in recent years, grilling has gone from weekend activity to something between a religion and a contact sport with ever more complicated and expensive toys.
This Father's Day, take Dad back to basics. Whether it's his first grill or a portable model for tailgating, there are a range of serviceable gas and charcoal grills under $250. We tested five grills that are available in the bay area and fulfill different roles: feeding a crowd, hybrid grilling/smoking, portable and just plain cheap. We set out to see who was tops, and who was just blowing smoke. We also know which ones are a bear to put together.
When choosing a new grill, keep in mind how many people you generally cook for. The grill's surface area should accommodate the whole crowd. That said, the grill shouldn't take up the entire deck, patio or trunk (for portable models). Assess how often you would use side burners, rotisseries and griddles (if your kitchen is five steps away, probably not often) and choose accordingly. More bells and whistles hike up the price and size, so make sure they're bells you're going to ring regularly.
This month's Consumer Reports, which did its own grill testing, suggests bringing a magnet to the store. "Many grills are made of a mix of grades of stainless steel . . . Magnets usually stick to cheaper grades," which are more prone to rust. Good to know.
Here are the results of our tests of the Weber Q 200 gas grill, Mini Big Green Egg charcoal grill, Char-Broil QuickSet 463741008 gas grill, Kingsford Deluxe Barrel KB800 charcoal grill and Thermos THD1-2150/D charcoal grill.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining
5. Kingsford Deluxe Barrel KB800 charcoal grill
Price: $209 at Sam's Club and Bass Pro stores
Weight and dimensions: 95 pounds in box, 46 inches wide by 25.5 inches deep by 42 inches high when assembled; 870 square inches total cooking area (enough for 30 burgers, this baby's big)
Ease of assembly: It's a heavy piece of equipment, requiring 90 minutes of assembly. Because it's not tremendously complex, most people will feel up to the task, but it really requires a second person to help position the pieces. A Phillips-head screwdriver and an adjustable wrench do the job, but several pieces (especially the front shelf) require some substantial muscle to maneuver into position.
Sturdiness: Built like a tank, with cast-iron grill racks that can be powered with up to 4 pounds of charcoal, this isn't particularly portable, but it's going to last and can be scooted around your patio on two wheels. It has a solid metal bottom shelf to store charcoal and tools, and two wooden shelves that give this big, black barrel an old-fashioned feel.
How easy to control heat: Adjustable air dampers on either side and a wide warming rack mean you can move food around to keep it in the target temperature zone. A central temperature gauge may not reflect the accurate temperature throughout the grill space.
Comments: The biggest inconvenience of this grill is that the three heavy pieces of grill racks have to be lifted out and set somewhere to load the charcoal, dirtying things in the process (the grill rack lifter helps, but it's still messy). An adjustable charcoal tray means you can modulate how far food is from the heat source, and a wide-set handle means you're unlikely to get burned opening and shutting the heavy lid. A grill for the hard-core charcoal fan with lots of mouths to feed.
2. Thermos THD1-2150/D charcoal grill
Price: $50 at Super Target stores
Weight and dimensions: 20 pounds in box, 21.5 inches wide by 21.5 inches deep by 33 inches high when assembled; 462 square inches total cooking area (enough for 10 burgers and two racks of babyback ribs)
Ease of assembly: It looks simple as pie, but really requires an hour-plus of head scratching and diagram reading. The rampant use of hex locknuts and multiple metal washers make assembly cumbersome.
Sturdiness: A case of you get what you pay for, the lid's metal is so thin that, when left open, the hinges' metal torques downward, twisted by gravity. That said, the assembled grill isn't tippy and the lid makes a reasonable seal.
How easy to control heat: A top vent doesn't modulate temperature quickly. Your best bet is to heap charcoal in the center of the square and move food off to the cooler corners as needed. There's also no way to adjust the distance of the food from coals, so vigilance is paramount.
Comments: The classic charcoal grill is the 22-inch Weber kettle, at nearly double the price. The Thermos doesn't hold the heat as well and seems more flimsy, but it's lightweight enough to toss into the back of a pickup and cheap enough that its longevity won't be measured in decades, and that's okay.
