shove it into a closet, under the kitchen sink or in a cupboard, then you’re going to need to really think long and hard about the next consideration.
Gas, Charcoal or (gasp) Electric?
This is going to be the primary thing you’ll need to figure out when buying a grill. Your choice is going to depend entirely on your needs and situation, not on the needs and situation of the person selling you the grill. Yes, take into account the advice of people you know and even the salesmen, but ultimately you’re going to be the one living with and trying to make the grill produce great food, not them.
The Case for an Electric Grill
Electric grills in some ways don’t make much sense. If the purpose of grilling is to cook food over an open flame, why cook on something that doesn’t even produce a flame, right? Well, it’s not always about the open flame. Grilling is often about cooking outdoors with friends and family. About enjoying time together over food. Having an electric grill can come pretty close to approximating that experience. And by pretty close, I mean the only thing that is different is the food is going to taste slightly different than if it was cooked on a charcoal or gas grill. The time spent with friends and family is going to be just as great.
Many people will often say the flavor and smokiness that are part and parcel of cooking on a grill are not present on food cooked on an electric grill. Maybe so. Well, honestly, it’s totally true. But if you simply don’t have the option of using a charcoal or gas grill, don’t give up on grilling for your and your family. Whether it’s a little George Forman grill, a smokeless DeLonghi, a good sized Napoleon electric or a Weber Q 280 electric, they all can do a pretty good job of grilling most anything you want.
Don’t give up on your grilling dreams just because you have to buy electric. Ask yourself this: Which is more limiting, having an electric grill or no grill at all?
Charcoal or Gas
If your living situation is one where you can buy a charcoal or gas grill, then congratulations. You’ll have so many grills to look at you’ll probably go dizzy. The first thing you’ll need to figure out is if you want a charcoal or a gas grill. Generally people who have an opinion about this have a strong opinion. Here are some things to consider –
- Flavor – studies have shown that gas or charcoal has no effect on the flavor of hamburgers but when cooking steaks, charcoal will create a smokier flavor. Some people swear that charcoal (or even wood) is the best thing to cook over because of the flavor, despite the inconvenience. Others feel that gas is close enough and the convenience outweighs the flavor issue because they think there isn’t a difference.
- Convenience – want to flip a switch and be able to start grilling in about 10 minutes? Gas is going to be your best friend. Charcoal takes more time, anywhere from 15 minutes (for a smaller grill) up to 30 minutes or more.
- Fuel source cleanup – do you have a way to easily dispose of the burned up briquettes? Don’t mind messing around with it? Then charcoal could be for you. If you’ve got no easy way to deal with it or don’t want to mess with it, then gas is going to be your friend.
- Safety – this is a tossup and going to depend mostly on your fears more than anything else. Gas canisters can leak and in theory, even explode. If not connected properly the risks increase. If that is going to keep you up at night then go with charcoal (or even electric). If you think you can handle it, then gas is going to be an option
- Costs – yes a good charcoal grill is going to cost very little when compared to a good gas grill. Good charcoal grills can be found from 50 to 200 bucks. Good gas grills are going to start in the 200-300 dollar range and go up from there. However the cost of cooking a meal with charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid is going to average around 5 bucks per meal depending on where you live. Gas should run about 25 cents per meal. So keep the operating costs in mind as well as the initial purchase price.
- Tradition – want to cook over a big belly kettle grill? You’re probably looking for charcoal. But keep in mind that 69% of households that own a grill own a gas grill. That’s not a minority, that’s a majority. But from the same report, 47% of families own a charcoal grill and 7% own an electric grill. Yes, that’s 123% for those who are keeping score. It seems some families have more than one kind of grill, yes?
Charcoal or gas is going to be a fairly personal opinion dictated by what your personal living situation is, what kind of cooking you plan to do, what level of convenience you are after and what kind of grilling experience you want to have. Here’s the good news – if you buy an inexpensive to medium priced grill, you aren’t out a lot of money, so if you don’t like it you can probably sell it and buy a different kind that is more suited to your tastes.
