Saturday, May 1, 2010

Julian's Gas Grill Buying Guide

After 10 years, my old Weber grill (shown at right) is about at the end of its useful life. Oh it still starts and cooks ok, but it is generally showing its age. I have taken next to no care of this grill, only moving it indoors for the winter.  It no longer heats evenly and the grates are about shot. So I began to investigate my options for a new grill. I've talked with dozens of people and visited a wide range of stores and thought I would share my findings with you.

From my research, it appears to me that the single most important thing to understand is how you use the grill. As you know if you read this blog regularly, I like to cook many different types of food. I only grill in the warmer months, often using the rotisserie. I tend toward dinner parties of not more than 6-8 people, although occasionally do a large group cookout. However when that is required, I often prepare the sausages and burgers in advance. I never do steaks for a big crowd. I also prefer the convenience of a gas grill as I often don't get home from work until 5-6PM and then need to get dinner on the table in relatively short order. Knowing these factors about your cooking preferences is key to making the correct equipment selection.

Infrared versus Traditional Gas
Because I use the grill 4-5 times per week, often after work, my analysis focused only on gas grills. While there are flavor benefits to charcoal, the convenience of the gas grill is overriding for me. But once you know you want gas (Liquid Propane [LP] or natural gas), you are still faced with the choice of the newer infrared designs versus traditional gas. The first thing you learn is that, just like a traditional gas grill, not all infrared grills are created equal.

When judging infrared, you need to know how hot the grill will be at the cooking surface. Some infrared grills only heat the surface to about 800F. Other, top-of-the line grills will heat to near 2,000F, which is what you will find in the kitchen of your high-end steakhouse. It requires at least 750F to sear a steak. Obviously hotter does the job more quickly and effectively than cooler. But do you need the full surface of the grill to sear steaks?

One neighbor I spoke with does. He only cooks steaks and burgers on the grill. And when he has the extended family over, the adults get steaks and the kids get burgers. He might grill a dozen or more steaks at a time and needs them all to be done around the same time. For him, the new infrared grills are a plus. Knowing his needs, he went all out for the best money can buy... the TEC infrared grills. These are very expensive, typically $6,000-$12,000. Sadly, he isn't all that happy. TEC invented the infrared technology and for years had it on an exclusive patent. When that expired other companies took up the technology and attempted to make less expensive models. Those are the ones that typically heat at a lower temperature and have certain design issues that make them less desirable (cleaning issues, lower temperatures, rusting parts, etc.) However, he reports that the new TEC is also plagued with a variety of problems and a recent visit to the showroom found the clerk telling me of similar issues. Apparently the redesign, in order to stay ahead of the new competition, has resulted in issues with the drip tray being easily misplaced which causes several cooking problems. The new glass-topped burners while very effective, get extremely hot (and because of this they are totally flame-up proof), and for those familiar with a traditional grill, the food often ends up burned. Design options are also limited and as noted, the price for this best-in-class is extraordinary. In favor of the all-infrared grill is one that doesn't impact my selection. If you cook outside all winter long in a cold climate, the infrared grills get hot faster and will maintain a higher temperature in freezing weather. This is true even of the lower-end models when compared to similarly priced traditional grills. However, a higher end (higher BTU rating) traditional grill will compete equally with a lower-end (lower temperature rating) infrared grill, so keep this in mind if grilling outdoors is important to you while the snow is flying. Also remember that a very high temperature will sear the meat just like you get at your good quality steakhouse and this keeps juices locked inside. If you do not grill much besides steaks and burgers, this may be a good option for you. For me, who only sometimes does steaks, burgers and chops, at least one portion of the grill must be able to produce the very highest temperatures so that I can sear meats when needed.

American Name Brand versus Big-Box Store Brand
I like a grill that holds up and won't be rusting and needing replacement parts by the second season. This is the primary difference between the top-end brands and the much less expensive, but similarly looking, big-box store brands whether you are shopping for a traditional or infrared grill. You can find thousands of unhappy customer comments online about these lower-end solutions. As in most things, you get what you pay for and most stores won't warranty or even guarantee replacement parts for most lower-cost, foreign made brands. But even a brand name like Weber doesn't guarantee a solid construction that is 'made in America'. Weber's lower end product line (Weber Spirit) is made in China to compete with the big-box store brands. Thus it is similar to Master Forge, the Lowe's store brand, when it comes to quality materials and craftsmanship.

From my research you should be looking for a grill with stainless steel burners (not ceramic) that run front to back (not side to side) which allows for easier multi-zone temperature control.  You also want heavy stainless steel grates (not porcelain-enameled cast iron or regular steel). Each main burner should have a BTU-per-hour input rating of at least 42,000 with side burners greater than 10,000. (More is better in the case of BTU ratings.)  Weber Genesis and Summit series grills meet these requirements, and are also made in America (right here in Illinois) and have a strong warranty.  Also consider the quality of construction of the cabinet/fire-box materials. Weight here is generally a good indicator, but taking note of materials is also important. While we all want the 'bells and whistles', first narrow your selection based on these primary criteria, then shop for ancillary features like lights, rotisserie, gas supply gauges, etc.

The Shoe Fits
After all of my research, I have found what I think is the best fit for my needs. While I could have selected a less-expensive grill and replaced it almost annually, I have instead opted for the Weber Summit gas grill series. A bit more expensive perhaps, but built to last and with all of the 'bells and whistles' I want. I've selected the Weber S-470, which is the four-burner variety. If you need a larger grill, the S-670 is identical but with six main burners. One thing I didn't mention above is 'smokers'. After conversations with several of you, I am convinced that I need to have this feature to impart a smoky, more charcoal-grilled flavor to certain foods. As I cook many foods on the rotisserie, I also wanted a rear-mounted infrared rotisserie burner to help sear the outside of roasts and crisp the skin of poultry. A built-in thermometer is also required and common on most all models these days, as well as a side burner. The Weber S-470 also comes with a sear station burner that heats to 900 degrees and can be shut off for regular grilling when very high searing tasks are completed. As I do cook steaks and burgers for smaller crowds, this was also a feature I really wanted. Weber has for many years has also included a device that lets you know how much gas is left in your LP tank. For me this is also important, but amazingly enough not included on many other brands. Finally, if you buy this or a similar grill, purchase it from a local reputable seller that will be there to assemble, deliver and assist in any problems that might arise.  There are some things you can buy over the internet and others that are not as ideal.  This item, at 250 pounds, is not one that lends itself to internet purchase for several reasons.

I hope that by sharing my rather extensive research that it assists you in making your selection when it comes to buying a new grill. There are many options out there and the choice is difficult. I look forward to your feedback and comments that will only help others make the best possible selection for their needs. Happy grilling!

2 comments:

  1. Hey thanks so much for the tips. I'm actually planning to buy a new grill. We love grilled foods. I learned a lot from your blog post. Thanks again!

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  2. Thanks Christine. Glad it was helpful. It can be confusing when you need a new grill these days. So many options. Happy grilling!

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