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April 27, 2008

GRILLBLOGGING: Okay, I'm finally getting to following up on Kaliph's question about gas grills. The response was so overwhelming that I still haven't read it all, but here goes. First, reader Bill Faith wants to know who made my gas grill that's lasted four years. It was a Kenmore Premium from Sears. Still works fine, though the little electric lighter is getting kinda iffy.

Moved to "extended entry" because it's so long. Click "read more" to read it!

Reader Robert Talbert writes:

Regarding your call for gas grill requests: My wife and I are big-time grillers. We grill out probably 3-4 nights a week during the warm months (and usually once a week during the winter, as long as we don't have to chip the ice off the grill or shovel off the deck). We grill all kinds of food -- steaks, chops, fish, burgers, brats, hotdogs, vegetables -- and the number for whom we cook ranges from the two of us and our two kids, to parties of 20-30. We used to have a pricey (>$800) grill we got from Sears, which was overpriced for the amount of features it had and quality of the cooking it produced, and at any rate it was destroyed when it was literally blown away during one of Indiana's famous summer storms a few years ago.

So we replaced it with a Weber Genesis Silver C grill, and it has everything we need -- precise control over cook temperatures and hot zones, plenty of real estate under the hood, solid construction (the thing weighs at least 75 pounds and the grill plates are porcelain-coated cast iron, and it has held fast during the worst of windstorms), small footprint (fits easily on our 10' x 12' deck), and a very nice price of just under $400 at the time. It's really the perfect grill for me, and I love to use it. The side burner on the
Silver C is particularly good -- it gets extremely hot if you want it to, moreso than even the power burner on our indoor gas range and so much so that I've often gone outside and used the side burner by itself for stir-frying and other high-temperature cooking.

Reader Brian Erst emails:

I spent a lot of time looking at gas grills last summer (I had a Weber Genesis that was on its last legs). Lots of different models out there - from cheap $150 models all the way up to the fancy $3000+ models made by Viking or Wolf that are made to be part of outdoor kitchens.

I looked at as many of them as I could. Price is not the prime differentiator - most of those $3000+ models are terrible at the main task of grilling (although they look great). If you're looking for a good grill that will be used mostly for your own family and the occasional big cookout, $400-$1200 is the sweet spot.

Unsurprisingly, Weber comes up very good in this range. They really know how to make a grill - they're durable, generate good heat, have good capacity and have a whole load of accessories (including grill grates in multiple materials like stainless, cast-iron and enamel - each are good for different kinds of grilling). They don't use those fussy ceramic briquets that only seem to induce flare-ups - they use "flavor bars" instead, long, stamped steel wedges that sit between the grill grates and the gas flame. Fat and juices drop onto the super-hot bars, turn into smoke and impart something akin to the smokiness you get from charcoal or wood fires. Not the same, but nice enough for something that turns on at the twist of a wrist. You can always toss a packet of soaked wood chips onto one of the flavor bars and get some real smoke on if you like. Good Weber gas grills start around $350 and move to $1200 or so for a top-of-the-line Genesis, all of which are great. Mine only lasted about 8 years, but I was terrible about upkeep - I'm doing much better with my current grill.

You definitely want a grill that has at least three burners - it's the only way to get the proper zone cooking method (the equivalent of a two-level charcoal fire). You want a hot zone and a low-to-medium zone for most grilling - a place to sear and a place to roast for bigger cuts, and a place to grill and safe spot for burgers and other thin cuts that may have cooked a little fast due to a flare-up.

Weber also recently bought out Ducane (a specialty grill maker) and has started combining some of Weber's purchasing and manufacturing talents to make some nice hybrids - mid-range instead of high-end. I ended up getting the Ducane 5-burner that was offered at Home Depot for the past few years - it's a very attractive grill. Stainless steel with a nice cabinet with hidden gas storage, a side-burner, steel prep areas, an infrared unit for rotisserie cooking and a lot of nice little features. The one thing it didn't have that I would have liked is a dedicated smoker drawer - some grills have a small, pull-out drawer where you can toss a few wood chips that will smolder on a dedicated low-burner for true wood smoke flavor. But for $800 it is an amazing value - I can make lots of tinfoil wood chip packets with the money I saved.

