Top Tips for Buying a Barbecue

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Looking to upgrade your grill? Don’t let your budget go up in smoke.

Barbecuing: It’s more than just a cooking technique — it’s an art form. Whether you’re a backyard chef or a true aficionado, every artist needs the right tools. With all the options out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the choices — and end up buying more than you really need.

Need a new grill but don’t want to get burned? Try these tips.

Before you hit the store

A bottomless budget isn’t required to find the best grill to suit your needs. While you can expect to pay far more for models with all the bells and whistles, you don’t have to spend a lot to get a reasonably sized, good quality grill.

Other than price, a few other basic considerations to keep in mind:
– Where do you plan to use it? Some grills are better for backyards, while others are more suited for condos, campsites and cottages.

– How many people do you usually cook for? The answer can tell you how much cooking space you’ll need.

– What foods do you cook, and how? You don’t need a fancy grill to handle hamburgers or steaks, but you may need some additional space and accessories if you plan to roast a turkey, smoke meat and prepare side dishes.

– What fuel do you want to use — charcoal, propane or electricity?

And since most of us aren’t gourmet grillers, it doesn’t hurt to brush up on the lingo before you hit the stores. Here are two important measures to consider:

– Primary versus secondary square inches: Primary means the main cooking surface — the measure you should use to determine the best size for your needs. ( Secondary refers to the warming racks.) Some sources recommend at least 50-60 square inches of primary space per portion. In other words, if you’re cooking for six people, a 300 square inch surface will give you plenty of room.

– BTUs (British Thermal Units): This measure tells you the maximum heat produced when all the burners are set on high. Some sources note that the higher the BTU, the hotter the grill — and the greater the flexibility and precision.

However, size and construction are part of the picture. For example, Fiesta Barbeques recommends a range between 110-125 BTU per square inch of cooking surface if you’re a year-round cook. (For instance, a 300 square inch surface with 35,000 BTU works out to about 116 BTU/square inch). Go above 125 BTU/square inch and you may have a hard time maintaining lower temperatures.

Of course, there are many other options to consider — like burners, ignition systems and temperature controls. When in doubt, consult a buying guide before you go.

Look at durability and safety

You’ve found the perfect grill — but can you keep it that way for years to come? Experts warn to pay careful attention to the durability of your next grill, both for longevity and safety reasons. Consider:

– Materials: The type and weight are important. Some sources recommend stainless steel — the priciest option — while some experts feel that cast aluminum is the way to go.

– Ergonomics: Ease of use is important. Is the handle comfortable, and can you lift the lid easily? Are the controls and starter easy to use?

– Construction: How sturdy is the frame, including the legs and the wheels? Is the paint finish good quality to prevent future rusting? Is the frame welded, or put together with metal fasteners?

– Safety: What safety features does your grill have? Do the wheels or castors lock? Is there protection against gas leaks or automatic shut off mechanisms?

Consider the future

There’s always the potential for problems, not to mention some TLC down the road. Other things you should know about your grill include:

– Care: Even the best grills will degrade if they don’t get the attention they deserve. Find out how to clean, store and maintain your grill for maximum longevity.

– Repair costs: Is it easy to obtain replacement parts and find a place for repairs? Ask about burners specifically — according to Consumer Reports , they’re the most commonly replaced part.

– Warranty: What’s covered, and for how long? Good quality grills tend to come with a good warranty plan that can save you money later on.

Cut back on the extras

Do you want fries — oops, a rotisserie — with that? More features equals more money, so be wary of up-sells.

What features are worth the cash? According to a Consumer Reports survey, some of the most widely-used features include a gas gauge, side burners and a natural-gas hook-up. Electronic igniters won out over rotary or push-button starters, and stainless-steel or coated cast iron grates were reported to be better for searing and maintaining consistent temperatures. Storage was another important feature people considered.

What should you pass up? Many respondents reported their griddle plates and rotisseries didn’t see much action. While two thirds of participants reported using their infrared burners on a regular basis, Consumer Reports testers didn’t find much difference between regular burners and infrared ones.

Wait it out?

Buy now or buy later? It can be a balancing act. Prices usually drop as the season wears on, and consumer calendars warn the best discounts can be found into the fall and winter when retailers are anxious to clear out stock.

However, waiting has it’s drawbacks: Selection won’t be as plentiful, and you won’t get to enjoy your new grill during the best part of the season.

If you’re searching for the middle ground, keep an eye on sales throughout the summer — there always seems to be a model or two on special. If you pay full price, ask about the store’s price guarantee: If it goes on sale in the next two weeks, will they reimburse you the difference?

Ultimately, the maxim that “you get what you pay for” applies to barbecues. Carefully consider your budget and your needs, and hit the stores armed with the information you need.