Choosing a Charcoal or Propane Grill

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Choosing a Charcoal or Propane Grill. With so many grilling options, choosing the right grill for your needs can be confusing.

With so many grilling options, choosing the right grill for your needs can be confusing. Is more expensive really better? Which features are most important, and where can you skimp? The following tips will help you decide.

Charcoal VS. Gas or Propane Grills

Charcoal grills use charcoal briquettes, wood or a combination of both. Charcoal cooking imparts a more intense smoked flavor than its gas grilled counterpart. Charcoal grills burn hotter, which is handy when searing steaks and other cuts of quickly grilled foods.

One of the biggest advantages of charcoal over gas, in my opinion, is that they are better for smoking. If you have a large kettle grill, there is no need for special smoking apparatus (unless you plan on smoking really large quantities of meat).

On the downside, cooking over charcoal requires more time than a gas grill which is ready to cook on about 10 minutes after lighting. A charcoal grill should be ready to cook in 15-30 minutes after lighting, depending on the size of the grill and the type of wood or number and type of briquettes. Charcoal grills also need more tending and attention during the cooking process, which if you are a true grilling fan, is part of the fun.

Gas grills come with built in igniters -- push-button, rotary or an electronic lighter -- so starting the fire is fast and easy. After about 10 minutes of preheating, you're ready to cook. A standard 20 pounds tank of liquid propane with the burners on high, should last about 9 hours. Cooking at average temperatures, you should get 25 to 30 meals per tank.

The flavor produced by charcoal grilling comes from the food juices dripping onto the hot charcoal. Gas grills use several materials accomplish this:

  • Lava rock heats quickly and disperses the heat to the interior of the grill. On the downside, lava is porous and allows grease to accumulate, lessening its efficiency and increasing fire flare-ups. In order to keep your lava rock gas grill working at its peak, turn the rocks over to expose a fresh surface frequently and replace them annually.
  • Pumice stone works just like lava rocks, but it collects less residue and therefore needs less maintenance and doesn't need to be replaced as often.
  • Ceramic briquettes are more pricey than lava rocks or pumice stone and but they last much longer. The briquettes are easy to maintain as food residue bakes off during the cooking process and no other cleaning is necessary.
  • Metal heat plates or bars built into the grill work much the same as ceramic briquettes -- dripping juices dissipate when they fall on the hot metal.

Help with Choosing a Grill
Once you have decided on a charcoal or gas grill, narrow your search further by asking yourself these questions:

What will you be cooking?
What you plan to cook effects the type of grill you need. A lot of people only use their grill for grilling a quick entree like steaks, burgers, chicken or fish. If that's you, then you probably don't need a very big grill. But if you want to cook ribs, brisket, roasts, turkeys or other large cut of meat, you will need a larger grill. While we're at it, why limit yourself to just entrees? We have grill recipes for an entire menu. Get a bigger grill and expand your grilling repertoire and your menu will never be limited by your grilling equipment.

How many people will you be serving?
If you regularly cook for large crowds, you need more cooking space. Better get a bigger grill. Always do a visual inspection to see if the cooking surface is big enough for your needs, as often the manufacturer's specifications on the box include side burners or warming racks in their measurements.

How often and when will you be grilling?
Charcoal grills can take 15 minutes or longer to get ready and they take more time and effort to light. If you use your grill often, you may want the convenience of a gas grill. If you only grill occasionally or when you have lots of time (like weekends and holidays), then the time and effort of a charcoal grill is well worth the effort.

What is your budget?
The prices of grills vary from under $50.00 (and under $10.00 in the case of simple, disposable type grills) to thousands of dollars. Buy the best grill you can afford for your budget. In general, charcoal grills cost less to buy, but gas grill cost less to operate (unless you have a large supply of free cooking wood).