Fat Wallet or Thin Wallet?
Price is going to be the next consideration for most people and rightly so. Not everyone has thousands of dollars to throw down on a monster grill for their first time grill purchase. So what kind of money are we talking about here?
Well, it goes back to your charcoal/gas/electric decision. If you choose electric you’ll probably find a decent grill anywhere from 50 dollar range up into the 500 buck range. Charcoal is going to run you around 40 bucks or so for a Weber Smokey Joe or 100-150 for a Weber Classic Kettle (they like to call it the Weber One Touch. Fools.) on up into the multiple thousands of dollars. A good gas grill is going to start around 400 bucks or so and go up also into the multiple thousands of dollars. Note that I said a good gas grill is going to start there. Yes you can get them cheaper but that doesn’t guarantee they are good. Weber (there’s that name again) does make some quality gas grills in the sub 400 dollar range, but make sure you know what you’re getting.
If you’re inclined to buy a gas grill but are on a fairly tight budget and don’t want to spend much on the actual grill itself, we’ve got two suggestions:
- Reconsider charcoal. If you buy a medium priced charcoal grill in the 100-300 dollar range you’re going to end up with a far better and more durable grill than a 100-300 dollar gas grill. Just the way it is. Charcoal may take longer to be ready to cook and you’ve got to deal with the ash disposal, but there are solutions to those problems. The only solution to buying a cheap gas grill that turns to a pile of crap within a few years is to buy another grill. Don’t put yourself in that situation.
- Consider a portable grill. Portable gas grills, while they may look diminutive and far less than manly propped up on something just so you can get it high enough to stand and cook at the same time, will offer far better features and durability than a similarly priced standing style gas grill. The Weber Q 220 is a perfect example – portable, award winning, 280 square inches of grilling space and powered by standard gas canisters. It should run about 230 bucks (less on sale) and is a great value.
As I mention in part 1 of the LTB BBQ Buying Guide (that sounds awesome. I need more acronyms, though), price isn’t something you should be focusing on at this point. Right now what you want to be doing is figuring out what kind of grill you want to buy, what size you’ll need and what features you’re looking for. Remember, you can always just pick up a Weber Smokey Joe or Kettle charcoal grill for between 40 and 100 bucks. Best barbecue I ever had was cooked over a Smokey Joe so they can do the business. (hint, it was the company that made the meal, not the grill)
What you really don’t want to do is look at your wallet, decide you have X amount of money to spend and then find the grill with the most features for that price. You can end up with much more grill than you’ll ever need. You can also find yourself overlooking the accessories and other needful things that go along with a new grill purchase.
The best thing is to figure out what kind of grill is best matched to your situation and then find something that matches your requirements and your budget.
As in “matters of size” not “size is all that matters”. Cooking areas is something that gets thrown about when discussing grills. Primary cooking areas, secondary cooking areas, warming racks, all that stuff. Kinda confusing. Most barbecue experts (not referring to the LTB crew – we’re experienced enthusiasts, not experts) recommend 300 square inches and up for a reasonably sized grill. 400 plus is considered ample grilling space. I’ve only found one resource that tells how much size per person. It said to calculate about 50 square inches per serving. So if you plan on cooking 3 burgers or 3 hot dogs or 3 steaks, then you’ll need about 150 square inches of grill. Now, everybody knows that a hamburger, a hot dog, and a big t-bone steak are going to be different sizes. This is just a rule of thumb. Don’t take it as gospel.
Another thing to consider is if you plan on cooking vegetables and other things along with your primary meal. Those will all take up grill space as well. Corn, kebabs, potatoes, etc. all add up. Warming racks will keep these things warm after they are cooked. Nice to have if they are a feature on the grill you’re looking at, but not crucial.
