Essential equipment and tools, including grills, tongs, and thermometers, plus fun extras like pizza peels, rib racks, and chicken roasters
Like indoor cooking, outdoor cooking requires the right equipment. When you're just learning to grill, you only need a few key pieces. But as your repertoire expands beyond burgers and steaks, you may want to add additional accessories for cooking fish, pizza, vegetables, and ribs. Lucky for you, there's a tool to help you cook just about any food on the grill, from a cumbersome whole chicken (use a vertical chicken roaster) to delicate halibut steaks (use a silicone mat).
Not all tools are created equal and for that reason, we've included information on what to look for when shopping and listed our favorite product in each category.
We start with the most important piece of equipment, the grill, and offer tips for determining what kind of grill suits you best, from a basic model for $159.70 to a $7,495 luxury version with an extra side burner and an infrared rotisserie system. Then we move on to the absolute must-have accessories, followed by a list of extra, but not essential, pieces. Unless you consider a pizza peel essential, that is.
Tips for buying a grill
The first step in purchasing a grill is to determine if you want to use gas or charcoal. Both produce great-tasting food and nowadays there isn't much of a price difference between the two, so deciding which is right for you comes down to how you want to grill. Below, we've outlined some key tips for purchasing a grill, and on the following pages, we've provided our picks for basic and luxury versions.
- A lid is essential
Always look for a sturdy grill that can stand up to strong winds and has a lid. A lid is required for indirect grilling (this means heat is on either side of the food rather than directly below it) and smoking with wood chips. Plus, closing the lid helps air circulate, providing for more even cooking.
- Bigger is better Consider buying a larger grill than you think you need or want. The more you grill, the more you'll want to grill — you may even find you'd like cook large racks of ribs and whole turkeys on your grill — so it's a good idea to invest in the equipment to accommodate your ambitions.
- Don't overaccessorize
When it comes to accessories such as side burners and rotisseries, think about what you'll really use before paying extra for them. Be aware that extra shelves may not be removable and could prevent you from grilling larger pieces of meat.
Charcoal grillsCharcoal grills are portable and easy to move. They require building and maintaining a fire as well as disposing of ashes and regular cleaning. It takes 25 to 35 minutes to get a charcoal grill ready to cook on. The flame can be very hot, but inconsistent. Charcoal grills often cost less initially, but they require purchasing charcoal for each cookout.
- Basic: Weber-Stephens One-Touch Gold Kettle Grills ($159.70; )
This classic kettle-style grill has a 22.5-inch diameter cooking area with two hinged side openings that allow you to easily add additional charcoal. The sturdy, all-weather wheels make this grill easy to move and the high-capacity ash catcher prevents ashes from blowing around during cooking.
- Luxury: Primo Oval XL Grill ($899.97; )Made of insulating ceramic that keeps heat in and air out, the Primo Oval is extremely good at delivering consistent heat. The oval shape provides 400 square inches of cooking surface, which is more than most charcoal grills.
Unlike charcoal grills, gas grills don't involve maintaining a live fire, but what they lack in excitement, they make up for in convenience. Gas grills light quickly and easily, and are ready for cooking in about 15 minutes. They deliver consistent heat and require very little cleanup or maintenance. Another advantage of gas grills is that they have large cooking surfaces. Look for a grill with at least two burners; three or more is even better.
- Basic: Kenmore 711-square-inch Total Cook Area Gas Grill ($469.99; )This freestanding grill has a 28- by 19-inch cooking surface, which allows you to grill (or smoke) larger cuts of meat. Four individually controlled burners make it easy to configure the grill for both direct (heat is directly below the food) and indirect (heat is on either side of the food) grilling.
- Luxury: Kalamazoo 450GS Gas Free-Standing Grill with Side Burner ($7,495; )This deluxe gas grill features an infrared rotisserie system, an integrated smoking box for easy smoking (no need to use an aluminum drip pan), and heavy-duty cooking grates that provide instant searing and excellent grill marks. The cooking grates can be configured to suit your personal cooking style and customized with your initials.
