Our ancestors were cooking with fire since the prehistoric days. It’s no wonder that in an era when we can easily cook with electricity, grilling and smoking has a primal attraction for so many.
Choosing the right grill or smoker is not difficult. It basically boils down to determining what you want to cook and how you want to cook it. What works for a young couple that wants to grill burgers occasionally won’t fit a large family with a taste for racks of barbecued ribs.
Grilling and smoking are two very different cooking methods. Grilling is cooking food quickly at high temperatures, often directly over flame or coals. Steaks and hamburgers are grilled. Barbecuing, or smoking, is slow cooking meat at low temperatures, typically with indirect heat. As the word “smoking” implies, imparting the flavor of smoke is part of the method. Popular hardwoods used for smoking include alder, apple, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, and pecan. Brisket and ribs are typically smoked, and you can do the same with whole chickens, pork butts, or large fish.
Fuel the Fire
There is a wealth of grills available today. Grills can cook with charcoal (usually briquettes), gas (usually propane, but natural gas is an option), or electricity. Gas and electric grills are more convenient, but cooking over charcoal imparts a smoky flavor to the food and is favored by more serious grilling enthusiasts.
Many charcoal enthusiasts claim that the “dry heat” of charcoal provides a better sear, especially with premium cuts of meat. The “wet heat” of a gas grill may be better for tougher cuts of meat, cooked at lower temperatures.
If you choose a gas grill, you should get one with at least two burner tubes and with a rating of 12,000 British thermal units (BTUs) or more. More burners and burner configurations that disperse the heat more evenly are better. Higher BTU ratings give you more options for high-temperature grilling. Electric grills should be rated at 1,500 watts or higher, and should be capable of heating the grill surface to at least 700 F.
Flare-ups can be a major problem when grilling. A gas grill should have heat diffusers directly over the burners that will help avoid this. Some electric grills contain a layer of lava rocks that soak up the heat and radiate it evenly throughout the grill. Although a plus in terms of heat diffusion, they will cause flares if fat drips on the rocks.
Room to Breathe
Once you’ve decided on the fuel source, you need to pick a grill size that’s right for you. Think of how many 12-inch dinner plates would fit on the grill (if you could shape them to fit the shape of the grill). A 12-inch diameter plate is 113 square inches. The number of plates should be equal to the number of people you plan to grill for.
If you plan to be grilling under direct heat and finishing off with indirect heat — one of the most popular methods of grilling — you will need more room. You should allocate at least half as much space. Also, if you plan on making beer-can chicken, you will need enough space above the grill grate for a whole bird.
Getting a grill slightly larger than you’ll need allows for the occasional large cut of meat or large gathering. And when you get your new grill, why not throw a party to break it in?
Many grills will have a built-in thermometer, and some may have a small prep space or rack to hang your grilling tools. Gas grills may additionally have a small burner attached for cooking a side of beans. Charcoal grills should have multiple vents to control airflow into the grill.
You don’t need a grill with all the bells and whistles to cook great food. But choose the accessories that will make your grilling experience enjoyable. The most important tool is a good instant-read thermometer. This removes the guesswork.
When it comes to grills, you generally get what you pay for. The lid should fit snugly, and the handles and any moving parts should be durable. Grills do not need to be particularly well insulated, although grills made with metal that is too thin can warp from the heat with repeated use. If you plan on occasionally using the grill as a makeshift smoker, thicker walls will be a plus. If the grill is going to be stored outside, a grill cover will extend the life of the grill considerably.
Finally, remember that the grill will need to be cleaned every time you use it, and with a charcoal grill, you’ll need to remove the ash. Look for a grill whose grates can easily be removed and cleaned.
Types of Grills
There are many styles of grill to choose from, ranging from small, portable grills to backyard “kettle” type grills to the more expensive Big Green Egg or Kamado grills that I’ll discuss in the smoker section, since they are dual-purpose.
