One of the single most important aspect for getting great grilled food at home is having a great grill. While the backyard chef may have the perfect recipe or the best marinade, and employ the best barbecue technique, the fact is a bad grill will produce bad results.
This makes having an owning the best grill for your needs imperative in the world of backyard grilling. In order to get the best grill for your needs, one must know and understand the important characteristics of a grill and how they effect the grilling process.
Taste Great, Less Filling
Like the 80’s “Taste Great, Less Filling” debate, grilling has its own debate that has been going on for a long time. That is; Which fuel source is better? Gas or Charcoal. The real truth, is that both offer great results and while both sides can argue their side sufficiently, there is only one real difference between the two. Charcoal does not combust completely. This allows combustion by products or particles to adhere to the food. This is that smoky flavor that people like.
As long as someone is using all natural lump charcoal and a charcoal chimney, this is just as healthy as using clean burning gas. Charcoal briquettes have chemical fillers and additives that do not burn away during combustion and thus can also contaminate the meat. This gives it that chemical taste or the taste of the charcoal as some call it. So it really boils down to personal preference as to which is the superior fuel source.
All About the Three
Regardless of the fuel source, the three important considerations or characteristics of a grill are heat production, heat retention and heat distribution. Without the appropriate balance of the three, the grill will produce food that is over cooked, under cooked, has hot or cold spots or takes a very long time to cook and thus ruins the grilling experience. In order to determine the balance or how well these three characteristics are balanced in a specific grill, all one has to do is examine the construction of the grill and the materials used.
Heat production is the easiest of the three to notice as it has a lot to do with the fuel source. In a propane grill, the heat production is continual as long as the gas is turned on and lit. For charcoal, a grill should have a curved or angled fire box to allow for the maximum focus of the heat curve. Charcoal when lit, begins to combust and the heat rises to its maximum level and then tapers off to normal air temperature. By having a curved or angled firebox, any excess heat is angled towards the cooking space and thus makes efficient use of the available heat.
Heat retention is preventing heat loss. The area of the grill that usually suffers the most heat loss is the lid. Good grills have thick to double walled lids to prevent the heat from escaping and allows it to reflect back towards the cooking space. For charcoal grills, having a front access door that allows access to the firebox without opening the lid is also preferred as it allows a person to check the fire without opening the lid. Monitoring heat retention is facilitated by a temperature gauge mounted in the lid, as this shows the temperature at the location where the heat is lower and thus losing energy. There are some grills that have cast aluminum bodies that will lower heat loss and porcelain coated bodies are among the best at retaining heat but cast stainless steel is also good at retaining heat depending on thickness.
Of the three, heat distribution is the most important as it is what actually facilitates the cooking. This is further enhanced by the material of the cooking grates. Cooking grates help transfer the heat directly to the interior of the food. The top materials for cooking grates are:
- Porcelain Coated, Cast Iron
- Cast Iron
- Porcelain Coated, Nickle Steel
- Porcelain Coated Stainless Steel
- Porcelain Coated Steel
- Stainless steel
These materials are more efficient at transferring heat with porcelain coated, cast iron being the most efficient. In some premium grills, wave guides or V-grates are used to focus the heat and thus the specific material of the cooking grate is less important as the wave guides combine with the cooking grates to distribute the heat energy efficiently.
In a sense, very much like infrared cooking. Speaking of heat distribution, one of the most efficient means in a grill is one that uses infrared technology. Essentially the heat is focused and directed in such a way as to seal in the juices and allow the heat to transfer its energy to the food in a cohesive manner. However, this adds expense to the grill.
By looking at the construction of the grill, the materials used and how the layout of the grill directs and moves the heat, will tell a lot about how a grill handles heat production, retention and distribution. The specific fuel source only really determines the length of cooking time and it has some effect on flavor but either one can be compensated for with the other by using various means.
One thing that all grills do have in common, is that they must be covered when not in use to protect them from the elements. Also, to promote the longevity of any grill, it is important to clean it by following the recommended cleaning guidelines from the manufacturer. These guidelines will help you get the best grill to fit your needs.