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Testing Flat-Top Grills

By Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm Published

With large, smooth cooking surfaces, these aren’t your typical grills: They’re good for searing burgers, cooking pancakes, and even frying bacon.

Peek into the kitchen at any busy diner and you’ll likely see a short-order cook standing in front of a flat-top griddle, employing every inch of its wide, flat cooking surface to churn out batch after batch of fried eggs, pancakes, bacon, grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, and more. A flat-top grill is a scaled-down version of this diner appliance that replaces a grill’s grates with a flat sheet of carbon steel. Like traditional gas grills, flat-top grills are propane powered, have multiple heat zones, and are designed exclusively for outdoor use. But unlike gas or charcoal grills, flat-top grills can’t be used for barbecuing or smoking foods. Instead, they’re meant for cooking foods that are typically cooked on a griddle—pancakes and fried eggs—as well as foods that are typically grilled but are flattop-friendly—steak, burgers, and sliced vegetables. And since flat-top grills have multiple burners, they also have multiple heat zones, which, in theory, allows for searing burgers in one zone while toasting burger buns in another.

In recent years, flat-top grills have surged in popularity. A 2018 article by Popular Science found that grill manufacturers have seen between a 150 and 600 percent increase in sales of flat-top models. The article credits the rise to the popularity of smashed burgers, a type of burger that is pressed flat as it cooks to give it crispy, lacy edges.

To find out which flat-top grill was best (and to have an excuse to eat a lot of smashed burgers), we selected four models, priced from about $170 to around $350. Three of the grills had four burners under their rectangular cooking surfaces. One of the grills had just two burners and a round cooking surface. On each grill, we made pancakes, bacon, and eggs over easy; seared Griddled Smashed Burgers from The Ultimate Burger and toasted burger buns; and made Chopped Cheese Sandwiches. We also used an infrared thermometer to monitor the temperature of each grill’s cooking surface when set at both a high and a low heat setting.

Assembling a Flat-Top Grill

Before we could start cooking, we had to unpack and assemble all the grills. The cooking surfaces of all the grills were made of carbon steel, which needed to be seasoned before use to prevent rusting and keep food from sticking. The instructions were all fairly straightforward, but we did encounter some issues. One of the grills provided nuts that didn’t fit the bottom bolts or screws, and we ended up having to go to the hardware store to find replacements. One of the carbon-steel flattops emerged from its packaging covered with a very sticky coating, but it came off easily as we seasoned the cooking surface. It took us from 20 to 65 minutes to assemble each grill, and from 10 minutes to about an hour to season each grill’s cooking surface. We followed each manufacturer’s instructions for seasoning, which usually involved oiling, heating, and cooling the cooking surface from one to five times.

The cooking surfaces of our favorite grills were big enough to fit an entire package of bacon, eight pancakes, and four eggs: enough to feed four. If you're feeding a bigger crowd, it's easy enough to cook another batch of each once the first batch is done.

Cooking on a Flat-Top Grill

Most of the grills produced well-seared, crispy-edged smashed burgers and toasted buns; crispy bacon and evenly cooked pancakes and eggs; and chopped cheese sandwiches with uniformly browned meat and onions. We preferred models with cooking surfaces that measured at least 35 inches long by 20 inches wide, since they could easily accommodate a pound of bacon, four eggs, and eight pancakes all at one time—enough for four people (and easy enough to make a second batch to feed an even larger crowd). The grill with the circular cooking surface, which had a 22-inch diameter (the same diameter as our favorite kettle charcoal grill by Weber), was too small to fit more than a couple of portions of food—four slices of bacon, two eggs, and three pancakes. Four burger patties and accompanying buns were overly cramped; the three larger grills could fit double that number with room to spare. The larger grills also gave us ample room for flipping and maneuvering food on the cooktop.

The size of the cooktop also played a role in our ability to create distinct hotter and cooler cooking zones. On the larger grills with four burners, we could set three of the burners to high heat to sear burgers and keep one burner on low heat to gently warm a saucepan of butter and toast burger buns. Similarly, we were able to brown meat for chopped cheese sandwiches and toast sub rolls at the same time. The cooktop on the smaller, circular grill, which had only two burners, was too small to create two distinct heat zones, and we ended up with burnt buns.

We used an infrared thermometer to check the temperatures of the cooking surfaces of all the grills. The winning grill (right) had distinct hotter (red) and cooler (green) zones, which allowed us to successfully cook burgers and toast burger buns at different temperatures at the same time. The cooking surface of our least-favored grill (left) appeared all red, meaning it didn't have a distinct cooler zone.

