Barbecue grill types

Which grill to choose? Successful cooking depends on picking the right type of grill.

It comes to charcoal, gas or electric. If choosing gas, propane or natural gas? There is no doubt charcoal gives food a special taste, however, gas keeps a uniform temperature and promotes uniform cooking. Smokers are and alternative to a barbecue grill and they are becoming increasingly popular.

Most common barbecue grill types

Barbeque grills come in three main categories - charcoal, gas and electric - and each type will appeal to a slightly different customer.

For decades the only type available was a charcoal grill, and this style is still very popular. Chunks of black carbon are arrayed in a familiar pyramid and ignited, usually with the help of BBQ lighter fluid. Once the briquettes start to glow red, they're spread around and they make for a hot fire that adds a special taste to the meal.

Though they require a bit more effort to prepare, use and clean there's no denying that the taste of meat cooked with charcoal has a unique flavor. The coals can be flavored themselves to add a special wood and smoky aroma that makes its way into the food. But they have drawbacks.

Charcoal grills usually require some kind of gasoline-like fluid to assist the briquettes in heating to the point that the fire becomes self-sustaining. That can easily put a foul taste into the food if the fluid doesn't burn off completely before you start to cook. The coals also require a long cool-down period and have to be replaced after one or two uses. Clean up is often messy.

Gas grills took over in popularity 20 years ago and dominate the market now. They come in two main types: natural gas and propane.

Natural gas grills burn, as the name suggests, natural gas (a type of methane chiefly). They produce high heat and an even temperature. Clean up is relatively easy and some grills are even self-cleaning to a degree, like indoor ovens.

But natural gas grills require you to have or create an outlet to hook the stove up to. Many homes already have them, so that's seldom a problem. But it does limit the mobility of the grill. Once in place, you have a fairly short hose connection and the grill has to stay near the outlet. In rare cases that can present a fire hazard, but for most homeowners natural gas grills are a great option.

The other type of gas grill uses propane, usually from a refillable metal tank. Tanks come in various sizes, with 20 gallons a common amount. Propane grills produce a high temperature, only slightly less than methane. They'll cook a thick steak just as well, requiring only a slightly longer cooking time.

Propane grills are convenient because they can be moved around. If you cook at different times of the day that can be a big advantage. If the sun is too hot in one spot (or you happen to be doing some yard re-modeling) the grill can be moved to another location.

But the tanks do run out, slower or faster depending on how long each cooking session is and how often the grill is used. Refilling them isn't very expensive, though propane prices have risen sharply in the past few years. The hassle factor can be considerable or trivial depending on who your supplier is. Some suppliers just do a quick exchange of the tank and you're on your way. Others make you wait in line, fill out paperwork and more.

Many natural gas models can be converted into propane and vice versa. The kits are simple to use and range in price, with some representing a third of the original cost of the grill.

Electric grills are another, newer option. They are in essence electric ovens set on wheels and can have a number of advantages. They have no fuel requirement, just a cord and an electric outlet. They can be self-cleaning, just as many interior ovens are. The temperature can be very precisely controlled. They do tend to be a little more expensive than other styles, though.

With the technological improvements made in grills over the past 20 years, you can hardly go wrong if you select a major brand. Consider your budget, your preferred cooking circumstances, and go for it!

Barbeque grill add-ons

Basic grill types range from charcoal to propane to natural gas, and sometimes even electric. The add-on features available with one model may help tip you toward one over the other.

Some propane grill models, for example, offer a side burner. That burner, typically about the size of an ordinary gas stove burner in your kitchen, can be a big convenience. It allows cooking vegetables, sauces and other parts of the meal while the main dish is grilling.

But natural gas models will often provide a larger burner, or more than one for more complex meals. Propane models can and sometimes do offer more than one, but they tend to be somewhat smaller in size to retain portability. Natural gas grills are expected to remain in one place most of the time, so designers can make them slightly larger and heavier. That leaves more space for additional burners.

Removable drip pans can be a big benefit as well. A drip pan provides a repository for grease and bits of meat or bun that might make their way through the grill and into the bottom. The ability to slide out a pan makes for much easier clean up.

Other removable parts may be simple cast iron grill bars and even miniature ceramic briquettes.

Grill bars that can be lifted off make for easy clean up. You don't generally want to remove them for pre-placing meat, though, since the meal will cook best if the grill is hot. But some recipe variations will suggest placing meat on a cold grill for a variation in effect. That makes for easy seasoning or applying rubs away from the heat.

Many propane and natural gas grill models use not only the flame from the heating elements, but briquettes the size and shape of traditional charcoal. These are made of a permanent (or nearly so), reusable material (usually a ceramic composite). The flame heats the briquette and you get the advantages of flame cooking and briquettes. That provides a very even kind of heat.

The briquettes do require some maintenance, however, since they get dripped on by grease and carbon will build up on them. They can be cleaned to a limited extent and replacements are usually available, though they last for dozens of cooking sessions.

