Grills are an integral tool in a cook's arsenal
If you're one of those people who just loves 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 grills are better at imparting that delicious barbecued taste, recent innovations are blurring the distinction between the two types as now even gas grills have options for adding flavor through smoke boxes and proprietary technology, such as Weber's "flavorizer" bars.
But grilling isn't just a matter of tossing a hunk of meat on the grill. Most grills are very versatile cooking tools that can slow cook a rack of ribs using indirect heating methods as effectively as they can sear a steak over direct heat. Many grills can also do double duty as smokers, operating at very low temperatures for a very long time to cook foods to mouth-watering perfection. The best grills, no matter what type they are, should be easy to operate and clean, with a steady, even heat that is not prone to those flare-ups that can ruin dinner in a flash.
Types of grills
Gas grills heat quickly and are easy to use. They also make it easier to control the cooking temperature because gas grills have knobs that are more like an oven's. Many gas grills also have temperature gauges so you know when it's at the optimal temperature. Gas grills are versatile and can be used for both direct and indirect cooking, just like a charcoal grill -- except instead of fiddling with moving charcoal around, you just have to turn off the heat on one side for indirect. You can also buy smoker boxes that hold wood chips and can be set on the flames to impart a more traditional barbecue flavor to your food. Larger gas grills usually have two cooking surfaces -- primary and secondary. The primary cooking surface is directly over the flames, while the secondary rack is above the primary rack and is used to keep foods warm or to cook foods that you may traditionally cook in an oven, such as corn or bread wrapped in foil, while your meat cooks. You pay for all that convenience, though, because gas grills generally cost more. You can find models priced as low as about $150, but most gas grills start at a few hundred dollars and go up into the thousands.
Charcoal grills are the pick of many barbecue enthusiasts. Charcoal takes longer to light than a gas grill and controlling a charcoal grill's heat isn't as simple as turning 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 at less than $100 and most premium units topping out at $300 or $400. Many charcoal grills are built to last for years or even decades.
Smokers maintain a low, slow temperature better than grills. Most people think of smokers as strictly for large, tough cuts of meats like ribs or brisket, but, in fact, smokers are quite versatile -- you can even make pizza in a smoker. Many charcoal grills can also double as smokers, but they usually take more tending than a dedicated smoker because they don't maintain the temperature as well. Many grilling aficionados say they never knew what they were missing until they upgraded to a dedicated smoker.
Portable grills are available in both charcoal and gas models. These are great choices for camping, tailgating or picnics -- or if you just have a limited outdoor space and need a small grill. Charcoal portables are available for less than $100, while gas portables usually run between $150 and $400. In spite of their smaller size, portable grills should offer a relatively large cooking surface so you don't have to grill too many batches to produce a family meal.
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. If you're planning to buy a used model or shop at an outlet rather than a conventional retailer, it pays to check the CPSC list before buying. Also, it goes without saying that grills get hot on the outside when they're being used for cooking. Keep children and pets away from them and take basic safety precautions like wearing oven mitts and being careful not to touch hot surfaces.
If you live in an apartment or other residence that does not allow traditional grills, or if you’re just not comfortable with fire, be sure to check out our separate report on electric grills. There we recommend safe, easy-to-use grills that can be used indoors or out, as well as a few that double as sandwich makers or griddles.
How we found the best grills
There are a lot of resources for finding grill reviews of every type. ConsumerReports.org was helpful in our search for the best gas grill because they have an exhaustive roundup of dozens of models of grills in every size, while Cooks Illustrated compares charcoal grills. We also turned to expert reviews by barbecue professionals and enthusiasts in articles and on sites dedicated to grills and grilling, such as AmazingRibs.com and BBQGuys.com.
To get a feel for how each grill operates in real-world, long-term use, we also consulted thousands of owner reviews from users at retail sites, such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com, HomeDepot.com and Lowes.com. The result is our picks for the top grills and smokers for any lifestyle or budget.