O countrymen! What says America more than dogs on the coals outdoors? I recently moved into an apartment with a shared porch and back yard, and our first order of business was to buy a smallish grill.
Now, here's a social experiment: Find a group of guys and describe to them the cute baby-grill you want to buy. Cue the scoffing and blustering gusts of advice. It's a staggering cultural universal: Buried deep in many guys (and gals, for that matter) is a tangled need to engage with fire, cooking the spoils of the hunt. As my male friends jabbered, huffed, and sketched out instructions for making a charcoal chimney from a grapefruit-juice can and a church key, I realized: These intangible he-man urges would not be contained by any tiny grill. Put another way: Does size really matter?
We set out to learn more. I gathered a bunch of opinionated men to test-grill up a storm on seven machines. As my husband said, together they would don the Batsuits of masculinity and find the truth in a pile of smoldering coals and jets of flame. Or at least roast some wieners, as the case may be.
I sidestepped the propane-vs.-charcoal debate by testing both types together, since the mini-grill market is somewhat limited already. (If you're not hip to this argument: Propane fans extol that fuel's convenience and the control you have over the heat, decrying the mess of charcoal. Charcoal folks talk up its wonderfully smoky flavor and pooh-pooh any tenderfoot who effectively wants to haul his gas-stove outdoors.) I also threw in a George Foreman electric grill, for reasons explained below.
Speaking of fuel: When using charcoal grills, my grillmasters would cook only with natural lump charcoal, refusing both charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid. (Some grillers contend that both briquettes and lighter fluid tinge the food with a chemical taste.) That meant we lit all our coals outside of each grill in what's called a charcoal chimney. It's basically a big tin can with a handle and holes punched in its base. You stuff the bottom with newspaper, layer charcoal on top, and then fire up the paper until the coals catch. This is much less hassle than I first thought. How you light up, though, is immaterial to how a grill handles heat while cooking—the key to this test.
On each grill, we cooked what we pedantically termed the "quintessential American grilling package": three types of hot dogs (regular, tofu, and chicken-apple sausage); hamburgers; corn and strips of peppers; steak and chicken kebabs; salmon steaks; shrimp skewers; and boneless chicken thighs. The driving idea was to test each grill's ability at different temperature ranges, degrees of doneness, and cooking times. How finely calibrated could we get without great aggravation? We then dubbed expert grillers who would man the flames. The rest of us sat back to eat, drink, and grade their work.
We judged all grills on the following criteria:
Taste (10 points).How well did each deliver a good, even, roasty flavor? Did steak intended to cook medium rare come out charred, or did it have a rosy hue?
Convenience (10 points). How easy is it to assemble each grill, and how sturdy does the resulting unit feel? (Ricketiness is poison when combining fire with flip-flops, beer, and running children.) Is the grill big enough to cook multiple servings but small enough to stay portable? Are cooking and cleanup times reasonable?
Performance (10 points). How do various smarty design features, like fat traps, ventilation holes, and propane igniters, contribute to each grill's success? And how fun is it to grill with each unit? Does it deliver that delicious sting to the eyes, the woodsy smell, and bring joy to flipping stuff?
THE RESULTS, from worst to first:
Arctic Lil' Kettle Charcoal Grill, $19 Tsuris from start to finish. First, the Lil' Kettle's legs didn't fit into the predrilled holes in the grill's body. And when we filled it with glowing charcoals, the grill's shallow bowl and single puny ventilation hole killed the flames almost immediately. Artfully arranging the coals rewarded us with a small orange circle of grillable space directly above the ventilation hole, about the diameter of a coffee cup. "The Arctic is freezing," joked Ilya, the grillmaster in charge of keeping the Lil' Kettle alive. Still, we pressed on to produce some tasty tidbits over the tiny cooking surface. But later, after we'd abandoned the Lil' Kettle for other grills, it flared up, volcanolike, an entirely unexplained reversal.
Bottom line: If you're a great cook, you can make anything work. But why buy a grill you have to fight? Spend the extra bucks on a grill that doesn't hate you.
