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Find the Perfect Grill for Your Backyard Cookouts

Make sure your poolside patio BBQ and outdoor kitchen are ready for the steaks and the competition.

Yvonne Harbison
Yvonne Harbison
Lynx built-in grill, brown tile, palm trees in background.

As it turns out, cooking up hot dogs and hamburgers outside and drenching them in your favorite smoked sauce does not a BBQ make. If there’s anything to know about the backyard grill, it’s that there is a difference between what some would call a “grill” and others would call a “barbecue” or “BBQ.”  This can be a regional preference, with people using different terms depending on where they live in the world, and they don’t always mean the same thing.

Just as a pro-tip, keep in mind that a grill is the means to cook a variety of meats and other foods on a grate over open flame or steady heat source. A barbecue is a particular cooking style that demands smokey slow roasting and flavorful marinades. Sometimes, the grill is called a BBQ grill even if it won’t be used to barbecue a steak. However you use the terms, it’s safe to warn you that some folks can get pretty feisty when it comes to proper BBQ.

So how should you prepare yourself for the outdoor cooking season in a world where BBQ is held to a very high standard? Buy the proper grill to ensure your family and friends enjoy only the best at your weekend cookouts.

Grilling Basics

Coyote grill, tongs, vegis, baked potatoe, corn, glowing orange light.

The trick to a good backyard cookout is knowing how to cook your favorite meals and what to cook them on. There are different types of grills to choose from, each using a different form of fuel to produce their own characteristic flavors and conveniences.

For hamburgers and hot dogs, even a nice steak, the grill is your go-to, but whether you choose gas or charcoal grills depends on the flavor you prefer. With an open flame and adjustable racks, dinner is served in no time at all. A gas grill can provide direct-flame, convection cooking, making it a favorite for steaks, pork chops, and serving-size meat portions of all kinds. Searing the meat before cooking through traps moisture inside for a savory, juicy meal. Add a marinade or smoked BBQ sauce for stronger, spicier flavor.

Coyote built-in grill and charcoal smoker. Stainless steel finish.

With gas grills, you can monitor the temperature inside the grill cover with dials or knobs to control the gas burners. They use refillable/replaceable propane tanks, or can be connected to your home’s natural gas line. Gas grills can be ready to cook, at temperatures between 250 degrees and 600 degrees, inside of 15 to 20 minutes.

For a larger roast, or old fashioned rotisserie chicken, it will take more time, but you can serve restaurant quality meals from your backyard grill with a little patience. Charcoal grills offer some of the same flavor and indirect cooking features as a smoker, if used carefully, making them another favorite backyard cookout tool. Charcoal offers a unique smokey flavor and diffuses heat more evenly across the grill surface. The racks can be set high enough above the coals to heat using the all around convection inside the grill cover, making them a good slow cooker for larger pieces of meat, while also being able to cook lower in more direct flames for faster meals.

Family around a grill in the backyard, close up of charcoal and steak.

It can take up to 30 minutes or more for charcoal briquettes to heat fully enough to prepare food, but the temperature can get up to 700 degrees and be sustained for hours. Vents and access panels or adjustable racks allow you to have minimal control of the grill temperature by adding briquettes or moving them around. Once it gets hot, the charcoals stay hot until they burn out, so they require constant monitoring, and be careful not to tip over the charcoal ash tray below the kettle grills.

For larger pieces of meat, or for drying reserves like your favorite beef jerky recipe, you’ll want a smoker. The slow cooked, indirect heat locks flavor in without charring or burning. A good outdoor kitchen will offer both a grill and a smoker. There are advantages to each, but the most practical choice for your household gets down to what you want to cook, and how you want to bring out the flavor.

Gray and light blue/green graph w/ grill icons.

What to Look For In A Grill

Coyote grill, man and woman with little girl. Lynx grill open with ribs.

Regardless of whether you opt for a gas or charcoal grill, there are a few common features you should be sure to look for when making your purchase.

Grills designed with added space between the handle and the lid will help prevent burns or scalding when lifting the cover to check on the cooking food.

Look for useful features, like adjustable racks that allow you to move the food closer to the flames for charbroiling, or further from them for more indirect heat. For charcoal grills, they are also useful for adding charcoal briquettes to help keep the heat going.

