How to shop for a barbecue

By: Jasmine Miller

© Arcurs Author: Canadian Living Credits: © Arcurs


How to shop for a barbecue

By: Jasmine Miller
Sink your teeth into a perfect steak or set of ribs, and you swear you'll be barbecuing every night for the rest of your life. But will you really? Most barbecues can be left outside all year, so there's no question the equipment can handle a frosty workout, but will you be schlepping in and out of the house and through the snow to get the taste of seared chicken in February? Most of us won't though of course, some of us will.

"I barbecue all year, most definitely," says Rob Rainford, author of Rob Rainford's Born To Grill (Random House, 2012). "There's not an inappropriate time to grill,” he says. 

If that's true for you, invest accordingly. "If you spend a little outside your comfort zone, you should get five seasons out of a barbecue," says Rainford. If you're an all--weather griller, look for the rust--resistance of stainless steel and expect to pay $750 or more.

Ready to grill? Here are five things to consider before you start to shop for a barbecue:

1. Know what to look for in a barbecue
Once you start to shop for a barbecue, focus on the size of grill space, getting enough to accommodate the amount of food you usually prepare, not the amount of food you might one day have to prepare if you, by some fluke, decided to host an anniversary, graduation, or engagement party for more people than you know.

Your grill should have enough space to create multiple cooking zones -- one each for searing, slower cooking and finishing.

2. Choose your heat source
Rainford says he has four barbecues in his backyard, but, well, we're not Rob Rainford. Most of us can't justify that investment, which means we have to choose: Gas or charcoal?

Charcoal is cheapest, but takes longer to get started. Permanent gas models can make a beautiful addition to the backyard, but there's the expense of a line and hook up. Propane is the middle ground: they run off a refillable tank and offer the convenience of a quick ignition.

While die--hard grillers have their preferences (charcoal is loved for its smoky flavouring; propane and gas for easy starts and consistent temperatures), you can cook a good meal with any heat source.

"I'm an egg head," says Rainford, referring to his love of the cultish Big Green Egg, one of the first porcelain--insulated grills. Other brands are just as good, according to Rainford, and what they have in common is their ability to keep food moister than either propane or charcoal. "They work by making sure not so much radiant heat leaves the grill," he says. "A regular grill is steel inside, not porcelain, and the heat radiates out."

Rainford's a pro, but he's no elitist when it comes to the joy of the grill -- even electric options have their place. "A ton of people live in condos," he says, explaining the appeal of portable and flameless barbecues. You might not win any ribbons at a barbecue fair with one of these models -- there's no smoky wood flavour -- but they do give a char mark and sear.

Page 1 of 2 -- Discover three more great tips to consider when shopping for a barbecue on page 2
3. Count the BTUs
BTU stands for British Thermal Unit and is one measure of the horsepower of your grill. This metric t tells you how hot the grill can potentially get. Specifically, it's the maximum amount of heat generated by all burners in one hour. Rainford likes a BTU of between 65,000 and 100,000. "When you look at older constructions, they don't have that output," he says. Which is fine, since most of us aren't professional cooks and can get by with a BTU of about 100 per square inch of grilling space.

Remember that when it comes to BTUs, bigger isn't always better; other factors play a role in the efficiency and heat of your barbecue. You want a sturdy model with a lid that fits snugly, a back that isn't wide open, and sides that are thick enough to retain heat.

But remember: A higher BTU needs more energy, meaning the higher the number, the more often you'll be filling the tank.

4. Mind the construction
"For propane and natural gas, stainless steel is very important," says Rainford. If you go for something cheaper, aluminum or sheet metal, for example, it’ll start to break down after one season, he says.

Grates really matter, too. They come in cast iron, porcelain, stainless steel and plain steel. A cast iron version will capture, retain and distribute heat best. A porcelain coating stops food from sticking but is vulnerable to chipping -- chipped porcelain lets the metal underneath rust and also causes food to stick. It doesn't need to be oiled though, unlike cast iron, which should last you for years but needs regular oiling.

The better care you take of a barbecue, the longer it will last. That's true for the tiniest portable kind and the most expensive built--in gas model. Always cover your grill when it's not being used and clean the grates before and after each use. Burners should be removed and cleaned at the beginning of the season, too.

5. Don't buy accessories you won't use
"When I was doing License To Grill (Food Network Canada), I was given a couple barbecues to test out," Rainford recalls. You bet they came with all the bells and whistles. There was a rotisserie and a rear sear--zone where the temperature gets higher than 600 degrees "for that beautiful steak mark," says Rainford.

Those are practical extras because Rainford actually uses them. But many barbecues come with things most of us won't use: built--in prep space, lights on the handle and control knobs, infrared side burners, warmer drawers ... they might come standard with the unit you're considering, but that doesn't mean they're free. Choose a pared down model and you could shave hundreds of dollars off the price and still get the delicious fare you crave.

Accessories can be fun, but they're off topic when it comes to what to look for. Once you start to shop for a barbecue, there are three things to ask, says Rainford. "Is it stainless steel? What's the BTU output? How long is it going to last me? That's all you really need to sound conversant in the barbecue business."

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How to shop for a barbecue