Reader Henry Owen emails:

The grill of my dreams (sorry) is a Holland Tradition, but it may not be for everybody, because it operates differently.

There is only one flame setting, “on.” The burner is underneath a drip pan, so cooking is by convection, and there never is a flare up that incinerates whatever is on the grill.

The cooking process is simple. Wait for the temperature gauge on the lid to reach “green,” which is 300-350 degrees, put on the meat, fish or whatever and cook according to time instead of flame. In our experience, it does a wonderful job on salmon, and a Texas relative said the Dr. Pepper-sauced ribs “are the best I’ve ever eaten.” (The Dr. Pepper recipe came from the Holland sales rep.)

I’ve used the grill in 20-degree weather, and it cooked just fine, although it takes a while to warm up, and the heat was barely at the 300-degree mark.

David Swager writes:

Weber Gas Grills! They are pricey compared to the low end Charbroil, Sunbeam, etc. However, they deliver great value and cooking performance over the long haul. I was going through a Charbroil every 2 to 3 years. I have a Weber Genesis Silver B with stainless steel burners and grates that is going on it's 8th year with no end in sight. If your willing to take care of it, you can get it with the cast iron grates which sear better.

At the higher end you start looking at Ducane and Dynamic Cooking Systems. I personally feel they are overkill for almost everyone.

Reader Michael Shueller is another Weber fan:

I got a Weber Genesis about 5 years back. I use it a lot, as on Long Island I can grill year round. Being from Ohio, and going to school in Wisconsin, my idea of grilling weather is different from the locals...

First, I love it. It does the job beautifully. I can cook a 3 course meal for 6 people on it, or smoke 20 lbs of pork to make pulled pork. Now the comments:

1) At least when I bought, Weber sold this grill with three different actual grill grates, the metal the meat sits on. One was porcelain coated wire like on their charcoal grills, one was a stamped corrogated sheet metal (too thin to hold heat IMHO) and one was porcelain coated cast iron, heavy as heck. Amazon had one of the lighter grates, Home Depot had the heavy cast iron ones, same price. Be aware, be sure you're buying what you think.

2) After 5 years, I need to replace my cast iron grates. The porcelain is coming off and rust spots are showing. I'll look into repair first, but I doubt it will work well. But that's 5 years of heavy use and indifferent cleaning.

3) I got the side burner; I don't use it much. Way too wimpy to handle brewing beer. Great for sides and sauces though.

4) It makes a decent smoker, wrap wood chips in tin foil and throw them on the center burner. With just that burner on low-ish you get smoke and a ~225 environment.

5) We got the rotisserie for it as well, my wife loves using it. You can do a great leg of lamb; stuff some rosemary and crushed garlic in the cavity of a semi-boneless leg of lamb, seal in a bag with some port wine, pull it out after 2-12 hours and throw it on the spit (with the garlic and rosemary still inside.) What could be simpler? It was an extra hundred, but money very well spent indeed.

6) The one thing I periodically wish I had was an infrared burner. That would have been an extra $400 minimum at the time, and I don't miss it that much. I grill more, and spend less on fuel, than I did with my old charcoal kettle. I think there are lots of right choices out there, this is my right choice.

John Weidner emails:

If you're an effete bi-coastal elitist city-dweller without the space for a regular grill, the Del Mar works very well.

I grill for my family of five on it. (Downside: The inside needs to be cleaned each time. Stainless Steel will rust if it's covered with gunk.)

And reader Maurice Stuffman emails with a suggestion echoed by many others:

Forget the gas grill and get a "Big Green Egg." It's the best cooker I've used! (we use it 3 - 4 times a week.) Natural lump charcoal (no briquettes) control the temp +- 5 degrees from 150 to 600+

Lots of people dissed gas and urged charcoal, and a lot of them like the Big Green Egg. It's certainly not cheap, though! Overall, Weber seemed the favorite among gas grills, particularly the Genesis line.

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