Grill Grids
The cooking grid gives your food the telltale stripes associated with grilled foods. Grids can be made of different materials, each with its own merits and detriments:

  • Cast iron grids require curing in the same way that cast iron cookware does in order to prevent rust. This is really not difficult (see link below for instructions in our cast iron cookware tutorial). Once cured, the heavy cast iron grill grids wear well, cook well, and distribute heat more evenly than the other types of grids.
  • Stainless steel grids are rust-resistant, but food can stick to hem if they are not well greased.
  • Porcelain-coated cast iron grids are rust-resistant and are most desirable for heat retention and ease of cleaning.

Shop for Gas or Propane Grills at Amazon.com.

When shopping for a CHARCOAL GRILL, keep these points in mind:

  • Better quality grills have air vents on the top and bottom to control cooking temperatures.
  • Look for a grill with solid construction -- one that doesn't wiggle or move too much when touched.
  • For safety's sake, look for a grill with handles that stay cool.
  • For effective indirect heat grilling, look for a grill with a tightly fitting domed lid.

Types of Charcoal Grills

hibachis, grillsHibachis -- These small grills use a minimum of fuel to heat their small cooking surfaces very hot. If you don't have a lot of space, a hibachi is a good choice, even if you're limited to only a small balcony. Hibachis are perfects grill for small meal entrées or grilled appetizers. Click here to shop for Hibachis at Amazon.com.

kettle grillsKettle-Style Grills -- A kettle grill is one the most versatile, and if you have the room for one, highly recommended. Some are round, some oblong. They can either grill over scorchingly hot heat or be used flow low and slow cooking and indirect heat smoking. When buying a kettle grill, get one with the heaviest pot you can find as this makes for better heat retention. With the lid on, the kettle grill effectively becomes a convection oven (albeit one that imparts a smoky flavor), as the domed lid keeps the hot air circulating around the food. A 24-inch surface is a good, standard size that will fit the needs of the average small family, but in grilling my motto is always bigger is better, as so much barbecue fare takes up a lot of space. Click here to shop for Kettle Grills at Amazon.com.
Shop Amazon.com's Entire Collection of Charcoal Grills

When shopping for a GAS GRILL, keep these points in mind:

  • propane grillsBTUs matter -- sort of. A gas grill's heat output is rated in British thermal units (or BTUs). You might think that the higher the BTU, the hotter the grill -- but it's not that simple. Because this measurement is related to the size of the burner, it can be difficult to compare BTU ratings of different grills. A large grill with a high BTU rating cooks at a similar temperature as a smaller grill with lower BTUs. What's more important than BTUs is a grill's ability to reach and sustain cooking temperature. Look for a grill with the highest BTUs you can afford, but always get a grill with burner controls that allow you to control the cooking temperature. Generally speaking, larger grills with bigger cooking surfaces require more BTUs to cook efficiently.
  • Look for a grill with solid construction -- one that doesn't wiggle or move too much when touched.
  • Most grills come with two individually controlled burners, that let you cook foods at two different temperatures. Higher end grills have three or more individually controlled grilling areas. Buy the grill with as many burners as you can afford, as the greater number of burners, the greater cooking flexibility you will enjoy.
  • For rust resistance, look for grills with stainless steel or porcelain-coated burners.
  • Some grills come with side burners like the ones you have on a gas stovetop. This may or may not be important to you, depending on how and where you use your grill, and your cooking personality. They can be convenient as they allow you to prepare an accompanying dish without running back and forth to the kitchen.
  • Built in gas gauges and thermometers are nice features, but if your grill doesn't come with them you can use your own oven thermometer to monitor temperature, and propane consumption is relatively easy to estimate.
  • A smoker box with a dedicated burner is a nice feature if you plan on doing any smoking.
  • A rotisserie attachment with a dedicated burner is another optional feature that you will probably find yourself using a lot once you get the hang of it.

Gas grills use liquid propane (LP) or natural gas instead of wood of charcoal to create their fire. Gas grills have the advantages of being cleaner burning and less expensive to operate per use than their charcoal counterparts.

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