Grilling has never been so hot. The grilling industry is growing at a record rate, but that's made shopping for a grill a little like shopping for a car: How to decide among all the makes and models and accessories?
"First step is to figure out your grilling personality," Steven Raichlen, award-winning author of 27 books and television host of "Barbecue University," said in an exchange of e-mails.
Be precise, because you're about to face acres of options.
The grilling industry grew 66 percent from 1992 to 2006, based on shipments of grills, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. Nearly 17.3 million grills shipped from manufacturers to retailers, up 15 percent from 2005, according to the association.
Leading trends were a growth in outdoor kitchens, portable and charcoal grills, along with grills with multiple burners and uses, say industry experts. Multi-function grills can include infrared burners for restaurant-style high searing, rotisseries, griddles and flat grill plates, drop-in smokers and side burners, among other features.
It's not hard to see why grilling suits Americans today. "It's really a convergence of a lot of things going on," Raichlen said in a phone interview.
For starters, "That casual lifestyle has permeated every part of our lives," said Leslie Wheeler, a spokesman for the barbeque association. "People like the casualness of eating and cooking outside."
People are entertaining more at home, and a good number of new books and TV shows teach new barbeque techniques, Raichlen said. Home cooks are more educated, especially about international cuisine, and now prepare meals from start to finish on their grills, the author of "The Barbecue! Bible" said.
And don't forget its advantage for the time-pressed: "There aren't any baking dishes to clean," Wheeler said.
Manufacturers also have taken advantage of inexpensive labor in China to build increasingly sophisticated, but affordable, grills, Raichlen said. The result is a dizzying array of variety.
Viking, a leader in equipment for outdoor rooms, offers more than 100 variations of outdoor kitchen products. A new line of gas grills this year includes built-in canopy lighting for night grilling and a 120-volt electric ignition system.
Weber-Stephen Products, the 54-year-old company whose charcoal kettle grill is an icon, brought out its largest line this year with 23 new gas grills in colors including deep blue, green and copper. And Char-Broil's new Tec series combines gas and infrared heat grilling.
So, where to begin when you want to buy a grill?
Decide which of the four basic grill types you want. These include gas, (the most popular for its ease and clean burn); charcoal (preferred by some for flavor and versatility); pellet (which uses wood pellets in various flavors like oak, hickory or mesquite); and electric, good for senior citizens and fire-restricted dwellings.
Frequent entertainers will want a large gas grill with four or more burners, or several grills. Those cooking for two will be fine with a gas grill with two or three burners, or a charcoal grill, Raichlen said.
Enjoy the process?
"You're a candidate for charcoal," Raichlen said.
More destination or result oriented?
"You'll probably prefer the convenience of push-button ignition and turn-of-the-knob heat control associated with gas grilling," he said.
"My personal belief is that you should own both," he added.
What about cost?
Grills range from under $100 to thousands of dollars. "People should think about a grill as an investment," "Taming the Flame" author Elizabeth Karmel advised in a phone conversation. "This is like buying an oven for your home. If you buy a good one, it will last you forever."
Expect to spend $450 to $500 for a better gas grill, said Karmel. "Don't get seduced by all the bells and whistles. Think about your lifestyle and how you cook and if you're really going to use the side burners, for instance," she warned.
"Most of the inexpensive ones (grills), $300 or less, are going to fall apart in three years," author and television host Rick Browne said. The self-proclaimed "Doctor of Barbecue" looks for even heat over the surface of the grill, a grill with at least three burners, and versatility. He spoke from the road as he set out to tape his "Barbecue the World" show, for his sixth season of barbecue shows on PBS.
Check out the grill's heat capacity.
"We like high heat when we grill so we recommend a gas grill with at least 40,000 BTU output from the grilling surface," Karen Adler wrote in an e-mail message. Adler and Judith Fertig, "The Barbecue Queens" and authors of "Weeknight Grilling with the BBQ Queens," prefer the ease of gas grills on weekdays.
Condominium or apartment dwellers with strict fire laws may need an electric grill, but be sure it's high-powered, Adler said.
Like a car, a grill needs cleaning and maintenance, so be sure replacement parts are easily available, said Weber-Stephen Products Co. spokeswoman Sherry Bale advised.
"If it's well made so that it doesn't surprise you, then you're happy," Jamie Purviance, author of "Weber's Real Grilling" and "Weber's Charcoal Grilling," said.
One final piece of advice from grilling expert Karmel: "Buy a bigger and better grill than you think you'll need because once you start using it, you'll find you're using it all the time."
Grill buying tips
Before you buy, keep in mind these simple priorities:
• Consider cost but view your purchase as an investment.
• Give the grill the wiggle test to be sure it isn't flimsy and parts are welded.
• Beware of add-on features like side burners, which hike costs. Ask yourself if you'll really use them.
• Look for good customer support and maintenance. Remember that grills, like cars, require cleaning and upkeep.
Plenty of further information is available at these Web sites:
http://www.hpba.org. The Hearth, Patio, & Barbecue Association Web site. Includes information about the industry and tips for grilling.
http://www.vikingrange.com. Web site of Viking, a leading outdoor kitchen manufacturer
http://www.weber.com. Web site of Weber-Stephen Products Co.
http://www.girlsatthegrill.com. Cookbook Author Elizabeth Karmel offers tips on grill shopping and grilling basics. Click on "grilling 101" for basic information.
barbecuebible.com. "Barbecue University" TV Host and cookbook author Steven Raichlen advises how to buy a grill and more.
http://www.bbqqueens.com. Tips and recipes from Barbecue Queens Karen Adler and Judith Fertig.
http://www.traegergrill.com. Web site for pellet grills with video describing how the grill works.
http://www.charbroil.com. Web site for Char-Broil. Click on the new Tec series for an explanation of infrared heat.