How to choose the right barbecue for you can be a problem, especially if you’re beginner. In this article, we’ll talk you through the process of how to choose the right barbecue. We’ll tell you all you need to know to make the right choice that you won’t regret later.
Maybe you already have a barbecue, but it’s old and rusting away in the shed. You could try to clean it and refurbish it. We can even give advice on how to clean your barbecue – or at least how to clean the food grate. But sometimes it isn’t worth the effort of trying to salvage the old barbecue. It’s better to get a new one.
Alternatively, what if you’re new to all this and have never done your own barbecue before? Either way, it’s time to buy a new barbecue. But wait… which one should you buy?
The problem is that there are so many choose from – so many types, so many sizes, so many sellers… indeed so many prices. Consumer choice is usually a good thing. But with this much variety available on the market, how to choose the right barbecue for you becomes a logistical nightmare.
This article will take you through the process of choosing, step by step and guide you to making the right choice.
How to choose the right barbecue - key questions
Okay here is the basic list of questions you have to ask yourself:
- Do I want a gas barbecue or a charcoal barbecue?
- Do I need a big BBQ or just a small one?
- Will I want to use this barbecue out and about, at picnic sites and on camping trips? Or do I just need something for the home?
- Do I just want an open grill or do I want/need a proper barbecue with a hood that can be closed?
- Do I want to be able to slow-smoke food (possibly even cold smoke), or just cook hot food?
- Do I want something durable to last many seasons, and am I ready and able to pay more up-front to get it? Or do I want something cheap and cheerful that may not last as long, but will cost me less up front?
To answer those questions, you should first ask yourself these questions:
- Who will I be cooking for?
- What kind of food do I (or my partner) like to cook?
- How badly do I want that smoky flavor?
- Where and when will be cooking/eating? (Those camping trips again, or just at home.)
- What sort of features do I want my grill, BBQ or smoker to have?
- It’s nice to dream, but, how much money am I really ready to spend?
- How easy is it to assemble, the barbecue I’m thinking of buying? (And am I any good at DIY? Do I have the necessary skills?)
- How easy is it to use clean and maintain the barbecue?
- Where you will store the barbecue when not in use?
- If I decide to get a gas barbecue, are there any special considerations?
Who will I be cooking for?
Are you the type who likes a quiet, intimate BBQ with your family or maybe just a handful of close friends? Or do you prefer a grand outdoor garden party with the whole world and his brother in attendance. Either way, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But the question is key to your decision on how to choose the right barbecue. Whether you’re just cooking for a handful of hungry mouths or catering to a crowd, the answer affects both the size and the type of BBQ you buy.
As a general rule, gas is better if you’re cooking for large groups. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, guests tend to come and go. And of course gas can be turned up and down at will, according to when guests arrive. This means you can cook for the guests who are there and not have to worry about generating useless heat. This is especially true when guests arrive in groups.
You cook for them. They eat. Then they stand around chatting and drinking. Then, an hour later, another batch of guests arrive. What do you do? relight a charcoal grill? Keep it going and hope that it lasts till the next batch of guests arrives? Gas is perfect for that situation. It is ready in a few minutes and much more flexible than charcoal. Once the guests arrive, you do not have too keep them waiting long for their food! And that kind of hospitality will always be appreciated.
Gas BBQs can have variable numbers of burners. These are straight line burners and not the round type you get on a cooking stove. Most gas barbecues have between three and six burners. The number of burners tends to depend on the size of the booking surface. Bigger cooking surfaces usually have more burners. The surface area determines the amount of food you can cook at one time. Obviously if you expect to be cooking for a lot of people, you’ll want a bigger surface area. If you find a gas barbecue that has a big surface area but only three or four burners, it will probably cook slower.
Anyway, whatever gas BBQ you choose, it should have a hood that you can close. Even if you sometimes cook on the open grill, you should keep open the option of closing the hood for a proper roast or broil.
Charcoal isn't quite off-the-table yet, however...
But this doesn’t mean you can’t use a charcoal barbecue to cook for large numbers. Indeed, there may be some very sound reasons for buying a charcoal BBQ instead of gas – or as well as! For example, you might want to slow-smoke food in which case you need a charcoal or wood burning barbecue. These come in various designs, including so-called “kettles”. But if you are planning on cooking for large groups, you may want to consider a horizontal drum type, or an egg/bullet type smoker/grill – or even an offset smoker.
