Perfectly formed patties sizzling over white-hot coals. Spatchcocked chicken so tender it almost melts in your mouth. Steak, shrimp, salmon and veggies seared with griddle marks and bursting with flavor. Such visions are what get outdoor cooking geeks stoked to bust out their grills at the first signs of summer — if they haven’t been grilling year-round.
We count many such geeks amongst our own crew here at GP — and we are by no means alone. According to Retail Tracking Service data from market research giant The NPD Group, the grilling industry grew 14 percent last year, hitting $6.1 billion in sales. That uptick came hot on the heels of 2020’s pandemic-spurred surge; since July of that year, U.S. consumers have purchased more than 21 million grills and smokers.
Looking to join those ranks, or simply get, ahem, fired up for prime grilling season? Like the lid on a kamado, we’ve got ya covered. This glossary provides expert insights and tips on all the stars of the grilling game (from charcoal to gas to pellet), plus lesser-discussed players like basting brushes, grill baskets and tongs. So scroll down already — the next epic cookout is so close we can taste it.
Few aspects of grilling are quite as satisfying as slathering your favorite sauce on pieces of meat mid-cook. For this step, it’s best to reach for a heat-resistant silicone brush like this $15 option from Oxo. The wide middle bristles sop up more than enough sauce, while the angled head lets you rest it on a side table without making a mess. It’s more precise than a traditional mop — and easier to clean, too.
Pro Tip: 3 Great Store-Bought Basting Sauces
Charcoal typically comes in two forms: briquettes and hardwood lump. Briquettes are made from processed wood, bound with additives into a uniform shape and size; lump charcoal is simply pieces of wood burned into carbon. But which is better?
“I’m very biased toward hardwood lump charcoal,” says Russ Faulk, cookbook author and chief designer at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.
“If you [end up with] a huge pile of ash that weighs almost as much as your charcoal did to begin with, the efficiency of that fire was not very favorable, right? Across the board, you will find that hardwood lump charcoal is going to leave less ash than charcoal briquettes.”
That said, lump charcoal usually burns hotter and doesn’t last as long as briquettes. If you need the predictability of a briquette fire, opt for all-natural hardwood briquettes from a brand like Royal Oak.
FAQ: Is Charcoal Unhealthy?
Cooking with charcoal is not bad for you, generally speaking. It’s all about what you grill and how you grill it. For instance, carcinogens can form if you char your meat or let fat drip onto the hot coals.
They may be all the rage, but here’s a hot take: fire pits ain’t great for grilling. If you’ve got the time, you could wait for your wood fire to burn down to coals or truss some meat and hang it near your fire, but those are time-consuming endeavors. If you’re not on a camping trip, a dedicated grill is the most efficient and effective way to deliver the goods.
Flat Top Griddle
Who says you need a live fire to get grilling? Flat top grills are heating up, for good reason. They excel at whipping up breakfast foods like bacon and eggs, putting a crust on smash burgers or cooking enough hot dogs for your kid’s entire Little League team. Quality flat tops, like Blackstone’s two-burner, 28-inch gas griddle ($299), feature grease catchers for no-mess cooking and easy cleanup. You’ll never look back.
Not unlike charcoal grilling, gas grilling carries a fuel-based conundrum: natural gas or liquid propane? The issue is talked to death online, but the decision is straightforward.
“The main reason not to use natural gas would be that you don’t have a natural gas grill,” explains Max Good, director of equipment reviews at AmazingRibs.com.
Natural gas grills are typically more expensive than liquid propane gassers on the front end, but not having to refill a propane tank (or worry about forgetting to refill a propane tank) and the affordability of natural gas itself are difficult to beat. Is there anything wrong with propane gas grills? No, but natural gas grills typically match their cooking performance while offering just a bit more in the convenience column.
A good pair of gloves is essential to your Sunday garb, especially if you grill with charcoal or wood and need to move things around. Our favorite kind? Welding gloves, which tend to feature longer cuffs and heat-resistant leather. Burch Barrel’s $45 Stockmans Gloves will last you more than a few seasons, but you could also simply stroll into your local hardware store and buy the first pair that falls within your price range.
