Mom, dad and daughter grilling on their backyard BBQ

Summer is the season of backyard hangouts, scoops of ice cream, sprinkler showers and—perhaps best of all—food fresh from the BBQ. But if the thought of buying a new BBQ leaves you scratching your head, you’re not alone. The hardest task is deciding on type: Do you go with natural gas, propane, charcoal or something else altogether? We asked grilling expert Stephanie Foster of Steph Foster’s Feasts to help us compare types of BBQ grills and discuss the pros and cons of each.

What to consider before buying a BBQ

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1What are the main types of BBQ grills?

There are six main categories to consider:

To land on a type of BBQ that works for you and your family, you’ll need to want to consider cost, size and versatility. You’ll also want to think about what features are important to you. “People use grills differently and all the choices can be intimidating,” says Foster. All the more reason to do your research so you can make an informed purchase.

Natural Gas BBQ

Dyna-Glo Premier 4 Burner Natural Gas Grill DGP483SSN-D The Dyna-Glo Premier 4-Burner Gas Grill comes with a 10-foot natural gas hose, a side burner, tool hooks and a towel holder.

If you have a pre-existing natural gas line, a natural gas BBQ is by far the easiest way to bring your indoor cooking game outdoors. “I lived off of my gas grill for 10 years and I loved it. I thought it was the be all and end all,” says Foster. “There is truly nothing wrong with it. It’s that mid-range [of price and features].” If you want to be more adventurous with your cooking and flavours, that’s where you might branch off to a charcoal, wood pellet or kamado grill.

Pros Cons
Natural gas grills start at around $300. Installing a natural gas line isn’t cheap,[1] and even attaching a BBQ to an existing line may require a professional.[2]
Your fuel source is constant and doesn’t require you to replenish it the way charcoal or portable propane tanks do. A natural gas BBQ doesn’t get as hot as charcoal and is not ideal for high-heat searing or chargrilling of meats.
It’s easy and comfortable to use and often includes features such as multiple burners, warming shelves and storage space. It won’t give you the smoky flavour you would get with charcoal or wood pellets.
It’s ideal for grilling fish or vegetables (but will certainly do the job for burgers and steaks, too).
It’s easy to clean and maintain by brushing off stuck-on food and grease.

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Propane BBQ

Char-Broil Performance Series 4-Burner Gas Grill 463351021 The Char-Broil Performance Series 4-Burner Gas Grill is 69 pounds and offers 435 sq. in. of cooking surface, plus a side burner.

“Natural gas and propane BBQs are going to deliver very similar results,” says Foster. The main difference is that one is wired to your home through a natural gas port, and the other one runs off a portable propane tank, which allows it to be transportable. Either way, gas BBQs (meaning propane or natural gas) are what most people gravitate towards, because they’re the easiest to use and maintain.

Pros Cons
Propane BBQs are usually less expensive upfront compared with natural gas grills (even as low as $100) and they come in smaller sizes. You have to deal with refilling your propane tank. As a rule of thumb, a 20-pound propane tank will last up to 20 hours on a medium-sized grill.[3]
Propane is portable because the tank travels with the BBQ. It can be complicated to check the propane level and you could run out of gas while cooking.[4]
It’s as versatile as a natural gas BBQ for cooking meat, fish and vegetables. In the long run, propane can be more expensive than natural gas.[5]
It offers many of the same features as your natural gas grills, including multiple burners, shelves and storage. Like natural gas, a propane BBQ doesn’t get as hot as charcoal.
It’s easy to clean with a brush. Like all gas BBQs, you don’t get the authentic smoky flavour or chargrilled texture you would get with charcoal.

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Charcoal BBQ

Dyna-Glo DGN576DNC-D X-Large Heavy-Duty Charcoal Grill The Dyno-Glo X-Large Charcoal Grill is huge with two cooking surfaces totalling 816 square inches.

To cook with a charcoal BBQ, you have to build up a pile of charcoal, light it on fire and tend to it before you can start cooking. “It’s carnal and gets you in touch with your primal instincts, but it’s messy,” says Foster. It requires more time, patience and clean-up than other BBQ types—but it’s worth it if you love your steaks and burgers smoky and beautifully seared.

Pros Cons
A charcoal BBQ is one of the most affordable grilling options. You can get a small, basic model for as low as $30 or an extra-large heavy-duty one for $400. It requires more experience to use, such as knowing how to count out the correct number of charcoal briquettes for the amount of food you need to cook.
It’s generally more lightweight and portable than other BBQs. Dealing with charcoal is sooty and messy.
Charcoal burns hotter than gas—700oF versus 500 or 600oF– for getting that perfect sear on a steak or burger. It’s slower to start than gas and takes longer to reach a hot temperature.
It gives you that true smoky flavour. It’s more hands-on and can be tricky to control the temperature.
It requires more cleaning and maintenance, including ash disposal.

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Wood Pellet Grill

Pit Boss Frontier Series The Ironside Pellet Grill 10427 The Pit Boss Frontier Series Ironside Pellet Grill can cook meals up to 30 per cent faster than traditional grills.

A wood pellet grill is an outdoor cooker that’s powered by electricity and uses wood pellets for fuel. It adds wood-fired flavour to your food while a fan circulates the heat and smoke for even cooking.[6] A pellet grill is perfect for low and slow cooking of meats using indirect heat, meaning the food isn’t in direct contact with the flame.[7] “This is my jam. I love my pellet grills,” says Foster. “You can really transform your food based on the different woods you put into the hopper.”