1. Mini Big Green Egg
Price: $242 at Pinch-A-Penny stores, the Outdoor Kitchen Store in Tampa and All About Grills in Largo
Weight and dimensions: 30 pounds, 9-inch diameter cooking grid, 64 square inches total cooking area (enough for two chicken breasts, two pork chops and one steak)
Ease of assembly: Although the Egg came almost entirely assembled, it required half an hour to remove all the packing tape and extract the Egg from its foam cradle (enough foam to have safely shipped a real egg). The Egg comes with special Green Egg charcoal, a CD-ROM and recipe book, starter sticks, tongs and a stick to clear out spent charcoal.
Sturdiness: Modeled after an ancient clay cooker called a "kamado," the Egg is made of no-rust ceramic for incredible sturdiness and durability. The felt ring that creates the seal between the two halves of the egg might have to be replaced periodically, but all other pieces are built to last (and guaranteed for life). Shown here, an optional stand, $37, lifts the Egg off the ground, while the larger Eggs have a "nest," $75, that brings the grilling surface near waist height on most people.
How easy to control heat: It takes some practice, but a vent at the top and one at the front control the airflow and thus the temperature (a gauge at the top gives accurate readings). With vents open and charcoal glowing red, a temperature of 750 degrees can be maintained for searing steaks; both vents closed and the temperature can be maintained at 250 degrees for several hours of smoking.
Comments: Despite a small cooking surface area, we highly recommend this grill either for tailgating or even as a "second" grill to augment your gas grill. Its central asset is incredible flavor. The natural lump charcoal imparts delicious smokiness, and myriad smoking chips (alder, hickory, pecan) are available on the Web site (www.biggreenegg.com). We made pizzas, whole smoked chicken, smoked brisket and more, with superb results. More labor-intensive and messy than gas grills, but worth the effort.
3. Char-Broil QuickSet 463741008 gas grill
Price: $129 at Lowe's, for other models and locations go to www.charbroil.com
Weight and dimensions: 80 pounds in box, 57 inches wide by 20 inches deep by 46 inches high when assembled; 375 square inches total cooking area (enough for 12 burgers and 12 chicken breasts)
Ease of assembly: Requiring four hours of blood, sweat and tears, this is better bought fully assembled for a small fee. It comes in a box with nearly 100 loose parts, with 10 pages of step-by-step instructions (drawings and text) that required only one call to Char-Broil for clarification. Do not undertake assembly unless you're mechanically inclined and have a buddy to hold pieces together for you. It comes with a Phillips-head screwdriver; you might need an open-end wrench to assemble.
Sturdiness: Once assembled, this is a no-frills, yet sturdy, gas grill. The cooking grate is slightly flimsy (porcelain-coated metal wire) and looks like it might rust in fairly short order.
How easy to control heat: A wide cooking surface with two separate burner controls make this grill a snap to cook on. The gas adjusts easily, with 35,000 BTUs that provide enough juice to adequately sear a steak. The long metal "vaporizer bar" along the grill bottom holds heat nicely.
Comments: At the low end of the Char-Broil line, this model has the same basic design as more expensive models, with a wide warmer rack and generous surface area for grilling for a big crowd. Heavy, with a large footprint and too tall to fit in most cars, this is not portable. Still, it's a good first gas grill. Be sure the grease cup isn't jostled out of position or hot grease drips from the bottom of the grill.
4. Weber Q 200 gas grill
Price: $209 at Home Depot and Lowe's
Weight and dimensions: 42 pounds in box, 52 inches wide by 17 inches deep by 13 inches high when assembled; 280 square inches cooking area (enough for six burgers and six chicken breasts)
Ease of assembly: Although it's super simple to assemble (total time 15 minutes), the pictogram instructions were difficult to interpret, mixing in instructions for assembly of the 120 and 220 models.
Sturdiness: Very sturdy, resting on four tiny legs on the ground, but unless it's used on a tabletop, it requires squatting down.
How easy to control heat: The small, 14.1- or 16.4-ounce propane cylinders (available in the camping aisle of most big box discount stores) and the tubular steel burner achieve a maximum of 12,000 BTUs. This is insufficient to really sear a steak, but it adjusts quickly and easily, very adequately grilling hamburgers, veggie kebabs and corn. The single burner, though, means that everything cooks at the same temperature — you can't have a hot side and a warm side.
Comments: Two tuck-away worktables expand the work space significantly, but fold up when the grill is cool to make the Q very compact. In general, this is a sturdy, well-made grill, but the catch pan is super flimsy and just sits on the ground underneath. It would be better if there were a grooved slot in which to slide it so it doesn't get lost or crushed. This would be our pick for the perfect no-mess tailgating grill, fitting easily in the trunk of most cars.