Grills galore

Homeowners are opting for larger, more expensive grills that can do more than cook hot dogs


THE FOURTH OF JULY IS the biggest grilling holiday on the calendar, according to industry surveys, and Americans are firing up some very big grills.

Homeowners, tired of those $199 models that require replacement parts every year, are spending anywhere from $400 on a shiny new gas grill that can cook 24 hamburgers at once to $8,000 on a stainless steel behemoth that can entertain all your employees or your entire neighborhood.

And why rely on a $20 hibachi at a football tailgate when you can hook a $1,000 grill to the trailer hitch on your SUV and take it anywhere?

What's going on here?

"The short answer," said Carol Kaplan, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association in Arlington, Va., "is that this has become the middle-aged man's new Porsche. The bigger the better. Something to show off to your friends.

"More seriously, people aren't spending this kind of money to cook hot dogs and hamburgers.

"These grills are made for real cuisine, and they are part of the whole trend of living outdoors."

And it isn't just a guy thing, said Michael Kempster, senior vice president for Weber-Stephen, makers of one of the most popular grill lines.

"It is being driven by both spouses. Women who have recently upgraded their kitchens dramatically look outside and see an old grill that is looking pretty bad, and the next thing you know, she and her husband are out choosing a new grill.

"It reflects our love of cooking and our desire for a more professional look," said Kempster, who has spent more than 35 years at Weber.

Grills have been around since soldiers cooked meat over fire on their shields, but grilling entered Americana in the 1950s with the post-war explosion in subdivisions and their backyards.

Today, more than 90 percent of families with more than four members own a grill, according to industry surveys, to the tune of about 14 million grills sold last year.

And, increasingly, Americans own two grills -- a gas one for quick and easy weekday meals and a charcoal one for leisurely weekend events.

But it is the gas grills that have taken the big leaps forward. Some of the features and accessories include drawers for utensils; countertop prep areas; side burners for sauces, side dishes and even woks; grill lights under the hood and at the controls; special heating elements for searing, smoking and rotisserie cooking, as well as griddles for pancakes and eggs; hood thermometers and remote thermometers so you can check the temperature while inside the house.

Some of the largest grills have more than 1,100 square inches of primary grilling space -- that's enough room for more than 60 hamburgers.

Bob Karpel, who tested grills costing from $200 to $3,200 for the Consumer Reports June issue, said all you really need is a grill that cooks evenly, so that all your hamburgers are done at the same time, and a grill that can cook at low temperatures once the meat has been seared.

"I would add an igniter that always works and an indicator that lets you know when your propane tank is nearing empty," he said.

But it is the appearance of the extra features on the more lavish grills -- especially the side burner -- that has increased consumer expectations, Karpel said. "These things have a trickle-down effect."

These new grills, with their more durable components, are also a response to the fact that Americans are grilling more between weekends, even grilling year-round.

And they are grilling everything from pizza to whole turkeys -- more complicated and more numerous courses.

But surveys show that Americans still love cooking hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and steak the best.

"For that, just about any grill will do," said Karpel.

What really makes the difference, said Don McCullough, executive vice president of the National Barbecue Association, "is the experience of the chef, the quality of the meat and the recipe."



Consumer Reports has this advice when purchasing a new grill.

Don't buy by BTUs. Higher BTUs don't translate into faster heating or better cooking performance.

Bring a magnet when you shop. Cheaper stainless steel is usually magnetic, so the magnet will stick. Consumer Reports found that cheaper stainless is more likely to corrode over time.

Choose heavier, stiffer grates made of thick stainless steel or porcelain-coated, heavy-cast iron. They sear meat more effectively.

Buy by the burner. They are the most frequently replaced grill parts and warranties range from one to 10 years. Brass fittings and burners may be more durable.

Give the cart a gentle bump from several angles to see if it tips. Consumer Reports also says carts with a sliding drawer to hold the fuel tank make it easier to change the tank.

Check the grease-drainage design. All grills flare up when cooking fatty foods. But the more distance between the fire and the collected grease, the less chance of a sustained flare-up.

Opt for free assembly even though it may mean you have to pay for delivery.

Periodically check for gas leaks by spraying a soap and water solution over the connections and along the hose. Soap bubbles could indicate a worn part that needs to bechanged.

Consumer Reports also recommends these grill features:

Electronic igniters; side burners; a fuel gauge; a removable grill tray or pan to keep grease from falling beneath the grill; cooler handles; four wheels or two wheels and two casters, and a separate rotisserie burner

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