Pros Cons
A wood pellet grill is mid-priced. You can get a brand name for under $600. You can only use it for indirect heat, which is a slower way of cooking, unless you have a gas-pellet combo grill.
It’s versatile: if you can smoke it, roast it, grill it or bake it, you can probably also cook it in the pellet grill. It’s bulky. A typical wood pellet grill weighs over 100 lbs.[8]
It provides mild smoky flavour (but not as much as you would get with a traditional smoker). It needs a source of electricity.
The convection-style cooking is great for keeping food moist. Smoke enthusiasts may find the flavour too mild.
It’s super easy to use: Pour wood pellets into a hopper and push a few buttons. It requires more maintenance and cleaning out ash. A shop vacuum will help.

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Kamado Grill

Pit Boss Kamado 24” Ceramic Charcoal BBQ Grill 71241 The Pit Boss Kamado Grill weighs a whopping 220 pounds with a sizeable cooking space of 660 square inches.

The Kamado is a Japanese-style ceramic BBQ. It’s oval or egg-shaped and it functions in a similar way to a high-end charcoal grill, but it’s known for being able to circulate and retain heat much better.[9] “They’re definitely unique and versatile, “says Foster. “I would compare it with a premium charcoal kettle grill, but because it’s insulated you can get a bit of a longer cook.”

Pros Cons
It’s insulated, so you have many different options under one grill, from grilled meat to cold-smoked sausage to pizza. It’s pricey. A good self-standing kamado grill can start at $1,000.
The insulation also helps meat stay tender and juicy. It’s often heavy. A standard family-sized model is 250 pounds.[11]
You can get a wide temperature range, sustained over a long period of time.[10] You still have to deal with soot and ash from the charcoal.
It’s more durable than your average charcoal or gas BBQ. Like other charcoal grills, it’s slower to start than a gas BBQ.
It has a simple design and small footprint. The insulation means it takes longer to cool down as well.[12]
The ceramic interior is easy to clean. It works like a self-cleaning oven. Some models don’t allow you to do two-zone cooking, which means you can’t cook multiple things at the same time.[13]
It gives you the true smoky BBQ flavour of cooking with charcoal. You need to invest more time to learn to use it properly.

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Electric BBQ

Cuisinart Outdoor Electric Grill with VersaStand CEG-980 The Cuisinart Outdoor Electric Grill is great for family meals (up to eight steaks) cooked at an apartment or condo.

If you live in an apartment or condo that prohibits the use of traditional BBQs, an electric grill may be your best (and only) option. Think about an electric BBQ as a modern, large-scale frying pan. They’re basically flat-top grills or griddles that you plug in, and they’re great for frying up things like big breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and bacon or diner-style burgers. “I also see a lot of people making different types of rice and fajitas,” Foster says. “It’s a fun way to cook.”

Pros Cons
An electric BBQ is low budget—starting at about $25. It can be difficult to generate sufficient heat to cook well on. Make sure to read reviews before buying.
It’s compact and easy to store. It can take longer to heat up.
It’s available for indoor and outdoor use as long as you have a power outlet. Cooking times can be slower than what you’re used to with a grill.
Use it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You won’t get an authentic grilled flavour or texture.
It’s easy to clean.

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2What size of cooking surface do I need?

A good rule of thumb is to give 24 square inches for the average chicken breast or steak, and about 20 square inches for the average hamburger.[14] A family of four or five would do well with a 400– to 500–square-inch range, unless they’re big entertainers.[15]

Cooking Surface (square inches) # of Hamburgers # of Chicken Breasts or Steaks
200 10 8
400 20 17
500 24 21
600 30 25

3What is a BTU rating and why should I care?

BTU stands for British Thermal Unit—a traditional way of measuring heat output. But BTU ratings can be deceptive as they’re only relative to the cooking surface and aren’t consistent across models. “It’s just as important to know what the grill features are and how the heat is being distributed,” notes Foster. Many BBQ experts say a more useful metric is the temperature range in degrees.

4How do I choose a BBQ that will last?

Grills (and cooking grates) can be made of numerous materials, which makes choosing one a tad confusing. “Budget is often going to dictate what you get,” says Foster. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

  • When you go ultra-affordable: You could end up with low-quality steel, cast-aluminum, wire grates, plastic and heat-resistant paint that will eventually chip off with exposure to the outdoors.
  • When you invest more: You’ll get heavy stainless steel, cast iron, ceramic and porcelain coating.

5Are there any extra features I should watch for?

Diagram of BBQ grill features including main burners, side burners, grates and shelves

Modern grills come with a dizzying number of extras you don’t always need, but here are some of the most popular features to consider:

  • Multiple main burners (the average is two to four)
  • Side burners (typically smaller and off to the side, used for sauces and side dishes)
  • Infrared burners (which can get much hotter than charcoal or traditional gas grills)
  • Warming racks (an extra grate used to cook food at a lower temperature or keep food warm)
  • Side shelves, drawers and hooks
  • Heavy-duty, adjustable grates
  • Wi-Fi technology (to monitor your grill from an app on your phone)
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6How do I use a BBQ safely?

Cooking with fire—and gas—can be scary. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and keep your grill clean and well-maintained to avoid fire hazards such as grease flare-ups. Health Canada has many useful safety tips for handling common BBQ fuels.

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