Small grills are great for camping, picnics, tailgating, and grilling for one or two people. Although there are small grills that run on camping propane tanks, most are designed for charcoal grilling.
Flare-ups can be a big problem on these grills, because the grate is only a short distance above the coals. Make sure briquettes have fully burned into coals before grilling to avoid this.
With portable grills that have no lids, their small size and open design means that the heat may not distribute evenly. Move your food around the grill and keep an eye on it as you cook to get good results. Your instant-read thermometer is going to be a big help here.
Standard charcoal picnic grills are relatively straightforward. There is a lower grate to hold the coals, an upper grate to hold the food, and the grill body and lid with a few vents to regulate the fire. The two most common sizes are 18-inch diameter and 22-inch diameter. This makes them useful for two to four people, respectively.
Expect to spend at least $30 for a portable grill, $80 for a small picnic grill, or $100 for a full-size grill. Prices go up from there, but stay quite affordable, even for large grills with lots of amenities. As you pay a little more, nicer grills are more air-tight, which will help you cook at a lower, more consistent temperature, and it’ll save your briquettes when it’s time to pull the food off and shut it down.
Standard gas grills are also relatively simple. Most are rectangular and sport a little more surface area than a regular charcoal picnic grill. A roughly 30-by-22-inch grill space is a common size for beginners, but much larger grills exist.
Likewise, the number of burners and BTU ratings vary considerably, going far above the minimum recommendation of two burners and 12,000 BTUs. The main thing to look for, other than a solid build and how easy it will be to clean, is the number of burner tubes and the total BTUs. Gas grills start around $150 and go up to thousands of dollars. For the most part, the price tag will reflect grill size, BTUs, and quality of build. A very versatile and usable gas grill can be had for around $300 to $400.
Types of Smokers
The first self-built smokers were pits — literally holes dug in the ground. Today’s modern barbecues mirror this method with their above-ground designs. There are a wide variety of pit barbecues, but a common type is a “box,” made of brick or cinderblock that contains two chambers: one for the fire and one with a grate for cooking the food.
The side of the box containing the fire will have an air intake where air will enter the firebox, and smoke and heat will flow through vents to the adjacent chamber and out an outlet vent. A pit barbecue can be built to barbecue whole hogs or other large cuts of meat. Seasoned hardwood is used for the fuel and smoke. If you’re interested, there are an endless number of pit barbecue plans on the internet. The biggest key to success is getting the hot air and smoke to flow through the smoking chamber.
A lot of folks start with an upright drum or vertical smoker. These can be built from a drum or any vertical metal box or cabinet, and are available commercially from Weber, Brinkmann, and other manufacturers. In an upright smoker, the fire is in the bottom of the smoker. Most often, these smokers use charcoal briquettes as fuel, and chunks of hardwood soaked in water overnight as the source of smoke.
There are electric smokers of this type as well. A water pan rests between the fire and the grate. Hot air and smoke rise from the fire, and the direct heat is blocked by the water pan. The hot air and smoke flow past the water pan and meat and out a top vent. The water in the pan keeps the air inside moist. These smokers are relatively inexpensive, but are often not large enough to hold a full rack of ribs or an entire brisket.
Lack of insulation also makes temperature control difficult in some smokers, and it takes more fuel to achieve this. With some patience, however, you can make great barbecue in a drum smoker. I use a Weber bullet smoker, and make great smoked turkey in it.
One variation on the vertical smoker is the Big Green Egg or Kamado Joe cookers. Both of these are heavily insulated and well-sealed. They can be used for grilling and smoking. When used as a smoker, very little fuel is required due to the thick insulation. In addition, temperatures can be held consistently for long periods of time. These are well-engineered, but correspondingly pricey.
Vertical smokers start out dirt cheap, less than $80 for some models, and can reach into the $1,000 to $2,000 range. Lack of insulation and poor-fitting doors plague the cheapest models. However, in most cases, a serious barbecue cook can be happy with a $200 to $350 model.