We will explain this in more detail later, but for now, an offset smoker is a horizontal drum, with a side box for the fire. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, offset smokers come in two sub-categories: regular offset and reverse flow offset. We’ll explain about this later also.
Either way, if you’ve decided on charcoal, your best bet for big groups may be an oil-drum type barbecue or an offset smoker. You can even get a half-drum charcoal grill without a hood. But we wouldn’t recommend it. Apart form anything else, it would limit what you can cook. If you’re going to cook for big groups, you should have the flexibility to try different types of food and cooking methods.
Of course, if you’re only cooking for small to mid-sized groups, there are plenty of smaller charcoal barbecues to choose from. These include simple open grills and small “kettles” with hoods.
Also, one very important point here: even with charcoal BBQs, the quality varies between manufacturers, Make sure that you get a good quality, well-made model.
Finally, both gas and charcoal barbecues include models with a warming rack. This is very useful for keeping food warm after it’s been cooked. If you plan to cook for large or medium size groups, a warming rack is a must.
What kind of food will you be cooking?
Will you be cooking just burgers, kebabs and hot dogs? Or possibly steaks and other flat cuts. Maybe chicken quarters or pieces like chicken pieces on-the-bone: wings, drumsticks, thighs, etc. or possibly whole chickens or a whole turkey, duck or goose. Or maybe a leg of lamb? A rack of ribs? Or a large off-the-bone beef joint?
Each of these calls for different considerations when it comes to cooking. And if you want to be able to cook by different methods, you need the right equipment to give you that capacity.
Flat cuts and skewers
These can be cooked on an open grill, although the steaks, sheesh and kebabs might take longer than the burgers and hot dogs. With steaks, this depends, to some extent, on how you like them cooked.
Hot dogs (British “bangers”), burgers, sheesh kebabs and lamb koftes, can all be cooked on an open grill and turned or flipped when necessary. And although the sheesh, kebabs and koftes might take longer then the burgers and hot dogs, it is still better not to cook them in a closed grill. The reason for this is because the skewers the meat is on (whether wood or metal) would get too hot to handle.
Steaks on the other hand can be cooked both on an open grill and in a closed barbecue. Our opinion? Well, although you can cook steaks on an open grill, there is a case for closing the hood and trapping the heat. Firstly it can enhance the smoky flavor (however more on that later). Secondly it helps to cook them through, so they don’t get overcooked on the outside at the expense of the inside. This isn’t necessarily a big deal with beef. After all, beef can be eaten rare or even raw. Just ask the French!
However, you may have guests who like their steaks done well or medium well. So, if there is any chance that you will be cooking steaks, get a proper barbecue with a hood.
Chicken pieces on-the-bone
You might also be thinking of cooking chicken pieces on-the-bone: wings, drumsticks, thighs, etc. That again can be done on an open grill, but it takes longer. Also you have to make sure that the meat gets done through, without burning the outside. Unlike beef, this could be a health problem with poultry. Chicken and turkey must be cooked through.
If you have the skill and experience you can do it. But our advice for the inexperienced is that if you want to cook chicken pieces on the bone, it is preferable to get a barbecue with a closable hood. Indeed, strictly speaking it is only a barbecue if it does have a lid or hood. Otherwise it is just a grill.
Whole joints of meat, and especially meat-on-bone, take longer to cook than flat cuts or skewers. And these definitely call for a barbecue with a closed hood. For cooking a whole joint you need a true barbecue. In fact, you can roast a whole chicken or a leg of lamb in a closed barbecue.
There is an exception to this rule. There are some grills with electric-powered slow-rotisseries that turn the joint slowly. These can be used to roast a joint over an open grill. The rotation ensures that the joint cooks evenly on the outside. However it is another potential point of failure. Also, if you’re planning on adding wood chips or chunks to get that smokey flavor, then an open grill with a rotisserie doesn’t cut it.
How badly do I want that smoky flavor?
Part of the thrill of a barbecue is getting that smoky flavor. And here we must sound a word of caution. Most people believe that charcoal grills offer the best taste, because the charcoal creates a smoky flavor that gas can’t. However this may be a psychological myth. Charcoal gives off a lot of smoke when you light it. But you are not supposed to start cooking over the charcoal until not only has the flame subsided, but the charcoals have turned white or gray on the outside. Therefore, by the time you start cooking over the charcoal, it is not longer giving off smoke, just heat.
