Published June 5, 2006. Web Exclusive.
We wanted a good barbecue basting brush that allowed us to both neatly and safely baste our food, even over the highest grilling heat.
We were taking a look at pastry brushes, tools that many of us reach for not only to brush an egg white on pie crust but also to slather barbecue sauce on our grilled chicken. But with their short handles, pastry brushes do a poor job of protecting a cook's hands. We wanted a good barbecue basting brush that allowed us to both neatly and safely baste our food, even over the highest grilling heat.
When we went shopping, we found numerous options: brush heads made of silicone, nylon, and boar's bristles and handles measuring from 6 to 15 inches and made from bakelite, wood, stainless steel, and enamel-like plastic. We chose seven types, gathered testers around lighted grills, and asked each tester to use each brush to apply a light oil mixture to bruschetta and a viscous barbecue sauce to chicken pieces. We also simulated normal wear and tear by leaving the brushes next to the grill, exposing them to flare-ups, and putting them through numerous washings. In the end, we determined three features that characterized a comfortable and safe barbecue basting brush: bristle material, handle material, and handle length.
Bristles made from silicone were the clear favorite. Nylon- and boar-bristle brushes both shed bristles. In addition, neither could handle high heat; nylon bristles melted and boar's bristles became singed. Finally, both nylon and boar's bristles were damaged when run through the dishwasher. The nylon bristles came out bent and clumped, while the boar's bristles clumped and remained damp. Washing by hand worked well for both the nylon and silicone bristles, but the boar's bristles retained food odors and color even after several washings.
We have one reservation about silicone: While boar's bristles retained enough oil to coat a slice of bruschetta in one stroke, oil slipped off both the silicone and nylon (we didn't have the same problem with the more viscous barbecue sauce). That said, the thin, close-set bristles of our favorite silicone brush did retain enough oil to limit the number of additional brush strokes needed for coverage to a few--not the case for the silicone brush with thick bristles or for the nylon brush.
We judged brushes with handles made from heat-resistant bakelite, rubber, and plastic to be acceptable; brushes with stainless steel handles became too hot when left near the grill, and those with wood handles could not be put in the dishwasher.
It seemed obvious that handle length (measured from handle end to the point where the bristles begin) can be too short, placing hands dangerously close to the flames; we determined 8 inches to be the minimum length needed to comfortably brush an item at the back of the grill. We were a little surprised, however, to discover that a handle can be too long; brush handles measuring more than 13 inches didn't allow enough precision and control.