Tips on Choosing the Proper Grill

We tend to use the word “grill” loosely and I think most people consider a grill to be either your typical gas or charcoal grill.  However, there are many different types of grills and it is important to know the benefits and weaknesses of each type so that you can choose the appropriate grill.  Therefore I thought I’d put together a short list of different types of grills along with a basic description of each.

The thing to know when I mention grills is that I consider the defining factor to be a metal or hardened surface to which heat can be applied and a charred cooked surface of food can be obtained, based on heated surface to food contact.

So what separates this from other cooking surfaces and/or devices such as a frying pan on a stove? The main difference, in my opinion, is the fact that the juices and liquids that seep out during cooking are not collected.  They have a place to run of too (i.e. a sloped surface for drainage, or  most classically open or raised grates for the fluids to fall through, so they will not contact the food while cooking)  therfore creating a more dry cooking, which enables the classic grill charring, and marking.

1. Gas grill – The most common type since the gas grill is everybody’s typical affordable backyard BBQ.  Gas grill offer easy temperature control and the next to no imparted flavor from the fuel source.  Gas grills are among the simplest, easy to control, type of grill to use.  These types of grills are good for many uses, based on the simplicity of temperature control – they can slow cook, can cook at a very high temp to produce a seared charred outside and a very rare inside and are the best type of grill for black and blue steaks.  Weaknesses include a non-sustainable fuel source, danger of working with contained gas, and no discernible flavor added from the gas heat.

2. Charcoal grill – The old school classic grill where charred wood or compressed carbon coals are lit and allowed to smolder (which they do for a long time) and then can be cooked over.  Temperature control is more based on the experience level of the person grilling than a simple valve control knob.  Charcoal does have a distinct flavor, which many favor for grilled foods.   All around the simplest grill to maintain, however the coals can take a long time to get to the correct temperature and temperature changes when and if needed are hard to produce.

3. Wood-fired grill – Very similar to a charcoal grill before the coals are charred and my preferred grill (obviously).  A wood-fired grill is not the easiest to use for similar reasons to the charcoal grill: no temperature control knob and the best results come from experienced grillers who can control hotspots.   Temperature can be augmented faster than charcoal as seasoned hardwoods burn slightly faster.   Excellent flavor can come from using aromatic hardwoods, which produce a subtle smoke as they burn which impregnates the food.  Simple to maintain, basic grills, but they involve more work with the griller and the burning wood as the fire tends to behave like a living organism and needs to be constantly adjusted to maintain steady temperatures.  The wood-fired grill is the one you are most likely to burn yourself with when using.

4. Flat top grill aka: griddle, flat top, or cheese steak grill – A flat gas or electric heated metal surface which is slightly sloped to allow for cooking juices to drain.  This is the “grill” found in most short order-type places, from eggs to pancakes to steak and cheese, burgers etc.,  Flat-top grills allow all of these different types of foods to cook cleanly and efficiently.  In many applications this is ideal but will never achieve any type of added flavor from smoke or the type of char that can be created from open grate type grills where food is in direct contact with the heat element.  You don’t want to cook a dry-aged T-bone on this one but try cooking pancakes or eggs on your outdoor BBQ.

5. Salamander type grill – This is where the heat source comes from above the grill/broiler.  A salamander-type grill consists of grooved metal surface which rests under direct exposure to gas flames. Classically, the metal surface can be pulled out to allow easy assess to food and then pushed back to allow food access to heat.  Salamanders are commonly found in restaurants where the metal cook surface heats from the flames above thus creating the charred grill marks indirectly while the food cooks from above down as well.   These types of grills are fast and efficient with no smoke flavor though and not commonly available to home grillers.  One large advantage of a salamander is that you can broil as well, getting a nice char.  One example of using a salamander would be the Gruyere topping on French onion soup takes about 30 seconds in a hot salamander, but try doing that in your backyard BBQ and you will have a melted mess.

6. Stove top griddle plates – This is the grill for those who don’t have a yard.  It is similar to the flat top grill, but typically has raised grooves that mimic grill grates which allow fluids to run out and away from food.  It is often a piece of cast iron that goes on the stove top and than electric or gas heat is applied.  Temperature control is possible, but slow to achieve and adjust.  I find that with these once you have found out that it is too hot for the food you are cooking it’s almost too late to fix the problem.  Stove top griddle plates can be very smokey which is problematic for in-home grillers.  But if this is your only option then it will create grill marks and char though you may have to finish foods in a heated oven to achieve desired cooked temperature.

7. Panini press/ George Foreman-type grill/ Electric grill – This is basically two grooved grill top type surfaces that are heated electrically, one on top of the other in which food can be sandwiched inside to allow cooking from above and below simultaneously.  These types of grills are very fast efficient cookers but has a habit of overcooking meats.  They aren’t really a professional grill with which you can achieve a lot of food temperature control but they make good, clean, easy to use, safe, brainless late night grills for hot dogs, hamburgers, and grilled cheese.  Just don’t try to get to fancy with them.  Note: Panini in itself is a delicious artform for which these types of grills/presses are the best tool but for the purposes of this conversation are not mentioned.

8. Smoker/ Barbeque – The smoker, like the panini, is kind of its own thing.  Food is placed on a grill surface but is cooked very slowly with aromatic smoke as to produce extremely tender, falling-off-the-bone type foods.  Any smoker or BBQ pit master will tell you that that this is another cooking method than grilling. As I would never want to offend a pit master, I will not classify this cooking technique as grilling.

9. Gold/ Platnium grill – This is something that for some strange reason I want very much, even though it seems uncomfortable and overly expensive. 🙂

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