As with everything in the grill world, conventional wisdom and old-school methodology collide to create confusion in places where there needn’t be any. Cleaning grates should be done consistently, says Napoleon’s Steve Schwarz, but it doesn’t require a new or inventive approach.
“Once you’ve taken your food off the grill, turn all burners on high, close the lid and let it go for five minutes,” recommends the brand’s director of grills research and development. “It can be easy to forget to return to the grill after five minutes, so it’s important to set a timer. After the burn, use a grill brush to brush off any debris or accumulation.”
He also offers one small warning: check your grate brush before use. If there’s any sign of degradation, or you see bristles coming off the brush while cleaning the grates, trash it and get a new one. Those bristles can get stuck to the grates and caught up in dinner, a scenario best avoided.
Hot Take: Skip the Cast-Iron Grates
The strengths of cast-iron grill grates are the strengths of cast-iron cookware: added mass means increased temperature retention, which means preheated grates start searing no matter how cold the steak you drop on them is. That also means they take longer to heat up — and, more problematically, they’re either going to require regular seasoning (like a cast-iron skillet) or be coated with enamel porcelain, which is easily chipped with a spatula. From cookware to grates, the solution is the same: stainless steel. Steel grates don’t rust, aren’t damaged by grill tools and release leftover food bits when cleaning much more easily than their cast-iron counterparts.
You can find grill baskets that cost as much as $150, but unless you dislike money, we’d point you toward Grillux’s handy $20 BBQ Grill Basket. Its edges are raised and the holes are just small enough to keep food in the basket while over the fire. The material is sturdy but not so heavy that you can’t pick it up. Sometimes the simplest solution is the best one.
“[Grill pans] don’t recreate all the harmony of an outdoor grill, but you get the awesome grill marks that are reminiscent of cooking outdoors,” says Zach Schulz, chef de cuisine at 232 Bleecker. First set out by getting the heaviest grill pan you can find, then follow Schulz’s advice for getting the most out of it.
1. Preheat the Pan
You want to get the pan as hot as possible, “like almost smoking hot when you start, so you can grill hot and fast.”
2. Use Less Oil
Like the old saying, a little goes a long way. Rather than pouring oil directly onto the pan, simply coat your mains — whether it’s meat or vegetables — with a little oil.
3. Mimic Smoke
If you use a sauce like Worcestershire, which is “dark-tasting like the fire,” or caramelized mushrooms, which “carry an umami flavor that comes from grilling,” you can create a smoky flavor without actual smoke.
4. Use a Lid to Trap Heat
As Schulz reminds us, outdoor grilling involves both direct and ambient heat. The stove only offers the former, which is why the lid will come in handy.
Hybrid grills offer two or more fuel sources for grilling, with the most common combo being gas and charcoal. Are they worth it?
- Don’t feel like waiting for coals to light? Turn on the gas. Want higher temperatures? Use the charcoal side.
- While hybrid grills are typically more expensive than gas or charcoal grills, they cost less than buying one of each.
- Limited space; typically each fuel source will have its own cooking area, meaning each side is smaller than a singular grill space.
- Grill quality can suffer when manufacturers squeeze both charcoal and gas components into one unit.
The luxury of having an outdoor space to house a grill is just that: a luxury. The next best thing is an indoor grill, and while it won’t be a perfect substitute, some units can work wonders. We like Zojirushi’s $131 EB-DLC10 Indoor Electric Grill for its large cooking area (roughly 165 square inches), minimal smoke emissions and easy-to-clean grill surface.
An above-average gas grill burner will max out around 650 to 700 degrees, which is roughly half of the max temperature a charcoal fire can reach. So one hallmark of great gas grills is the presence of infrared burners, which push temperatures to new heights, compensating for this fundamental disadvantage. Typically smaller and separated from a gas grill’s primary burners, infrared burners harness radiant heat instead of convective heat, which is a fancy way of saying they’re going to push 1,000-plus degrees and brown a steak perfectly.
The often pricey oval-shaped cooker known as a kamado is the charcoal-lover’s high-performance machine. Why? These grills have a tighter seal and more precise air control, so you can fine-tune the cooking process. Because certain designs — including those from Vision Grills — are ceramic, they retain heat better than traditional metal-body grills. Plus, the added height on the interior allows for different types of cooking like smoking, because the coals are farther away from the food.