Now of course, you will get the occasional flare-up and this will add smoke. But you can get exactly the same effect on a gas barbecue.
If you really want smoke, you must either cook with wood chunks or add wood chunks or chips to the grill. You can do this with gas grills as well, using specially designed wood chip boxes. But many users have found wood chips in boxes on gas grills problematical. There is also contradictory advice out there. Some people say, soak the wood chips first. Others say that all this does is slow down the process of getting the wood chips to give off smoke. In any event, the results from wood chips with gas are never as good as when you add wood chips to charcoal. In fact it is better to use wood chunks as the actual cooking fuel!
This leads to another point. Some charcoal barbecues double as smokers. This means that not only is the hood closed, but it cooks the food with indirect heat. Smokers cook slowly on a lower temperature. This is good for tougher joints. And they give the meat that real smoky flavor. But they do take more time – anything from 5 hours to 24 hours!
Obviously a dedicated smoker isn’t suited to the impatient. But a combined smoker/barbecue gives you the best of both worlds.You can get smoke from any charcoal grill by adding wood chips. But if you want a really smoky flavor you need a proper smoker.
Broadly speaking, smokers fall into two categories. The upright (bullet/egg) type and the offset type.
An upright smoker has the fire at the bottom and the food above it on open racks or suspended from hooks. At first, appear it might appear that an upright smoker is cooking with direct heat, as the wood or charcoal is at the bottom and heat rises. However, upright smokers have a physical barrier above the coal and below the meat: a water pan. The water pan serves several purposes.
- It forms a barrier between the fire and the meat, so that although there is convection heat, there is no direct heat.
- Because water evaporates at 100 degrees Celsius, it stops the chamber from getting too hot, by taking the energy out of the system when it evaporates. (Without going into the physics, it’s the same as water in a saucepan peaking at 100 degrees. As long as it’s not a pressure cooker, the steam can escape, taking the energy with it). This holds the meat at – or near – the ideal cooking temperature – which for beef is just slightly above the boiling point of water.
- However, not all the water vapor or steam escapes the food chamber. Some of the water vapor condenses on the meat surface. This prevents the meat from drying out. But it also does something else that is useful. It actually helps the smoke to stick to the meat. This becomes easier to understand if you know that smoke is actually very small particles, suspended in air. It is this smoke sticking to the meat that gives the meat its smoky flavor.
- Finally the water pan performs one other useful function. It catches any drippings from the meat, that might cause a flare up. This is important, because flare-ups can burn the surface of the meat. And while you may want the meat to develop a “bark” that should happen gradually. If you have too many flare-ups in a long smoke, your meat is going to get seriously burnt.
As mentioned earlier, offset smokers come in two forms: Regular Offset and Reverse Flow.
Regular Offset smoker
An offset smoker has a firebox on one side and separate food chamber where the food is smoked. In the more conventional type, the firebox is one side, the hot smoke enters the food chamber, cooking the food and giving it the smoky flavor. The smoke – while still warm or hot – then leaves the chamber via a chimney on the opposite side to the firebox.
The problem with this type of smoker is that it is hotter at one end than the other. If the meat is thicker at one end than the other (like a leg of lamb), this feature can be used to your advantage. But if you are cooking something like a whole turkey or a rack of ribs, then it can be a disadvantage.
One can to some extent solve the problem by adding something called tuning plates under the food rack. These regulate the amount of heat and smoke getting through to the meat at different points along the width of the smoker.
Also, one can always turn the meat part way through the smoking process. But an alternative is to use a reverse flow smoker.
Reverse flow smoker
A reverse flow smoker is like a regular offset smoker except that it has a steel or other metal plate – called a “baffle plate”. This plate runs most of the width of the smoker under the food rack. Reverse flow smokers also have their chimney on the same side as the firebox. The plate allows some heat, in the form of convection, to rise and get to the meat. But it directs the hot smoke to the far end of the food chamber. Then the smoke rises up and flows back across the meat in the food chamber, subjecting it to more heat and giving it a powerful dose of smoke.
