Different Types of Grills and What To Think About Before Buying One

By John Hoff / August 20, 2014

In this article we’ll discuss gas grills, charcoal grills, and pellet grills and give a few tips to think about before buying one.

I love grilling and barbecuing.

But no matter how many websites I look at, showrooms I visit, or competitions I attend…

I’ll never see every type of grill and smoker out there. It’s just impossible. Off the top of my head there are grills and smoker types that are:

  • vertical
  • horizontal
  • built for cooking pigs
  • super small (like the Hibachi)
  • for tailgating
  • combo charcoal and gas units
  • egg shaped charcoal grill
  • pellet grills
  • electric
  • built for wood burning

The list goes on and on. Do a Google Image search for barbecue grills and an endless number of grill shapes, sizes, and types will follow.

Function vs. Heat Source

Okay so I convinced you there are tons of different cookers out there to choose from, but how do you pick which is right for you?

There are 2 things you should consider when it comes to deciding which type of cooker is right for you.

1. Function

What function are you looking for in a grill? Are you looking to smoke food low and slow or are you just looking to cook over an open flame and get that grilled flavor imparted on your food?

Do you need to cook a whole pig, lamb, or some other large animal?

Or do you need to simply grill up some hamburgers in your back yard?

Other functions might include tailgating, cooking in a fireplace, or simply purchased because you don’t have enough oven space.

2. Heat (a.k.a. fuel)

The next thing you need to decide is which kind of heat source you’re looking for.

Heat sources might include:

  • Gas (propane or natural gas)
  • Charcoal
  • Wood logs
  • Wood pellets
  • Electric

Generally speaking, the heat source should be considered just that… the cooker’s heat source. Many believe charcoal produces flavor for the food, but this idea has been debunked.

As you can see from the video, charcoal can play a part in flavoring your food; that is, drippings from your meat produce a slightly different flavor when vaporized by charcoal rather than heat shields on a gas grill, but it’s not the only thing which gives your food that distinctive barbecue flavor.

You can add great flavor from drippings from your food, wood added, and spices which give your food that distinctive barbecue flavoring.

Okay so true if you purchase a wood burning grill (logs or pellets) then you’re going to get a distinctive wood-smoked flavoring, but consider that the wood flavored smoke can be added no matter what kind of grill you purchase or fuel source you decide on.

Takeaway: My suggestion is to focus on the function of what you want from your grill. What size do you need? Do you need a side burner or a sear burner?

Do you need your grill to be mobile or will it stay in one place? Or maybe you’re just looking for something super easy to work with.

Focus more on that and then learn how to use it to cook the kind of food you want.

Gas Grills

Last month I took my family on a road trip to Texas to visit my wife’s cousin and his family.

He’s got 65 acres of land, a couple tractors, raises and butchers cattle, hunts and butchers wild game, and is a downright great cook.

One evening we were having a few beers while talking about great food when I noticed something…

Every time he cooked anything which required grilling he always used a gas grill.

When I asked him about it, he (like me) said he almost always uses the gas grill because it’s easier. They are:

  • easy to start
  • easy to clean
  • easy to manipulate the temperature
  • no ash to dispose of after cooking

It’s true, gas grills are much easier to cook with than charcoal grills because of the mentioned list above, but the funny thing is my wife’s cousin and I both agree that we like the flavor of food a little more when they are cooked over charcoal. That’s because charcoal produces a slightly different flavored smoke than gas grills do (when the drippings of your meat incinerate and turn to smoke).

For us and for many, the charcoal grill produces a little tastier food but the gas grill wins most of the time because it still produces great tasting food and is a lot easier to work with.

Tips When Buying a Gas Grill

Gas grills range from around $100 to tens of thousands of dollars. More expensive grills will be made of more nickel than steel which is usually signified by the number 304. Most inexpensive grills are made of 430 steel and you can always tell this because magnets stick to them.

430 is fine, and is pretty much all you will find in lower priced grills, but just realize that they look nice in the store before they are ever used but after a short period you’ll see they get dirty and stay dirty pretty easily.