Hot or cold, gas or charcoal, you don’t want to risk the grill catching on a seam in the sidewalk or tipping over. For safety’s sake, and for more effective cooking, look for solid, sturdy construction.

  • A pre-assembled, solid-welded firebox will retain heat better than a box held together by nuts and bolts with unsealed edges to pull in wind.
  • Four legs for support are more stable than the tripod designs, with less opportunity to be knocked over due to their top-heavy construction.
  • Locking wheels on the end of each support leg makes it much easier to move the grill to the perfect place on the patio throughout the year.

Grill Size

Compact Coyote grill on small patio, city scape. Large patio w/ Lynx grill.

A key consideration when purchasing a new BBQ grill is the size of the grill. It obviously does no good to buy a bulky appliance that doesn’t fit on your porch, but if the cooking area is too small to meet the demand for your backyard get-togethers, the chef spends more time flipping burgers than they would socializing. The right size grill means cooking multiple things at once, and often at different temperatures and techniques to make sure everything is cooked exactly right. If the goal is to get a grill to help the family eat healthy at home without stopping at a restaurant every night, then the time-savings are quickly lost if there’s not enough room on the grill for everyone’s meal. The right size grill is important.   

Most grills are measured in square inches. A good sized grill would be large enough to dedicate 100 square inches per person and meal. The ideal grill allows space for searing and caramelizing at high heat, a larger area for slower cooking at a lower temperature, and enough room under the cover to allow for indirect, convection cooking. Plan to keep at least 25 percent of open grill space for flipping meat or searing over direct heat. For entertaining a table of family and friends, a grill of about 500 square inches will allow enough crowded cooking space for hamburgers, but 700 to 950 will allow more culinary variety for a larger crowd.

Gas Grills

Pot on side burner, man using tongs, glowing infrared grates, grilled fish.

Relying on propane tanks or the natural gas line from your home, gas grills are the versatile, quick backyard cookout champ. With the turn of a dial, a gas grill can heat up stainless steel or cast iron grates to create the perfect char-pattern on hamburgers or steaks. Today’s gas grills don’t require matches or lighters, as they instead have igniters that spark to catch the controlled gas flames. The flames are often under drip guards that help reduce the dangerous spitting of grease and prevent cooking juices from dampening the flames.

Gas burners can get pretty hot on their own, but some grills also offer a boost via infrared burners. With the help of infrared technology, ceramic surface burners and glass panel systems heat quickly up to 900 degrees or more and distribute it across the entire cooking surface. Rather than heating up the air around it, which wastes energy and dries out the food, infrared grills cook the food directly to result in a juicier cut of meat.

Sear station gas grill burners have a slightly different purpose, offering a “shortcut” designed to more quickly sear the outer edge of the food and create the classic grill marks that offer texture and maximum flavor. Sear stations are individual burners, set more closely together and aside from the regular grill area, to make a hotter cooking zone.

Another common addition is side burners, which allow the chef to boil a pot of water or start up a fry pan on the side support wings of the grill’s firebox. These burners can be designed like the burners on the kitchen stove, with grating over gas flame to hold pans or roast marshmallows. Some grills may have electric coil burners, or glass surface burners.  

Dark evening sky, LED lights, in grill. Person putting tongs into a drawer.

Ceramic briquettes can be used in gas grills to replicate the convection-heat appeal of a charcoal grill. They absorb the heat in the same way the charcoal would, redistributing it more evenly between the burners to the food on the grating above. Many gas grills offer fold-down shelving that utilizes a rack above the burner so that food can be cooked indirectly, through the rising heat rather than the heat from the flames. This cuts down on searing marks and allows foods like vegetables to cook at a lower temperature.

Be on the lookout for the other convenient features in gas grilling, like onboard LED lights that assist with night-time grilling. You’ll still need the overhead light from the patio, but mounted lights along the grill lid make things a little easier.

Extra storage is another must-have for BBQ grill carts. Not only do the freestanding grills offer pull out trays for the propane tanks, some also have room for storing the essentials like grilling baskets and steel brushes.

Charcoal Grills

Top of charcoal bbq pit with shish kabobs, colorful vegis, Coyote smoker.

