Best Cheap Grills
To many people, a warm evening, a nice patio, and the delectable smell of dinner cooking on the grill approaches perfection. Many top-end grills come in well over the $500 mark, and reviewers swear that the features, build, and durability of high-end grills are worth the high price tag. But frugal consumers can partake in this beloved backyard ritual without spending more than $200. Our research indicates that there are plenty of options -- both charcoal and gas-fueled -- that satisfy many users with their features and performance for a few summers, at least.
Napoleon Rodeo Charcoal Kettle Grill
This grill impresses experts with a 365-square-inch cooking surface, a diffuser for more even heating, and a fourth leg for stability. User reviews are limited but often refer to sturdiness and...
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Cheap Grill Buying Guide
The first thing to consider is what kind of grill to buy: charcoal or gas (usually liquid propane with the cheaper models). Prices for cheap charcoal grills start at just under $50 and top out at $200.
Our picks include two cheap gas grills, the Char-Griller Grillin' Pro 3001 (starting at $169) and the Huntington 30030HNT (starting at $165.50), and two cheap charcoal grills, the Weber Original Kettle Premium 22" (starting at $149) and the Napoleon Rodeo Charcoal Kettle Grill (starting at $199). One model that didn't make our cut is the basic Char-Broil 2-Burner Gas Grill (starting at $80). It draws consumer complaints about assembly and durability, and reviews also raise questions about safety.
On the high end, charcoal barbecues range beyond $700 and gas models can cost upward of $1,000. The main difference between cheap grills and their upmarket counterparts is durability. Pricey grills are typically made of durable stainless steel, while budget grills are often painted steel or plastic and not quite as sturdy. Higher-end grills also tend to have more durable materials inside, whereas a cheap grill may chip, peel, or rust. Perhaps surprisingly, many consumers provide positive feedback on the lifespans of the best budget grills.
Charcoal vs. Gas Grills.Gas grills are popular because they take less time to heat up than charcoal. They also provide more precise control over the flame and, thus, the cooking temperature. In one review posted on Amazon, a customer reports that his Char-Griller Grillin' Pro 3001 reached 500 degrees in two minutes and 675 degrees in eight minutes on a blustery day. If you expect to cook a quick meal on a charcoal grill, think again.
Inexpensive gas grills also come with features such as side burners and warming racks to make preparing food easier. The cleanup is simpler too: Just turn off the grill and clean the grate. With a charcoal barbecue, users must dispose of the ash and old charcoal (without getting it all over) and give the coals time to properly burn out.
In general, charcoal grills lack the convenience, heat control, and cooking speed of a gas grill. On the other hand, using charcoal briquettes (and perhaps wood) as fuel imparts an authentic smokiness undetectable with a gas grill. Many fans of charcoal grilling claim there is just no comparing the flavor. Another advantage: Charcoal grills generally take up less space than gas grills. They also tend to cost less up front, although experts say buying charcoal is pricier in the long run than filling a propane tank every couple of months. The barbecue and grilling site AmazingRibs.com goes into more detail on the pros and cons of charcoal vs. gas.
Infrared Grills.Infrared technology is not new, but over the years it has remained a costlier feature. While gas and charcoal grills (like convection ovens) rely on heated air to cook the food, infrared grills direct heat toward a solid surface that sits below the grates, radiating infrared waves to the food above. This barrier also allows the grill grates to sit closer to the direct heat source, allowing for a super quick sear and minimizing charring caused by flare-ups. With this form of grilling, meats (and vegetables) tend to retain more moisture, because of the reduced reliance on airflow, which can dry out food. Infrared grills also claim to prevent hot and cold spots, cooking food more quickly and evenly.