In some circles, there are really only two types of grills: kettles and everything else. Kettles get their name from a spherical design pioneered by Weber in the 1950s, and the DNA of modern iterations remains squarely — or rather, roundly — intact: circular lid, steel cooking grates and vents at the top and bottom. Though some kettles use gas as a fuel source, charcoal versions reign supreme. Here are two we recommend.
A konro is a narrow tabletop grill lined with ceramic that’s popular in Japan for cooking yakitori (bite-sized skewered chicken). Traditionally, the ends of the skewers rest on the edges of the grill so that meat sits atop a bed of binchotan charcoal. Konros are great for small gatherings, bringing a ceremonious kind of precision to grilling everything from chicken skin to asparagus.
The ability to add a variety of smoky wood flavors via compressed sawdust has made pellet grilling oh-so-hot of late. Just heed these need-to-knows from BBQGuys chef and product expert Tony Matassa.
Prime the Damn Auger
What sounds like a step yelled out in a game of Spaceteam is critically important to the safety and efficiency of your next cookout. “Priming speeds up the auger, ensuring pellets reach the fire pot before the hot rod’s safety shutoff kicks in. It’s basically your way of telling the grill, ‘Hey, I need pellets now.’”
Novice grillers in general are too quick to throw meat on, Matassa says, but doing so with a pellet grill is particularly problematic. “The consequences are worse on pellet grills, which cook almost exclusively with hot air — more like an oven than a char-griller. Hot air isn’t the best at transferring heat, so let your pellet grill come to temp for about 10 or 15 minutes before starting to cook.”
Secure the Bag
Do not leave your bag of pellets open for any extended period of time. Even the slightest bit of moisture overnight will cause the pellets to puff up and become unusable. Matassa recommends tying them up after use and storing them in a sealed five-gallon bucket.
Nearly all pellet grills come equipped with some level of smart technology. Matassa recommends prioritizing a PID (proportional–integral–derivative) controller if you want accurate readings and higher-level data.
For hot kebabs off the grill, you’re going to need some skewers. The question is: wooden or metal? It’s kind of a toss-up.
Wooden skewers, typically made from bamboo, are great because they’re disposable and don’t require any washing. You will, however, have to soak them before use to prevent them from catching on fire on the grill.
Metal skewers will get much hotter than wooden ones, and they’re also reusable. On the other hand, they’re more expensive than their wooden counterparts, and they increase the risk of heat-related injuries.
The most revered pitmasters around the country use industrial-size smokers with chambers that range from 500 to 1000 gallons. If you’re using a smaller backyard unit, you need to make some minor adjustments to achieve similar results.
Matt Horn, of Oakland’s Horn Barbecue, typically keeps his large smokers at 275–285 degrees, but recommends lowering the cooking temperatures for smaller units because they tend to cook the meat and form a bark a lot faster. “With a smaller cooker, you may want to run it at 225,230—you want to dial it down that much,” he says.
Horn also recommends adding moisture to the cooking chamber with a water pan and by spraying the meat. “You want to make sure that you’re spraying it and you’re cooling the surface temperature, so I always make sure I have a nice spray bottle.”
Forget lighter fluid: if you’re looking to light a bed of charcoal quickly and grilling hot, a chimney is your best bet. But if you’re opting for lower temps, starting your charcoal by lighting a single point, a handheld torch can be incredibly efficient. Russ Faulk recommends a plumber’s torch over more expensive, handheld electric starters.
Instead of guessing if your food is cooked or using some archaic hand-touching method, go for an instant-read thermometer. The best one we’ve found is ThermoWorks’ Thermapen One ($105), which gives food temperature readouts in a literal instant, in addition to being easy to use and incredibly accurate.
FYI: Common Meat Cooking Temperatures
- Chicken: 165°F
- Pork: 145°F
- Beef (Rare): 120°F
- Beef (Well Done): 160°F
- Seafood: 145°F
At less than $20, a pair of Oxo’s Good Grips 16-inch locking tongs are long enough to keep your forearm hairs unscathed, while feeling less like an add-on tool and more like an extension of your own arm. Use the tongs to flip steaks, move burgers and grab skewers with ease.