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By JUDY STARK
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000
Two out of five own more than one.
Why are so many Americans becoming outdoor flame tamers? Lots of reasons, says Russ Buchan, who owns the St. Petersburg gas appliance and barbecue-grill store his parents established in 1954, Buchan Gas, the Barbecue Store.
"It's an easy adventure," he said. "There's family participation. There are fewer dirty dishes. It doesn't heat up the house when you cook."
Oh, did we mention the taste of grilled meats cooked outdoors? That could be why there were 3.1-billion "barbecue events" in this country last year, according to the Barbecue Industry Association.
The popularity of grilling has been fanned by the success of TV cooking shows. Bobby Flay and Jack McDavid make it all look easy and fun on their Food Network show, Grillin' and Chillin'. And it's not just for carnivores any more: Vegetables and desserts have found their place in the sun on the grill.
Interest in professional-style kitchen appliances has moved onto the deck as barbecue grills take on that popular operating-room look in solid stainless steel. Grills costing $1,000 or more represent only 3 to 4 percent of all grill sales, but retailers report that "if they sell one very expensive grill in a neighborhood, they can expect to sell several more in that same neighborhood within a short period of time," said barbecue industry spokeswoman Donna H. Myers.
"Consumers are looking for something on their deck that looks good and is not just a black box," said Mike Scott, merchandising manager for grills at Lowe's Home Improvement Centers. "Designs are improved, the lines on the lids are more subtle, they're not as boxy, they're more rounded." There's interest in a fashionable color palette: burgundy, hunter green, dark blue. "Durability, look and design" are the desirable features, Scott said.
Grills have come a long way since the 1950s, when the symbol of suburban success was the male homeowner hunched over a black bowl-like brazier of charcoal briquettes, clad in apron and mitts and wielding a long-handled fork. (Today, nearly a fifth of grill owners have both a charcoal and a gas grill.)
If you're about to join this mainstream American activity by buying a gas grill -- 8.6-million were shipped last year -- here's some shopping advice.
Assessing your needs. Will you be cooking only for your family, or do you envision entertaining around the grill? The number of people for whom you'll be preparing food will determine how large a grill you need.
What's for dinner? Are you eaters of burgers, steaks and chops who essentially need only a grilling surface? Or will you want a wok, a rotisserie, a griddle, a turkey fryer, a smoker? Don't pay for bells and whistles you won't use. At the same time, retailers say, once you start cooking on a grill, you may find it more enjoyable than you expected and may become a more adventurous cook who actually uses some of those add-ons.
Where will I use the grill? Consider the space where you will cook on the grill and where you will store it. If you have a tiny condominium patio or townhouse terrace, you may not have room for a large grill with lots of accessories.
What should I expect to pay? You'll find grills for just more than $100, and prices rise into the thousands. At Barbeques Galore in Brandon, assistant manager George Adams said he's sold a $6,000 model that gives out 90,000 BTUs and has an infrared rotisserie, cabinet space, double side burners and just over 1,000 square inches of grill space. "It's like what Boston Market and Publix use to do their chickens," he said.
The largest category of grills sells for under $300, but the fastest growing category is the price range of $400 to $800. Pricing is very competitive among the home centers, hardware stores and specialty barbecue retailers.
"Consumers say they are tired of having to replace their grill every few years and they'd rather pay more to get a grill that will last," Myers said. Sixty-four percent of gas grillers cook out year-round, which makes it easier to justify spending more money on a grill.
"You can spend less than $200 every two to four years, or you can spend $500 every 10 years and get a better cooking unit," said Buchan, whose store was only the second retailer in the nation to sell Weber gas grills back in 1985.
Some people are cooking on grills that are "five to seven years old or even older," said Scott, of Lowe's. "But the quality is not nearly as good as it is today." Older grills may have cooking surfaces made of chrome or lightweight metals "that just don't last as long" as today's heavier surfaces, and burners that "are not as effective as today's burner systems."
Meet your grill. Typically, a grill will have a cast aluminum shell, or firebox, and lid, often with a window, that closes down over the cooking surface. Some high-end grills are all stainless steel. The cart is made of steel or iron.
Grills are fueled by a bottle of LP gas or can be piped directly into a source of natural gas. Heat comes from the burners, sometimes H-shaped (which Buchan recommends), sometimes oval, sometimes bar-shaped. Look at the burner or burners: Do they extend the width of the cooking surface (or nearly so), or are the ends without direct access to heat? Will there be hot and cold spots?