While there's certainly a lot to recommend this barbecuing method, grills that employ it tend to be priced considerably higher and usually fall outside the Cheapism niche. A surprisingly low-cost addition to Char-Broil's TRU-Infrared line is the Kettleman TRU-Infrared 22.5" Charcoal Grill (starting at $107). A charcoal grill that uses infrared technology is a bit of a rarity. In this case, the grilling surface is a porcelain-coated steel disc, with raised grates and small slits between, that radiates heat. The experts at AmazingRibs.com insist, however, that even with these cutting-edge bells and whistles, the Char-Broil Kettleman doesn't entirely stand up to the classic Weber Premium and Napoleon Rodeo models.
Smokers.Unlike a traditional grill, which cooks meat directly above the flame and exposes it to high heat, a smoker, whether it be electric, gas, or charcoal-powered, cooks meat at low temperatures in a closed, thickly insulated casing for even heating. Casings come in a variety of shapes and sizes -- from bullet to barrel, from egg-shaped to offset -- and one of the most popular types at present is the pellet smoker. Compressed hardwood pellets supposedly produce a more refined taste than charcoal, and pellet smokers are appreciated for their ease of use -- built-in thermostats and temperature controls let users just set them and walk away.
In general, smoking meat takes much more time than gas or even charcoal grilling. While true enthusiasts agree that the rich, complex, succulent flavor can't be achieved any other way, most people searching for a cheap BBQ grill simply don't have the time to devote to slow-cooking their meat, or the money to splurge on a dedicated smoker, which can run from $100 to $10,000 depending on the make, model, and amenities. Instructions from Weber can help you get started smoking on a standard charcoal grill such as our top pick, the Weber Original Kettle Premium 22".
What We Looked For
Materials.The material composition of the grill grates determines whether food tends to stick, as well as how evenly the heat disperses and, thus, how well the food cooks. Experts have the highest praise for porcelain-coated cast iron. Cast iron grill grates heat up quickly, hold the heat on the surface, and last a very long time. However, cast iron needs to be oiled to keep food from sticking too much. A high-quality porcelain coating serves the same function, cutting down on maintenance. Our top gas grill, the Char-Griller Grillin' Pro 3001, boasts porcelain-coated cast iron grates. It also has stainless-steel burners, which experts recommend as more durable than aluminum. The Huntington 30030HNT has a body made of cast aluminum, which experts say will last longer than painted steel. Our charcoal picks, for their part, have porcelain-enameled kettles that are strong and rust-resistant.
Cooking Surface.Two-burner gas grills are common in this price range. Consumers can get a well-made grill by going with the smallest model in a line that would otherwise be out of reach. The trick is finding a good grill under $200 that's big enough to feed a crowd. Cheap grills typically fall between 200 and 700 square inches; the higher end of that range is generally reserved for gas grills. It's important to note that any side burner or warming rack is often counted in the cooking surface area listed in the specs.
Among our top picks, the Char-Griller Grillin' Pro 3001 reigns with a total of three burners and 438 square inches of primary cooking area. The rest is dedicated to the warming rack and side burner, totaling 630 square inches of cooking space. The 280-square-inch Char-Broil 2-Burner Gas Grill offers less surface area and no side burner or warming rack, features that consumers often mention in grill reviews (a version of this model with a warming rack is available). Charcoal barbecues tend to be smaller, although the best ones outpace the Char-Broil 2-Burner Gas Grill. Both the charcoal grills we recommend have more than 360 square inches of cooking space.
For grilling on the go, look to the Char-Broil Grill2Go X200 (starting at $110). This is a 200-square-inch portable gas grill with infrared technology designed to be thrown in the trunk for camping or tailgating. While most portable grills require charcoal, this propane model saves users from having to lug around a bag of briquettes.
BTUs.One of the most prominent features of a gas grill is its BTU rating (specifically, British thermal units per hour). Manufacturers make it sound as though the grill with the most BTUs is the most powerful, but the size of the cooking surface must also factor in to any comparison. For example, the Char-Griller 3001, our pick for best cheap gas grill, features 40,800 BTUs for 438 square inches of primary cooking surface (minus the warming rack), or 93 BTUs per square inch. Our runner-up, the Huntington 30030HNT, has 330 square inches of primary cooking space (430 square inches total, including warming rack) and its two burners generate 30,000 BTUs, or about 91 BTUs per square inch. Experts say a gas grill should fall into a range of 80 to 100. Any lower and the heat output may not be sufficient; a higher number suggests an inefficient design that allows heat to escape.
