There are three main types of grills: Gas, Charcoal, and Electric.
Electric grills are mainly for indoor use, sitting on top of your stove, and you better have a range hood that ventilates outdoors and doesn’t just circulate through a filter, or you’re going to fill up your house with smoke. I’ve had fun cooking on an electric stove-top grill my dad gave me for Christmas one year. They don’t get hot enough, they’re smoky, food sticks after they get worn, and eventually they make you think two things: 1. I should get a charcoal grill for outdoors, and 2. Screw George Foreman.
Enough about Electric; let’s go on to real grills.
That leaves Gas grills and Charcoal. Let’s consider the pros and cons of both before we look into the specific types:
Gas Grills are easy to light and inexpensive to operate.
There’s also no ash and coal residue to clean up, but they do get greasy and require cleaning.
Also Gas Grills are more expensive than Charcoal Grills – and if you want a really good gas grill that can get really hot – expect to pay big $500 to $1500.
It can be hard to get a gas grill hot enough for good searing.
The “smoke” flavor imparted to your foods is really the smell of burned grease.
Charcoal grills require starting a charcoal fire, and if you think starting a fire is hard you’ll think starting a charcoal grill is hard.
There’s ash and coal to clean up, but the grease usually isn’t too bad.
They’re also relatively inexpensive: You can buy all kinds of cheap little braziers and hibachis for $20 to $50, and one of the best grills in the world, the Weber 22-1/2″ One-Touch Silver Kettle grill, is $99.
Charcoal grills are easy to get really hot and sear food.
Charcoal imparts a real smoke flavor, and can also be used with various flavors of wood chips.
You can probably tell which way we roll here at BBQ Dragon, but we do understand that the convenience of Gas will make a gas grill the right choice for many people. Let’s just say, however, that Competition Barbecue Chefs (that’s right, there are Barbecue competitions, and lots of ’em) use charcoal to prepare their foods. Enough said.
Two main types:
1. The little portable versions that you can pull out onto the tailgate of your pickup and cook up some burgers and dogs for the game. These run on little portable canisters of propane and come in a variety of styles and costs, from little $20 drugstore units, to fancy things shaped like footballs or snowmen that cost hundreds. Whatever, you’re still basically just warming up hot dogs in the parking lot. The only reason to use one of these at home would be because your electricity is off and you need emergency cooking.
2. Your typical home gas grill which runs off of large white tanks of liquid propane. These grills range from the size of baby’s high-chair, up to the size of an entire kitchen countertop. They’re usually measured in BTU’s, which tells you the amount of heat the grill produces. You need a minimum of 100 BTU’s per square inch, and even that will have trouble searing steaks. These grills start at about $100 for an entry level Char-Broil 2-burner, which won’t be enough room, or enough heat, to cook for more than about three people, up to thousands of dollars for top quality grills.
The quality of a gas grill is important to its function because gas grills need thick metal components to retain and direct heat evenly, and quality burners to produce high heat. If you want to go gas and have a shot at being able to produce good barbecue, be prepared to pay big bucks.
Okay, now on to Charcoal grills:
We’ve already mentioned the Weber kettle grill. This is one of the most common types of charcoal grill in the U.S. because it works great, and there are a lot of copycat versions – but we’ve never found a kettle grill that worked as well as a Weber.
If you’re reading this because you’re new to barbecue cooking and you want to know what grill to get – get a Weber kettle grill for a hundred bucks. For thirty bucks more you can get one that has a slick aluminum bucket underneath that the old ash and coals scrape out into for easy cleaning.
If you’re just interested in all the kinds of charcoal grills people use, read on.
Another popular and super-American grill is called the Barrel Grill, and it’s not much more than a used 55 gallon steel drum sliced in half lengthwise. Often these barrels were previously used to hold oil, poisonous chemicals, acid, cocaine slush imported from Columbia, or dead bodies dissolved in lye, so they often impart interesting flavors to grilled and smoked food. Hinges are attached so that the top half opens up as the lid, and the bottom half, lined with some grates, holds the charcoal and the cooking meat. Legs are welded or bolted on, and fancy versions of barrel grills include vents in the top half, chimneys, and sometimes separate chambers at one end or another to hold charcoal and turn the barrel into a smoker, or to hold meats for smoking while the barrel itself hold the charcoal. Cheap and smaller versions of barrel grills are sometimes found for sale commercially, but these work poorly, because the traditional barrel grill works great for two reasons: 1. It’s large, so grilled food is held up high off he coals, and 2. it’s made from heavy steel, which keeps heat and cooking even.