In some ways, the baffle plate produces a similar effect to the upright smoker. It blocks the direct heat, much like the water pan in an upright smoker. It catches the grease that drops from the meat, which can then burn without flaring up (thereby creating additional smoke. And of course one can put water on it. This all offers several advantages:
- Even smoke distribution.
- Even heat distribution.
- Less temperature fluctuation if you add fuel to extend the smoke time.
- Temperature returns to previous level quickly if you open the chamber door to check the meat.
- Baffle plate doubles as a water pan and grease tray.
If you have decided that you must have a proper smoker, then the question of “How to choose the right barbecue?” gives way to the narrower question of what type of smoker to buy.
Where (and when) will you be cooking?
How to choose the right barbecue is also affected by the question of how you plan to use it? Are you planning on taking your barbecue or grill on picnics and camping trips? Or will you use it only in your back garden or balcony? Will you use it spontaneously, on a last-minute decision? Or will you only on carefully planned occasions? Will you cook outdoors for a sit-down meal indoors? Or an al fresco meal in the yard? Or a buffet, where people walk around the yard and mingle with other guests. The answers to these questions affects your choice of barbecue.
If you want to take your grill on picnics or camping trips, then you need a portable grill or BBQ. However, remember that portable grills tend to have a smaller cooking surface. That means you can cook less food on them at any one time. This may be a problem if you have hungry children who want their food now! On the other hand, if you choose food that can be cooked easily – like sausages and hamburgers – then it’s not such a problem. if you want to do BBQ picnics and cook at home with the flexibility of a larger barbecue, consider getting two!
As for spontaneity, if you want to cook a barbecue dinner on the spur of the moment, get a gas BBQ. Gas heats up quickly in about five to seven minutes. Charcoal takes 20 minutes if you’re lucky and an eternity if you aren’t! Also, if the weather is in its can’t-make-up-it’s-mind mood, you may want to eat your flame-grilled dinner indoors. A gas barbecue gives you the best of both worlds. You can cook on your outdoor gas grill and then bring the food inside and sit down in the kitchen, living room or dining room.
On the other hand if you only want to use your barbecue for pre-planned events at the weekend, then gas or charcoal are equally good. In fact, hot coals may be better. Why? Because of the ritual of everyone gathering round the grill, giving their conflicting advice on how to get the fire started. It’s all part of the group-bonding experience.
What sort of features do I want it to have?
Grills, barbecues and smokers can have a variety of features. What sort of features do you want yours to have?
With gas, you can control the temperature quickly. If the food is getting overdone on the outside, you can turn it down immediately. With charcoal you can’t do that. You can move the rack higher above coal. But it’s not the same. Also, moving a hot rack is a quick way to burn your fingers! And that assumes the barbecue allows the rack to be set at a variable height.
Griddle plates and side burners
If you’re particularly adventurous, you could try the twice-cooked method. First you shallow fry the meat on a griddle plate. This seals the outside and stops it drying out. Then you grill it on the open flame.This cooks it through. But it stays juicy and succulent on the inside.
Some barbecues and grills – both gas and charcoal – come with such a griddle plate. The plate usually covers half the barbecue. If not, you can buy a griddle plate. In either case, you can remove the plate and use the whole surface of the grill.
Aside from twice-cooking the meat, you can use the griddle plate for frying side-dishes. For example, if you like fried onions or mushrooms on your burger, you can just fry them on the griddle plate. And, come to think of it, a fried egg on top of your burger, also goes down a treat.
Finally, some gas barbecues come with a side burner or two. This is useful for cooking vegetables or heating sauces.
How much am I really willing to pay?
For some people, this might be the most critical question. How to choose the right barbecue, then becomes a case of: what’s the best barbecue I can afford. This is not unreasonable. While your choice of barbecue must be shaped by the what, where and when questions, you can’t ignore the price.
Charcoal grills are cheaper than gas for the same surface area. And there are some really cheap charcoal grills and barbecues at prices that gas can’t match. “Semi-portable” models can be very cheap. But they’re usually flimsy and probably won’t last more than one or two seasons.
In general you’ll find enormous price differences between different brands, even if the models look similar. This isn’t just a matter of “big-name” versus “new upstart”. The more expensive models are usually better made and tend to last longer. But no model lasts for ever. Even the best models eventually suffer wear and tear.
