According to the internet, which means it must be true, scientists say that a Homo erectus first threw a piece of meat into a fire over 1.8 million years ago. It was probably one of my relatives. As our early version ancestors evolved over the next 500,000 or so years their brains doubled in size. However, cooking over open flame did more for humans than just evolve our species—it unified the act of eating.
That’s the power of barbecue. No wonder man has become entranced with cooking over the open flame. The flavor cannot be mimicked. Nor can the primal thrill of taming live flames to prepare the perfect brisket or kebab or beer-can chicken. Which is why Americans bought $1.47 billion in grills in 2016. Globally by 2018, the barbecue market hit $3.46 billion, according to QY Research. And it’s growing.
Give It the Gas
It turns out that the majority of Americans buy gas grills. A survey by Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) in 2018 discovered that 64% of us chose gas. We shouldn’t be surprised. Gas grills can make barbecuing as easy as cooking on a stove. So why bother standing outside, you say? Because, as the famous simplify-your-life author Fennel Hudson says, “Cooking and eating food outdoors makes it taste infinitely better than the same meal prepared and consumed indoors.”
But not all gas grills are the same. Chef Tony Matassa with BBQGuys, says to start by asking yourself how many people do you normally grill for and what is the maximum number of people you occasionally grill and how often? “Put that formula together and that helps you narrow down what size grill you’re looking for,” he explains in the BBQGuys Best Gas Grills of 2020 video. The most common size runs about 32-inches wide.
Quality, and therefore budget, make up the other vital factor in a gas grill—or any grill—choice. Practical grills, as Matassa calls the step above cheap, box-store offerings, “don’t have any bells or whistles, but they definitely get the job done.” A category up is a premium grill where “you’re talking about great construction, great materials and great features,” and then comes the luxury class with top-of-the-line everything and loads of features, like interior lighting and rotisseries. Matassa, in a farcical Italian accent, calls them “works of art.”
If you want the ease of gas but you’re into smoking, weep not. Get a combo gas/charcoal grill or stick to a purely gas grill with charcoal trays or a dedicated smoker box for smoldering wood chips. Some come with low-BTU smoker burners to give you the perfect amount of heat for low-and-slow.
Are you more of a high-heat, super-fast griller? (Or as Chef Matassa calls it, the turn-and-burn method.) Then get an infrared burner in your gas grill. They shoot up to 900°F within minutes, mimicking the steakhouse method that produces those juicy, perfectly seared rib eyes we adore.
One thing fellow BBQGuy Randy Watson suggests is to assess the flame tamers—sometimes called flavorizing plates or bars—on a grill. These sit between the burner and the grates to protect the burners from drippings of grease and debris. “So the more coverage you have with the particular flame-tamer design, the more smokey flavor you will generally get,” Watson says, “and the more the heat gets diffused as it rises providing a more evenly heated cooking surface.” Look for these plates or bars to be made of quality ceramic pieces or heavy-gauge stainless steel.
Burn, Baby, Burn
Now for those wanting to manhandle flame and fight for dominance, charcoal grills are your game. And you’ve got a whole army of grill types to choose from, like barrels, hibachis and kamados.
The most iconic, though, is the kettle grill invented by George Stephen, a Chicago metal worker, in 1952. He cut a metal marine buoy—which was basically a large, metal ball—in half, added vents at the top and bottom, and voila! America had its first grill with a lid that would allow barbecuing in the wind and rain. Prior to that it was just open braziers. Basically a box with a grate over it.
Now that simple dome that helped keep heat and smoke in has evolved into features like hinged grates for better access to the charcoal, lids that tuck off the side of the grill (where did we set those sizzling hot lids before that?), ash catchers and cleaning systems. All the things that make this still simple design even more enticing.
But since grillers and smokers are an inventive bunch, new manufacturers arising most every year. SNS Grills came on the scene only a few years ago and got a bit creative. Their latest innovation is the patented Slow ‘N Sear removable accessory for their kettle grills. About the size of a third of the grate area, it sits in the cooking chamber below the grates holding a mass of charcoal that then creates a searing zone that can hit 1,000°F. That leaves the rest of the grill as an indirect zone for low-and-slow cooks—or baking—for over 8 hours on one fill of charcoal. Pit masters might also applaud the water reservoir that generates 5 hours of moistening steam for that clean, smoky flavor.
No matter the up-and-coming features, the same hallmarks of a good grill hold true for charcoal as for gas, such as being constructed of a durable material, like stainless steel or 16- or 18-gauge steel. And making sure that material is thick, not flimsy, so it will hold heat and need less charcoal to maintain the temperature.
Out of the East
For Chef Eric Gephart with Kamado Joe, grill quality reveals itself when you lift the lid. It’s like assessing a car by its doors. “You can tell the difference between a Honda and a Ferrari when you open the doors,” he says. That solid thump when it closes, the heft of it as you open it, all tell the tale.
Gephart’s favorite charcoal grills are kamados. They’re the ceramic, egg-shaped ones based on ancient Eastern cooking ways from over 3,000 years ago. The concept migrated to Japan where the term “kamado” translates roughly to “stove.” During World War II, American soldiers tasted the magic of these ceramic, domed cookers and promptly brought it home.