Still confused? Stick with the 300 rule of thumb, then. Family of four? Maybe up to 8 or so when company comes? Yeah, 300 – 400 will work, but you’ll have to eat in shifts. Like, all the burger lovers eat when the burgers are done, all the steak lovers next. You’ll find a way to make it work. Does that mean you should pass up the previously mentioned Weber Q220 because it’s only got 280 square inches of cooking space? If you plan on regularly cooking for lots of people and everyone needs to eat at the same time, then yeah, get something bigger. But if there are no concrete plans to have a steady rotation of large amounts of people or if the occasional larger group can eat when the food is ready and not fall over from hunger, then it’ll be fine.
This is going to be pretty simple, but it needs to be said – you get what you pay for. Cheaper grills are going to generally be made out of cheaper materials, have cheaper designs, or will cut costs in less than obvious ways. Like having sub par materials for the inner workings of the grill while making the outside look all fancy. How can you fix this? Two ways, really. Well, three.
- First, buy from a trusted name-brand manufacturer. Buying something that sounds like a name-brand but is much cheaper is a surefire way to disappointment. Buying a lower level brand because it’s got lots and lots of features in the price range you can afford isn’t a good path either. It may have all those features, but it’s cheaper for a reason.
- Second – Spend more money. Figure out how much money you can spend on the grill, and then find a way to spend a little more. It may mean the difference between having to buy a new grill in 3 or 4 years and being able to use the same grill for 10 or more years.
- Third, talk to as many people and read as many reviews online as you can. Yes, many websites make money if you buy a grill after clicking on one of their links. This site does too. But if you read around the reviewing site a little bit you may be able to pick up on if the people writing for it are to be trusted. Do they ever say anything negative about a product? No? Pass on their advice. Do they have a real clear “voice” in their writing? Do they sound like they care not only about the product, but about making sure their readers get an honest review? If not then again, pass on their advice. You’ll be glad in the long run.
This is where things get tricky. Grills and their subsequent parts can be made out of many many different kinds of materials. Aren’t they all steel, you say? Nope. Steel isn’t always what you want, either. The main body of the grill is more than likely going to be made out of stainless steel, cast iron, cast aluminum, enamel-coated steel or plain old sheet metal. Which is best is going to depend on your point of view. Stainless steel is generally going to be more expensive, is considered to be higher quality and is often the choice or professionals. Try to stay away from plain sheet metal. Enamel-coated steel can be a fine choice if it is made by a reputable manufacturer. Cast iron is great but heavy and needs to be oiled well. Cast aluminum, when done well, can last a very long time. A word of caution about stainless steel – not all stainless steel is created equally. Cheaper stainless steels aren’t worth much at all.
Horse Before the Cart
While the body may be made of a nice quality material, there is no guarantee the cart is going to be made of the same stuff unless it specifically says so. Many times the cart is made of cheaper material. That’s not a reason to run away screaming, but it needs to consider into your decision. Why are they made of different materials? Cost. In effort to bring a stainless steel bodied grill in under a certain price point, compromises elsewhere may need to be made, such as making the cart out of sheet metal or plain steel. Problem is, those two materials rust faster than stainless steel and won’t last as long. If you know what you’re getting, that’s great. If you’re okay with the compromise and know the conditions the grill will be stored in and can mitigate any durability issues with the cheaper cart, then go ahead. Just make an informed purchase, that’s all.
It’s all about the grill, man.
Grill materials, like the grill body and the cart, can be made out of a number of different materials. Popular choices (by the manufacturers) are: stainless steel, cast iron, porcelain coated stainless steel or porcelain coated cast iron. Stainless steel is nice and should last for a good long time. It will, however, develop chips and the meat will stick to these chipped areas. Cast iron is an awesome choice but it will need to be cleaned well and oiled well. Porcelain coatings aim to solve both of the problems of chipped stainless steel and the need to maintain cast iron. However they introduce problems of their own. Cheaper porcelain coatings are thinner which mean they will chip more easily. Chipped coatings of course mean food sticks to it and rust can start. Be sure to keep metal tools as far away from porcelain coatings as you can. That means scrapers, spatulas, tongs, meat forks – they all can weaken and chip the material. Brushes made with metal bristles to clean – great. Metal scrapers – poison.
