It’s been a long time since the only choice we had for grilling food was a smouldering pile of charcoal. Today, natural gas, propane, wood pellets and electricity compete with briquettes as an outdoor heat source. If you’ve been thinking of buying a new barbecue this spring and have been wondering which kind is right for you, here’s the scoop.

Before heading off in search of the perfect barbecue, the first thing to do is determine your needs. Mario Villeneuve, CAA-Quebec residential counsellor, recommends looking at what kind of use you’ll want to get out of your grill: for example, will you be using it just now and then, or pretty well every day? Are you planning to use it just for your family, or do you often have friends over for dinner? How big is your family? The number of people you’ll be cooking for is an important factor in how big a cooking surface you’ll need. Then think about the type of cooking you want to do, such as grilling, cooking shish kebabs and so forth. You’ll have to consider your budget, of course, not to mention where you’ll set it up and where you’ll store it in winter. Finally, learn all about them so you don’t end up with something inappropriate.

The first thing to decide on is the heat source: charcoal, gas, electricity or wood pellets.

Charcoal Burning
Charcoal produces a very hot and constant cooking fire that, unlike the other kinds of barbecues, can sear meat and give food the smoked flavour that so many barbecuers love. One thing you cannot do with charcoal is regulate the heat – the only thing you can do is raise or lower your grill. Needless, to say, you can’t cook anything over low heat. Another minus is that briquettes take a long time to transform into red hot embers – up to one hour to reach the temperature you want. Some have a gas-lighting system to speed things up. The charcoal barbecue also requires a lot of maintenance. Ashes accumulate quickly and the ash pit must be cleaned after each use. Some barbecues make this easy by including a compartment that collects the ashes. Finally, you must regularly replenish your supply of briquettes or charcoal.

There are two kinds, propane and natural gas. According to Richard Mironchuck, technical director at Impact Distribution, the main advantage of the natural gas barbecue is the continuous supply of fuel, as opposed to a propane system, which uses a cylinder that needs to be refilled regularly. But the propane model is more popular since it’s more accessible and easy to move around – a natural gas appliance can’t roam very far from its fuel feed! An added advantage of both kinds of gas barbecues is that all it takes is the push of a button to light them, and they heat up in just a few minutes. They come with just one or several burners.

The electric barbecue is the practical solution for those who would like to cook outdoors but keep it simple. Plus, it’s the only barbecue that can be used indoors as well as outdoors. It heats up with a simple turn of a knob and cooks with radiant heat. The temperature and cooking are regulated by a thermostat. Say goodbye to stocking up on fuel, and it’s also perfect for apartment balconies. But it does take time to heat up and it cooks a lot more slowly than fuel-burning models. Plus, obviously, it’s not of much use during power outages – but a battery-powered converter could help out in a pinch.

Wood pellets
Like its electric cousin, the pellet-burning barbecue needs electricity to work – but it too could work off a battery-powered converter during a power outage. Its primary advantage is that it also smokes food, which gives food a light smoky flavour not unlike charcoal barbecues.

The trend today is stainless steel. But be wary of barbecues gleaming with stainless steel sold at bargain prices. The quality of the material could leave much to be desired. “There are different grades of stainless steel,” says Mr Mironchuck. “The lower the grade, the thicker, stronger, more durable and the higher the quality. It also maintains a good heat during cooking. And the higher the grade, the thinner the steel. In addition to being a poor distributor of heat, thin steel is easily damaged, turns brown and is difficult to clean.” The grades usually vary between 204 and 430. An article in the June 2007 issue of Protégez-vous magazine also recommends checking to see if the parts that are not stainless steel and that come into contact with the heat are well insulated by a partition. There are also steel fireboxes finished in enamel, cast iron or aluminum. Find out what you can about them, comparing the pros and cons of each one. Beware of some low-end models with bases made out of simple sheet metal painted black, which rusts quickly. Finally, make sure the firebox is solid and strong, and that the cover closes well. Also, look for one that’s deep: the bigger it is, the more heat is evenly distributed to the cooking surface and the fewer the flare-ups. As for shelves, make sure that there is enough work space to accommodate all the plates and utensils you’ll be using. The shelves should be sturdy: fixed shelves are usually stronger than the folding or removable kind.

