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Gas vs. charcoal grills

If you're one of the folks who just love to barbecue, we've got good news. The grills category continues to improve, with models that are quicker to start, better at retaining heat and easier to clean than ever before. While gas grills are simpler to use and charcoal models better at imparting that delicious barbecued taste, recent innovations are blurring the distinction between the two types.

Still, critics say newer models aren't as solidly built as those from the past. Bottom line? It pays to understand the pros and cons of each grill you're considering. So do your homework -- instead of relying on manufacturer reputation and experience with previous grills you've owned.

Charcoal grills could be considered the purist's choice. Charcoal takes longer to light than a gas grill and controlling a charcoal grill's heat isn't as simple as twiddling a gas grill's temperature dial. But enthusiasts say the extra trouble is worth it for the flavor that cooking over charcoal imparts. Charcoal grills tend to be less expensive than gas grills, too, with basic models starting as low as $100 and most premium units topping out at $300 or $400. Many are built to last and they do -- for years or even decades.

Gas grills generally cost more; you'll find a few basic models starting at about $150, but most start at a few hundred dollars and go up into the thousands. The benefits of gas grills are that they're easier to light and control than charcoal types and they heat up more quickly. Among gas grills, however, experts and owners agree that a more expensive grill doesn't always guarantee better cooking results.

Portable grills are available in both charcoal and gas models; they're  great for camping, tailgating or picnics. Charcoal portables are available for less than $100, while gas portables usually run between $150 and $400. The best portable grills are small or designed to fold up for easy transport and they should offer a relatively large cooking surface. After all, once you set it up and start grilling, you'll want to cook all or most of your food on the cooking grate once.

Because grills use fire or gas, it's not surprising that some models would end up on the Consumer Product Safety Commission's list of recalled products. The good news, however, is that most of the CPSC grill recalls date back to 2010 or earlier. Still, there is a secondary market for grills, so if you're planning to buy a used model or shop at an outlet other than a conventional retailer, it pays to check the CPSC list.

To determine our top-rated models, we analyzed expert and owner reviews of gas and charcoal grills, focusing specifically on performance, ease of use, safety and cost of ownership. We also considered grill prices and the relative value different models offer. Our research includes multiple professional, published test results; we also analyzed user ratings and comments on retail and opinion-based websites, which describe consumers' experiences over time.

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