Grill Buying Guide: Charcoal, Gas, Electric and Pellet Compared
Jun 20, 2023
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Picking the right backyard cooker isn't always easy. Read this buying guide to help.
Labor Day is coming up, and the summer heat is soon going to give way to early fall temperatures -- that means it's grill time. Is your backyard cooker ready? Maybe it needs a deep cleaning. If it's good to go, consider hosting a cookout or low-and-slow barbecue session to cap off the end of summer.
If not, maybe you should consider buying a new grill. The landscape is constantly changing though, and the great debate over which type of grill is better has only grown more complex with more options. It's no longer just about charcoal versus gas. If you have little grill knowledge or are in the market to replace your worn out one with a shiny new barbecue grill, here are the five main types of grills you can choose from, and which is best for your needs.
For more, check out CNET's favorite charcoal grills, gas grills, portable grills, pellet smokers and kamado grills of the year.
Unless you use a torch or electric starter, charcoal grills take time to light.
A classic and favorite among purists, the charcoal grill is often heralded as a superior or more authentic way to grill food. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, they all use charcoal briquettes (sometimes mixed with wood chips) or lump charcoal as a fuel source, which produces a distinct, strong and smoky flavor.
Cooking over charcoal is also an inherently slower way to cook that takes practice. Lighting a charcoal requires time, unless you enlist the help of a high-octane charcoal starter. Controlling the internal temperature of the grill is more difficult and less precise, and getting a charcoal grill up to cooking temperatures can take upward of 20 minutes. The cleanup is also a bit more tedious. Still, the flavor makes all the extra effort worth it. And you can use simple hacks to keep your charcoal grill cooking low and slow for hours on end too.
Charcoal grills are usually pretty affordable, starting as little as $30 and going up to $300. They also come in a bevy of different styles:
The old debate used to be between charcoal and gas, but now there's a new debate: natural gas or liquid propane.
The other most common grill style is a gas grill. They usually come in a cart-style form factor or are built into a permanent outdoor cooking area with a varying number of burners.
The old debate used to be between charcoal and gas, but now there's a new debate: natural gas or liquid propane. Natural gas burns cleaner, is cheaper to use (anywhere from half to one-sixth the price) and no more running out or needing to swap tanks halfway through cooking. That said, with natural gas your grill becomes a permanent installation. You won't be able to move it around at will.
Liquid propane is still more commonly used and adds the convenience of portability. But you'll also have to plan ahead or do some rough estimations to guess how much cook time you have left on your current tank. Fortunately, if you have a gas link hookup at your house, you may be able to purchase a conversion kit for your existing grill or so you can enjoy both types of fuel.
The benefit to gas grills is ease of use and precision. It doesn't take 20 minutes to fire up a gas grill; just turn on the gas, press the igniter and wait for it to reach your desired internal temperature. And if the grill is cooking too cool or hot, just adjust the dial. Cleanup and upkeep are much easier on gas grills, too, with no ashes to dump. Still, you'll be missing out on that smoky flavor (unless you get a smoker box).
While there are countless models to choose from with a handful of nifty features (like side burners or a rotisserie spit), the main decision you'll have to make when buying a gas grill is how many burners you'll need. Gas grills generally start at around $90 for two burners, but can go up to $1,000 and beyond for four- to six-burner grills.
If you don't have an outlet handy in your backyard, an electric grill may not be the most convenient option.
Electric grills are generally much more compact and can sometimes be used both indoors and outdoors. Think George Foreman grills, but there are dozens of different styles and form factors -- countertop, pedestal, kettle, open face, cart, etc.
Electric grills are the easiest to start -- just plug it into a nearby outlet and turn the control knob. As you would expect, however, they can only move as far as their power cord will let them go. If you don't have an outlet handy in your backyard, you'll need to relocate the grill or use an extension cord to bring the power to the grill.
Electric grills are often great alternatives for apartment dwellers who aren't allowed to cook with (or even store) a gas or charcoal grill on their balcony.
Like gas grills, they lack the smoked flavor of cooking with charcoal but are an affordable, convenient way to cook that's getting better with time. Electric grills start at around $50 and can cost upward of $600 for higher-end models.
Pellet grills can operate both as a grill or smoker.
Pellet grills have been around for over 30 years but have seen a resurgence in the last few years. They can operate as a grill or smoker. Traeger is the best-known brand, but other companies have recently jumped into the fray. For instance, there's the Weber Smokefire and Cuisinart 4-in-1, both relative pellet grill newcomers.
With a pellet grill, there is a hopper on the side of the grill that you will fill with food-grade wood pellets. Then to ignite, just flip the power switch on and set a temperature. An auger connects the hopper to a burn pot under the cooking grate and, as it rotates, it moves the pellets into the burn pot.
The grill also has what is called a "hot rod" inside that will ignite the pellets as they fall into the burn pot. The wood pellets burn and smoke, giving you that hardwood smoked flavor. You can cook on high heat, which is comparable to most grills on the market, or cook low and slow, truly making it the perfect middle ground.
Since a computer controls a fan to stoke the fire and the rate at which wood pellets are added to the burn pot, you'll have to be near a power source to use a pellet grill. And like a charcoal grill, you'll have ashes to clean up after each use.
Pellet grills typically only come in barrel or cart-style designs, though there are some exceptions to the rule. For example, some companies have begun making portable pellet grills that are compact enough to take on the road or tailgating. Pricing for pellet grills can range from around $300 to $1,800.
Infrared grills are a much speedier option.
Infrared grills look like any other cart-style gas grill. In fact, they're usually powered by natural gas or liquid propane, but can also be electric. The difference is in how they cook.
Rather than using radiant heat by warming the air inside the grill, they use an electric or gas element to heat a solid surface, like ceramic, which emits infrared waves to heat the food. What you get is a grill that heats and is ready to use in just a few minutes and cooks evenly with no flare-ups.
Not to mention, infrared grilling is fast. They can often reach temperatures of 700˚F.
The true downside to infrared is the price. While entry-level infrared grills have come down to roughly $800, the vast majority will set you back $1,500 and beyond.
Ultimately, with so many options on the market, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Choosing the grill for your needs will depend on what you're cooking, the convenience you're after, your budget and even where you live.
If you're on a tight budget, infrared is out immediately. Charcoal is more expensive to use over time since the briquettes have to be replaced with each use. Electric or gas are your best budget options for long-term use and entry level pricing. And they're the most hassle-free with the least amount of cleanup.
For flavor, charcoal and pellet grills are generally accepted as the better options, but they will require more maintenance and higher running costs. Plus, you'll need time for your grill to get hot enough to start cooking. With a pellet grill, you're basically getting a two-in-one deal for a grill and smoker.
No matter which grill you choose, it's always a great excuse to grab your favorite six-pack, a giant slab of meat and invite a bunch of friends over to "test things out."
For more, here's how to grill like a pro and how to clean your grill the right way. And here's how CNET tests grills to find the best of the best.
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