Still other add-on features can make one model or brand more attractive than another.

Most standard-sized barbeques will come with a lid, but the type of lid can make a difference. Some have handles in less inconvenient places, such as the front. That means that when you open the lid your hand and arm are directly over the heat. Ouch! More intelligent designers place them on the side so you can open the lid in mid-session without risk or discomfort.

Thermometers integrated into the lid are a great option on some models. That makes it easy to test the temperature without lifting the lid so you know just when to start, turn or end. That's very handy on a propane grill especially where you want to try to conserve fuel as much as possible.

Trays at the bottom or on the side are convenient for storing tools, platters and food before it goes onto the grill. Well-placed hooks or tool-holder kits are a feature you'll use every time.

Once you find a number of basic models you like, check out the extra features they offer to influence your final choice.

Natural gas versus propane versus charcoal, the endless debate

There are pros and cons to buying one type of grill over another. Those often revolve around convenience in use and clean up, cost and other factors. But the more passionate debates circle around the question of which one cooks the best. To that question there may be no correct answer.

Traditional charcoal grills add a distinctive flavor that, so far, no other grill has been able to duplicate. The briquettes themselves range from the standard black charcoal to flavored styles. Adding cherry or other natural woods to the mix enhances a barbeque like nothing else can. Though adding smoking woods is sometimes possible with other grills, depending on the design.

As the briquettes burn, they add flavor by smoking, which infuses into the meat. But cooking with charcoal can be tricky, since it can be hard to judge when any starter fluid has been completely burned away. If the meat is put on too soon, the fumes from the lighter fluid make their way into the meal. That imparts a very unpleasant aftertaste.

Charcoal grills have another potential disadvantage - the temperature is hard to control. Once the coals glow they reach a temperature determined by the chemical composition of the briquette. To reduce the heat, you have to reduce the number of briquettes or separate them and even that has a limited effect. When flare-ups occur, such as from grease drippings, high flames can be produced that scorch the meat unevenly.

Natural gas, propane and electric grills don't suffer from that potential downside. But each has its advocates and critics for other reasons.

Natural gas produces a very high heat and overcooking is something to watch for. Most fine barbeque is accomplished by slow cooking. That's possible, even easy, with natural gas since all you have to do is turn down the flame. But there is a temptation with grills to set it at maximum and ignore it.

Propane burns a little less hot, but some can certainly sear a steak with no problem. Drippings aren't usually a problem, since splashing grease doesn't cause add-on ceramic briquettes to produce a high, scorching flame.

The most common drawback to propane grills isn't inherent in this type, but comes from selecting the wrong model. Many propane models are simply too underpowered to do the job of cooking more than a hot dog or hamburger. To cook a large chicken piece or a regular (much less a thick) steak, you need significant heat. Some smaller propane models simply can't supply it.

Electrics can suffer from the same inadequacy, if the model you select doesn't permit raising the temperature above 400F (204C). Selecting a larger model will allow you to cook just as you would with an indoor oven. But then, that may be the biggest drawback of all to electrics. It's hard to feel you are barbecuing unless you see a flame of some kind.

When it comes right down to it, everyone will have his preferred style and no one is likely to be converted. Vive la difference!

Smokers are cool and hot

A great variation on the barbecue grill is a smoker. Smokers cook meat by enclosing it in a container that produces medium temperature smoke, hence the name. That heat from the smoke cooks the meal while various components of the vapor add flavor.

Like grills, smokers come in a wide variety of types: charcoal, gas, electric, and even brick oven. In every case, the basic goal is the same: produce an even heat that slow-cooks the meat while filling it with delightful aromas.

Most are in the form of a metal cylinder that allows meat to be laid out on a grill or rotated on a spit. Many designs have some form of controlling the heat using so-called dampers. One popular method is to use a water basin that cools the smoke on contact. The water will absorb some smoke, but also release some. As the smoke whirls through the chamber by convection, it's cooled then makes contact with the meat again.

To some extent an ordinary barbecue grill with a lid performs the same function, but a smoker takes the idea to its limit. In a smoker, the fumes themselves are essential to the process. Different types of charcoal and/or wood are used to add extra flavor. Cherry, hickory, alder and mesquite are popular choices. Each has a distinctive aroma and provides the meat with a unique flavor.

Smokers are intended to be used with advance planning, though. Preparing the smoke with just the right ingredients takes time. Slow cooking meat in a smoker can take as long as a day. You don't fire one of these up an hour before you want dinner.

Often placed on a rotating spit, a good chunk of beef will be turned for hours, but not basted or sauced, letting the smoke do all the work. A fine crust forms on the exterior that makes for an eating episode that adds a physical sensation to the taste experience.

While most smokers are made of metal, often cast iron, a great variation is the brick oven style.