Reviews for any given grill can be few and hard to find (especially for newer models). Vendors tend to favor a few particular brands and carry exclusive models, offering a limited choice of where to buy and limited sources of feedback from consumers. We pored over user reviews on the websites of retailers including Home Depot, Lowe's, Walmart, and Amazon. We also considered the recommendations of experts from AmazingRibs.com and About.com, where the site's grilling guru has been covering the industry and testing grills for more than 15 years. Cooking performance is the most common subject of the grill reviews we found, and durability is a close second. We also saw plenty of feedback on how easy (or difficult) it is to assemble, use, and clean each grill.
Cooking Performance.Even heating is a fundamental "must have" in a top budget grill. Based on comments from consumers and experts, all our picks fare well on this front. Features such as a heat diffuser inside the Napoleon Rodeo Charcoal Kettle Grill and dual smokestacks on the Char-Griller 3001 are designed to encourage even heating. Reviews indicate they work as promised: For instance, the Char-Griller 3001 excels at temperature control, according to consumers posting on the Lowe's website. The thermometer is accurate, dedicated controls for each burner help prevent cold spots, and food comes out cooked to perfection.
Gas grills come with settings or dials that manage where and how high the flame is, providing precise temperature control. It's tougher to control the temperature with a charcoal grill, given that there's no mechanism for adjusting the size of the flame. As an alternative, they have dampers to control the temperature: Open the vents to let in oxygen to fuel the fire and close them to lower the heat. Some charcoal models feature adjustable grates that let the user dictate how close the food is to the heat source. The Char-Broil Kettleman grill's infrared design shields food from direct flames, and its cooking plate guarantees that smaller items won't slip through cracks into the fire.
Durability.Reviewers appreciate the sturdy construction of the grills we recommend, declaring them more solidly built than their cheap prices might suggest. Weber grills enjoy a particularly good reputation for durability. There are things you can do to make a grill last longer, such as storing it in a covered area, using a grill cover for protection, and making sure the grate is oiled and cleaned after each use. When cleaning porcelain-coated grill grates, scrub gently with a metal-bristle brush. Don't use a metal scraper, because it will chip the porcelain.
Among hundreds of mostly positive reviews of the grills on our list, we noted a few that complain about issues such as rusting, leaks, flimsy wheels, and ignition problems. The Char-Broil 2-Burner Gas Grill is the subject of an alarming report on Amazon: A repeat buyer (who was happy with a previous version for five years) says flames flared out the front of this model and melted the knobs. Other consumers echo the reviewer's comments about flimsy construction.
Ease of Use.While it's generally not difficult to use or clean the grills on our list, some models can be tough to assemble. Several reviewers have found the Char-Griller 3001 difficult to put together, with poor instructions, although others seem baffled by such complaints. Although the Huntington 30030HNT gets high praise in other areas, it also garners some complaints about assembly. On Amazon, one consumer says the so-called "pre-assembled" parts are not that at all.
Whichever way you cut it, charcoal grills are messier and more complicated to use than the gas variety. With propane, all you have to do is make sure there's fuel in the tank, turn on the burner, wait a few minutes, and you're good to go. Most charcoal grills require that you pile up the lump charcoal or briquettes, get them to ignite (this can be tricky), wait a good 20 minutes, then scatter the fuel.
Still, some demand more effort than others. The word "easy" shows up again and again in reviews of the Weber Original Kettle Premium 22", our top pick among low-cost charcoal grills. Consumers rave about the design, which includes the popular One-Touch cleaning system. A flick of a switch allows ash to fall into a removable pan. Both our top picks have hinged cooking grates for adding more charcoal while food is cooking.
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