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a celebration for THE FOURTH : Choosing the right grill and knowing the basics add up to a star-spangled Independence Day cookout.

June 26, 1986|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

At first glance the myriad of outdoor grills in today's marketplace is mind-boggling. They seem to come in all sizes and shapes, with a full array of gadgets and gimmicks. How can anyone decide which to purchase?

Fortunately, it's not as overwhelming as it first seems. When all the bells and whistles are stripped away, take a closer look and choose a grill to suit your cooking needs. A few simple questions may help the potential buyer.

--What kind of food will be cooked? Will grilling be the main cooking method? Or will roasting, steaming, smoking and baking capabilities also be desired?

There are basically two types of grills available--uncovered and covered. For those who simply want to grill hamburgers, frankfurters, steaks and chops, an uncovered grill, often called a brazier, will do just fine. Sometimes these grills have a half-hood or wind screen and they are almost always fueled by charcoal. Usually the cooking rack is adjustable to help control cooking temperatures.

A covered grill offers more versatility--both through the type of fuel used and the ability to cook indirectly, smoke and bake. The cover and vents help control heat and retard flare-ups, so more controlled cooking also is possible.

--What size grill will be needed? How much food will be prepared at one time?

Obviously a tiny grill will do nicely for a twosome, but those who intend doing a lot of outdoor entertaining will no doubt be in the market for something larger.

--Does the grill need to be portable? Or will a built-in model be better?

If the grill is to be taken along on picnics or camping trips, a smaller, more compact model may be the best choice. If it is to be used strictly in one place, something larger, or even a stationary model can be considered.

Smaller charcoal grills are the most portable. Gas grills fueled by bottled propane are somewhat portable; natural gas and electric grills are limited to areas where they can be connected to a power source.

--How much outdoor grilling will be done?

A grill that gets almost daily use and is expected to last several years needs to be made of heavy, top quality, durable material. A lighter weight model might do well, if infrequent use is intended.

--Is there a preference for the type of fuel used for cooking?

Charcoal and gas are the most popular choices, but electric grills also are available. Each type of fuel has pros and cons:

Charcoal burns slowly and evenly. The supply needs to be kept replenished and stored in a dry place. Liquid, solid, electric or chimney starters aid in lighting the briquettes. Fuel needs to be added when foods require more than an hour of grilling. Charcoal imparts some flavor to the foods being cooked and aromatic wood chips may be sprinkled over the hot coals for additional flavor.

Gas may be supplied by a natural gas hook-up or canister of propane. The direct line ensures a constant supply; canisters need periodic refilling. Gas heats quickly, is easy to control and has the ability to supply the desired cooking temperature indefinitely. The lava rocks found in gas grills need to be replaced or cleaned periodically by steaming or boiling. Gas does not impart any flavor to the food being cooked, but aromatic chips may be used if placed inside a tube of foil, open on both ends.

Electricity heats quickly and gives a constant supply as long as there's a power source available. Electricity doesn't flavor the foods being cooked and it's not possible to use aromatic chips.

--Once the basic grill is selected, those extra features desired may be added.

Keep in mind, however, the old rule of thumb that you probably don't need everything offered. Also, many items can be added later, if and when they're needed.

The same guidelines hold true when it comes to accessories, but a heavy-duty cooking mitt and set of long-handled utensils will be useful as well as a safety precaution. If charcoal is being used for fuel, a plastic spray bottle with water is handy to control flare-ups on uncovered grills. Beyond these items, it is best to be certain that the item will really be used before a purchase is made.

A basic cookbook is one other good buy for the novice. There are any number on the market, including those published by the different grill manufacturers. The following is only a partial list and includes some old standards, as well as a few just off the press:

"Hot Off the Grill," Better Homes and Gardens, 1985, a well-illustrated basic book.

"Betty Crocker's Barbecue Cookbook," Golden Press, 1982, another good basic reference.

"Gas Grill Cookouts--Simple to Sensational," Arkla Industries, 1984, well-illustrated basic book for the gas grill.

"The Complete Barbecue Cookbook," Charmglow, Contemporary Books Inc., 1984, $14.95, another basic book for the gas grill.

"Barbecuing the Weber Covered Way," Tested Recipe Publishers Inc., 1972, $8.95, well-illustrated basic book for the manufacturer's gas and charcoal kettle grills.

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