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Gas grills
Many people are choosing high-end models that do more than just grill. But you don't need to spend a fortune to get solid performance from an outdoor gas grill.

Getting a good grill has become easier--and cheaper--in the competitive marketplace; some of the best cookers we tested cost $200 or less. You'll also find $500 grills with the added style, space, and convenience of models that are much more expensive.

Stainless steel tops the list of high-end features that are moving down the price spectrum. Many lower-priced models now have at least some stainless trim, while midpriced models typically feature more of it as manufacturers find ways to offer the shiny metal for less.

You'll also find a greater number of grills that cost $1,000-plus as kitchen-appliance brands such as Frigidaire, Jenn-Air, and Viking have moved onto the patio. While we did not test any new-for-this-year small and portable grills, manufacturers continue to target the tailgating set with them.

GRILL TYPES

Char-Broil, Coleman, Kenmore (Sears), and Weber account for more than 60 percent of gas-grill sales, but the market also includes brands like Broilmaster, Ducane, Fiesta, Napoleon, Vermont Castings, and many others.

Basic grills. These are ideal for folks who want a good, frills-free small- or medium-size grill and who generally serve parties of four to six. Features include a painted cart and cast-aluminum firebox and hood; thin porcelain-steel grates; a side burner for some; more stainless trim as you spend more. But most of these models lack premium, coated cast-iron or thick stainless grates; burners backed by long warranties; rotisseries; and trays that hold wood chips for smoking. Many carts have only two wheels and lack convenient features such as warming drawers, shelves, storage cabinets, and grease trays. Price range: $100 to $250

Midpriced grills. Grills in this price range are the best choice for most outdoor cooks. The medium-sized grills at this level are loaded with more features and, increasingly, you'll find large models that can cook enough for 15 people. Features include more burners, burners with longer warranties, premium grates, recessed side burners, an electronic igniter, a rotisserie or a smoker tray, more stainless, and double doors. Note: Some carts have only two wheels. And many midpriced models have premium grates or burners with long warranties, but few offer both. Price range: $250 to $500

High-end grills. These cookers are for those who want a more-stylish medium-sized or large grill on which they can cook for 15 people or more. Features are the same as those on midpriced grills plus mostly or all-stainless construction, lifetime burner warranties, more burners that pump out higher heat, a fully rolling cart, greater storage space. At the $1,000 and up level the grills often have a toe-kick that hides the wheels. But based on our tests, paying more than $1,000 for a high-end model usually doesn't get you better grilling but you do get the features mentioned above. Price range: $500 to $1,000 and well beyond.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

Most cooking grates are made of porcelain-coated steel, with others made of the somewhat sturdier porcelain-coated cast iron, bare cast iron, or stainless steel. A porcelain-coated grate is rustproof and easy to clean, but it can eventually chip. Bare cast iron is sturdy and sears food beautifully, but you have to regularly season it with cooking oil to fend off rust.

The best of both worlds: Stainless steel is sturdy and resists rust without a porcelain coating. Cooking grates with wide, closely spaced bars tend to provide better searing than grates with thin, round rods, which may allow more food to fall through. Grills are mounted on a cart, usually made of painted steel tubing assembled with nuts and bolts. Higher-priced grills have welded joints, and some have a cart made of stainless steel. Pricier grills often use 300-series stainless steel, which includes nickel and has more corrosion-fighting chromium than less-expensive 400-series stainless. Manufacturers often use the cheaper stuff to cut costs. A stainless grill that is magnetic is made of the less-expensive material. Carts with two wheels and two feet must be lifted at one end to move; better are two large wheels and two casters or four casters, which make moving easier. Wheels with a full axle are better than those bolted to the frame, which can bend over time.

Gas grills generally have one or more exterior shelves, which flip up from the front or side or are fixed on the side. Shelves are usually made of plastic, though some are made of cast aluminum or stainless steel, which is more durable. (Wood shelves are the least sturdy and tend to deteriorate over time.) Most grills have interior racks for keeping food warm without further cooking. Another plus is a lid and firebox made of stainless steel or porcelain-coated steel, both of which are more durable than cast aluminum.

Still other features help a grill start more easily and cook more evenly. An example is the igniter, which works via a knob or a push button. Knobs emit two or three sparks per turn, while push buttons emit a single spark per push. Better are battery-powered electronic igniters, which produce continuous sparks as long as the button is held down. Also look for lighting holes on the side of or beneath the grill, which are handy if the igniter fails and you need to use a wooden match or propane lighter to start the fire.

Most gas grills are equipped with steel burners, though some are stainless steel, cast iron, or cast brass. Those premium burners typically last longer and carry warranties of 10 years or more. Many grills have three or more burners, which can add cooking flexibility. A side burner, which resembles a gas-stove burner and has its own heat control, is handy for cooking vegetables or sauce without leaving the grill. Other step-up features include an electric rotisserie, a fuel gauge, a smoker drawer, a wok, a griddle pan, a steamer pan, a deep fryer, a nonstick grill basket, and one or more high-heat infrared burners in place of the conventional type.

Most gas grills also use a cooking medium--a metal plate or metal bars; ceramic or charcoal-like briquettes; or lava rocks--between the burner and grates to distribute heat and vaporize juices, flavoring the food. Our tests have shown that no one type is better at ensuring even heating.

Gas grills sometimes include a propane tank; a separate tanks costs about $25. Some grills come in a natural-gas version or can be converted to run on natural gas. The tank usually sits next to or on the base of the grill and attaches to its gas line with a handwheel. All tanks must comply with upgraded National Fire Protection Association standards for overfill protection. Noncompliant tanks have a circular or five-lobed valve and aren't refillable, although they can be retrofitted with a three-lobed valve or swapped for a new tank at a hardware store or other refilling facility.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Most gas grills should perform at least adequately at your next outdoor gathering. As with indoor ranges, some models do so with more style and panache.

Consider your cooking. Grills with wide or thick stainless or cast-iron grates tend to be best at searing and browning quickly to seal in juices--essential for meats and fish. Wide grates leave the wide grill marks people crave. Heavy grates can take longer to heat up.

Take a head count. If you often entertain large crowds, look for a large grill with lots of space for grilling and storage as well as shelves. You'll find several capable choices.

Inspect the burners. These distribute the gas and flames--and are also the part you need to replace most often on a gas grill. Main burners with warranties for 10 years or more are likely to last longest. Recessed side burners are also a plus, since some can accept a griddle (some include one). If you tend not to cover your grill, look for a side burner equipped with its own cover.

Check the construction. Make sure the rolling cart that supports the firebox and lid doesn't rattle when you shake it. If you want a stainless-steel grill but are concerned about the finish getting stained, buy a model that has stainless fasteners and better, 300-series stainless (bring a magnet to the store). Or, consider buying a grill made with the less expensive, 400-series stainless and protect it with a cover ($30 to $50).


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