If you’re a complete beginner, it’s better to buy a cheaper model the first time round, till you get to grips with outdoor cooking. But if you’re an old hand or you know what you want, then take the plunge with a more expensive model that does the job best.
How easy is it to assemble the barbecue?
Very few barbecues and grills arrive in one piece. Even large gas models usually need some DIY assembly. But the best of them have pre-assembled parts. Also, some have clear instructions and diagrams. Others are more like trying to decipher the da Vinci code!
How easy is it to use the barbecue?
Some models are easier to use than others. Charcoal is hard to light, which leads to the temptation to start cooking too early. This can leave the food raw or underdone. Also, charcoal is messy. And no one wants dirty hands when they’re about to handle food!
Gas is easy to light and heats up quickly. But gas carries risks (see below).
How easy is it to clean and maintain the barbecue?
Barbecues must be cleaned. This should be done both after cooking and before the next use. The former stops it rusting. The latter is to make sure it’s clean before you put food on it.
Charcoal barbecues and grills leave a pile of ash that must be cleaned out. Some are designed to make this easy with an ash drawer that can be easily removed. Others have a hole that can be opened and the ash swept into it.
Finally, bear in mind that some barbecues last longer than others. The more flimsy ones may last little more than a season, but they are cheap. The more durable ones, will last for years. But they cost a lot more.
How easy is it to store the barbecue?
Larger barbecues are harder to move than small grills. This might seem like an obvious point, but if you want to store your barbecue in the shed or garage, it’s important.
You might be quite happy to leave it out in the garden. But then you will want a cover for it. When you buy a large model, it might be worth checking if it comes with a cover. If not, a separate cover may be available to buy at the same time. Make sure you buy a cover that is designed for your model of barbecue or at least a good fit.
If I decide to get a gas barbecue, are there any special considerations?
Yes indeed there are.
Firstly, if it’s a gas barbecue, you may want to store the gas canister under lock and key.
If you do want to move the barbecue indoors or to a shed, make sure it has wheels. Again, an on obvious point, but one that’s all too easy to forget when you’re focusing on other things. And make sure the wheels are sturdy and well-made. Nothing can be worse than moving a large barbecue only for the wheels to come off!
Gas has some special considerations you should take into account. Firstly, gas barbecues need a hose and regulator. If these are not supplied with the model, then you must buy them separately. The hose must be fitted tightly – but not so tight that the clamp cuts into it. (This is not necessary with side burners – something that confuses a lot of new users.) And remember that propane and butane require different types of regulator. Most important, make sure the gas tanks and barbecue have a gas safety certificate.
When it comes to for flavor, gas barbecues can be enhanced by putting in a smoker box with pre-soaked wood chips. But not all gas barbecues have a space for this. Other gas grills have gas tamers or lava rocks to recreate the smoky flavour of charcoal or wood. With a flame tamer, the gas burner doesn’t heat the food directly. Instead, it heats up the flame tamer, which in turn heats the food. The juices from the food ooze out in the heat and fall onto the flame tamer. When they hit the hot flame tamer, they vaporise into smoke and rise up into the food.
Flame tamers also have other advantages, like protecting the gas burners from falling grease. This keeps the burners clean and prevents the gas from flaring up when hot fat falls on it. They also spread the heat more evenly. And best of all, flame tamers can be removed and cleaned in the sink or dishwasher.
Lava rocks work in a similar way, but have the advantage that because lava is porous, it captures more of the dripping fat and juices. This in turn produces more smoke, adding to the smoky flavour. Also lava rock can be spread over the entire surface, unlike flame tamers which leave some parts uncovered. Lava rocks are also better at containing any flare-ups to a local region. With flame tamers, flare-ups tend to spread, when they occur. Lava rocks are also generic and you can buy them in many places. Flame tamers are specific to the appliance. If you need a replacement, it might have to be ordered separately.
Most gas barbecues have storage space under the grill. But please remember NOT to put the gas bottle under the barbecue when in use. The gas bottle must be placed at the SIDE of the unit.
We hope this has helped you decide what you want. Now check out our reviews to make your final selection of BBQ, grill or smoker. Also, check out our reviews of barbecue-related products and also our tips and tricks. We give advice on cooking methods, how to clean your barbecue and how to make some great marinades and tasty burgers.