There’s nothing that says “summer” like a cookout.
In years past, the backyard grill was often nothing more than a metal can on spindly legs, filled with kerosene-soaked charcoal — fine for a few burgers and dogs.
These days grills are sometimes $2,000 stainless steel behemoths capable of cooking half a side of beef in one area, a field of vegetables in another, and sporting features like a warming tray, steamer, infrared cooking, multiple controls, fuel and temperature gauges — even lights.
Welcome to grills gone wild.
Outdoor cooking still works just fine with simple charcoal briquettes and a small, inexpensive grill. But if you’ve decided to step it up this year, here are some tips to find a hot deal on a cool grill. Let’s start with a video I shot a while back, then add a little meat to the bones on the other side.
Careful where you gas up
If you buy a propane grill, get your tank refilled at a refill station versus swapping your tank at one of the propane swapping racks you see at convenience and other stores. You’ll likely get more and pay less.
Check out this story we did a few years ago about how big propane companies quietly reduced the amount of propane they were putting in their tanks without reducing prices. Then check the label on your next refill and see how much you’re actually getting.
Don’t be seduced by the grill next door
Forget what your friends and neighbors have. Instead, think about the kind of cooking you plan to do, then don’t buy more grill than you need. A grill surface that holds enough to feed 10 doesn’t just cost more to buy, it costs more to heat. And the bigger the cooking area, the more difficult it is to distribute the heat evenly, making it potentially harder to cook on.
Like everything you buy, avoid expense and complications by only buying the features you really need.
Beware of stainless steel
High-end grills often look like cheaper ones, but cost a lot more. One reason? The stuff they’re made of. While stainless steel all looks similar, there’s a difference between cheap imported stainless and quality American stainless steel. Better stainless will last longer, clean faster, look better — and cost more. Take a magnet with you. If it sticks, it’s probably not high-quality stainless.
But don’t have your heart set on stainless. While it may look cool and is definitely popular, that doesn’t automatically make it best. A porcelain-coated grill is fine. And if you have stainless appliances in your kitchen, you already know how hard they are to keep clean and shiny.
Find a grate deal
Porcelain-coated steel doesn’t keep temperatures as consistent as stainless steel or coated cast-iron grates.
Shop before you chop
Consumer Reports has a great article with reviews and advice, as well as a list of their favorite grills. If you don’t subscribe, check the library or pay a one-time fee to get their guide. It’s money well-spent.
One of their top performers was the Weber Spirit SP-310. At $550, it’s not cheap, but still about half the price of some grills that didn’t perform as well.
Consumer Reports also suggests focusing not on the sizzle, but the steak:
While it might seem like shiny, large, feature-laden gas grills have taken over the backyard barbecue, our battery of tests shows that a higher price tag doesn’t guarantee better grilling.
As far as where to start shopping, you’ll probably immediately think of Lowe’s and The Home Depot. That’s understandable. During summer months, you have to run a gauntlet of grills every time you enter these stores. But don’t forget Sears, Walmart, Target and especially locally owned specialty shops. They’re members of your community and deserve the opportunity to compete for your business.
Save money with a “scratch and dent” model. If a grill is expensive, it’s a great way to practice your haggling skills.
Find a grill that doesn’t mind being roughed up
When scoping out grills, shove them around. Do they wobble in the store? Not a good sign. The sturdier the better.
Don’t fall for the hottest grill in town
BTUs are a heavily advertised way to measure the ability of a grill to heat, but they’re really not all that important. More important is evenly distributed heat. Also important is control. The more independently controlled burners a barbecue has, the more control you’ll have and the more efficiently you’ll cook.