A step up in size and complexity is the offset smoker, which typically has a barrel-shaped cooking chamber, lying on its side, with a firebox on one end. In a simple offset smoker, the cook builds a fire in the firebox, and a damper controls airflow into the firebox. Hot air and smoke flows from the firebox into the cooking chamber, with a central grate holding the meat. The hot air and smoke flow through the chamber and up out of a chimney on the other end.
The chimney often has its own damper to adjust the flow of air through the smoker. One of the biggest advantages of an offset smoker is that you can open the firebox and stoke the fire without having to open the cooking chamber and lose heat. The biggest downside of this design is that the temperature on the side of the cook chamber closest to the firebox is always hotter than the side with the chimney. Moving the food around as it cooks can help compensate for this, but don’t open the cooking chamber too often as heat is lost each time.
A reverse-flow offset cooker is a more complex design that attempts to distribute heat more evenly. Hot air from the firebox initially flows into a chamber then runs beneath the cooking chamber. The hot air and smoke flow beneath the grate until the chamber ends at the opposite end of the cooking chamber. The smoke rises and flows back toward the end of the chamber with the firebox and out a chimney there. A reverse-flow smoker yields a more consistent internal temperature.
There are a lot of offset smokers available commercially, from Horizon, Lang, Yoder, and other manufacturers. The cheapest offset cookers are only a couple hundred bucks. Things to look for in a quality offset smoker are thick walls on the cook chamber and a well-insulated firebox. The door to the cooking chamber should close tightly and seal. To get a quality rig, you are looking at around at least $1,000, but with proper care, it should last a lifetime.
In the last eight years or so, pellet smokers have become increasingly popular. Pellet smokers are named for their fuel source: wood pellets made from compressed sawdust. Pellet smokers are controlled electronically to maintain a steady temperature. A reservoir of pellets is filled, and the machine augers them slowly to a chamber where they are burned, and a fan ensures they combust completely. If the temperature drops too low, the auger speeds up slightly to provide more fuel. If the temperature rises, the auger slows. These rigs are able to maintain steady temperatures over long periods of time. As you might expect, the moving parts and electronic controls means they are not cheap — expect to spend at least $600 for a decent entry-level model. There are also pellet grills available.
If your inner caveman or cavewoman is itching to cook with fire, you have many options. And, a nice thing about selecting a grill or smoker is that the quality of the build is usually easy to assess. A good-quality grill or smoker will last many years, and in some cases a lifetime. And it’ll pay in efficiency. If you ask me, cooking in the great outdoors beats eating out any day.
Get that delicious smoky flavor when you grill with wood chunks.
When purchasing a grill or smoker, consider the number of people you plan on serving and the types of foods you intend to cook. You’ll want food to have plenty of room so that as much of the meat’s surface area is exposed as possible.
Smoking meat can take a long time. For example, a couple racks of pork ribs or a 9-pound turkey can take around five hours or more. Brisket or beef ribs can take up to 13 hours. As such, most barbecue enthusiasts smoke more food than will be eaten in a single setting. So the “dinner plate per person” rule of thumb used for selecting a grill is not of any use.
When selecting a smoker, keep in mind what you want to barbecue. As with grills, getting a smoker slightly larger than you normally need is a good approach. This gives you some wiggle room. However, as with grills, an overly large smoker is a waste of space and fuel.
When deciding on the fuel source for your grill, consider whether you want the convenience of a gas grill or the smoky flavor of charcoal. The cooking area of your grill should be able to fit roughly 12 square inches per person you will plan on serving.
Chris Colby is an avid grilling and barbecue enthusiast. On average, he cooks outside with fire at least once a week at his home in Bastrop, Texas. His other major obsession is brewing beer, and he thinks the two go together perfectly. Colby’s book, Home Brew Recipe Bible (2016, Page Street Publishing), was released in September 2016.