Jul 27, 2023

Here's Every Type of Grill You Should Know

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Gas, charcoal, pellet, etc. — we've got the skinny on each, their pros and cons, and our favorites in each category.

With Memorial Day in the rearview, spring is quickly headed into summer. And what goes better with warm weather than cold beers, backyard (or beach or campsite) hangs and some burgers and hot dogs on the grill? Very little, we think. Of course, if you want to have those ideal handheld meals this season and the next, you're going to actually need a grill in order to cook them. But before you can even think about sparking up a grill, you should know what you're in for.

It may come as no surprise that there are numerous types of grills. And each category has its own pros, cons and best-use cases. If you want to make the most of your spring and summer cooking adventures, you'll want to know all the differences before you ever pull out your wallet. We've broken them all down for you to make things a bit easier, and we've pulled together a few of our favorites from each category to help set you down the proper path to make all your grillmaster dreams come true.

When it comes to grilling, lump charcoal is typically the version that most folks are familiar with. Essentially, this material is made from wood that has been cooked at extremely high temperatures (in the range of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit) in a low-oxygen environment (to prevent the wood from combusting). This allows the more volatile components of wood — like water, tar and gasses — to either melt or evaporate. What you're left with are chunks of combustible carbon that we know as charcoal.

Charcoal is one of the simplest materials to grill with, as it ignites easily, heats up quickly and gives off much less smoke than, say, regular wood (like you might use in a campfire) — and most of that smoke is expelled at ignition and when you extinguish it. As such, it works well for both expert grillmasters and brand-spanking-new novices, as well. It's also relatively easy to clean up and is widely available for purchase at stores around the world.

But it is far from perfect. Charcoal, as a combustible material, is not exactly environmentally friendly. For starters, it gives off a lot of C02 (roughly 11 pounds per hour, by several estimates), a dangerous greenhouse gas, when combusting. And because charcoal is made from wood, it requires a lot of trees to make, thereby driving deforestation to a degree. There's also a link between grilling meats over an open flame and the development of carcinogens in that meat (although this is not exclusive to charcoal; it applies to just about any high-heat open-flame cooking method, including pellets and gas).

Charcoal, along with being simple, is also one of the cheapest methods of grilling. So if you want quick, easy BBQ, a charcoal grill might be the best option for you. It also helps how widely available it is, meaning you won't be stuck searching out a source of fuel, as you might with some other methods. As far as flavor goes, many people also prefer the smokiness afforded by charcoal that's not present in gas or electric cooking. And while charcoal is not the fastest method, it is still quicker than, say, smoking in a pellet grill.

Typically, there are two types of gas used in grilling: propane (which comes in those squat, gray cylinders you can get at the grocery store, gas station, etc.) and natural gas (which is typically piped to your home through underground pipes, just like a gas stove/range).

Gas is one of the quickest ways to cook — perhaps the quickest for anyone looking to grill over an open flame. It can reach its highest temperature in seconds flat (as opposed to roughly 20-30 minutes for charcoal and even longer for pellets grills/smokers) and is consistent in temperature from start to finish and exceptionally easy to control. It's also very easy to clean and maintain gas grills, as there's not a ton of material that needs to be cleaned out after each use.

It isn't without its own downsides, however. For instance, gas grills — especially in enclosed areas — can lead to an increase in the buildup of carbon monoxide to potentially dangerous levels, and there are roughly 600 fires/explosions with around 30 injuries per year as the result of gas grilling. They've also been known to give off a lot of smoke and shouldn't be placed anywhere near flammable material. On the less dangerous and more banal and annoying side of the spectrum, it can sometimes be tough to tell when you're running low on gas (if you use propane and don't have a permanently installed grill with a direct natural gas line). That can cause frustration, as you may have to make an unexpected trip to pick up more gas — if you're even near a location that sells it. Plus, gas grills don't get as hot as some others, so you might not be able to get as much heat as charcoal, for instance.

For consistency and precision temperature control, gas is pretty difficult to beat. And if you have a natural gas line that feeds into your permanently-installed grill, the convenience is also nigh impossible to top. Because of the temperature and flame control, gas is also one of the more versatile fuel options and can be used for, well, cooking just about anything (not just grilled meats and veggies), especially if you have an array of cookware in which to cook.

