Pulling the cover off the backyard grill for the first time in the spring can be an invitation to frustration.
Sometimes the gas grill just won’t light, or when it does light, it barely heats, or it heats unevenly.
Or perhaps the charcoal grill has finally rusted through.
At this time of year, lots of folks are looking to buy new grills. But where to start?
With a wide array of styles, prices and amenities, navigating a sea of grills at the local hardware store can be a daunting task. Whether you’re replacing a grill or buying for the first time, here are a few tips to consider before plunking down a couple hundred (or thousand) of your hard-earned dollars.
A grill is not an impulse buy. Before shopping around, carefully weigh these three factors.
Your space. Not only do you need a sufficiently open space for grilling, you will need a closed space or cover for storage. Measure the spaces where you will be using and storing the grill, write down the numbers and take them with you when you shop, along with a tape measure.
Your needs. How frequently you grill and the number of people you feed will determine the size and type of grill that can best handle your demands. Consider also your comfort level with using either a gas, charcoal or electric grill.
Your budget. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, which tracks the grilling industry, more than 80 percent of the grills bought in North America sell for less than $300, but those looking to plunk down a substantial chunk of change could easily spend several thousand dollars on more elaborate setups.
Be sure to assess upkeep and durability as cost factors, too. Two relatively inexpensive grills in 10 years might cost more in the long run than one sturdy model that lasts a decade or more.
Gas, charcoal or electric?
Once you’ve answered this essential question, the rest is just details. Each grill format has benefits and drawbacks. Here’s a simple breakdown.
Gas. According to the HPBA, of the approximately 14 million grills sold in 2013, more than 8 million were gas.
The popularity of gas grills reflects their ease of use. With a line of knobs to regulate heat, a gas grill offers the convenience and predictability of cooking on a gas range without the kitchen confines. If you’re grilling outdoors two or three times a week, gas is probably the way to go.
Of course, you’ll have to lug around propane tanks. Or, for natural gas grills, you’ll have to hook into a gas line, which will lock down the location of your grill.
Charcoal. The clear choice of barbecue aficionados, charcoal grills have one huge advantage: taste.
“You get a lot more flavor out of charcoal,” says Rich Tipton, the chef/owner of RD’s American Grill in Quarryville.
But what the conventional charcoal grill gains in taste, it gives back in inconvenience.
“You can’t regulate the heat as quickly or as easily,” Tipton said. “A gas grill you just turn a knob down and the heat goes away. With a charcoal grill you really have to regulate the air going in and out of it.”
Kamado-style grills, patterned after Japanese ceramic ovens, cut back considerably on temperature volatility, but they also cost a lot more. The Big Green Egg, the flagship grill in this style, retails for anywhere from $400 (the mini) to $4,000 (the extra, extra large). A standard-size large costs $900.
For a small-family picnic-type grill, Tipton said, a traditional black-dome Weber charcoal grill — retailing in the neighborhood of $150 to $350 — should do the trick.
Electric. “An electric grill is good for places where you are not allowed to have gas, like apartment complexes,” says Steve Ober, an owner/partner at Longeneckers True Value in Manheim. “A lot of older people like them because they don’t want to fool with the propane and the heavy cylinders and lug them around.”
With more young people opting to rent apartments, and a rapidly growing population of seniors, sales of electric grills are increasing at a time when sales of conventional grills have slowed. Manufacturers shipped more than 300,000 electric grills in North America in 2013 — the most ever, according to HPBA statistics.
Small electric grills, such as the George Foreman Grill, have the added benefit of portability, but don’t go looking for that great smoky flavor in your food.
Honor the intangibles
Grillmasters resemble car enthusiasts in the sense that they both invest a lot of time and money in personalizing their equipment. For these folks, pleasure is the guiding principle, not price.
Small-time grill investors would do well to take a page from the big dogs when deciding which grill to buy: Picture yourself in the backyard or wherever you’ll be grilling. Are there people around you? Do you have a cold drink in one hand and a fork in the other? What does your grill look like? Does it suit your personality?
Plenty of options exist for less than $300 to match a wide variety of designs, be they personal or practical. Take your time, look around, kick the tires, talk to the helpful salespeople and don’t settle until you’ve found the one that’s right for you.