Editor's Note: We're 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 anywhere in the world for thoroughly researched and well-tested techniques, tips, and recipes for cooking with smoke and fire. 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.
This review was originally published in June 2015. It was updated in May 2018 to reflect a new recommendation and remove products that are discontinued or no longer fit the under-$500 category.
If you have a lot of money, it's as easy to select a great grill as it is to select a great wine. The trick is finding a great one that's also affordable. Of course, affordable is relative, so we've set the upper limit at $500 for this list, though some grills are considerably less expensive. (If you have more money to spend, check out our picks for the best gas grills under $1,000, too.) 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 gas grill sales long ago 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.
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 BTUs (British thermal units) their grills can produce, but that number can be very misleading. The BTU number 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 BTUs 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 BTUs 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 (Huntington Cast 4200 2-Burner Gas Grill)
The Broil-Mate 165154 LP Gas Grill, also sold as the Huntington Cast 4200, 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, along with Huntington, Broil King, and others, 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 BTUs/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 were redesigned in 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. You can 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 BTUs/square inch
The Reliable Standby: Weber Spirit II E-310*
Weber sticks to the basics with a revamped version of its popular full-size, entry-level Spirit gas grill line. Like its predecessor, the Spirit II is a workhorse that delivers solid performance and is easy to use, easy to clean, and available in two- and three-burner configurations. It continues to be a solid, dependable tool for aspiring backyard pitmasters and pitmistresses. With the multitude of $300 gas grills invading the BBQ market every year, a big challenge Weber always faces is price, and although the Spirit II is an entry-level full-sized gas grill, it is still more expensive than many popular low-cost brands. However, most Spirit owners feel that Weber’s quality, durability, performance, and customer service are worth it.
Cooking Area: 424 square inches (about 20 burgers)
Heat Flux: 71 BTUs/square inch
* The E-310 3-Burner actually lists for $599, but you can easily find it at all the big retailers (and online) for $499, so we couldn't resist including it on our list.
The Griddle: Blackstone 36" Griddle Cooking Station
The Blackstone 36" Griddle Cooking Station is an interesting, low-cost, large-capacity cooktop. The 36- by 21-inch 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)