Interestingly, pellet grills didn't actually exist (at least as we know them today) before Traeger invented the category back in 1987. But today, they're one of the most popular among serious grillmasters for their versatility and the depth of flavor they can bring to anything you grill in them. Instead of using gas or charcoal, pellet grills instead depend on compressed hardwood pellets as their source of fuel. And they've often been compared more to outdoor ovens than more traditional grills.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to a pellet grill is the flavors you can get when you cook with one. Woodfired and smoked meats are among the most popular around the world for their depth and deliciousness — something nigh-impossible to manage with gas and difficult to even replicate on a minor scale with charcoal. Many pellet grills are also pretty simple to use (if a tad time-consuming), and have controls not unlike a traditional oven. And, to put it in Trager's own words, "They offer 6-in-1 versatility to grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise and BBQ on one grill."

Of course, there are downsides, too. Pellet grills also tend to be among the most expensive options on the market and, therefore, are usually a reasonable purchase only for the most dedicated to the grilling craft (or the wealthy). They also all require electricity in order to function, meaning they aren't really all that portable and are best suited to home use and, if you do hope to travel with one, you'll also need a battery and/or generator. Finally, they're time-consuming — smoking meats can take all day (if not multiple days), so you really have to be ready to dedicate a lot of time and effort if you want to use a pellet grill/smoker.

If you've got a lot of time and cash at your disposal, a pellet grill is probably perfect for you. That goes double if you're serious about becoming a grillmaster. It's also worth pointing out that, due to their size and the necessity for electricity, they're better for homeowners with some outdoor space than they are for apartment dwellers and those looking for campground grills. Having said that, the investment in space, time and money can be offset by the overall quality of the meals produced, so big-time foodies should definitely consider this category.

This is the one type of grill that doesn't require the ignition of fuel in order to function. Rather, these grills use direct electricity fed to heating elements (kind of like a stove or electric heater) either embedded in or directly under the cooking surface in order to produce temperatures high enough to cook food.

Where speed and consistency are concerned, electric grills are tough to beat. They heat up extremely fast and they can maintain exacting temperatures, so long as they're connected to a reliable source of electricity. They also produce no smoke (other than that which is made by the food itself) and are suitable for indoor and outdoor usage — meaning these are among the best for apartment dwellers, especially those with rules against other types of grills. They're also very inexpensive and typically easy to maintain.

Of course, because there is no fuel to them, the flavors you can elicit from an electric grill are far more limited — there's no smoking of your meats to be found with this type of grill. They're also limited by your access to power — meaning you need an outlet, generator and/or battery to keep them working (although this is a limitation shared by pellet grills). As mentioned, they're usually easy to maintain. That being said, they require that their heating element remains functional and, should it break for whatever reason, you may need to replace your entire grill.

As mentioned, electric grills are ideal for those that want to grill indoors or are limited on their outdoor space, like people that live in apartments. They're also usually super cheap to buy, run and maintain (especially when compared to some of the other kinds of grills and second only perhaps to charcoal). And while they do require power of some kind, there are many that are very portable, which makes them great for road trips, RVs/camper vans and/or camping with a generator/battery.

Whereas the other grills on this list are specific to the types of fuel they use, these actually differ from other types of grills by their heating surface. Instead of a grill — usually a metal grate with gaps — these boast a single piece of flat material without any gaps or holes (more like a griddle stovetop like you might see at a fast food joint). Most of the time, flat-top grills are gas-powered (typically propane), but there are examples that use other fuels, like charcoal and electricity.

Versatility is probably the greatest strength of a flat top grill. You can cook just about anything you'd cook on a regular grill or in a pan on a flat top. And if you know what you're doing, you can make all of it extra delicious. They also evenly spread the heat across the cooking surface more than some other grill types (we're looking at you, charcoal), they're less smoky than some of their counterparts, and — because of their large, flat surface area — they make it possible to cook a lot of food at once.

And now for the downsides. First, it needs to be said that, because the surface area is so large, the task of properly cleaning it between uses is a lot greater. This is all the more true when you consider that the griddle can't self-drain, as it has no gaps in the surface area. Even griddles with a slight grade to them (some have this to allow fat to trickle into a drain), you still have to diligently clean the surface. It's not particularly difficult work, per se, but it can be time-consuming. Griddles can also be pretty expensive, even for entry-level versions. You also need to keep them seasoned, like you would a cast-iron pan — which requires a level of expertise (or at least knowledge) that some beginners might not have.

If you like cooking stuff that might not work on a traditional grill — like eggs, bacon, pancakes, tortillas, diced vegetables, etc. — a flat top is tough to beat. And while meats, like burgers and steaks, might not get that smokiness associated with a traditional grill, they can still also easily be cooked (and properly seared) on a flat top.