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The thrill of a grill: Best bets on what to buy

In the market for a new grill this year and can’t decide what to buy? If so, you’re in luck — “Today” financial editor and Money magazine editor-at-large Jean Chatzky just happens to have a handy grill-buying guide produced by the writers at Money. Chatzky was invited to appear on “Today” to share details.

There’s no question Americans do a lot of grilling. Some 14 million grills were sold in 2003, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association — and that figure is expected to climb to 15 million this year. So if you’re in the market for a new grill, read on. We’ve made it our job to help you make a smart choice. Our reporters at Money magazine canvassed cookbook authors, chefs and retailers, comparing dozens of brands. We even cooked our share of steaks, chicken, even a whole hog in the name of research.

Gas or charcoal?
Experts disagree on whether gas grilling can match the flavor of charcoal, but nobody argues with the convenience of gas — no coals to light, no ashes to clean up afterward and you can adjust the heat by turning a knob. The fact is, the majority of grills sold are gas grills for all of these reasons. So how do you pick from all the gas grills on the market?

Price:
Eighty-three percent of all gas grills sold cost less than $300. Unfortunately, most grills in this price range are not built to last. They may work for a year or two, but after that you’ll soon be stuck buying another one. You don’t need to spend thousands to avoid that pitfall, but virtually every expert we consulted identified $500 as the price point where good value kicks in. In fact, it’s hard to buy a bad $500 gas grill.

Size:
Don’t skimp on size. Grilling, our sources point out, is a very active form of cooking, so you need enough surface area to move things around. Obviously, you don’t need a huge grill if you’re just going to cook a burger once a month, but you’d be surprised how much room a single chicken plus some veggies can take up. That’s why it’s smart to get double the space you think you need. It’s a good value because it doesn’t cost twice as much.

BTUs:
Don’t obsess over this component. Some of the pros we talked to — including celebrity chef Bobby Flay — couldn’t tell us how many BTUs you need. You just need some serious heat to get going, and again, topping $500 can pretty much guarantee you’ll do that.

Extras:
Base your purchase on the basics, not the extras like side burners and rotisseries. It’s like buying a car based on cup holders instead of the engine.

Guarantee:
Get a good guarantee. One of the differences between lower- and higher-end grills is the warranty. Look for lifetime coverage on the hood and the firebox (called the castings) and at least five years on the burners and grates.

Now let's move to our favorites: Gas first
Best luxury grill. Dynamic Cooking Systems BGB48-BQR, for $5,226. Whether you’re a serious chef (and at this price you should be) or just want to make your neighbors green with envy, this grill has it all — a large cooking surface, stainless steel construction, smoker tray with its own burner, grease management system and a lot more. It’s a piece of professional cooking equipment for your backyard.

Best all-purpose grill. Broilmaster P3, for $989. It costs more than a comparably sized Weber, but it’s worth it — in part because the company has a mix-and-match [NEEDS HYPHENS] ordering system that lets you build a grill with your choice of accessories. The casting burners and cooking grates — all nonstick, cast-iron and adjustable to three heights — come with a lifetime warranty, which makes this grill a great value to boot.

Best grill for chicken and fish. Weber Genesis Gold B., for $549. The Genesis series uses a burner configuration that makes it hard to adjust the heat from one part of the grill to another, which is an annoying limitation. But the setup is perfect for the indirect style cooking for which Weber is known and that makes it particularly well suited for chicken and fish. We like the Gold B in this line, which offers stainless steel fixtures. The C model offers a side burner for an extra $50.

Best grill for steak. Golden Blount Texas Sizzler, for $3,295. If you’re wondering why the steaks you cook in your backyard never match up to the local steakhouse, it’s the heat. Steakhouse broilers get a lot hotter than conventional gas grills, most of which top out 600 to 700 degrees. But the Texas Sizzler II uses infrared ceramic burners that can increase the heat all the way to 1600 — ideal for getting that quick sear that seals in the juices. This isn’t best for chicken or fish, though — you’re likely to incinerate them.

Best budget grill. Broil King Royal 1, for $250. This is a Canadian manufacturer with grills widely available in the U.S. It’s a small grill, but high-quality, putting out plenty of heat and it has a lifetime warranty for the castings and a five-year warranty for the burner, which is unusual for a grill at this price.

Best bets for charcoal grills
Best basic grill. Weber One Touch Gold, for $139. This is the classic Weber kettle, which revolutionized American grilling. Leave the lid off and sear a steak. Put the lid on and roast a chicken.

Best smoker. Big Green Egg, for $800. You can create smokiness with wood chips in any grill, but if you’re serious about the art of smoking, you should consider the Big Green Egg. It’s not ideal for steaks and burgers, but if it’s brisket and pork shoulder you’re after, this is the ticket.

And what about a hybrid grill?
Best compromise. Weber Performer, for $399. If you love the taste of charcoal but hate the hassle, here’s a compromise: The Performer offers a small gas pilot burner that lights the coals — no lighter fluid, no chimney, just push a button. You still have to wait for the coals to heat, but it’s a nifty in-between.

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at Money magazine and the author of “Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future.” Copyright ©2004. For more information, go to her Web site, .

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