Published July 1, 2003. From Cook's Illustrated.
Extra money may get you extra space and burners, but mid-priced grills perform just fine.
Update: April 2010
Since our 2003 testing, Weber relaunched Genesis as a high-end line and updated its mid-priced line with the Spirit E-210 and E-310 models. We tested the Spirit grills and have updated our results accordingly.
Gas grills deliver what 21st—century Americans prize most: ease. Turn on the gas, hit the ignition switch, and voilà—an instant fire of whatever intensity you need for tonight's recipe. It really is, or at least it really should be, a no-brainer.
Figuring out which gas grill to purchase, on the other hand, is a brain-bender. Discount and home improvement stores stock models as far as the eye can see, with burners of various number and type, overall sizes and cooking spaces from mini to maxi, and features ranging from automatic ignition to cup holders. And while no gas grill is cheap—prices start around $150—many constitute a substantial investment of several hundred, even several thousand, dollars. By grilling our way through almost $1,000 worth of groceries over high, medium, and low heat, we learned which designs and features affect performance the most.
All of the grills in our group delivered average high temperature readings were consistently in the range of roughly 600 to 800 degrees. Our high-heat cooking tests, searing both steaks and chicken thighs, put these numbers in perspective. What did we find? That you don't need enough heat to launch a rocket to give steak or chicken a good sear. We noted, in fact, that heat output was not necessarily related to price.
Covering the entire grilling surface with 1-inch-thick planks of eggplant and cooking them over medium-high heat helped us to assess how the grills performed in the moderate heat range, as well as how evenly that heat was distributed. As with heat output, we found that evenness of heating was not necessarily related to price.
Because gas grills allow precise heat control, they are especially well suited to barbecuing and grill-roasting. These techniques require low, indirect heat (in the range of 250 degrees to 350 degrees) for a long time to cook through large cuts of meat, fish, or whole fowl. All but one of the grills performed acceptably, maintaining the temperature at or near the target, with minimal adjustment, for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.
Melted fat that drips from hot food down onto the burners causes both excessive smoke and flare-ups that can give food an unwelcome, slightly burnt, "off" flavor. The fatty chicken thighs and steaks that we cooked were reliable indicators of which grills tended to flare. We found that effective design for fat drainage limits this problem.