Outdoor Living: Grilling
Here’s what’s new in outdoor cooking from charcoal to infrared heat
The craze for restaurant-grade ovens in home kitchens also has industrial-strength grills popping up on patios. Makers of indoor cookers such as Viking, Wolf, and Alfresco are rigging out grills with rotisseries, super-hot infrared burners, smokers, and ovens—with prices topping $5,000.
Grills are also making statements as they go sleek or integrate with the decor as built-ins—complete with ventilation hoods.
Some of the best-performing grills are still the simplest and cheapest. Consumer Reports’ top three “best buys” are all under $400—one as low as $200.
The debate over charcoal, gas, and electric will never be resolved, but innovations have narrowed the divide. Some grills now combine methods and add infrared, which can sear meat with temperatures reaching 1,650 degrees.
Purists insist only charcoal delivers intense, smoky flavor, but it’s slower, messier, and less accurate than gas or electric. Improvements such as gas lighters, adjustable grates, and larger cooking spaces have charcoal grills making a comeback. They’re also cheaper—with the average around $150 and hibachis as low as $15.
For basic models, aluminum “chimney” starters will light coals quickly and easily; they’re available at hardware stores for about $15. Deluxe models, such as the Performer by Weber (weber.com)—around $300—include propane-gas starters as well as frills like quick-clean ash catchers and thermostats.
Charcoal cookers are more attractive now, especially stainless-steel models such as the Ellips (around $350) by Barbecook (barbecook.com) and the award-winning “barrel grill” by the Danish company Eva Solo; it’s $560 at Unica Home (unicahome.com).
Features to look for: gas ignition, flip lids that make it easier to add charcoal, dishwasher-safe ashtrays, nonstick cast-iron grates, porcelain-enamel exterior finishes.
This method uses either liquid propane or natural gas. Some propane versions offer a conversion kit to use natural gas. They’re ready to cook in 10 to 15 minutes, have no ashes, and control temperature with a simple knob. Some have warming racks, multiple burners, and rotisseries. They also come with side carts for ingredients, ice chests, cutting boards, even porcelain woks.
Basic gas grills can cost less than $300, but heavy users may want to spend $400 to $800. Bells and whistles can raise prices to around $3,000, and stainless-steel models loaded with extras—such as those in Viking’s Ultra-Premium line (vikingrange.com)—reach over $5,000.
Those who prefer charcoal flavor without the mess can use “flavorized bars” or hardwood briquettes to enhance the taste—also usable in electric grills.
A note on BTUs (British thermal units), a measure of the amount of heat produced per hour: Most grills rate between 30,000 and 40,000 and can go as high as 60,000. But heat amount is less important than how effectively a grill uses its firepower. Consumer Reports found that one small grill with only a 24,000-BTUs-per-hour rating reached 600 degrees in about six minutes, compared with 10 to 12 minutes for some higher-heat models.
Features to look for: cooking surfaces in die-cast aluminum, stainless steel, or porcelain; well-built carts and side tables; 400 square inches or more of cooking space; built-in temperature gauges.
This is best for condominiums and apartments that ban propane tanks. Like gas, it’s quicker and cleaner than charcoal. Electric grills are generally compact and run between $150 and $300, but they can span the range of options and prices.
The Patio Bistro by Char-Broil (charbroil.com) costs about $345. A premium model by Electri-Chef (www.electri-chef.com) runs around $2,100. While electric grills don’t measure up to gas in firepower, some new models can hit 700 degrees in ten minutes.
Best are models ranging between 1,200 and 1,700 watts; most have 1,670. A watt is the measure of electrical energy that heats the grill. High wattage preheats quickly and cooks hotter; it can score grill marks that mimic those of charcoal grills.
Features to look for: thermostatically controlled indicator lights for accurate preheating and cooking (they go on when the temperature lowers and off again when the grill reaches the set temperature), a durable stainless-steel frame, and nonstick cooking surfaces.
This breakthrough cooks foods in half the time of conventional grills, with radiant searing-heat temperatures topping 1,000 degrees. The infrared burner focuses the gas flame onto a ceramic tile, converting the heat into infrared energy that’s much higher and more consistent than that of a standard grill.
Many gas models are adding infrared, and prices range from $1,500 to $5,000. Some are adding one infrared burner in a gas-grill setup or using infrared for the rotisserie feature.
These are often sold separately, starting around $40, but can be added to all types of deluxe grills to impart a smoky flavor. They infuse food with steam from water boiled by charcoal, gas, or electricity. Most use stacked racks in an enclosed cooker, and wood chips can be added to enhance flavor.
One of the best of the separate models is the Weber Smokey Mountain for around $200. The Char-Griller Smokin’ Pro is about $189. More expensive (about $550) is the Smoke’N Pit Pitmaster Professional (brinkmann.net).