The big draw of kamado grills, says Gephart, is that “the unit itself is built to self-regulate.” With a draft door at the bottom and a control-tower vent at the top, it works like a heat pump sucking in ambient air at the bottom and creating a convection effect that kicks out the hot air through the top. “That’s what the cool shape allows you to do,” he explains avidly. “You can make a small fire, and it radiates that energy all the way around, and that ceramic is able to hold on to all that heat.”
That’s not possible with the traditional kettle grills, he says, because “those shed energy through the thin metal tops, and all that excessive heat is drying things out. But in a kamado, “when I have a good fire going,” he continues, “and I start damping down at the bottom and closing the tower at the top—say a quarter open—I’ll have enough charcoal to stay at that exact temperature for 15 hours without adding more.”
The heat regulation and uber-insulation create versatility. “You can keep a low-and-slow at 250° but you can also crank that up to 1400° so you get a screaming sear,” admires Gephart, who had 15 Kamado Joes at his restaurant. Baking, roasting, searing, there’s nothing a kamado can’t do well.
Because mankind always looks for the next step in barbecue, Kamado Joe partnered with Harvard University last year to see if the ancient design might be improved. “They ran thousands and thousands of algorithms looking for the best possible shape for a smoker,” Gephart says. The outcome was a simple adaptation called the SloRoller. This open-ended, hourglass-shaped insert sits on top of the firebox, so “instead of the air going up and out, this piece creates cyclonic airflow inside the grill. It evens out the temperature by eliminating hotspots.”
Blaze Outdoor Products really broke with tradition by creating the first non-ceramic kamado-style grill. Made of solid cast aluminum, they prove the durability of their 20-inch kamado by dropping it unscathed on cement from 4 feet and firing bullets into it that never penetrate the 1½-inch-thick shell. Every part of the grill comes with a lifetime warranty.
It’s Not Pet Bird Food
Perhaps fiddling with vents and taming fire isn’t appealing to you. But you love that smoky flavor that cooking with real wood brings to your barbecue. Then pellet grills are the answer.
While there’s a lot of math and technology behind the product they offer a beautifully effortless cook option.
“Pellet grills are simple to use,” says Jason Baker with Green Mountain Grills. “At the touch of a button the automatic feed, ignition of the pellets and the variable speed fanning of the fire occurs with calculus-based applications that keeps the unit going at the desired temperature.”
The box on the outside, called the hopper, holds what looks like pet bird food pellets, but is actually all-natural wood pellets, thus the name of the grills. The pellets are advanced from the hopper to the fire pot as needed via an auger where they are ignited to feed the flame and add wood-fired flavor to your food. A fan pushes oxygen over them to control the temperature.
All the griller needs to do is fill the hopper, push a button, set the temperature, and let it do its thing. “Our units go from 150F-550F in 5-degree increments giving the customer incredible versatility to smoke, bake, roast, sear, braise and BBQ.” In other words, no fidgeting or fussing with the fire but you still get the real wood flavor.
Grillers tend to think the lack of open flame limits the pellet grill’s versatility. They’re wrong. “I cannot think of anything that you can’t cook on these units,” Baker says. “I have seen everything from Alligator to chocolate chip cookies cooked on pellet grills. It is an all-encompassing outdoor cooking appliance.”
Green Mountain Grills introduced their “Prime” line of products last year and they are truly the class of the industry. While Green Mountain Grills didn’t invent the pellet grill they were the first to offer wifi for the grill. This, combined with their downloadable app, gives you the ability to control your grill remotely with your smartphone or tablet.
”We were first to offer wifi on a pellet grill. It has been a great addition to the grill. This feature gives the customer complete control of their unit from anywhere,” Baker says. “The app even allows for the customer to create detailed recipes that involve changing temperatures based on time or based on internal temperature. We were the first to introduce this technology and it has been a lot fun to continue to expand on.” The app is available through the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
The pellet flavors are as varied as lump charcoal – apple, cherry, hickory, mesquite, pecan and oak to name just a few. Which brings up another myth about pellet grills – that you’re restricted to using one flavor of pellet at a time.
“It is definitely okay to mix pellets,” Baker says. “There is no wrong answer to how you cook your food. If you enjoy the flavors of your food and the folks around you do as well, then it is correct.”
The limitation to pellet grills is the need for electricity that ignites, moves and fans the pellets. But generators and even car adaptors can overcome that obstacle.
“We have designed our prime units around ac/dc conversion,” Bakers says “We include three separate connections for power- the ac/dc adapter into the wall plug, alligator clips for a battery and a car charger plug. This gives the customer a lot of options for powering their units. We also see solar products that are used in conjunction with our units that provide power as well.”
Because of all the fantastic features, choosing which model to buy might be more difficult than grilling a steak to perfection.
So, by now, you should be pulling out your credit card in a mad desire to try a new type of grill. Good. Because with hundreds of styles, makers, fuels and features available, you will be endlessly challenged and happy. “When people start cooking with fire, they’re literally addicted to it. And I think it’s a healthy addiction,” states Kamado Joe’s Gephart. “They’re not thinking about cell phones but tapped into
building and managing the fire. From the moment you light a grill, your heart rate gets lower, and you’re in the zone.” Like meditating in the outdoors, but it ends in delicious barbecue…or pizza or even apple pie.