Get Your Grill On

Choosing a new grill for your deck or patio is a DIY project that requires more research than skill, but when you select the right model, the results can be just as satisfying as a well-executed home-improvement project.

There are lots of grill options: gas, charcoal, smokers, ceramic, large, small and portable. With so many grills to choose from, you'll need to first determine the types and quantities of food you plan to prepare. Once you know how you will use your grill, you can narrow your options to find the grill that best suits your needs.

Choose your fuel
The most popular grill fuels are gas and charcoal; variations include propane, natural gas, briquettes and lump charcoal. Electric grills are an alternative for those who are subject to neighborhood or building restrictions, but electricity is generally not the preferred choice of most grilling enthusiasts. (In fairness, you can find electric smokers that work very well.)

The rivalry between gas and charcoal seems to inspire as much passion as the decades-old feud between Ford and Chevy fans. But just like their automotive counterparts, both will get you to your destination. I use both, and each has advantages and disadvantages.

Charcoal is more traditional and is preferred by hardcore barbecue fanatics who want meats to have a sweet, rich smoky flavor. But this fuel source typically requires more attention to get the fire started, keep it going and regulate the temperature. It also has a slightly steeper learning curve, but it's worth the effort. From my experience, the cost of charcoal can also be a bit higher than gas, particularly when using larger grills.

Gas is very convenient and makes it easy to control the temperature evenly over the cooking grates. (Of course, this varies with make and model.) It's also easy to get a propane tank filled or exchange it for a filled tank in most parts of the country. If you want to ensure that you'll never run out of fuel in the middle of cooking, you can find plenty of grills that run on natural gas. I think gas gets a bad rap when it comes to its ability to smoke meat: Using a wood-chip-filled smoker box inside the grill imparts an excellent smoky flavor to meat. And if you're grilling fish, steaks and other fast-cooking foods, gas really is the most convenient way to go.

Types of grills
Whatever your outdoor-cooking needs, there's a grill that can meet your highest expectations. Most people buy medium-size units that will cook enough food for six to 12 people, but you could opt for a party-size grill that serves up enough meat for a small herd of carnivores. Heavy-gauge steel construction and cast iron or stainless steel grates are preferred for any grill; if you opt for a gas model, look for an electronic ignition system, a thermometer and parts that are readily available and easily replaced.

Freestanding gas grills: These have become the most popular models because they strike a good balance among performance, value and ease of use. They typically use bottled propane or natural gas; medium-size units have an output of 25,000 to 40,000 Btu. Most models use some form of baffle or "coals" between the cooking grates and the burners to catch and vaporize drippings, which imparts flavor. You should expect to pay from about $250 to $1,000 (or more) for a grill that's durable and reliable and cooks evenly.

Charcoal kettles: When you think of this type of grill, the classic Weber kettle comes to mind. Often credited with popularizing the backyard barbecue, it's the first grill I ever used. You can do just about any kind of outdoor cooking with one of these, and they're simple, inexpensive and sturdy. If you're new to grilling and not sure what to get, this is a great place to start, and it won't let you down as your culinary skills and ambitions grow.

Vertical smokers: These bullet-shaped grills are a favorite of outdoor chefs who like to cook ribs, turkey, brisket, etc., very slowly to achieve a deep, smoky flavor. Gas, charcoal and electric models are available in a number of sizes. (Wood chips provide the flavoring smoke.) Some grills have an upper and lower grate for increased capacity. Other useful features are fuel doors on charcoal models and water pans to help prevent food from drying out.

Charcoal smokers: You see a lot of these grills at barbeque competitions; they often resemble an oil drum turned on its side. The better models are made from heavy-gauge plate steel to retain the heat. Like vertical smokers, these grills are meant for slow cooking, but they often feature a much larger cooking surface. Once the lid is closed, the heat is usually controlled with vents on the base, chimney or lid.

Infrared grills: Both gas and electric infrared models are available. Manufacturers claim these systems offer faster cooking times and better moisture retention and that the grate heat is extremely even while producing high heat with low fuel consumption. This type of grill works best for cooking steaks, burgers and fish; if you want to smoke meats, this isn't the preferred choice. The Char-Broil brand has the largest selection of grills using this technology.

Natural gas or propane pedestal units: If you have a small deck or patio and want to limit the footprint of your grill, a pedestal unit could be your best choice. These grills are available with movable or permanently installed bases and with most of the same features that other styles of natural gas and propane grills offer. Pedestal charcoal grills are also available, but they're mostly intended for locations such as campgrounds, parks and resorts.

Tailgating/camping grills: You can use almost any grill for tailgating or camping, but some are particularly well-suited for these activities because of their compact dimensions or clever design features (such as folding stands). The most important choice might be between gas or charcoal: If you don't want to be stuck in a stadium parking lot wondering what to do with hot coals, gas (or even a small electric model) might make more sense. Gas and electric grills are also more likely to be approved for use at many campsites.

Ceramic grills: The people who use sealed ceramic grills (or kamados) such as The Big Green Egg swear by these models. They tend to be on the expensive side, but the insulated ceramic construction and sealed design provide unrivaled temperature control, and they can be used as grills, smokers or ovens with equal success. The preferred fuel is lump charcoal, but you'll also find gas and electric models.

Once you've identified the type of grill you want, consider where you'll buy, the easy of assembly and the warranty. And don't let appearances fool you: A lot of impressive-looking grills are made of flimsy materials and don't cook particularly well. Check out online reviews and consumer ratings to get a sense of how the model you're considering is regarded.

No matter what grill you choose, safety is paramount. Be sure to follow the operating instructions in the user's manual as you fire up your new grill and prove to your family, friends and neighbors that your barbecuing techniques are as good as your building skills.