Tip 1: Sear Burner

Try to find a gas grill with a sear burner on it.

It might cost a little more but having a sear burner is well worth the money.

The sear burner will allow you to get that awesome crust on your meats…

Which we all love the taste of, of course.

Tip 2: Front to Back Burners rather than Left to Right

front-to-back-left-to-right-burners

When purchasing a grill I prefer my burners to run front to back (pictured left) rather than left to right (pictured right).

There’s a couple reasons for this.

First, if your grill has a rotisserie or one can be added later, it’s impossible to get your rotisserie to be positioned over indirect heat if your burners are left to right.

But if they are front to back you can turn off the middle flames and just leave the front and back ones on.

Second, when creating indirect heat you will have more surface area to work with. Most grills are wider in length (side to side) than they are taller (front to back). I have found that I have more surface area to work with on the indirect side when the burners run front to back.

burner gapTip 3: Burners Should Be Close To Each Other

When looking at the grill, pay attention to how far apart or spread out the burners are.

Look for a grill where the burners are pretty close to one another rather than a huge gap between them.

This will allow for a more even temperature across your grill with less hotter and cooler zones.

 

Charcoal Grills

 

charcoal-grillAs I stated before, I love the flavor of food cooked over charcoal and for many competition cooks it’s the fuel of choice.

Charcoal grills are a little more involved to cook with, though.

You have to deal with: messy charcoal, starting the charcoal, pile charcoal for more heat, learn how many pieces yields X amount of heat, and of course…

Deal with the messy clean up.

Some charcoal grills are set up really nice for smoking food.

There are so many variations of shapes and sizes of charcoal grills it’s almost nuts. Here are 2 functions you might consider when it comes to buying one:

  • Those that can smoke food but not set up as nice for it
  • Those that are set up really well for smoking food over indirect heat

Let’s look at some examples.

1. Charcoal grills not set up as well for smoking food…

Here’s a common charcoal grill you’ll see at the store (pictured is a Weber One-Touch Series).

weber

This is a great grill and you know you’re good with Weber, but this kind of charcoal grill is not set up for smoking food very well because there’s nothing creating a barrier between the heat source and the food.

not-heat-barrier

To smoke food on a grill like this, you have to pile the coals to one side, (typically) add a water pan, create a good barrier against direct heat, and then put some wood chips or chunks right on top of the coals.

Here’s a video which I found which shows you what you need to do to smoke food (pork shoulder in this video) on a grill like this.

As you can see, you can grill and barbecue on a grill which is not technically labeled a “smoker”. So don’t let the fact that it’s not a smoker deter you from making a decision.

2. Charcoal grills set up well for smoking food.

Some grills, typically more expensive but I suppose I can’t say always, are set up really well for creating indirect heat on your food (2 zone cooking) so that you can both grill when you want and barbecue low and slow when you want.

An example might be the Big Green Egg. When you want to cook at lower temperatures, you can use a ceramic plate as a barrier between the coals and your food.

green-egg-indirect-cooking

Here’s a video demonstrating smoking the same thing as the video above, a pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt).

I’m sure I don’t need to say it but just in case, note that you can grill food on this grill by simply not using the ceramic plate.

There are many different kinds of charcoal/smoker combos out there. If you’re looking for a grill like this, just look for a mechanism which allows for a barrier between the charcoal and the food.

Tips for buying a charcoal grill.

Tip 1: Need To Easily Control Air Flow

What you need to understand when it comes to working with charcoal (and log burning grills) is that you must master temperature control… and that’s not easy task when you’re new.

To master your temperature control, you need a grill which allows you to control how much and how little airflow enters the cooker. More air (i.e. oxygen) equals hotter fire. Deprive your coals of oxygen and you’ll get a lower temperature.

To regulate airflow effectively, you need 2 dampers; one for the intake of oxygen and one for exhaust.

Here’s a screenshot of my very dirty Char-Broil charcoal grill’s intake and exhaust.