Taste: 7 (out of a possible 10)
Convenience: 3 (out of a possible 10)
Performance: 3 (out of a possible 10)
Total: 13 (out of a possible 30)
Char-Broil Table Top Portable Charcoal Grill, $25 Nicely sized, easy to assemble—we had high hopes for this one until we poured in the first round of hot coals. With less than an inch between the charcoals and the cooking surface, a line of nonadjustable holes on its underside, and no ventilation holes in its cover, this grill had exactly one temperature: red-hot. (You regulate temperature on a grill by controlling how much air feeds the flames; if you can't open and close the ventilation holes, you can't control anything.) Not that it maintained that for very long—its long shallow body couldn't hold many hot coals and required frequent ash-dumping. Everything we cooked took on an immediate surface char but stayed raw inside—fine for hot dogs, veggies, and steak kebabs, but not ideal for burgers and fish, and downright dicey for chicken. At least its removable grate was simple to clean. Barbecuing is all about delicious chaos: Orders pour in, from rare to blackened, and part of the fun is trying to deliver on everyone's wishes. This sear-machine makes life too hard.
Char-Broil Table Top Portable Propane Gas Grill, $30 This executes better than its charcoal sibling but is still occasionally problematic. After a hitchless assembly, we lit the grill from its underside, a slightly awkward process. The knob regulating heat worked smoothly but involved decoding a needlessly complex graphic. All the same, we turned out some quality grillables with little trouble.
The only real flaw is the flat grease pan under the grate. It should guide grease down and away from the flame. (The Weber Go-Anywhere Gas Grill's tented grease pan did this beautifully.) Instead, it let grease drip hazardously close to the flame, causing alarming flare-ups. Correct this obvious design flaw, and you'd have a solid player at a respectable price.
George Foreman GBroil for Two to Four, $40
Purists, scramble down from your bully pulpits: I realize electric grills are mere grilled-cheese warmers in your estimation. I included the George Foreman GBroil for one reason: Every time I mentioned this article to someone, they'd respond: "Oh, like the George Foreman grills?" Clearly this grill appears in enough buyers' selection sets to warrant a test-run.
I begrudge the GBroil's success out of stubborn romanticism: This sleek machine squeezes out all need for grilling finesse. It won't evoke the great outdoors, and you won't feel like "Wild Bill" Hickok astride his saddle. In fact, you will feel like a wimp whose urge for convenience has drained the color from your days. But food of all stripes will cook up nicely if you watch the clock, it requires zero assembly, and cleaning its nonstick surface couldn't be easier.
Convenience: 9 (The only reason the GBroil didn't score a 10 is that electricity limits where you can use it.)
Coleman RoadTrip Party Grill, $44 With its Jetsons-esque body, this grill had the boys scoffing until we fired it up. Our grillmaster liked its broilerlike grate; the thick bands of metal heated up much more than the skinny ribs of the other grills and locked in more juice. While mostly a plus, the grate also didn't fix firmly onto the grill's body and was a real pain to clean later. It also didn't create those beautiful hash marks that the skinnier grates did.
Its major problem is size: Good luck cooking for more than two finicky supermodels. At the same time, you could easily toss this tiny grill in your backpack, hike a ridge, and then grill for your honey all alone at the summit. If you and your honey are both finicky supermodels, so much the better.
Weber Go-Anywhere Gas Grill, $55 Now we're talking. After a straightforward assembly, this unit's push-button igniter didn't work, a problem readily solved with a manual lighter. After that, it was smooth grilling. We dug the thoughtful design touches: the tented grease pan, the clasp locking its legs into sturdy position, its slightly deeper cover, which allowed heat to build gradually. It also has a generous cooking surface in a still-portable size. If you dream of folding up your Viking stove and inflating it in miniature in the great outdoors, this grill's for you.
Weber Smokey Joe Gold, $30 What a beaut. The boys flocked around this like it was a Bettie Page flipbook. With rock-solid, simple construction, its roomy basin holds more glowing coals than the others', so you can continuously add fresh coals to the spent ones, minimizing the need to dump ashes. At the same time, it's easily portable, with elegantly bolted steel carrying arms. Its proportions also keep the food the right distance from the heat. Finally, the Smokey Joe's ventilation is tough to beat: Two pairs of adjustable holes in its body and four on the top come pre-assembled and work flawlessly. Standing astride the Smokey Joe in his Panama straw hat, lazily flipping a salmon steak, our grillmaster Ivan was in hog heaven. What more can you ask for than pure contentment?