To Smoke or Not To Smoke
Springtime. The first whiff of all-out summer wafts on the evening breeze, mingling in a smoky romance with the wisteria. The mind falls back to a childhood filled with Saturday backyard barbecues, Dad at the helm, tending the grill the way a hen tends its nest. Long stretches of sitting interrupted by bursts of rearranging and rotating the clutch of burgers and dogs.
There is no yearning like a need to sample the seeming simplicity of those long ago days once more. What better way to capture a small piece of the past than to throw some meat on the grill and inhale the fragrance of a searing steak or a sizzling sausage?
Things have changed since those long, lazy days, however. Grilling, a sport once reserved for the summer season, is now a year-round activity and it’s no longer reserved solely for men. For today’s busy family finding a Saturday afternoon to devote to grilling is challenging. And with the advent of the outdoor kitchen, the grill master’s equipment has evolved from a round, kettle-shaped, three legged charcoal grill in a corner of the patio to an industrial-sized, stainless steel, natural gas or propane-fueled grill with an outdoor area devoted to it. “Outdoor kitchens have grown from a stand-alone grill to a second kitchen,” says Greig McCully, co-founder of Fireside Outside Kitchens & Grills. And shopping for a grill can overwhelm the uninitiated.
Before even considering gas or charcoal, the great modern debate that snags the novice and master grill chef alike, one must consider who he or she is as a cook. Habits, household make-up and expectations can all provide direction. Before darkening the door of a store, answer the following questions: How much time does my schedule allow for grilling? What is my budget? How many people will I grill for on a regular basis? How often do I plan to grill? What do I plan to cook most often? Where will I locate the grill and how much space do I have? Is grilling a science or an artform for me, or is it a means to an end? Be realistic and honest in your answers. It might sound appealing to spend a whole day monitoring a slow-cooking beef brisket, but do you have the disposition for the endeavor or the lifestyle that allows that commitment? Fit the grill to the cook, not the cook to the grill.
Gas grills, with click to ignite convenience and a cold-to-cook-temperature time-span of about 10 minutes, suit people who enjoy frequent grilling or who have limited time in their schedules. Infrared technology, found in some gas grill models, now decreases the grill-to-table time even more. Charcoal grills require greater prep time and take longer to reach desired temperature. Chimney starters thankfully expedite the task of lighting coals.
Another relevant difference when considering frequency of grilling and available time for the task is clean-up ease. Unlike charcoal grills, gas grills are on when they’re on, with the flick of a switch, and off when they’re off, with the turn of a knob. Once food is removed from the grate, the heat on a gas grill can be turned all the way up to burn off any remaining food residue, making scraping the grate in preparation for the next use quite simple. The fuel for a charcoal grill must burn out or be completely extinguished once food is removed. Someone must dispose of the ashes and getting residue off the grill grate may be more difficult.
For many consumers, however, buying a product comes down to the expense. Fortunately, price points for grills range from the very affordable charcoal grill at less than $30 to the top-of-the-line gas grill in the thousands of dollars. Due to the complexity of parts, gas grills of comparable quality require more budget dollars than charcoal grills.
High-end gas grills combine function with style and will set the consumer back anywhere from $500 to the low thousands. “For $650 to $700 you can buy a very good all-purpose grill,” says McCully. Stainless steel construction, cast-iron burners and porcelain enameled cooking grates are common features. Monetary investment in and durability of a grill are closely correlated. Owners should expect an appropriately maintained high-end gas grill to last 10 years or more; thus, the price is reasonable for everyday grillers.
Mid-level gas grills start around $200 and have a lifespan of approximately five years. Low-end gas grills run about $70-$200. McCully refers to these as “landfill grills” because they perform well for only about two to three years. It is often more economical to replace the entire grill when a part wears out than it is to replace the part. Still, starting on the low-end might be the right decision for someone who isn’t confident in his or her enthusiasm for this style of cooking.
For less than the price of a low-end gas grill, a high quality charcoal grill can be purchased. Depending on size and construction materials, a good quality charcoal grill costs anywhere from about $90 to $300, but can reach prices as high $1,300. The durability of charcoal grills outweighs that of gas grills because they have fewer mechanical parts.
Whether buying a gas grill or a charcoal grill, nonetheless, experts recommend going with a known and trusted brand rather than the best deal. Flimsy construction and low quality materials mean heat loss and difficulty maintaining a steady temperature, which leads to difficulty sealing in juices, lengthier cook times and higher fuel costs. Mainstays of the market offer the best value for the buck.
In addition to cost, consider the size of the crowd. A feast for the masses or a romantic meal for two? Either way, there’s a grill that can handle the job. Grill cooking surfaces are measured in square inches. A grill with 300 to 450 square inches of cooking area will suffice for two to four people. Enough food for five to eight can be accommodated on a surface of 450 to 600 square inches. If the intention is to regularly grill for large groups, purchase one with 1,000-plus square inches. On a gas grill, the number of burners is important too. A smaller grill should have two to three primary burners (as opposed to side burners). Medium-sized grills should have at least four burners and larger grills need five to six burners. Beware. Some manufacturers include warming drawers and side burners in the total square inches. Read labeling carefully.
Location of the grill on a patio or deck, and the amount of space available in which to situate it, are added factors to keep in mind. Gas grills, because they have no open flames, can be situated closer to the house than a charcoal grill. Charcoal grills are slimmer and can fit into smaller spaces. With either, safety comes first. Neither should be accessible to pets or small children or positioned in close proximity to flammable materials.
All else being equal, flavor is the big sticking point for many who debate the gas or charcoal division. Most will point out that although gas grills have overcome the flavor barrier with accessories designed to create smoke, the source of flavor for grilled foods, these alternatives don’t match the flavor imparted by grilling over coals. This may not be so important to the weekend burger flipper, but the connoisseur of meats might stand firmly on this position. On the upside, charcoal grills are so inexpensive it may be worth considering purchasing a gas grill for busy weeknights and a charcoal grill for weekend use. That way grilling aficionados can have their hotdog and eat their Boston butt too.
Smokers, close relatives of the charcoal grill, burn charcoal or woodchips and are a third alternative. By cooking slowly with indirect heat, which can also be achieved with both gas and charcoal grills through practice and patience, a smoker allows more time for the heat and smoke to penetrate the meat. Preparing foods on a smoker requires an even larger chunk of time (up to 10-12 hours) than either a gas or charcoal grill. Entry-level smokers cost a little more than low-end charcoal grills, starting at about $60. There are also combo smokers/grills available.
Simply stated, charcoal grills and smokers are more affordable than gas grills and perfect for slow cooking over low heat. Gas grills, on the other hand, provide the grilling experience conveniently but at a higher price and with more maintenance. All three render delicious foods. “It isn’t that grills have changed that much,” says McCully, who seeks to educate consumers. “It’s that people understand the flexibility.”
The variety of styles, colors, features and finishes is vast. Don’t get hypnotized by bells and whistles and end up buying something that doesn’t suit. Remember, the key is to fit the grill to the cook. Assess schedule, budget, grilling frequency, patio or deck space, size of crowd and taste preferences. A little knowledge and a written list of requirements in hand when going to buy will provide focus. Can you smell the smoky signals of success?