Editor's Note: We've been longtime admirers of the folks behind AmazingRibs.com, the site dedicated to unraveling the science of barbecue and grilling. You won't find a better source for thoroughly researched and well-tested techniques, tips, and recipes for cooking with smoke and fire anywhere in the world. We're happy to welcome them to Serious Eats to drop some backyard cooking bombs this summer. Please also welcome back Max Good, the only person in the world whose full-time job is testing, rating, and reviewing grills and smokers. The database he maintains contains 500 grills and smokers ranging in price from $30 to $50,000. When it comes to grilling and barbecue equipment, nobody knows it better.
If you have a lot of money, it's as easy to select a great grill as to select a great wine. The trick is finding a great one that's also affordable. Of course, affordable is relative, so we have set the upper limit at $500 for this list, though some grills are considerably less expensive. All of these selections have won the AmazingRibs.com Best Value Gold or Silver Medal.
The iconic Weber Charcoal Kettle was born in 1952 and set backyards on fire around the world. It became an emblem of backyard BBQ, but long ago gas grill sales overtook charcoal. Heated debate routinely flares up between gas and charcoal advocates. My editor Meathead Goldwyn and I have at any moment 10 of each in our yards, and both have strengths and weaknesses (read more about their pros and cons on AmazingRibs.com). But there's always more to learn, and we look forward to you letting us know how stupid we are in the comments section.
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Whatever grill you choose, we cannot emphasize this enough: Pay no attention to the cheap, inaccurate dial thermometers. Those ancient bi-metal heat estimators can be off by 50 to 100°F! Furthermore, they are usually located in the lid, not down on the grill where the food is. This is useful only if you plan to eat the lid.
To achieve your goal of backyard domination, you absolutely need an accurate digital thermometer, and if you're a data nerd, we encourage you to take a look at the database of ratings and reviews of more than 150 digital thermometers on AmazingRibs. Get one now and you'll never have to make excuses for overdone meats again, or, worse still, apologize to a guest who got sick from underdone chicken.
Gas became the fuel of choice largely because most perceive it as easier to use than charcoal: just turn a couple of knobs and start cooking. The convenience of gas is clearly valuable to the grilling public. Every year mass-market grill manufacturers scramble to offer more for less. Watch out, though, because cheap manufacturers often include bells and whistles, like cut-rate sear burners, side burners, and rotisseries, to entice you into buying their flimsy, low-quality junkers.
Manufacturers tout the number of BTU (British thermal units) their grills can produce, but that number can be very misleading. BTU does not indicate the amount of useful cooking heat a grill can generate; it just tells you how much fuel it burns. Naturally, larger grills with more burners will burn more fuel. Heat flux—that's BTU per unit area—is a much more useful indicator of a grill's searing power, and is something the manufacturers never tell you. We've calculated heat flux for you here and in the extensive searchable equipment review database at AmazingRibs.com. Typical flux for a gas grill is around 85 BTU per square inch.
Size matters. Two-zone cooking—setting up a hot direct zone and a cooler indirect zone—is an essential technique for good grilling. It can be done on those little two-burner gassers, but it's more difficult and cuts your already-small cook surface in half. We recommend a minimum of three burners. Furthermore, you want those burners set up side by side, not back to front, which will prevent you from creating indirect cooking zones. Fortunately, most grill manufacturers these days have stopped producing back-to-front-oriented grills.
The Classic: Broil-Mate 165154 LP Gas Grill
The Broil-Mate 165154 LP Gas Grill is a basic low-priced gas cooker with a design typical of the first gas grills made in the early 1960s: cast-aluminum body and an old-style 40,000 BTU Dual-H burner. Cast aluminum holds heat well, and the H-burner is actually two U-shaped burners fused together, with a separate control knob for each side. You could easily walk past this plain little grill in favor of a big shiny model that was made cheap to sell cheap and carries a one-year warranty—but if you're shopping in this price range, you would do well to stop and take a look. Broil-Mate's aluminum housing will not rust and comes with a limited lifetime warranty on the cook box, five years on burners and stainless steel components, and two years on everything else. Broil-Mate is one of five grill brands owned by Canadian BBQ manufacturer and distributor Onward Manufacturing.