Tip 2: Have a Lid

That’s one’s pretty self explanatory I suppose, just make sure it’s a good quality grill. Cheap ones might have a lid but don’t fit securely and thus leaks heat where you don’t want it to exhaust from.

Tip 3: Ability To Easily Add More Charcoal

When cooking over charcoal, many times you’ll need to add more charcoal down the road while cooking. So be sure you look for a grill which allows you to easily add more charcoal during a cook.

Tip 4: Look For an Ash Removal Tray

Cleaning up a charcoal grill after use pretty much, well… sucks. It’s dirty work and many times I just leave it for clean up the next day (or even just before my next cook).

As I’ve mentioned before I’m sure I haven’t seen every kind of grill out there, but in general it’s easier to clean up ashes if there’s a slide in/out tray (or a bucket catch) which ashes collect on and you can easily remove to empty out.

Be sure to line it with foil for even easier clean up if possible.

Here’s a nice video review of the Weber One-Touch Series of grills which shows you a few of the features I’ve mentioned above (Weber, by the way, is a great line of grills).

Tip 5: Raise and Lower Charcoal

This is a handy feature to have but not necessary. One of the things I love about my Char-Broil charcoal grill is that I have the ability to raise and lower the grates my charcoal sits on.

This allows me to put the fire really close to my food (about an inch under it) or further away from my food, about 8 inches or so.

raise-lower-charcoal

Like I said, it’s a handy feature to have because if you need to sear your food over super hot heat, moving the coals closer to your food works really well.

Tip 6: Get a Grill Big Enough

I’ve found that charcoal grills can come quite small in size. Make sure you buy one which allows you enough space to create hotter cooking zones and cooler cooking zones.

Many times I’ll throw on some hamburger buns on my grill’s cool zone to get a char on them while my burgers finish cooking over the higher heat zone. This is known as a 2 zone set up.

burgers-asparagusOne side of your grill has higher heat while the other side has less heat.

In other words, you might want to cook multiple items on your grill and not everything wants to be cooked over the same amount of heat.

So you might want to consider a grill which is not only big enough to hold enough food you wish to produce…

But also big enough to create hotter and cooler zones of heat.

Pellet Grills

If you’ve never heard of a pellet grill before or don’t know how they work, I think the best way to explain it to you is through videos.

Basically what a pellet grill does is feed wood pellets (click here to see how they are made) into a burner which then burns the pellets which creates a fire which in turn creates your heat source.

So basically you are cooking with wood in a pellet grill, not gas or charcoal.

Here’s a video where you can see how a Traeger works by using an auger to feed pellets into a firebox. This is the basis of how all the pellet grills work that I know of.

Although pellet grills are called “grills”, they really aren’t; they really are just smokers. To me, grilling is cooking food over radiant heat (that is, cooking directly over the heat source). Pellet grills by in large cook by means of indirect heat.

That’s barbecue, not grilling.

Some models allow you to cook directly over the heat source and claim you can sear over them, sorry but it’s not as good as gas or charcoal searing (though I must admit I’ve only tried searing on 2 different pellet grills).

ribsTypes of Food You Want To Cook On Pellet Grills

You can really cook anything you want on them, but they are really best for larger cuts of meats, smoking fish and vegetables, and pizzas… but that rule is not set in stone.

For example, I smoked these ribs on my Traeger for 5 hours.

For thinner cuts of meat (less than about an inch thick) I think it’s usually best to cook over high direct radiant heat (I prefer using gas or charcoal).

Why Pellet Grills Are So Attractive

What I love about my pellet grill is that it’s super easy to cook with. Unlike charcoal which have additives and chemicals in them which creates a messy clean up at the end…

Wood pellets have no additives which creates a burn with almost no leftover ash.

They are also attractive because they maintain temperature for you. All you need to do is add pellets, turn it on and set the temperature. Pretty easy.

I will say, however, that I’ve run into issues every now and then with pellet grills. Sometimes for some reason my pellets will keep getting fed into the burner box but the flame goes out. This means my heat dies and I get a huge pile up of wood pellets in the bottom of my grill.