Gas grills have adjustable controls so you can set the temperature at high, medium or low. Most have push-button electric ignition. A grill should have spider guards for keeping insects out of the burner tubes, where they can block the flow of gas.
Typically there are two or three burners or one burner with two independent sides. This provides greater flexibility in cooking. You can use just one burner if you're cooking only a few items. You can heat one to a higher temperature than another. Or you can do what is called "indirect cooking": You light the burner on one side of the grill but cook the food on the other, unlighted side, where temperatures will be more moderate.
Above the heating medium stands the cooking grate, typically cast iron or stainless steel; it may be porcelain-coated, which is thought to slow deterioration. Wider bars are more desirable than thin wires; they prevent food from slipping through.
Some grills have a warming shelf above the cooking grate. Be careful when you're quoted the number of square inches of cooking surface: Does that refer to the cooking grate itself, with direct access to heat (this may be referred to as "primary cooking area")? Or does it include the warming shelf, where you may be able to keep sauces or rolls warm, but can't really cook? (This number may be expressed as "total cooking area.") The size of the cooking surface is a matter of personal preference: What are you cooking and for how many people? Check how close the warming shelf is to the cooking grate: Will you be able to turn steaks or burgers easily?
Grills are typically fueled by bottled (LP) gas. Some models are harder than others to attach to the fuel source, so before you buy a grill, try hooking this up. Look for a fuel gauge to monitor the gas supply.
The Great BTU question. One of the numbers you'll see when you look at grills is the number of BTUs, or British Thermal Units, that the grill produces. It's easy to think that more is automatically better, which is not necessarily so. "BTUs are NOT a measure of cooking power," the Weber Grill Web site says. "They indicate the volume of gas a grill can burn. Tightly engineered grills use fewer BTUs and cook food more efficiently."
It may be tempting to throw a steak on a grate above a burner that's pumping out 90,000 BTUs, but that may be the equivalent of flinging it into a blast furnace. You want to be able to sear a steak on the outside while keeping the inside rare, or to brown a piece of chicken without drying it out. That requires a balance of heat and control, and you may have to give up a little of one to get more of the other.
Said Myers: "That is the most useless, biggest battle we have to fight. There is hardly a grill on the face of the earth that needs to be more than 35,000 to 45,000 BTUs. The thing we most have to battle is not to ruin everything by cooking on high, high, high, high heat. It's such a waste of fuel, and so hard to control."
Sides and carts. Grills may offer side shelves that are useful work surfaces. Plastic or porcelainized metal shelves will last longer than wood, which may deteriorate because of exposure to harsh weather. They also offer separate side burners, which are useful for preparing side dishes at lower temperatures.
Look for a cart that feels sturdy and substantial. Some come with four wheels or casters; others have only two, requiring that you lift one end, wheelbarrow-style, when you wheel the cart around. Lower-priced carts are assembled with nuts and bolts; higher-priced carts have welded joints. The advantages of a portable cart over a built-in: You can move it around to take advantage of shifting winds (no need to cook with smoke blowing in your face) or to move out of the sun and into the shade. If it starts to rain, you can wheel the grill over to the entrance to your garage and cook under roof. (Never use a gas or charcoal grill in an enclosed space; carbon monoxide can build up and kill you.)
How long will it last? Life span "varies widely by price point," said Scott. "I've had a Weber for 12 years. The environment is a factor, and so is use. Keep it covered, and every two years pressure-wash it," he recommended, though he acknowledged that "some grills, it might take the paint off."
A typical mass-market grill with a steel cart has a life expectancy of two to five years. A grill made of very high quality steel with a high-quality paint job could last "eight-plus years," Buchan said.
Adams, at Barbeques Galore, estimated that a grill costing $100 to $200 will last only three to five years; for $600 to $700, it will last 10 to 15 years.
What makes a good grill? "Something that's not difficult to assemble," Scott said. (Most grills come unassembled or only partially so; retailers may offer to assemble them for a fee.) "Something that cooks well without either over- or under-cooking. Something that has the features they're looking for, side burners, a rotisserie, whatever. And something that is appealing in look and design."
Buchan adds these considerations: "One with heat control and even distribution." Ask where warranty work will be handled: locally? How readily available are parts?
Some buyers complain that their grills don't stay shiny and new-looking for their entire lifespan. Said Buchan: "I tell them: Your cart is exposed to the salt air around here. This is the thunderstorm capital of the world, it rains a lot. You build a fire in your grill four nights a week. And you want it to last longer than your Lexus! What's wrong with this picture?"
-- Information from Consumer Reports magazine and its 2000 Buying Guide was used in this report.
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