Cooking Area: 400 square inches (about 19 burgers)
Heat Flux: 100 BTU/square inch
The Big One: Brinkmann 5-Burner Gas Grill
Brinkmann's 5-Burner Grill with Side Burner is mighty big for the bucks. You can see the cut-rate construction all around, from the thin metal body to the plastic control knobs, but for $200 you'll get features found on more expensive units. Although the 502-square-inch primary cook surface is large, it's not gigantic for the five burners, which accounts for the respectable heat flux rating of 100 BTU per square inch, providing an extra kick for high-temp searing.
Many owners like this grill, or at least feel it's worth the super-low price. A few have experienced buyer's remorse, although one wonders what their expectations could have been for this size in this price range. If you want a big gasser on a tight budget, you could sure do worse, but be sure to get a cover to extend its life.
Cooking Area: 502 square inches (about 24 burgers)
Heat Flux: 100 BTU/square inch
The No-Flare Searing Champ: Char-Broil Commercial Stainless/Black 3-Burner Gas Grill
The Lowe's-exclusive Char-Broil Commercial Stainless/Black 3-Burner Gas Grills have been redesigned for 2015 with a few new features, like upgraded grates and a fuel level gauge. Infrared heat is intense, high-temperature radiant heat, but Char-Broil's Commercial grills allow you to dial it back for low and slow roasting as well. The cast-iron cooking grates on Char-Broil's Commercial line rest directly on top of stainless steel radiant plates that cover the entire grill area. There is almost no exposure to direct flame from the gas burners below, and consequently very little exposure to the convection heat that can dry up moisture in foods, resulting in juicy meats with no flare-ups. Click here to learn more about infrared, convection heat, and the thermodynamics of grilling on AmazingRibs.com.
Since the radiant plates are less than an inch from the cooking surface, you can do some serious searing with this grill. Those radiant plates get really, really hot. Cleaning the cook surface is a little different because juices and marinades don't drip down and burn up; instead, they collect on the radiant plates in the channels between the grates, but Char-Broil includes a fork-like scraper to address this. An added benefit to this design is low fuel consumption—with the heat source so close to the cooking surface, it takes less fuel to reach searing temperatures.
Cooking Area: 420 square inches (about 20 burgers)
Heat Flux: 61 BTU/square inch
The Reliable Standby: Weber Spirit E-310 3-Burner Grill*
Weber is the gold standard for backyard grills. It's hard to beat their design, construction, warranty, and customer support. The Spirit E-310 is Weber's entry-level gas grill line and was recently redesigned with significant upgrades that bring it closer in features and performance to the more sophisticated and expensive Genesis line. One big change is a reconfiguration of the burner layout. The burners used to connect from left to right, with control knobs on the right-side shelf; new models have burners that connect from front to back and control knobs on the front panel. This setup is not only better for two-zone cooking, but frees the right-side shelf for beverages, bowls, and cutting boards. Another nice feature is Weber's LP tank fuel gauge, which gives an approximate indication of fuel level by weight. Made in China.
Cooking Area: 424 square inches (about 20 burgers)
Heat Flux: 75 BTU/square inch
* The E-310 3-Burner actually lists for $599, but you can easily find it at all the big retailers for $499, so we couldn't resist including it on our list.
The Weber Alternative: Broil King Baron 440
Yes, Broil King has succeeded in capturing our attention. Their blossoming relationship with Lowe's brings a quality gas grill line that runs neck and neck with beloved Weber. The Broil King Baron 440 is a good-sized, good-looking four-burner with Broil King's patented Dual Tube Burners, which are designed to even out gas pressure from front to back and provide a consistent temperature across the cook surface. The cook box is deep and the hood is high, essential for Thanksgiving turkey. Production divided between Canada and the USA.
Cooking Area: 444 square inches (about 21 burgers)
Heat Flux: 90 BTU/square inch
Bonus! The Griddle: Blackstone 36" Griddle Cooking Station
The Blackstone 36" Griddle Cooking Station is an interesting, low-cost, large-capacity cook top. The 36" x 21" removable, cold-rolled steel griddle has a lip around the sides and back to keep your goodies from falling off, and electric ignition makes for convenient start-up. Plus, if you remove the bottom storage shelf, the legs fold up for easy transport.
Griddles are different from grills, and we do love our open flames, but boy, oh boy, are people who own these nuts about them! Specifically, they love their even heat distribution across a large cook surface and their high temp capability. Griddles also make it a snap to caramelize onions and peppers, or cook eggs, bacon, and pancakes. Easy to use, easy to clean, plenty of cook surface, and portable!
Cooking Area: 756 square inches (about 37 burgers)