So much at steak: 8 tips for buying a grill

Ashley Twiggs/The Christian Science Monitor
Jose Cirado and Louis Rocano grill hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken during a Memorial Day Barbeque in Queens, NY, in 2006. With summer inviting families to dine outdoors, Carlozo offers readers eight tips for buying the gas grill that makes the most sense for them.

Summer kicks off the grilling season in many parts of North America, and while a gas grill is a home appliance of sorts, it's nowhere as easy to purchase as a toaster or a blender. On the one hand, you could spend as little as $68 for this two-burner gas grill at Walmart (with in-store pickup, a low by $107). Or, you could opt for the mighty Kalamazoo K750HT Hybrid Fire Freestanding Grill, which packs 75,000 BTUs of burger-searing firepower and boasts a 33" x 22" primary grilling surface. Its base sticker price? A cool $14,795: enough to buy a Walmart grill for you and 200 of your closest pals, and still have change for a brat run to the supermarket.

Before you get burned, seared, or otherwise broiled on your gas grill search, here's a handy buying guide to landing the grill of your dreams: this checklist will help you separate necessities from the frills.

Pick Your Fuel Source

Using propane tanks is convenient and always having a spare tank around eliminates having to leave the BBQ to make a propane run. But natural gas is another fuel option; it'll cost you less in the long run, but you'll have to run a dedicated line from your home to the grill, and cheaper grills (under $300) aren't usually built to accommodate this option. You can outfit your propane grill for $100 or less with a natural gas conversion kit, but keep in mind that the grill you choose will otherwise take one fuel source and not the other.

How Will You Use Your Grill?

OK, we wise guy: We know you're going to cook food on this thing. But have you stopped to consider how much food and of what type? A good rule of thumb is that your grill should hold enough food to prepare a meal for as many people as you regularly cook for. If that's two, a small grilling surface will do. But if you love to entertain, then surface size matters — and the bigger the better. What's more, not all grills are equipped with the capability to, say, cook via rotisserie.

Grill Size: The Double-Edged Sword

Now let's suppose that you've decided on a large gas grill. In some ways, that's a wise decision because smaller grills tend to be less stable (though not necessarily less safe) and easier to steal, for starters. But that said, you don't want to buy the shiny, new grill, get it home, and discover that it doesn't fit on your deck. So take some measurements of where you want to set up your BBQ hub — especially if you live in an apartment or condo — to make sure you've got the size issue settled. When it comes to gas grills, especially less expensive ones, wider isn't automatically better: it's just wider.

The Great BTU Debate

While in my case, BTU could stand for "Burgers That (Are) Undercooked," it's actually shorthand for British Thermal Unit. This measurement reflects a grill's gas usage and heating potential. It's not quite like horsepower on a car, though: "more BTUs don't guarantee faster preheating or better cooking." But there are some magic numbers to look for. For a standard gas grill, look for about 80 to 100 BTUs per square inch, and 60 to 80 for an infrared grill like the Char-Broil TRU-Infrared Commercial 2-Burner Gas Grill ($215.20 with in-store pickup, a low by $54), which uses radiant heat. Once again, this supposes that the grill you buy is efficient and well made.

The Efficiency Enigma, Solved

For grills, it doesn't mean squat if your setup cranks out the BTUs, but lacks the efficiency to let the heat do its job. This efficiency boils down to the grill's build quality. The best grills, whether expensive or thrifty, will use stainless steel or cast aluminum throughout; lid seals will fit tight; and the grill grates and lid will have enough heft to stand up to heat, and keep the BTUs in. What's more, a good grill will have "small vents to let a controlled amount of air flow through the grill, holding in heat so it heats up quickly to a high temperature." Flimsy grills on the other hand, have lids and grates that simply feel light and may have poor welds and construction.

Necessary vs. Extraneous Features

"Grill frills" are easy to fall for. Side burners, warmer racks, and rotisseries might get lots of use, but do you really need a smoker box? Or lights that let you cook at night? We suggest making a checklist of the options you want, and cross-check it with grills available in your price range to narrow down your choices. Generally, the more features you want, the more you're likely to spend. The Char-Broil 5-Burner Propane Gas Grill balances the features you'll want (a temperature gauge, 900 square inches of total cooking area, four wheels, 40,000 BTU main burners) with the features you *really* like (15,000 BTU sear burner, and 10,000 BTU side burner) for a price you can afford: $199 (with in-store pickup, a low by $58).

Consider Upkeep and Maintenance

Did you know that the average mass market grill needs new parts every 14 months? The most common burner elements will go, though they're not too hard or expensive to replace if you're the slightest bit handy. But a poorly made lid or frame will cause you headaches that can only be relieved by junking your cheap grill and jonesing a hot dog from your neighbor with the Weber. Gas grills will definitely last longer (and be more hygienic) if you scrub them down and clean them after each use.

Something as basic as a grill cover will protect your investment from the elements, and a solid warranty is your best protection against heartbreak at the height of grilling season. As for a sweet spot in terms of price, consider spending about $300 to $500, though you can find quality grills for under $250.

It's also wise to read the reviews for models from reputable brands you may be interested in. Then, once you've picked out your gas grill, we urge you to do one more thing! Please save some BBQ chicken breasts and portabella mushroom caps for us. Grill on, brotha.

Lou Carlozo is a contributor at dealnews.com, where this article first appeared.

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