What is it that makes freestanding gas grills the most popular style of grill in North America? It is a combination of things: it is familiar, it is the closest thing to the cooktop in your home, a gas grill auto-starts, the temperature is adjusted with the turn of a knob, it is simple to use, they’re available in a variety of sizes, and a cart-mounted grill is easy to move from place to place. Of course, not all freestanding gas grills are created equal. This article will provide you with the information needed to navigate the grill market to ensure that you select a grill that will meet your cooking needs and last for many years. If you want a reliable grill that cooks evenly, produces great food and will provide many years of service, read on.
KEY COMPONENTS OF A QUALITY GRILL
A gas grill should be well constructed.
MATERIAL & CONSTRUCTION
Materials directly impact price and longevity. Common materials for grill components, from lowest quality to highest quality are:
- injection molded plastic components
- painted carbon steel
- galvanized steel finished with powder coat
- cast aluminum
- stainless steel in 430 or 304 grades
When looking at stainless steel components, 304 is the premium grade stainless steel and is the most rust resistant. The frame of the gas grill should be rigid.
GRILL CART & FRAME
One of the things that you will want to look for when choosing a grill is a sturdy frame. Heavier gauge material will be more rigid. If shopping in person, lock the casters, grab the lid, and give the grill a twist to test its rigidity. A well-constructed cart will feel solid, is easy to move, and is the foundation of a long-lasting grill. Avoid grills that use an abundance of plastic components or paint over carbon steel. These materials will not hold up over time. Inspect the casters.
One of the advantages of a cart grill is mobility. Examine the caster’s material, size and accessibility. You will need easy access to the lock mechanism. This will determine how easy it will be to position and secure in place.
The firebox is the foundation of the cooking experience. It houses the cooking system components, delivers the heat, and supports the lid.
When gas grills were first introduced, cast aluminum was the preferred construction material for the firebox and the lid. Cast aluminum is still a popular material for grills with cooking surfaces from 350 to 700 square inches. The cast aluminum firebox is one piece, so it offers good rigidity, with no fasteners to expand and contract during use.
Stainless steel is also a popular material for firebox construction. Less expensive grills are made from a lighter gauge 430 stainless steel, which will provide some corrosion resistance and a few seasons of use. Better grills are made from heavier gauge 304-stainless steel for superior corrosion resistance and longevity.
Avoid grills that use carbon steel in the firebox - while they may look good on the surface, these are throw away grills that will only serve you for a few seasons of light use.
Aluminum and a heavier gauge 304 stainless steel fireboxes and lids will give you decades of service. Material size and thickness also plays a part in the life expectancy of the grill, heavier gauge materials expand and contract less during heat up and cool down, placing less stress on welds and fasteners. Insulated or double walled lids are preferred.
Lid materials range from paint over carbon steel, aluminum, a mix of materials and all stainless steel. Look for an insulated or double walled lid to improve heat retention and reduce fuel consumption. Check for a reliable igniter.
There are a variety of ignition types: battery powered spark igniters, high output (110v) spark igniters, piezo igniter, Snap-Jet ignition, and hot surface ignition. The most common ignition system on a basic grill is the battery powered spark igniter. The most common step up is the Snap-Jet or Flame-Thrower ignition which is a device located in each burner knob that will provide reliable ignition for years. Quality burners make for improved grill life.
The most common burner shapes are straight burners, U-burners or H-burners. The gas enters the burner and exits through pin-size holes located along the perimeter of the burner. Burner materials include: carbon steel tubes in inexpensive grills, stainless tube burners (430 & 304) with gauge weights ranging from 14-gauge (heaviest) to 22-gauge (lightest), cast burners constructed from iron, stainless steel or brass, and ceramic infrared burners for searing. In a straight tube or U-burner, 304-stainless steel in a heavier 14 to 16-gauge material will serve you for years.
In a cast material, opt for cast stainless or cast brass for improved life. Flame tamers are designed to minimize flare-ups.
Flame tamers are designed to:
- minimize flare-ups
- even the temperatures at the cooking surface
- extend the life of your grill by incinerating drippings and channeling excess grease away from the burners
Materials include: carbon steel, porcelain over carbon, 430 & 304-stainless steel. A heavy 304-stainless steel material will provide the best performance. Finally, look at the flame tamers to see that they fully cover the burners. The closer the flame tamers are from side to side, the better they will manage flare-ups and improve cooking evenness. Stainless steel bar and cast stainless steel cooking grates will serve you well.
Grate materials include coated carbon steel bar, porcelain coated cast iron, stainless steel bar and cast stainless steel. In less expensive grills you will find cast iron grates or carbon steel bar with some type of coating. These grates lose their coating, exposing the material to the atmosphere and will begin to rust. Cast grates have good heat transfer properties, so from that perspective, they are a good cooking surface. Cast iron grates are higher maintenance and have a shorter life expectancy. In the past 10-years, manufacturers have been moving away from cast iron to stainless steel grates. Stainless steel bar and cast stainless steel will serve you well for as long as you own your grill.