Tongs: You can do 90 percent of your grilling work with tongs alone. Look for ones made of heavy-duty stainless steel (aluminum versions aren't as sturdy) with a scalloped or oval tip, which makes it easier to grip and hold food. Medium-length tongs (about 12 inches) provide maximum control while keeping your hands far enough away from the fire to not get singed. Tongs should have a soft, comfortable grip. Those with a locking mechanism are the easiest to store.
- Our pick: OXO Good Grips 12-Inch Tongs with Nylon Heads ($10.99; )
Spatula: Look for a durable spatula with a beveled edge and a deep offset handle that allows you to get under food and lift it away from the surface without tearing it. Silicone spatulas clean up easily and can be used on grills as well as sauté pans. Try to find a spatula with a solid metal core so that it will be strong enough to support heavier food. For most grilling, you can use a spatula that is shaped like a duck's foot (wider at the front than at the base), but for fish you'll need a rectangular-shaped spatula that can slide under and hold whole fish or long filets.
- Our pick: Grill Friends Super Silicone Off-Set Spatula ($12.99; )
Brushes: Brushes are used for basting, saucing, and mopping food. Look for a brush with an angled, long handle (about 13 to 15 inches long), which will keep your hand away from the fire and help you get into all the nooks and crannies of your food. Silicone bristles are the best option; they're heat-resistant and dishwasher safe, plus they won't shed like versions made with natural or synthetic bristles. If you plan to barbecue, you may want to purchase a dedicated mop which features significantly more bristles and is more efficient at spreading the thin mop sauces used in barbecue. Use the same criteria as for brushes.
- Our pick: Grill Friends Super Silicone Angled BBQ Brush($9.99; )
- Our pick: Grill Friends Super Silicone Angled BBQ Mop 15"($11.99; )
To test the internal temperature of meat and poultry, you need an instant-read thermometer. Analog ones will read the internal temperature of food in less than a minute and tend to be more accurate than digital versions. Look for one that can be easily recalibrated with a hex nut and that has a large and easy-to-read face. For convenience, many come with a temperature guideline to tell you when your meat should be done.
- Our pick: ProAccurate NSF Instant Read 1-inch Thermometer ($9.99; )
Instead of lighting a pile of charcoal directly on the grill, consider using a chimney starter; it's basically a metal cylinder that allows you to easily and efficiently light and heat charcoal before adding it to the grill. Look for a large-capacity starter made with heavy-duty, unpainted, untreated steel able to withstand high heat cookout after cookout. A sturdy, heat-resistant handle — plus a second handle for steadying — makes pouring charcoal into the grill easier and safer.
- Our pick: Weber 87886 Chimney Starter ($15.99; )
Paraffin wax fire starters
A chimney starter requires some sort of fire starter and although newspaper can be used, paraffin wax fire starters are easier to use. They are sold as individually wrapped cubes. The best ones light immediately, even when wet. Always use odorless, tasteless, nontoxic starters made of mostly (or all) paraffin.
- Our pick: Weber-Stephens 24 pack Firestarter ($4.19; )
Sometimes the igniter in the gas grill doesn't work, or you wish you didn't have to light matches to get a chimney starter going. The solution: Use a fireplace lighter. Better versions are often refillable — make sure the fuel line is clearly visible so you know when it needs to be replaced. For ease of use, look for lighters that can be operated with just one hand. This lighter, pictured, features a handy built-in bottle opener.
- Our pick: CampLighter Elite Lighter and bottle Opener ($6.49; )
Long mitts or gloves are an absolute must when cooking with fire because they protect your hands, wrist, and lower arms from burns. If you buy cloth or suede mitts, look for thick, heat-resistant material that is washable. Silicone versions are dishwasher safe and won't catch on fire. Well-fitting gloves or mitts are easier to use and the newer three-finger versions offer added dexterity.
- Our pick: Grill Friends Super Silicone 3-Finger Glove ($19.99; )
Brass bristle cleaning brush
Grill-cleaning brushes are designed to remove the residue left on the grates after grilling and should be used each time you grill. Brass bristles are preferable to steel because they are softer and won't damage cooking grates. A flat scraper at the top of the brush is helpful for getting rid of cooked-on residue that is a little harder to remove; a long handle makes for easier use. Look for a brush that comes with a replaceable brush head.