Barbecues usually have between one and four burners. As a general rule, the more burners there are, the larger the cooking surface. Go for a model with independent, individually controlled burners so you can cook different foods at different temperatures – or so you can fire up only the burners you need, such as when cooking for one or two. Not only will you save on fuel, you’ll increase the burners’ lifespans if you use them on a rotating basis. Some barbecues come with an infrared burner, which is popular because it can reach temperatures of about 1,800°C in just a few seconds. Plus, it cooks food in a very short time. While it’s not suitable for cooking food such as vegetables or fish, which tend to burn over intense heat, you can always use a regular burner for that. While shopping, don’t forget to check the layout of the burners. They should cover as much of the firebox as possible to ensure even heat. As for shape, look for models in the shape of an H, a figure 8 or serpentine, which distribute heat best. A rear burner works well for rotisseries, as its shape makes for fewer flames, which decreases the formation of carcinogenic substances. Side burners are useful for keeping dishes warm and heating up sauces.

Burner power
Burner power is measured in BTUs (British Thermal Unit). A common misconception is that the number of BTUs corresponds to a device’s performance. In fact, the total number of BTUs is related to the number of burners. The more burners there are, the larger the cooking surface and the greater the number of BTUs. But if the BTU level is too high for the cooking surface, it will be hard to get a low heat, and if the BTU level is too low, cooking will take longer and you’ll be disappointed. Gas barbecues on average generate power ranging between 25,000 and 60,000 BTUs.

Cooking surface
The total surface area is measured in square inches and varies on average between 240 sq. in. and 611 sq. in. This includes the primary cooking surface – which is the main grilling area – plus the secondary cooking surface – the grill for keeping things warm. To determine how much surface area you’ll need, calculate approximately 60 sq. in. per portion. If you’re not sure how big a portion is, think of it as the size of your hand. So, if you buy a 400 sq. in. barbecue, you’ll be able to cook approximately seven portions at the same time.

The grills
There are many kinds of grills. As a general rule, the low-quality models have a metal, sometimes porcelain-enamelled, grill with thin bars. The middle-of-the-line ones have a cast-iron grill that may or may not be enamelled, and the top-of-the-lines have a stainless steel grill with large bars laid close together that’s better at keeping food from falling through. The larger bars also keep their heat longer. “Cast-iron and stainless steel grills are obviously recommended,” says Mr Mironchuck. “Non-porcelain steel grills have a tendency to rust. Furthermore, since steel doesn’t retain heat very well, the burners need to be turned up very high to keep a good heat going throughout cooking. Cast-iron grills are preferred by chefs because they really retain heat well. The burner can even be turned down lower to get the same cooking results. But they can develop surface rust if they’re not coated with porcelain, so it’s important to keep proper care of them. On the other hand, they do take longer to lose their heat when you want to lower the temperature. Stainless steel grills don’t rust, but depending on the quality, they can burn and be very hard to clean.”

Heat-radiating components
Not only do they diffuse the heat, they absorb some of the smoke and protect the burners from grease dripping from meat. There are three kinds: ceramic briquettes, volcanic rock, and the radiant metal plate. Ceramic briquettes capture and distribute heat well. Their smooth surface keeps flame flare-ups down. They must be replaced every three years or so. With volcanic rock, it’s harder to control the heat. Their porous surface contributes to flame flare-ups, and they need to be changed every year. The radiant metal plate is best at distributing heat, produces fewer flare-ups and is long lasting. Make sure it covers the burners perfectly.

Lighting system
Push-button systems produce a single spark each time you push in the button, while rotating electronic systems produce several sparks to ignite the gas. But whatever the system, it must receive regular maintenance to keep it free of grease and to prevent rust, two elements likely to affect its performance.

A barbecue resting on two wheels – with the other two legs being fixed – is more stable, while one on four wheels – although easier to move around – can get its pivoting wheels caught in the cracks between the planks of a wood deck. Something to keep in mind.

Original article by Jacqueline Simoneau
Translated by John Woolfrey