If you can swing it, cast iron is probably the best. Heats well, holds heat and if taken care of can last a really long time. Like decades long. Yes, plural. If you aren’t willing to put in the work, porcelain coated cast iron is going to be a good second choice. Stainless steel is probably the cheapest yet will still last a long time. Just do your best to keep metal implements away from the grill and it will last a whole lot longer.
BTUs (Hint, if you’re buying a charcoal grill or an electric grill, you can skip this)
Ahhh, BTUs. The love of marketing folk and competitive people everywhere. By competitive people I mean the guys who look at your awesome grill and ask “How many BTUs that baby pump out?” Here’s a secret, something you can mention offhand to the next guy who asks you that –
BTUs have nothing to do with how good the food tastes.
So what are BTUs? BTU stands for British Thermal Unit. They are used when discussing the merits of different gas grills. It is a measurement that basically tells how much heat is generated. For the technically minded folks, a BTU is how much heat is required to bring the temperature of one pound of water up by one degree Fahrenheit.
More BTUs are good, right? Not so fast. Smaller grills will require less of course, while larger grills require more. A poorly designed grill may use more BTUs to achieve the same amount of cooking heat as a well designed one. Generally, a 500 square inch grill will need anywhere between 35,000 and 50,000 BTUs to do their job well. Again, smaller grills less, bigger grills more. Higher BTUs mean you should be able to control the level of heat well. However higher BTUs also correlate to higher fuel consumption. And again, design plays a part as well.
And now for our feature presentation
Grilling, at its most basic, is cooking food over an open flame (sorry, electric grill folks). Modern grills, however, can do sooooo much more than that. It’s all in the features. What features, you ask? Glad you asked (you may be sorry, though). This list, while not complete, may give people looking for their first barbecue grill a starting point to understand what all the terminology is about.
- Front shelves – little shelves on the front of unit. Often used to rest utensils and the like.
- Side shelves – shelves on the sides of the barbecue grill body. Used to hold plates and food, both already cooked and ready to be cooked.
- Enclosed cart – The cart framework is enclosed with sides, a back and often doors. Typically a way to hide the big ugly propane tank. Larger enclosed carts may have shelving or a basic storage area. Nice, but not necessary on cheaper barbecues and will increase the price. Lower priced units that offer an enclosed cart will either scrimp on materials used for the enclosure or on other parts of the barbecue.
- Side burners – in place of shelves, some barbecues offer side burners. Often used to keep things warm or cook lower priority items, i.e. not meat. Side dishes are often cooked on side burners. People even use them with a griddle for cooking eggs and pancakes. Some people swear by them, others swear at them. If you’ve got the cash and are interested in it, go ahead. If you use it, then you’re happy. If you’ve bought it you might try to find some kind of use for it. Side burners on lower end grills often don’t perform as well as hoped.
- Rotisserie – turns the chicken/meat/whatever around and around so it gets cooked evenly. While useful and great when used appropriately, I can’t honestly recommend them to first time grill buyers. Perhaps a better choice is to buy a grill that has the option for one down the road. Adding a rotisserie kit when you really think you need one is a smarter choice than spending a lot of money for your first grill just to get one built into the unit.
- secondary cooking space – like it sounds, it’s a secondary cooking area in addition to the grill, which is then called the primary cooking area or primary cooking space. Can be used to describe a side burner. Also used sometimes to describe things like a warming rack, even though it’s not really a cooking area.
- Warming rack – just what it sounds like – a rack elevated above the “primary cooking area” (you know, the grill) that you can put stuff on to keep warm. Nice to have but not a deal breaker.
- Indirect heat – this is a method of cooking that some people really like. Basically, instead of having the meat directly over the heat source, you have it off to one side. The lid is then closed and the heat circulates and cooks that way. Takes more time but prevents burning and many fans of this style of cooking say it makes a juicer and more flavorful meal.