To measure the heat levels of the grills’ cooking surfaces, we set half of each grill’s burners to high heat and half to low heat. We then took the temperatures of all the cooking surfaces at three 10-minute intervals. Despite one of the circular grill’s burners being set to low, the temperature of most of its cooking surface at both the 20- and 30-minute marks registered about 440 degrees (a portion of its back edge was cooler). Our favorite grill had distinct hotter and cooler zones, with temperatures at the 30-minute mark measuring 408 degrees and 498 degrees.

How Easy Were the Grills to Use?

While most of the grills with rectangular cooktops turned out beautifully cooked food, we experienced some usability issues. One model featured small holes next to its burner knobs for users to look through to see if each burner was lit, but we disliked putting our faces so close to the grill. (We preferred grills with gaps between the cooktop and the control panel that allowed us to see the flames more readily to monitor the heat and make sure they were ignited.) This grill also had a finicky regulator—the part that attaches the gas tank to the grill—that resulted in all of the burners shutting down in the middle of cooking. This safety function was triggered if we didn’t completely tighten the regulator and then turn it very slowly to allow the gas to flow. It was the only grill to have this issue.

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A few design features made some of the grills easier to use than others: We liked the models with four wheels (the grill with two wheels felt rickety and was hard to move around) and high back and side walls that helped contain food and grease. Cooking surfaces without walls or with walls that were too low made it difficult to flip food, since walls provide support to get food onto a spatula when turning it. Finally, we liked grills equipped with two side tables, as we were able to put a baking sheet of our prepped ingredients on one side and a baking sheet to receive our cooked food on the other. Our favorite grill had side tables that were level with the cooktop, which made transferring food easy.

When cooking on a flat-top grill, you’re supposed to push any grease or leftover bits of food into a grease cup. The cup on one model (above) was flimsy and hard to position, so grease often ended up on the ground below it.

Cleaning a Flat-Top Grill

Two of the grills were tough to clean. One had a large grease well built into the flattop that ran along the entire front of the grill. On the left side of this well, there was a small, circular opening that led into a drip cup. This setup worked well for grease drainage, but it wasn’t helpful for cleaning. When we tried to scrape bits of gunk into the well (to collect in the grease cup), the small opening clogged. The other difficult-to-clean grill featured a large well that encircled the entire cooking surface and a grease cup attached to the back of the grill’s frame. The grease cup felt flimsy. Also, if it wasn’t positioned correctly, a small gap formed between the cooktop and grease cup, which meant some grease ended up on the ground. The large well around the outside of the grill caught bits of food but didn’t add much except for a large extra part to clean.

Our two favorite grills each had a large opening at the back of the cooktop, with a drip cup positioned directly under the opening. We simply scraped any bits of residual gunk through the opening and into the grease cup before wiping down and cleaning the cooktop.

After cleaning all the cooktops, we spread on a thin layer of oil to prevent rusting. For long-term storage, manufacturers recommend buying a grill cover (sold separately) and storing the grill in a cool, dry place. Like a resilient cast-iron or carbon-steel skillet, the cooktops of these flattops can be cleaned and reseasoned even if they rust after a long period in storage.

The Best Flat-Top Grill: Nexgrill 4-Burner Propane Gas Grill in Black with Griddle Top

Our favorite flat-top grill, the Nexgrill 4-Burner Propane Gas Grill in Black with Griddle Top, priced at about $300, was easy to use and simple to clean. A heads up: The cooktop arrives covered with a sticky coating to protect the surface, but it is easy to remove during the seasoning process. We were able to produce golden-brown pancakes; fry eggs easily; cook an entire package of bacon at once; toast burger buns well; sear smashed burgers thoroughly; and make evenly cooked, browned beef and onions for chopped cheese sandwiches. The grill was smartly designed, with four wheels for easy moving, walls that helped contain food, and two well-positioned side tables for keeping food organized. Two of the wheels could be locked, so it stayed put while we were using it. When we set half the burners to high heat and half to low heat and took the temperature of the cooktop, it had distinct hotter and cooler zones, with temperatures that varied up to 90 degrees between the two zones. A large opening at the back of the grill, with a drip cup attached below it, made for easy cleanup, as we could just scrape food remnants and grease from the cooktop into the cup.

Equipment Review Flat-Top Grills

With large, smooth cooking surfaces, these aren't your typical grills: They're good for searing burgers, cooking pancakes, and even frying bacon.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.