Some of the best summertime memories are made over barbecue parties. So it makes sense to take time to choose the right grill.
These days, it's not as simple as picking up a bag of charcoal; there are about as many features on barbecues as Bubba had ways to make shrimp in "Forrest Gump." There are machines to sear, to smoke, to grill, to bake, to warm and to turn birds on a stick.
"Charcoal grills tend to be for traditional, old-time barbecue people who want that smoky flavor," said Gary Nielson, sales and systems specialist at Maximum Comfort Pool and Spa in Avon.
But charcoal grills also take the most lead-time - about 45 minutes to heat up. Russ Allred, a manager at Vail Valley Ace Hardware, sees a lot of charcoal grills that aren't built well, he said.
However, a popular, and sturdy, cooker that uses charcoal is the Big Green Egg. The egg uses lump charcoal, which burns cleaner and doesn't contain as many fillers as regular, smaller charcoal, Allred said. It allows people to smoke, bake, grill and even make a pizza. And once owners learn how to change the temperature, it's easy and much faster to control than traditional charcoal grills - plus it exchanges heat better than smokers, Allred said.
"People that like these are more into the smoke flavor," he said, adding that the Big Green Egg is great for brisket because it can cook at low temperatures.
Perhaps the most popular grills are propane and natural gas grills. They come in enamel, cast iron, stainless steel and even copper surfaces. Nielsen prefers stainless steel because it's easiest to cook on and clean, whereas cast iron and enamel heat up well but require more cleaning more often, he said. Allred notices most of his customers opt for the look of stainless steel, but he thinks it requires about the same maintenance.
Beyond the exterior, grills vary in features - a decent Weber grill can cost $149 to a couple thousand dollars. Allred loves his $149 Q100 for its adaptability; he keeps it on his deck but also takes it camping, and, though he uses it at least twice a week, his 20-pound propane tank has lasted over a year.
On the higher ends, grills can include infrared burners, a rotisserie stick, an extra burner to sear meat, side burners and more.
Side burners allow cooks to saute vegetables, so they don't have to run between the grill and the kitchen stove. Extra burners also allow cooks more flexibility. For instance, they could turn on just the outside burners for indirect cooking for a more flavorful meal. Some grills include a burner to heat wood chips, to add a smoked flavor.
Nielsen has seen both sear burners and infrared rotisserie burners mounted on the backs of grills rise in popularity. The rotisserie mounts prevent drippings from reaching the flames and causing flare-ups, which can burn the bird, he said. After-market rotisserie sticks are also available, but if a grill isn't manufactured to accept a rotisserie in the back, barbecuers are stuck with the spit above the burners, causing drippings to reach flames.
For a long time, only one company held the patent on infrared grills, but since the patent has expired, plenty of manufacturers have released infrared grills. The technology prevents flames from contacting meat; studies have shown that when fire chars meat, it causes carcinogens. However, Allred said some of his customers don't like the infrared-only grills because they don't produce the same flavor as other grills.
Electric grills have also gained some ground in the last 10 years, and though owners don't have to worry about buying propane tanks or installing an outdoor gas line, electric grills have a downside, according to Allred. One of the main problems he sees is owners who don't read the instructions and don't preheat the grills for the recommended 20 minutes; without preheating, food doesn't come out well. Electric grills also are more difficult to clean because they don't burn off as much oil and grease as gas grills do, he said.
Stores like Maximum Comfort Pool and Spa also sell pizza stones, which sit right on top of grills to bake pizzas.
The bottom line is: Outdoor chefs can get as extravagant as they desire when it comes to grilling - even going so far as installing a kitchen with a refrigerator, ice maker, sink, cabinets and warming trays.
"You can do just about anything you want with an outdoor kitchen these days," Nielsen said. "Outdoor kitchens are almost becoming entertainment areas for the summer. You really don't have to go inside."