In recent years, grilling has gone from weekend activity to something between a religion and a contact sport, with ever more complicated and expensive toys.
This Father's Day, take Dad back to basics. Whether it's his first grill or a portable model for tailgating, there are a range of serviceable gas and charcoal grills under $250. We tested five grills that fulfill different roles: feeding a crowd, hybrid grilling/smoking, portable and just plain cheap.
When choosing a new grill, keep in mind how many people you generally cook for. The grill's surface area should accommodate the whole crowd. That said, the grill shouldn't take up the entire deck, patio or trunk (for portable models).
Assess how often you would use side burners, rotisseries and griddles (if your kitchen is five steps away, probably not often) and choose accordingly. More bells and whistles hike up the price and size, so make sure they're bells you're going to ring regularly.
This month's Consumer Reports, which did its own grill testing, suggests bringing a magnet to the store. "Many grills are made of a mix of grades of stainless steel . . . Magnets usually stick to cheaper grades," which are more prone to rust. Good to know.
Here are the results of tests on the Weber Q 200 gas grill, Char-Broil QuickSet 463741008 gas grill, Kingsford Deluxe Barrel KB800 charcoal grill and Thermos THD1-2150/D charcoal grill.
_ Kingsford Deluxe Barrel KB800 charcoal grill
Price: $209 at Sam's Club and Bass Pro stores.
Size: 95 pounds in box, 46 inches wide by 25.5 inches deep by 42 inches high when assembled; 870 square inches total cooking area - enough for 30 burgers. This baby's big.
Ease of assembly: Takes about 90 not too challenging minutes, but requires help to hold the pieces in place. A Phillips-head screwdriver and an adjustable wrench do the job, but several pieces (especially the front shelf) require some substantial muscle to maneuver into position.
Sturdiness: Built like a tank, with cast-iron grill racks that can be powered with up to 4 pounds of charcoal, this isn't particularly portable, but it's going to last and can be scooted around your patio on two wheels. It has a solid metal bottom shelf to store charcoal and tools, and two wooden shelves that give this big, black barrel an old-fashioned feel.
Heat control: Adjustable air dampers on either side and a wide warming rack mean you can move food around to keep it in the target temperature zone.
Comments: The biggest inconvenience of this grill is that the three heavy grill racks have to be lifted out and set somewhere to load the charcoal, a messy process. A grill for the hard-core charcoal fan with lots of mouths to feed.
_ Thermos THD1-2150/D charcoal grill
Price: $50 at Super Target stores.
Size: 20 pounds in box, 21.5 inches wide by 21.5 inches deep by 33 inches high when assembled; 462 square inches total cooking area (enough for 10 burgers and two racks of babyback ribs).
Ease of assembly: It looks simple but requires an hour-plus of head scratching and diagram reading. The rampant use of hex locknuts and multiple metal washers make assembly cumbersome.
Sturdiness: A case of you get what you pay for, the lid's metal is so thin that, when left open, the hinges' metal torques downward, twisted by gravity. That said, the assembled grill isn't tippy and the lid makes a reasonable seal.
Heat control: A top vent doesn't modulate temperature quickly. Your best bet is to heap charcoal in the center of the square and move food off to the cooler corners as needed.
Comments: The classic charcoal grill is the 22-inch Weber kettle, at nearly double the price. The Thermos doesn't hold the heat as well and seems more flimsy, but it's lightweight enough to toss in the back of a pickup.
_ Char-Broil QuickSet 463741008 gas grill
Price: $129 at Lowe's (more locations at www.charbroil.com)
Size: 80 pounds in box, 57 inches wide by 20 inches deep by 46 inches high when assembled; 375 square inches total cooking area (enough for 12 burgers and 12 chicken breasts).
Ease of assembly: Requires four hours of blood, sweat and tears, so it's better bought fully assembled for a small fee. Do not undertake assembly unless you're mechanically inclined and have a buddy to hold pieces together for you.
Sturdiness: Once assembled, this is a no-frills, yet sturdy, gas grill. The cooking grate is slightly flimsy (porcelain-coated metal wire) and looks like it might rust in fairly short order.
Heat control: A wide cooking surface with two separate burner controls make this grill a snap to cook on. The gas adjusts easily, with 35,000 BTUs that provide enough juice to adequately sear a steak.
Comments: At the low end of the Char-Broil line, this model has the same basic design as more expensive models, with a wide warmer rack and generous surface area for grilling for a big crowd.
_ Weber Q 200 gas grill
Price: $209 at Home Depot and Lowe's.
Size: 42 pounds in box, 52 inches wide by 17 inches deep by 13 inches high when assembled; 280 square inches cooking area (enough for six burgers and six chicken breasts).
Ease of assembly: Super simple (total time 15 minutes), but the pictogram instructions were difficult to interpret, mixing in instructions for assembly of the 120 and 220 models.
Sturdiness: Very sturdy, resting on four tiny legs on the ground, but unless it's used on a tabletop, it requires squatting down.
Heat control: The small, 14.1- or 16.4-ounce propane cylinders (available in the camping aisle of most big-box discount stores) and the tubular steel burner achieve a maximum of 12,000 BTUs. This is insufficient to really sear a steak, but it adjusts quickly and easily, very adequately grilling hamburgers, veggie kebabs and corn.
Comments: Two tuck-away worktables expand the work space significantly, but fold up when the grill is cool to make the Q very compact. In general, this is a sturdy, well-made grill, our pick for the perfect no-mess tailgating grill, fitting easily in the trunk of most cars. *