- Heat distribution plate/radiant/barrier – this is the thing that comes between the burner of the gas grill and the grate that the food rests on. Sometimes it’s a metal plate, sometimes lava rocks, ceramic briquettes or other inventions. They need to be replaced periodically as grease and food particles drip down on them. They all perform equally well (or poorly depending on you point of view). Great thing about them – the usually protect the burners from drippings to a large degree, but not totally.
- Burner – on a gas grill it’s where the gas comes out of. Simple as that. A heat distribution plate will generally rest over this to spread out the heat from the gas burner itself. The more drippings, grease and food particles get on them the faster they will need to be replaced. Made from a variety of different things. Stainless steel or brass is best, but even cheaply made ones can last 3-4 years if well maintained (meaning cleaned often). You’ll need to clean them periodically to keep them working well and not corroding.
- Tube burner – basically the same thing as the burner. Some may be referring to Venturi tubes. What are those? The tubes that connect the burners to the control valve. They mix the gas with a little bit of air that allows it to produce a flame. Aren’t you glad you asked?
- Infrared grills – this is a technology that is becoming more and more prevalent on the marketplace. I’ll be honest, for the life of me, I can’t really understand it. I even did well in science back in my school days. Basically infrared grills heat up super fast and cook things equally fast. While I’ve had it explained to me and even seen them in action, I truthfully can’t get behind something I don’t really understand. Maybe I’m dull, maybe I’m overthinking it. But if you think it’s a great idea then go for it. Prices for this feature are going to be a little higher than normal.
- Smoker box – designed mainly for gas grills to combat the lack of smoky flavor when cooking with them. Just a little metal box you fill with your favorite variety of stuff to make smoky flavor, put it in and let it smoke. Some companies will grills specially designed to have them. Nice if you really want the smoky flavor but prefer a gas grill.
- Lights – yes, some grills come with lights. Okay if you want them, but really, do you need lights mounted to your grill? Can’t a flashlight serve the same purpose? Or maybe buy a cheap flood lamp and use that.
There are a whole lot of other features that companies cook up (bwahhh ha ha, cook up) in order to convince you theirs is the grill to buy. Some are useful, some are a draw and some you should pass on. If you’ve got any questions about something you see, be sure to leave a comment or send us an email. We’ll put it on the list and explain it to you to the best of our abilities.
Yes, many companies offer a warranty. No it’s probably not everything you’ll expect. The different parts of the grill will have differing levels and periods of warranty. Read it closely and understand it. For example, as I mention in this article, Napoleon has a “Limited Lifetime” warranty which means for major things it’s replacement if it fails because of manufacturing defect in 5 years, 50% off full retail after that. Some parts of the grills under this warranty only have 1 year of coverage, some 2. Personally I like Weber’s warranties – not because they’re better or cover more than other grills, but they are very clearly explained on their website. Other companies have either awesome, good or less than stellar warranties, so check them out thoroughly before you buy. Be sure to search around online and see how well a company stands behind their warranty and how good their customer service is as well. Companies in all industries may drag their feet or make it hard for a person to get them to stand behind their warranty. Best bet is to check around online or talk to your friends about a company’s reputation.
Auld Lang Syne
Wow, that ended up being a much longer article than expected. I’m sure there’s stuff we left out or glossed over that you may want more explanation for. Tough! Just kidding. Let us know what you think and we’ll do our best to help. Hopefully those who are looking for their first barbecue grill (yes, even the people who will buy electric) have learned a bit and are closer to making an informed decision. Ultimately that’s what this guide is all about – information and wise purchases.
Please remember that the most important thing when buying a grill isn’t the BTUs, the price, the size, the fuel source or any of that. It’s the cooking you do on it and the time spent with friends and family. I keep repeating that but that’s because it’s true. And also remember that an expensive grill won’t make you a better cook. It’d be nice if they did, but they don’t.
Good luck and happy grilling.
(PS – If you’ve read this far and still feel like checking out Part 1 of the LTB BBQ Buying guide, it’s over here. It’s more for people who are in the market to replace their grill, but may offer some help for those who are looking for their first grill as well.)