The Great Summer Grill Guide

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If you’re looking forward to an outdoor barbecue this summer and you’re in search of the best new grill for your money, here are some tips to help you decide based on the money and space you have and the kind of flavor and texture you want.

Fuel for Your Fire

A quick look through any home improvement store may tell you that charcoal grills are (in general) cheaper than gas grills. The cheapest charcoal grill for example can run you about $20 while the cheapest gas grill might cost about $129, according to Chow.com. This is because you’re cooking with a naturally-burning fire and fuel source, so there are no tanks or valves involved and little assembly is required.

But the cost of what you’re burning might be a better deciding factor when you’re weighing whether to choose charcoal or gas.

Since you can turn a gas grill on or off practically instantly, the cost of fuel can depend on how long you’ll be grilling and how you grill, but the price comparison is generally considered a wash.

You’ll spend a little more than $1 per hour to fuel a propane grill and about $1.70 to start up a charcoal grill, according to Chow.com. However, your charcoal grill’s heat will likely last more than an hour, and in some cases, it could last several hours.

Charcoal vs. Gas

Charcoal or gas? It’s likely the first question you’ll face when you enter a store looking for your ideal grill. And your decision can determine not just how much you’ll spend but how much preparation and cleanup you’ll have to do and even what kind of flavor you’ll get from the meat.

Where you live can also help you determine whether you should get a charcoal or gas grill. If you have a small backyard, or you live in a dry climate that’s prone for brush or forest fires, a gas grill could be your safest bet since your fire is less likely to burn out of control.

The Merits of Charcoal

Die-hard charcoal users swear by its ability to add a smokier flavor to meats. Adding some wood chips can multiply those effects. You can place them directly on the coals, as the Barbecue Bible suggests, or put them into a smoker box designed to hold the chips.

Another plus to a charcoal grill is that it can be used as a smoker for those recipes that require low heat and slow preparation, according to Chow.com.

Charcoal doused in lighter fluid may make for unhealthy environmental emissions, but using a chimney starter, which can reduce or remove your need for lighter fluid all together, is a more eco-friendly way to start a charcoal grill. And for some, a charcoal grill is a must if you want to serve up a steak with the perfect char.

Even if you’re not a die-hard user of charcoal for the sake of a smoky flavor, you may end up choosing charcoal simply because the upfront cost of a grill is lower than a gas grill.

Going for Gas

Possibly the best thing about a gas grill is that there’s little to no cleanup required. Plus, the fire burns using a controllable fuel source, which means easy-on and easy-off heat and the ability to control how hot things get.

Since you don’t need lighter fluid and don’t have to spend 15 minutes to get your coals to the right temperature for cooking over, going for gas means polluting less, plus there’s no ash left over at the end of your cookout.

There have been a few recent recalls of gas grills by federal regulators, however, and you’ll want to make sure the one you own or the one you’ll soon own aren’t among them.

Natural Gas Grilling

Gas grills may more commonly be fueled with propane from a small tank, but they can also use natural gas from a utility pipeline, if your home has one. And since your natural gas grill is hooked up directly to the source, gas companies will tell you that natural gas is significantly cheaper. Plus, you’re using a direct line, so you’ll never have to worry about running out of gas.

chicken on grill

What’s more, existing propane grills can actually be modified to use natural gas, and grills made specifically for natural gas may not cost much more than propane grills. Weber natural gas grills, for example, cost about $30 more than the propane-powered equivalent, according to ConsumerSearch.com.

If you already have a propane grill but you want to switch to natural gas, grill manufacturers and dealers may even sell kits for conversions you can do yourself, or you can pay to have it done for you.

Sizing Up a Grill

Shiny new full-size grills probably take up the most space at your local Lowe’s (Stock Quote: LOW), Home Depot (Stock Quote: HD) or other retailer selling grills, but there are a host of different shapes and sizes to choose from.

The kettle grill, like Weber’s classic, has a round shape that allows for more even heating than a rectangular grill. Grillers with less space might opt for a compact grill, and portable grills in various forms, many of which are foldable, have wheels and are great for cookouts at the park.

The Heat You Need

While gas grill specifications might draw your attention to BTU (British thermal unit) ratings, the number could be meaningless if taken out of context. Small, well-constructed grills don’t need a high rating, according to Overstock.com’s outdoor grill buying guide.

If you plan to have a lot of mouths to feed at your backyard barbecues this summer, or just plan on grilling the biggest slabs of meat you can find, you might consider buying a large grill with warming racks above your main cooking surface. They’ll allow you to use indirect heat at a lower temperature for a longer time, preventing your biggest and best steaks from being burnt to a crisp.

Consumer Reports offers a thorough buying guide for those looking for a good gas grill and Good Housekeeping looks at some of the best gas and charcoal grills for less than $500.

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