A summer isn't a summer without a good grill to fire up. But you don't have to settle for good. The Wirecutter's Seamus Bellamy pinned down the cream of the charcoal crop.
You don't need an expensive, complex backyard grill to cook amazing food. You want a 57cm Weber One-Touch Original BBQ. It costs around £150 and will serve you well for years.
If you're the sort of person whose veins pump marinade and rub, this guide's not for you. You know how to cook and what you like to cook on. On the other hand, if you're new to grilling or have been at it for a few years and want to up your game without spending too much money, read on. Over the past few weeks, I spent hours talking to chefs, cooking nerds, award-winning barbecue cooks, and businesses that specialise in the sale of propane, charcoal, natural gas and pellet grills.
Here's what you need to know in a nutshell: Gas grills are easy. Hook up a propane tank or natural gas line, ignite the grill's burner and bring it up to temperature. Boom. Cook. Done. They burn hot, cook fast and clean up quickly. You get more consistent heat, and temperature control is a cinch, but the trade off is that gas fuel is comparatively expensive to charcoal and the flavor of your food will suffer a bit. Wood pellet grills are the new hotness of the barbecue universe. They burn pellets made of compressed sawdust. They're low maintenance, have a low pre-heat time, can grill or smoke your food and thanks to the fact that their temperature and cook times are regulated by computer, you can slap your dinner on it and let it do most of the work for you. Too bad they're wicked expensive. An entry-level pellet grill will set you back at least £1,000. Electric grills? That's not barbecuing: Just stay indoors with the windows closed and shamefully sear your chicken into submission with a brick and a frying pan.
What you want is a charcoal grill: they're relatively cheap, easy to maintain and can be used to grill or smoke your food. With a little bit of patience and technique, you'll be able to produce some of the most flavourful, mouth watering meals of your life. I asked Jeff Potter of Cooking for Geeks about what kind of grill he recommends. He told me that while gas grills are easier to use, clean up fast and are better for the environment, propane can't beat charcoal. "If you're doing real BBQ though, wood and charcoal are better, and give off that smokey characteristic that grilling just won't get." Craig 'Meathead' Goldwyn knows a lot about barbecues too. For many outdoors cooking enthusiasts, his Amazing Ribs web site is gospel. Yapping with him on the phone last week, I asked about what people should look for when they're shopping for a grill.
"If you are a big steak lover, you really want charcoal," says Goldwyn. "Charcoal gets much hotter than gas grills and it imparts a nice flavour. If you like smoking, again charcoal tends to induce the best flavour, and there's a whole lot of interesting options out there for smoking. The secret to really good outdoor grilling is temperature control, and the best way to have temperature control on a gas grill for example, is to have half the burners off. If you have half the burners off, you can move the food from the hot side to the cold side and that makes all the difference in the world."
Goldwyn explains that this same principle applies to charcoal grills as well. You want one side of the grill stacked with charcoal, and the other set up to cook with with less intense indirect heat. This can be achieved by simply pushing the majority of your charcoal to one side of your grill once it's up to temperature. "You can start the meat at a low temperature and gently bring it up to the temperature you you like, and then move the meat over to the hot side and sear it." In order to achieve this, you'll need a grill that's sized proportionate to your needs. Goldwyn suggests that barbecue cooks decide how many people they want to feed, figure out how much space will be needed on the grill to cook enough food for those people, and then multiply that number by two. Doing so will ensure you've got enough space for both direct and indirect heat cooking zones.
The Weber Grill covers all of what Goldwyn suggests and more. Available in three different sizes-47cm, 57cm and 67cm–chances are you'll be able to find a Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill to meet your needs. For most people, the 57cm iteration of the One-Touch Gold will be large enough. With a cooking surface that size, you'll be able to cook three or four big steaks or say maybe six average-sized burgers.
Constructed from heavy-gauge porcelain covered steel, the barbecue's kettle and lid are tough and rust resistant, but still light enough that you'll still be able to manhandle the grill around your back yard: a task made even easier by the fact that the One-Touch has a pair of wheels attached to its base. The tripod stand for the One-Touch sits on is made of aluminium, but it feels sturdy. The barbecue's three plastic nylon handles (two on the kettle and one on the lid) are designed to stay cool enough to touch even with the fires of Hell blazing away underneath. Speaking of heat, you'll want a way to regulate how hot the the barbecue gets as you use it. As with most other charcoal grills, the Weber has a top vent that can easily be spun open to allow for more oxygen to get at your coals and vent the smoke and gases caused by burning charcoal, wood chips and your food, or closed up to varying degrees, to allow for a slower cook, a smokier taste or to snuff your coals out completely after you're done with them. There's also a secondary set of vents near the base of the kettle, to allow air to get at your coals more directly. Just like the top vent, these can be opened wide to allow for the kind of intense heat that cooks using a gas barbecue can only dream of, or levered closed in order to take the temperature down a notch. Need to pile on more charcoal to pour on the heat? No problem: Weber ships the barbecue with a hinged cooking grate that allows you access to the coal bed while you're cooking. Move your food off to one side, lift up a section of the grill and pour your fresh fuel in.
Tonnes of people love this grill. Gizmodo editor-in-chief Joe Brown used to be a chef before he got all geeky. When I was talking grills with him last week, he told me "…the best grill in the world is the Weber Kettle-style Grill." "They are indestructible, made of high-quality steel, super versatile, and they cost $100. You see them everywhere from backyards to the competition circuit. You can grill on them and you can smoke on them. You can cook a lot, or you can cook a little."
The editors at Cheapism.com praised the One-Touch's durability, saying "Weber grills come with a 10-year limited warranty for the bowl, lid, and nylon handles and a two-year limited warranty for the grates and other parts. That right there tells us these cheap BBQ grills are built to last." Derrick Riches, who does reviews for BBQ.com, knows his barbecues. He awarded the 26.75" version of the One-Touch Gold five stars, stating "All in all if you have the money and you want a seriously big charcoal grill, then this is the unit for you. Fantastic cooking abilities like any Weber kettle, with great construction of durable parts and the space to cook for the largest parties make this a great grill." Craig 'Meathead' Goldwyn has also used one and liked it enough to give it his site's Best Value Gold award. Even the devout barbecue fanboys at the Smoking Meat Forums love what the Weber One-Touch and the company's other kettle style grills have going-and they're a pack of picky backyard gourmets to say the least.
As cool as they are, The Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal grills aren't perfect: The 47cm model is great for anyone who doesn't plan on cooking a lot of food at once, but its smaller, rounded bottom tends to lump all of your charcoal together, and it's not large enough to easily section off for direct and indirect cooking. There's no out-of-the-box method for raising coals closer to your cooking surface in order to increase direct cooking temperatures required to quickly sear meat, and unlike many of its competitors, the One-Touch Gold doesn't offer a side table to set your grilling tools, plate or condiments on while you're cooking.
There's no denying that electronically controlled pellet grills are both efficient and cool. As more companies begin to offer them, the prices associated with them are bound to drop. I'll let you know when it happens.
Republished with permission from The Wirecutter's Seamus Bellamy