This actually is a common problem and Traeger has told me you have to toy with the temperature settings.

I’ve done this but still run into the issue from time to time. Also, on cheaper pellet grills you might not get a good temperature control unit. Cheap ones often times have a hard time maintaining a constant temperature.

All in all, if you like smoking food, pellet grills will make your life a lot easier.

Is Cooking With a Pellet Grill Cheating?

My uncle, his son, and a friend of mine always says the same thing when they hear I used my pellet grill…

“That’s cheating.”

Some barbecue goers will tell you that cooking on a pellet grill is cheating because the cooker does all the work. They seem to believe that to really cook barbecue (or smoke food) you must deal with the headaches of dealing with charcoal or wood logs.

To that I say nonsense.

For me it’s first and foremost all about creating good food. I’m not looking to be a “Pitmaster”, though that would be awesome!

In reality, although my wife thinks I’m barbecue obsessed, I like to think of myself as a good all around home cook who cooks a variety of foods. So it’s more about making good food.

Plus, if it was cheating then why do they let BBQ Competition cooks use pellet grills in competition?

And what of charcoal, anyway?

Charcoal briquettes were invented by Ellsworth Zwoyer in 1897 while the art of barbecue was invented way before that.

So my answer to those who say cooking with a pellet grill is cheating I say, “You better not be cooking with gas or charcoal then.”

Here’s a few tips to think about before buying a pellet grill.

Tip 1: If this is your only grill, don’t buy it.

Of course you don’t have to listen to me, but if you’re looking to barbecue and grill food and you don’t have a grill yet, then buying a pellet grill is going to limit you.

You can grill and smoke food on a gas or charcoal grill, but not really with a pellet grill.

Buy a pellet grill after you’ve bought either a gas or charcoal grill.

Tip 2: Extension Cords

Not all extension cords are the same and for your pellet grill’s temperature control unit to maintain an accurate temperature, it needs to be able to extract the necessary amps from your electrical outlet.

Not to get too scientific on you, but Watts / Volts = Amps.

Traeger’s website, says this:

“During the first four minutes of operation, the igniter rod is activated and the grill will draw 300 watts of power. After the first four minutes only 50 watts per hour are needed. This is equivalent to a standard household light bulb.”

So for the Traeger grill you’re going to need at least 300 watts of power.

We know that here in America you can count on our outlets being 110 volts so…

300 Watts / 110 volts = 2.73 amps

So you need a cable that has, say 3 amps capacity–which shouldn’t be too hard to find. Just get a 3 pronged outdoor extension cord (12 gauge) and you’ll most likely be good to go. But just double check the amps. 10 or 13 would be good.

Tip 3: Make sure the temperature control box give you temperature ranges.

Not long ago I was at Home Depot and saw a cheap pellet grill. I noticed the temperature control was very basic as it only had 3 settings:

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High

Avoid this like the plague. If you’re going to cook food, it is a necessity that you have more control over your cooking temperature than low, medium, and high.

What is medium temperature, anyway?

pellet-grill-temperature-unit

Tip 4: Watch your first few cooks closely.

The first time I cooked on my pellet grill I smoked a brisket. I started it at midnight so it would be ready for dinner later that day.

I decided it would be a good idea to stay awake for a few hours just to make sure my pellet grill, which was plugged in and creating a fire in my back yard, worked the way it should. Just something in me worried about a fire hazard while I slept along with my family.

As it turned out the pellet grill did malfunction, twice.

On 2 occasions the fire box stopped burning but the pellets kept getting fed into the chamber. If I wasn’t monitoring the smoker’s temperature with my wireless thermometer, I wouldn’t have noticed the cooking temp dropped way low, which told me there was a problem with the heating element.

barbecue-brisketI finally gave up that night and after restarting the Traeger 2 times.

I ended up smoking it on the Traeger for 4 hours and then stuck the brisket in the oven and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning I restarted the smoker and put the brisket back on it and finished cooking it from there.

So my word of advice…

Always monitor your first cook and don’t go to sleep.

About the author

John Hoff

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