Variations of the classic charcoal grill have been around since the invention of fire, and new models come out every year to make the open-fire food flavor an easier experience. Charcoal grills use a combination of heat and pressure to cook with, as well as open flames when the chef wants to mix it up. The charcoal smoke adds a unique flavor to the food, but if the chef gets too heavy on the lighter fluid, the flavor might get lost under the more synthetic taste of butane. The trick is the narrow coal bed, piled with charcoal briquettes to maintain a steady temperature inside the grill barrel and air vents to allow the air to move and disperse evenly around the food.

Barrel grills - The longer barrel grill offers a wide cooking area, rather than a round grate, which allows for more even heat distribution along the charcoals at the base. Look for models that include access doors at the front to make tending the charcoal bed easier. It’s not uncommon to find grills with charcoal and gas functionality side by side as one unit.

Kettle grills - The perennial tailgater favorite, the pot-bellied, kettle grills are lightweight, circular, pod-shaped grills. Half of their usable space is the dome lid that traps heat and adds to the convection capabilities of the grill, but they can be used for the open grill grating alone. Kettle grills are often supported by a tripod of metal legs, with a firepot mounted at the base and an ash pan supported between the legs. They are relatively portable, though they don’t hold large amounts of food at once.

Kamado grills - The egg-shaped Kamado grill is great for maintaining hotter temps for convection cooking and smoking. The lower half of the grill allows for a much deeper charcoal bed, allowing higher temperatures to be held for a longer amount of time. They are one of the heavier grills, often made out of ceramic and steel to allow for their great heat retention.

Grill BTUs per Hour

Nobody wants to get in the middle of grilling a meal and run out of fuel, whether working with propane gas or charcoal briquettes, and keeping a spare tank at the ready is a good habit. However, if you want to know how long the average tank will last with a grill you’re considering buying, there’s some math involved. The BTUs are particularly useful when trying to determine how long a single propane tank will fuel the grill.

The heat output of grills and smokers is rated in BTUs, or British Thermal Units, which measure how much energy is required to heat the grill for an hour of use at a given temperature. For many models, this will give an idea of how much gas it uses and how much heat it can generate. It is often an indication of the size of the burners on a gas grill, for instance, as the larger the burners, the more gas it will use.

Propane is measured in pounds of pressure, and it will never “go bad” as long as the tanks that hold them don’t rust or corrode to leak. Many mid-sized grills use a 20lb propane tank, and a full tank can hold about 5 gallons of propane gas. A single gallon of propane gas can amount to approximately 92,000 BTUs of heat.

To approximate how much of a 5 gallon, 20lb propane tank would be used if the grill has a potential output of 56,000 BTUs, divide the grill’s output potential from the amount of propane in the tank.

BTU chart for grill propane tank sizes.

460,000 BTUs / 56,000 BTUs = 8.21 hours from a single tank of propane

The amount of time spent cooking will, of course, depend on what kind of food is prepared, how much of it, and the temperature used, such as low, medium, or high, which would in turn additionally influence how much propane is used per hour. This is only an approximation to help determine what kind of grill would work best for your use.

Grilling Accessories

Man using tongs to prepare steak on Coyote grill and Lynx pizza oven.

For some, their favorite part about minding the grill is the opportunity to wear a funny apron, but there are a few other important accessories that shouldn’t be overlooked when purchasing a new grill.

  • Grill covers are a must to protect the firebox of your outdoor grill or smoker from rusting in the elements.
  • Outdoor, high-temperature oven mitts are needed for handling the hot grill cover and when doing any close work near open flames.
  • Stainless steel tongs and spatulas with safe grips and extended handles.
  • Pizza Stones make it easy to use a convection grill to bake your favorite pizza pie. (Outdoor pizza ovens are also a trendy option.)
  • Rotisserie kits and baskets can take the tedious work out of BBQ chicken and vegetables.
  • Brushes for cleaning the grill between uses.
  • Baskets for vegetables and smaller food like shrimp.
  • Grill sheets for keeping the griddle cleaner or for minimizing charring and marks on the food.
  • Flat-top and griddle attachments allow for cooking on the open flame without use of a pan.
  • Cast iron skillets can be useful on the grill, for everything from scrambled eggs and bacon, to corn bread.

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