If you can find a local maker of real barrel grills who’ll make one for a reasonable price, get one – they’re cool. Or, if you can weld and cut steel and have a dead body soaking in lye in a barrel out back, make your own.
Ceramic cookers are like big ceramic kettle grills, invented by the Japanese more than 3000 years ago. They’re great because the thick ceramic sides hold a lot of heat and keep your cooking temperatures consistent, and also because they’re tall, and if you build a whopping fire in the bottom, they can sear the dickens out of meat. You can throw on the ceramic lid and make it work like a fairly efficient oven, too, and cook pizza and roasts. One of the most popular versions of ceramic cookers today is The Big Green Egg. It’s green, and it’s big, which very closely symbolizes the big pile of money you’ll have to spend to get one, around $800 before you start buying accessories, and about $8000 after you get a big green egg stand, big green egg fork, big green egg apron, etc.
If you can afford it, why not get it? If you can afford a Ferrari, why not get one of those, too? And if you can afford two wives, move to Saudi Arabia with them, your big green egg, and your Ferrari.
But seriously, it’s still cheaper than a pretty good gas grill.
Pellet grills are the cutting edge of barbecue grills, and they’re super-cool, and also not priced for single moms making ends meet by dog-walking. They’re cool because one way to look at barbecue is thinking of it as the meeting place of technology, food, and the outdoors. A pellet grill is fueled by compressed wood pellets fed into the burning area of the grill by an electric auger which is controlled by a thermostat – set your thermostat and light the fire and the machine loads in pellets – until the fire is too hot, and then it slows down – and when it needs to heat up, it starts loading in more pellets. What is cooler than that? They also impart a much stronger smoke flavor to food than charcoal, since they’re burning wood. The only possible drawback to a pellet grill, save price, is that they can’t reach really really high heats which some barbecue chefs swear by. Most pellet grills max out around 500 degrees F. On the other hand, they make pretty darned good smokers. And they’re more fun to watch than a three-legged squirrel.
Brazier grills are fairly shallow, and fairly small grills – picture a breadbox sliced to half-height. (Wait – you don’t know what a breadbox looks like? Then a brazier is about the size of a PC tower laid on its side.) The advantage to these grills is that they’re cheap and you can carry them around on the floor of the passenger seat of your Jetta and buy them in the checkout line at the drug store – the drawbacks are that the coal bed in these grills is usually so close to the grate itself that it’s very difficult to control the heat, and they’re usually so small that it’s tough to prepare a decent two-zone fire, with the coals on one side and indirect heat on the other. Still, it’s an important step to grow through, like skateboarding, and they can, in fairness, make decent tailgate grills.
Square charcoal grills are cross between kettle grills and braziers. Generally flat like a brazier, they have the problem of having the coals too close to the grill, but they also come with lids – which, for most decent grilling you’ll do on this, won’t make much of a difference, although you could possibly do some indirect heat cooking with the coals scraped to the side and the lid on. Still, BBQ Dragon is not generally keen on lid-on cooking. It’s a grill, it’s on wheels, it holds charcoal – better than a slap in the belly with a wet fish.
Hibachis are semi-popular. I had one in a plywood fort a buddy and I built in junior high school. They’re deeper versions of Brazier grills, and the decent ones are made from cast iron, which holds heat well. These grills are good for cooking two or three burgers, or six hot dogs. They’re fine for single guys without a lot of friends who cook out on the balcony of their studio apartments, grilling not-too-fresh burger meat and getting weepy watching the sun set over the homes of their more popular neighbors. These also make good tail-gate grills, and, to be fair, when you get good at operating one, you can cook a decent steak or a couple strips of Korean flavored pork belly. They’re cool. I liked mine in junior high.