Despite being a food professional for 28 years, I never thought I needed a fancy outdoor grill, even when I lived in California. I usually bought a basic gas grill from a hardware store and dumped it after four or five years. Then I tried a $2,700 Thermador Char-Glo. It was as if I had been driving a Chevy Cavalier and someone loaned me a Cadillac Escalade. More power, more options, more fun.
"Buy a better grill than you think you need. The better the grill, the better the food will come out and the more you'll want to experiment," says Elizabeth Karmel, creator of www.girlsat thegrill.com and author of Taming the Flame (John Wiley & Sons Inc.), due out next spring. High-end grills, with their stainless steel gleam and SUV heft, are what Americans are increasingly demanding for outdoor cooking. And they're paying prices unheard-of a decade ago. Most high-priced grills today range from $1,000 to $7,000. However, the customized Talos Outdoor Cooking Suite from Jade's Dynasty line starts at $30,000.
What's behind this luxury grill mania? One factor is that Americans are doing a lot of entertaining outdoors. High-end grills are also an extension of the focus Americans put on-and the money they put into-their kitchens. What follows a $10,000 stove? A $5,000 grill. That's why kitchen appliance manufacturers such as KitchenAid, Viking and Thermador now include outdoor grills in their product lines.
With a few exceptions, high-end grills are fueled by gas instead of charcoal. This reflects an overall trend: Gas grills are less messy, have more firepower, provide better control of heat and can sustain cooking over longer periods. "You can't load up with 35 steaks for a party with a charcoal grill," says Christina Schroeder, vice president of marketing for Weber-Stephen Products Co., which makes Weber grills and also the exclusively luxurious Vieluxe line. The bigger, more extravagant the grill, the more fuel it uses-the $6,400 Dacor burns up a standard 20-pound tank of propane in four hours. So hook them up to the house gas line.
Shopping for high-end grills is akin to shopping for cars. You're looking for workmanship, power, features and, of course, style. Style is very subjective, but most consumers today want that high-gloss stainless steel look. So manufacturers are giving it to them in spades. In its 42-inch-wide grill ($4,000 to $4,500), Jade's Dynasty uses 300 pounds of stainless steel.
As for workmanship, Schroeder says the grill should be constructed with joints that are welded, not fastened. "Grills with fasteners are cheaper to pack and ship, but they don't have the same strength. They're more subject to wear and tear," she says. Even better, says Gerry Gerhard of Gerhard's Appliances in Glenside, Pa., are seam welds that run the length of the grill, as opposed to spot welds.
Burners should be made of stainless steel or brass. "Gas has moisture in it. Eventually, that can break down aluminum burners," Gerhard says. Gerhard also likes burners in an H shape, versus the U-shaped ones found on many high-end grills. "The H shape gives better coverage," he says. "With U-shaped, there can be a cold spot in the center of the grill."
The Weber Summit grill, which was the first luxury grill on the market (1995), eliminates cold spots by using four to six straight burners that go from the front to the back of the grill and are no more than 6 inches apart. Another consideration is "porting": whether the gas comes out from the side of the burner or from the top. Side-ported burners are less likely to get clogged by grease, but top-ported deliver more intense heat.
Regarding power, Gerhard says, "You're looking for 50,000 to 75,000 BTUs to generate the 550 degrees to 650 degrees F needed for searing. Most grills have 20,000 to 30,000 BTUs." Sure enough, that Thermador, with two burners, each churning out 25,000 BTUs, seared steaks like my old gas grill never did. However, Schroeder points out that a grill's BTU (British thermal unit) rating can be a bit misleading. "More-efficient gas grills use fewer BTUs but still get the needed 550 degrees to 600 degrees F," she says.
Because gas grills are not required to have efficiency ratings like home appliances, Schroeder suggests finding out from the manufacturer or salesperson just how hot the grill gets. Gerhard adds that double-walled insulation in the hood and in the box that contains the burners will help the grill retain heat.
Almost as important as the power are the flavorizing bars or ceramic briquettes suspended between the burners and the grill grates. When fat or grease drips from food, it lands on these bars or briquettes and creates smoke that flavors the food. The key is to find a system that generates the maximum smoke with a minimum of flare-ups. Schroeder says bars are better than ceramic briquettes, which can trap grease in their porous surface and cause more flare-ups. Gerhard prefers the briquettes, because they give "a better natural barbecue flavor." If you decide on the flavorizing bars, though, he advises that the thicker they are, the longer they'll last.
Superior grills have grill grates made of stainless steel, which wears longer than the enameled cast iron used on lower-quality grills. However, grilling purists like Steven Raichlen, author of How to Grill (Workman) and host of public television's Barbecue University, think straight cast iron is the ultimate for grilling. "Nothing puts grill marks on food like cast iron," Raichlen says. "It also holds heat better and has less sticking, once it is seasoned."
The array of features offered by high-priced grills is almost bewildering-there's everything from refrigeration units for chilling wine to warming drawers that can hold enough food for a NASCAR barbecue. One increasingly common feature is a rotisserie. Good ones, says Raichlen, should have a "separate and dedicated" heat source and control. This typically means an infrared heating element (producing 16,000 to 18,000 BTUs) at the back of the grill. Larger and more expensive grills have multiple settings to accommodate larger pieces of meat, such as whole turkeys or suckling pigs.
Side burners are another popular feature. Again, workmanship is important. The $6,400 Dacor has two brass side burners, each with 18,000 BTUs of power. "The typical indoor burner has 9,000 BTUs," Gerhard says. "But they would blow out with a gust of wind if outside." Some manufacturers, such as Coleman, have added deep fryers for those de rigueur French fries. For superhigh heat over short periods, Dynasty has developed an Infra-Sear feature that acts like a salamander, the broiler commonly used in restaurant kitchens for quick searing and browning.
Raichlen prefers charcoal grills for smoking ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket-in other words, real barbecueing (as opposed to grilling steaks). "Most gas grills are heavily vented, so most of the smoke just goes out the vents, passing by the food without being absorbed," he says. Still, I was able to do a decent job on baby back ribs with my high-end gas grill. Indispensable for such indirect cooking (i.e., when the meat is not directly over the flame) is a temperature gauge on the grill hood to help maintain a steady low heat. Also important is a smoke box that holds hardwood chips for flavoring. The best smoke boxes can be moved to any part of the grill and have separate heat controls.
Though not very sexy, every good grill must have a proper "grease evacuation system," according to Raichlen. The best are those that funnel grease into a narrow but deep pan for easy cleanup; wide, shallow pans can easily overflow.
If all these bells, whistles and BTUs have you a bit flummoxed, Raichlen and Schroeder suggest visiting retail stores that specialize in grills. At places such as Barbecues Galore, they'll periodically fire up the grills so you can see them in action-sort of like test-driving an SUV.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).
How to Get It
Barbecues Galore Buy-Gasgrills.com Gerhard's Appliances Grills Unlimited
Lake Forest, Calif.
(800) 752-3085; www.bbqgalore.com
(866) 262-0343; www.buy-gasgrills.com
(215) 343-2190; www.gerhardsappliances.com (for links to Dacor, KitchenAid, Lynx, Thermador, Viking, Weber and Wolf Web-sites)
(888) 470-7011; www.grillsunlimited.com
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