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The grill deal: A look at the best BBQ values

Memorial Day is traditionally the beginning of grilling season. If you're in the market for a new barbecue, here are some recommendations from two reliable sources.
Consumer Reports gave high marks to the Char-Broil Commercial Series grill. One of its top selling points is its lifetime burner warranty.
Consumer Reports gave high marks to the Char-Broil Commercial Series grill. One of its top selling points is its lifetime burner warranty. Photo courtesy of Char-Broil

My neighbors had us over for a backyard barbecue this weekend and it reminded me that I need to get serious about getting a new grill. The old one bit the dust last year.

The big home improvement stores have grills galore. They’re all nice and shiny but I have no idea how well they cook. And with the price tags some of them carry, I can’t afford to make a mistake. So I contacted my friends at Consumer Reports and the Good Housekeeping Research Institute to see what they recommended.

(If you already have a new grill, skip ahead to page two for some cooking tips from the experts at Barbecue University.)

What’s new for 2008? The hot trend this year is infrared technology. These propane grills use indirect heat, so there’s no open flame. But do these grills cook any better?

“Infrared technologies in general did not seem to outperform regular grilling,” says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports. “So it may not be something that’s worth spending extra for.”

The Good Housekeeping Research Institute had similar results. “We did not find that across the board all grills with infrared cooked more evenly or flared-up less than other grills,” says Sharon Franke, director of the magazine’s Kitchen Appliances & Technology Department. “I would not necessarily go out of my way to buy infrared.”

What makes a good grill?
A good grill cooks evenly, so you don’t have to constantly re-arrange the food. It’s easy to use and clean, has features that make sense and a good warranty.

Both magazines tested grills for flare-ups. “We like to see that there won’t be any heavy flare-ups,” Franke says. That’s because so many people now cook chicken, fish and vegetables on their grills; things they don’t want burnt or charred. To reduce flare-ups, manufacturers are replacing lava rock and ceramic briquettes with burners that drain off the fat.

When you compare grills consider the burner warranty. The longer the better, because the burner is the part that’s most likely to fail. Try to find one with a 10-year warranty. A few manufacturers now offer lifetime burner warranties.

And the winners are …
For its June issue, Consumer Reports tested more than three dozen grills. The editors say three mid-sized grills are best for most people. All are CR Best Buys.

  • Fiesta Blue Ember FG50069-U401 ($450, Home Depot): It has a side burner, a built-in smoker box, a rotisserie burner and a lot of shelf space.
  • Brinkmann 810-8410S ($200, Home Depot): This grill has lots of shelf space, and comes with four burners and a 5-year warranty.
  • Char-Broil Commercial Series 463268008 ($300, Lowe’s): It's made of stainless steel and comes with a lifetime burner warranty, a big selling point.

Maybe you cook for a crowd and need a large grill that can handle 30 or more burgers at once. Here are two CR best buys you might want to consider. Both are stainless steel.

  • Kenmore 16315 ($500, Sears): It has a rotisserie, side burners, and lots of shelf space. The five main burners come with a 10-year warranty.
  • Char-Broil Quantum 463248208 ($500, Lowe's): It uses both infrared and regular burners. Those burners come with a lifetime warranty. The Quantum has a side-burner-griddle combo.

Good Housekeeping will release the results of its tests in the July issue, but Sharon Franke gave me a sneak peek. It turns out the Good Housekeeping Research Institute agrees with Consumer Reports that the Char-Broil Quantum is a great grill.

“It cooked the most evenly,” Franke says. “The food from the Char-Broil just looked beautiful. We were able to cook chicken that was brown and crispy, had a little bit of charring, but wasn’t burnt before it was cooked through.”

Good Housekeeping’s Budget Pick is the Uniflame 3 Burner Gas Grill from Blue Rhino ($160, Wal-Mart and Franke says it doesn’t cook quite as evenly as the Char-Broil, so you may have to rearrange the food a little bit. “But you will still get good results,” she says. The Uniflame doesn’t look fancy, but it has a number of upscale features, including a side burner and warming rack.

Whenever I want to know something about cooking on a grill, I turn to Steven Raichlin, author of "The Barbecue Bible Full Color Edition" and host of the new PBS TV show "Primal Grill."  Chef Raichlin’s advice: “Keep it hot, keep it clean, and keep it lubricated.”

That means you want to start with a very hot grill grate that you clean and oil before you put any food on. “Turn on the grill and get it to screaming hot,” he says. Clean the grates with a stiff wire brush and then lubricate them with vegetable oil. Use a tightly-folded paper towel dipped in oil that you draw across the grate with your grill tongs. The oil helps keep the food from sticking to the grate and it gives you those well-defined grill marks.

Raichlin says the most common mistake people make is confusing grilling with burning. “Grilling is taking stuff to a luscious dark brown. Burning is taking it one step further to black. Grilled is good. Burning is bad.”

There’s also the tendency to overcrowd the grill. Raichlin always leaves 30 percent of the grill without food. That way if there’s a flare-up or if something starts to cook too quickly, he can move it to a cooler part of the grill.

Three tools are all you need
There are hundreds of different grilling accessories, from remote-controlled thermometers to jalapeno chili roasters. Raichlin says there are only three essential tools: a long-handled stuff wire brush to clean the grate, an instant-read thermometer to see if the food is cooked to a safe temperature, and long-handled, spring-loaded tongs.

Tongs are important because a lot of people stab the steaks with a fork. That just put holes in the meat and drains out the juices. “Turn, don’t stab” Raichlin advises.

If you’ve ever started cooking and run out of fuel, you might consider a gas gauge. There are lots of devices that are supposed to tell you when the propane tank is getting near empty, but most of these don’t work very well.

This year, Good Housekeeping found one it recommends: The Electronic Gas Level Indicator from Gas Watch  ($30). Testers said it is easy to hook up and easy to use. And, it’s accurate. The readout changes color from green to yellow to red, as the gas level drops. When the meter turns red, a warning buzzer sounds.

Even if you use a fuel gauge, it’s a smart idea to have a spare tank. That way you can use every bit of propane in the tank and will never disappoint hungry guests.