Thursday, June 22, 2006

Charcoal or gas?

Posted on Mon, Jun. 19, 2006

By Blanca Torres

With a cell phone in one hand and receipt in the other, Karen Horowitz paced around Home Depot in San Ramon on a recent afternoon and learned the hard way that buying a barbecue grill can be a lot of work.
On the other end of her cell phone was her husband, an engineer with a penchant for precision.
"We had so much research on grills, it was unbelievable. We went to every grill store," said Horowitz, of Danville. "My husband is an engineer, he researches everything very thoroughly."
When buying a grill, there's plenty of material to research. The varieties can seem endless, considering all the choices: gas or charcoal; cast iron or stainless steel; built-in or standalone. And there are other factors to consider, such as size, heating capacity, maintenance and durability.
And there are as many choices as there are price-points: grills can cost anywhere from $10 to the thousands, depending on materials, frills and high-tech features.
Horowitz's search started with grills that are built into an outside counter and cost thousands of dollars. She ended up buying a Vermont Castings grill only to find out that her husband wouldn't accept anything other than a Weber. The exchange is what brought her back to Home Depot.
The Horowitzes grill dinner nearly every day during the summer, so having a reliable grill is essential, she explained. She bought a $500 Weber gas grill to replace one that lasted about 15 years.
"I guess you can always rely on a Weber," she said. "It's like an old shoe, you know it's comfortable."
Lots of choices
Charcoal grills are the cheapest option. Some models can cost as low as $10. Weber, one of the most recognized brands, has three models for sale at Barbeques Galore in Walnut Creek that cost between $30 and $140.
Cooking with charcoal or wood chips helps add flavor to foods, but the grills also are messy and can take more than a half-hour to heat up.
"I always call it going to the dark side, going from charcoal to gas," said Greg Weisman, a manager at Barbeques Galore. "Some people will never do it. But gas is so convenient and does cook OK. With commuting, charcoal just takes too long, and people still want to come home to have that barbecue experience."
Ken Lear of San Ramon has both a barrel-shaped charcoal grill and a built-in gas grill, and uses both throughout the year.
"In the winter, you'll see me out there with a flashlight and an umbrella," he said. "I do the cooking. I married a woman who doesn't cook."
His next barbecue will likely be a mid-sized, square-shaped charcoal grill that can fold up and would be easy to use for tailgating at sports games, he said.
Lear said he prefers the taste of food cooked with charcoal, but uses his gas grill most days because it heats up in minutes.
"Gas is all about convenience," Weisman said. "The grill's ready faster, so the food's ready faster."
When it comes to long-lasting quality, stainless steel is the top of the line. A gas grill made of high-quality stainless steel can run anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000 at Barbeques Galore.
Those models can last a lifetime and require little maintenance, Weisman said. They also come with features, such as a rotisserie rack for roasting poultry, extra burners and more preparation space.
Weisman recommends buying gas grills that have at least three burners because that gives cooks more space to work with and different temperatures to cook at. Certain foods, such as vegetables and chicken, cook better at lower temperatures than red meat.
Another option is electric grills, which suit people who want to cook outside without an open flame. Most stores only carry one to three varieties, ranging in price from $150 to $2,400.
"It's a new technology, so the good ones are really expensive," Weisman said.
With so much to choose from, Weisman advises customers to figure out what kind of cooking they plan to do before looking at products. Most first-time buyers will be satisfied with a grill that costs a few hundred dollars, whereas serious cooks will be more likely to look at models with pricetags in the thousands, he said.
"We don't eat enough to warrant a $5,000 or $6,000 grill," Horowitz said. "You can get carried away with the bells and whistles, and we started getting carried away for a little bit, but then we decided to go with the tried and true Weber."

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