EASE OF CLEANING – GREASE MANAGEMENT
There is no getting around it: Grilling can be a messy business that requires regular clean-up. Examine the flame tamer system; see how the drippings will flow past them and to the grease tray. Ideally, the grease tray will be made from stainless steel and be accessible from the front of the grill. Finally, the grease will flow from the grease tray to the grease pan or cup.
You’ll want to look for a grill that allows for easy access to the areas and parts that need the most attention.
NOTE: as the grill owner, the regular cleaning and care of your grill will impact the reliability, cooking experience and the life expectancy of the grill. Top brands have better warranties.
Consider a name brand grill instead of big store brands. Top brands have better warranties, replacement parts are readily available, and they offer good customer support. A robust warranty provided by a name brand company indicates that they have very few warranty claims in the warranty period. This will give you confidence in the investment.
SELECTING THE GRILL THAT IS RIGHT FOR YOUR COOKING STYLE
Select either natural gas or propane.
SELECT YOUR GAS TYPE
Gas grills use either natural gas or propane. Your selection will be largely dependent on availability. Do you have a natural gas line accessible in the area where you want to place your grill? If the answer is yes, natural gas burns cleaner, is cheaper to operate, and provides an extra level of convenience since the supply is constant.
If natural gas is not available, then the 20-pound liquid propane bottle is the choice. The one advantage is that propane adds a level of portability to your grill since it isn’t tethered to the house supply. Liquid propane tanks require maintenance as they must be exchanged periodically when the tank runs out. A good rule of thumb is 100+ BTUs per square inch of cooking surface.
For most of us, grilling is done year-round. So, it is important that you have enough heat to achieve the desired grate temperatures to support your cooking styles. For direct grilling, a good rule of thumb is 100+ BTU’s per square inch of cooking surface. The ultimate performance will depend on the size, shape, depth and distance between the burners and more. A small, compact grill with a shallow firebox and a low dome lid will get hot with less BTU’s per square inch than a larger grill. The final consideration is the distance from the burner to the cooking surface, the ideal distance is between 3-5 inches. Choose the right surface area to fit your needs.
The main factor in determining the size of grill that is right for you is the cooking area. For example a 500 square-inch grill can accommodate up to twenty 4” hamburgers. How many people will you cook for? Will you focus primarily on the proteins or will you also want to cook vegetables and side dishes? Typically, a 500 square-inch grill can cook proteins and vegetable for 8-people. If you regularly cook for groups of 8 and more, consider a 600 to 800-square inch cooking surface.
All this talk about fuel type, size, and configuration can make it easy to forget what this journey is about — producing great food on a grill. Now is the time to step back and look at what you grill and how you do it. Your grilling style will determine what features you need in a grill. For some people, a basic gas grill with 3-5 burners works well for 90% of the cooking they do. No need to add all the bells and whistles if you’re mainly grilling burgers, chicken, and steaks. Here are some of the additional options you’ll find on some gas grills and what they’re useful for. Branch out and try new styles of grilling with a rotisserie burner.
Most grills have the ability to use a rotisserie but not all grills have a dedicated rotisserie burner. A dedicated burner at the back of a grill will help you achieve caramelized, slow roasted chickens, prime ribs, and more. With the rotisserie accessories available today, you can also slow roast veggies or wings in a rotisserie basket. This is a great option for someone looking to branch out and try new styles of grilling. Side burners should have enough power to perform.
Side burners come in several styles. There are standard gas burners or high heat infrared burners. If you plan to use a side burner, make sure it’s got enough power behind it to perform as you want it to. A standard gas side burner can be used for anything you’d cook on your inside range. An infrared side burner can reach 800°+ for searing steaks or frying items. Infrared burners for high heat searing.
Some grills offer the option of an interior infrared burner for high heat searing in the main cooking chamber. This is a nice feature if you’ve got ample cooking space and want to cook a variety of styles in the main cook area. For example, you could sear steak or chops in one zone while cooking veggies over traditional gas heat. Be sure the cart storage meets your needs.
ROBUST STORAGE OPTIONS ON SHELVES & IN THE CART
Carts come in a variety of styles. You’ll see open carts, enclosed carts, carts with storage solutions inside or on the shelves, and so on. As you browse various grills, make sure you’re taking a look at how the grill cart is configured to meet your specific needs.
A grill is an investment. It is often said you get what you pay for. While this statement is applicable to grills, the wide variety of styles, brands, and features can make navigating the market even more difficult. In 2023, expect to pay a minimum of $500 to achieve basic performance and give you decent service for the next 5 years depending on care and use. For a solid grill that will serve you well for the next 10 years or more, expect to invest between $600 to $1500, and up to $3000 for grills with larger cooking surfaces and loaded options.
If you’re looking for a grill that you’ll enjoy cooking on, will heat and cook reliably, and will be a feature on your patio for many years – this guide should help you parse through the noise and find the right grill for you.