- Our pick: Mr. Bar-B-Q Oversized Finger/Rubber Grip Brush Set ($14.99; )
Cool extrasSkewers and kabob holders
The easiest way to grill vegetables, shrimp, and small cuts of meat is to pierce them on skewers or kebab holders. Bamboo skewers, which can only be used once, should be sturdy and about 12 inches long. If you buy metal, look for ones made of stainless steel — it won't rust and is dishwasher safe. Double-pronged versions are better at holding food in place. Whatever you're grilling — scallops, chunks of lamb, whole mushrooms — will stay in place and be evenly cooked.
- Our pick: Grill Friends Double Kabob Skewers ($19.99; )
Silicone grill mat
Grilling fish is a little tricky because it often sticks, breaks, and falls through the cooking grate. Fish baskets are one option, but fish often sticks to those as well. A silicone mat prevents sticking; you simply lay it directly on the cooking grates and then lay the food on top of it. This one has perforations, which allow the fish juices to drip down to the heat source at which point they vaporize and flavor the fish as it cooks. Silicone mats can also be used to grill vegetables.
- Our pick: Grill Friends Silicone Grill mat ($20.99; )
A pizza peel helps you move pizza crust on and off the grill. Look for a peel with a beveled edge to slide under the pizza, a large surface (at least 13 inches in diameter) and a long (10 to 12 inches) handle to keep your hands away from the fire. If you don't want to invest in a peel, use an upside-down baking sheet instead.
- Our pick: Ironwood Gourmet Pizza Peel ($25; )
A rib rack resembles an English toast holder and keeps racks of ribs upright, allowing hot air to rotate around the entire rack during cooking. Look for one that is tall enough to reach at least halfway up the ribs, which will help keep them in place. For convenience, purchase one that is dishwasher safe.
- Our pick: Weber 6406 Rib Rack ($15.99; )
Vertical chicken roaster
A vertical chicken roaster is helpful for making beer-can chicken. The roaster has a vertical piece that holds the chicken upright over a tray of beer. The beer steams and flavors the chicken, resulting in a moist and delicious bird. Look for a roaster that is large enough to support a four- to six-pound chicken. If you want to roast vegetables as you roast the chicken, buy one with an attached roasting pan.
- Our pick: Weber Poultry Roaster ($34.99; )
One increasingly popular way to add flavor to delicate foods, especially fish, is to cook atop a wood plank. Many options are available at supermarkets and specialty shops. You can buy wood from a lumberyard, but make sure it's untreated, as treated wood can be toxic. Planks have to be soaked before using (so they don't catch fire); make sure the one you buy is small enough to fit in a sink, cooler, or bucket. If you entertain, a nice option is a plank that fits into its own serving platter. These can be easy to use and beautiful to present.
- Our pick: Cedar Grilling Planks & Holder Set ($49.95;
Grilling in the dark is difficult, because you can't see the food or the fire. You could use a heavy-duty flashlight outside, but this will tie up one hand. A permanent light installed on the patio would be the best scenario, but the second-best option is a portable outdoor light strong enough to illuminate the whole area. Look for one that can stand up to harsh weather. The one pictured here is weighted and will steady itself in strong wind.
- Our pick: Wobble Patio Light PL100 ($159; )
If your grill has a lid, you can add soaked wood chips and use it to "smoke" food fairly easily. However, some people opt to purchase a dedicated smoker because those are more efficient and allow you to smoke bigger cuts as well as larger quantities of meat. Smokers run the gamut from an inexpensive bullet smoker — named for its bulletlike shape — to a barbecue rig that can cost as much as a small house. They are all designed to cook food by the indirect method with charcoal and/or wood. The bullet smoker pictured here is easy to use and is large enough to smoke a whole turkey and a ham at the same time.
- Our pick: Weber-Stephens Smokey Mountain Cooker Smoker ($299;