The brick used in a smoker can be clay or even concrete block. Special composites are common these days, since materials science has even improved barbecuing. But whichever specific material is used, these smokers still have a hot basin and a flue to convey the smoke to a chamber where the meat cooks.

Brick oven smokers provide a well-controlled temperature and very even flow of smoke past the meat. They can be built to hold very large amounts. In a good brick-oven smoker you could slow roast a side of beef that would feed an entire neighborhood.

The charcoal versus gas debate, the winner is...

There is an ongoing debate between the two tribes of grilling - charcoal or gas? Today we are going to use specific guidelines to determine a winner. We will judge the grilling performance in four categories: time to heat, temperature control, last-ability, and taste.

The time to heat will be decided on the amount of time it takes from ignition until the grill is ready to be cooked on. Control of temperature is judged on how easy it is to, well, control the temperature. Last-ability is the ability to keep the heat source going steady for the entire cooking period. And taste is determined by... okay, let's just go ahead and give this one to charcoal right now. Everyone agrees that cooking with charcoal just tastes better. On to the judging.

Charcoal

There are many ways to light a fire, but only one works really well, getting charcoal hot and up to temperature quickly; and that is using a chimney starter. Unless you already have an extremely hot fire burning, it is rather time consuming to get charcoal to light correctly. A chimney is a metal tube with an opening in the bottom and top. This allows a good flow of air while still keeping the charcoal close enough together to get hot at the same time. This process takes about ten minutes to get hot and then another two after they are dumped out to get the grill ready to cook on.

Temperature control is easy to learn with a charcoal grill, but you have to do it right. You can create hot or cold areas by stacking more or less of the briquettes in one area. You can keep the temperature more even all over the surface by spreading the briquettes out all around. All it takes is a quick wave of the hand over the grill to identify hot and cold areas, then it is on to the cooking.

Charcoal can last a relatively long time when the grill is open or if there is a good flow of air through the grill, but you have to make sure you have the air adjusted properly. Having the right air flow keeps the embers glowing without having them burn out too fast, or having them go out. It's a matter of getting to know your grill. If you close off the air flow either with the cover or the bottom slots, your charcoal will die out. If you leave your grill wide open, your charcoal will burn out. You've got to learn the right mix of air, but when you do, your fire will last plenty long enough to grill what you want.

Most grill aficionados will give the flavor award to charcoal. Even diehard gas grill users will do what they can to get a charcoal flavor from their gas grill. If you've ever walked through a neighborhood where residents are busy firing up their grills, the aroma you smell that makes you go 'ahhhh' is coming from the charcoal grills. Gas grills simply do not give you that same aromatic effect. Charcoal is, by far, the best when it comes to taste.

Gas

Turn a knob, press a button and you have instant fire. You can go from ignition to ready-to-cook in a matter of five minutes. There will be a little learning curve as you find out just how to set the dials to get the required temperature. Most recipes for grilled foods will give you a general temperature guide such as “over medium-high heat” or “grill set to high heat” etc. Very few recipes actually tell you 400 degrees. So, yes, your grill is hot in minutes with just a few clicks, but you have to learn through experience where your dials will lead you.

While it takes almost no time to heat up, there are a few issues when it comes to controlling the temperature. Sure, you can see what the temperature is inside the grill by that nifty little gauge on the cover, but when it comes to heating individual areas, you might run into a little problem. The structure of the gas jets running around the grill will give you hot and not-so-hot spots on the grill's grates. Some bigger grills solve this by running gas jets through the middle of the grill as well as around the perimeters. However, many grill recipes call for placing food on direct heat at first, then moving to indirect (those cooler spots in the middle), or cooking entirely on indirect heat. So the structure of the gas grill actually adds to the versatility of cooking on the grill. The bigger gas grills with the extra jets through the middle have the ability to turn off that middle gas line, so you still get an area that offers indirect heat. Problem solved.

Last-ability is spot on with a gas grill. You can pretty much cook for as long as you have gas, and typically in any weather. When you close the lid, the grill stays lit so you don't have to worry about air flow through the unit to keep the fire going. If you've got a big fat chicken on the rotisserie, you don't have to worry about the heat dropping as the charcoal burns down, being left with an undercooked bird. A tip for serious gas grill users is to keep two gas tanks on hand – one on the grill and a back up. Watch your gas gauge and you'll never have to worry.

When it comes to taste on a gas grill, I don't want to suggest that the food doesn't taste good. It does, but in comparison to charcoal grilled food, well, there's that 'ahhhh' effect again. Charcoal grilled food just has the 'grilled' taste that we all know and love.

The winner

If grills were judged on taste alone, you know what the outcome would be. But this decision might just surprise you. The clear winner in this contest is gas. While the learning curve on the temperature may be a bit steep to begin with, once you learn it you will be an expert. And just the sheer speed of lighting and the ability to cook in any weather makes gas grills very difficult to beat. So get out there, crank your knob, push your button, and get grilling! And, if you happen to disagree with me, then get out your charcoal and enjoy!