How to buy the best barbecue

WITH summer upon us, our attentions shift not only to weather forecasts, but also on how best to scorch a piece of Bambi as the BBQ season kicks into high gear.

Before the feast can be cooked however there is the not so small matter of which BBQ to buy. This can be a tricky decision, and there's a lot of jargon for the buyer to muddle their way through.

Because of this, weighing up the following questions will help you choose which BBQ is best for your particular needs:

How many to cook for?

If you're likely to be mostly cooking for two to three people you probably don't need a six-burner monster BBQ. This said, if you're likely to be entertaining outdoors a lot and cooking for a crowd, a bigger four to six burner BBQ is probably what you need.

What's your budget?

There's a massive range of BBQs available - prices can vary hugely. While there are more affordable BBQ options available, cheaper BBQs constructed out of painted steel rather than stainless or powder coated steel are less likely to last and will probably rust over the winter months.

The other budget related factors to weight up are accessories. Many BBQs are sold as bare-bones kits that can be expanded with extras. These can range from trolleys to give BBQs portability, through to battery-powered rotisseries for cooking chooks or side burners for cooking with pots/pans and woks.

Hot Stuff

One of the first bits of jargon you're likely to encounter from a BBQ sales person is "BTU". This might sound like something said by the text speak generation but it is actually a measure of a BBQs all-important Bambi scorching quotient. BTUs stand for British Thermal Units and another heat output measure is Megajoules - the higher the BTUs or Megajoules, the hotter the your BBQ can run.

Gas or Charcoal?

Hang around a BBQ long enough and the odds are good that you'll hear the merits of Gas versus charcoal discussed. These conversations can become quite heated (pun intended).

Both have benefits and drawbacks but there is no real right or wrong as it really comes down to individual preference.

Further complicating things there's also two different types of gas. In New Zealand, most BBQs use Propane gas, which heats up quickly and provides an easily controllable temperature. Propane gas barbecues also tend to be easy to clean and provide a consistent heat every time they're used. The other gas option involves natural gas, which doesn't use a gas bottle but hooks up to a natural gas connection, which effectively equates to a near endless supply of gas. Some propane BBQs can be converted to natural gas so checking when buying is a good move if you're looking to avoid regular runs to top up the gas bottle. This said, also factor in the cost of getting an outdoor gas tap fitted and your BBQ converted if the natural gas option appeals.

The big benefits of BBQs with gas are convenience (they'll usually always ignite and produce heat), controllability (you can dial the heat up or down almost instantly), and consistency (you'll typically get the same sort of flame each and every time). If there is a downside to gas, it is this. Some BBQ aficionados argue that gas BBQs can dry food out as it cooks, leading to less tender meats.

For most hardcore BBQ fanatics, charcoal is really where it is at. The rationale for this is that charcoal BBQs can cook foods at very high temperatures to seal in juices, and when at low temperatures, charcoal will also impart a smoky BBQ flavor to your food. This said, charcoal BBQs tend to take longer to heat up and getting the temperature just right with charcoal is more of an imprecise art than a science.

A word from a BBQ pro

Another great idea when shopping for a BBQ is to pick the brains of an expert. I caught up with Sam Sullivan who as the CEO of BBQ importers Brittain Wynyard & Co, so he knows the odd thing or two about BBQs:

What's the number one thing a buyer should look out for when buying a BBQ?

I think traditionally Kiwis have purchased a BBQ with the expectation that in a couple of years it will rust out and they will have to purchase a new one, it's a false economy, buy quality, pay a bit more and have it last.

Charcoal, Gas or electric - what do see as the pros and cons of each?

In my opinion, gas is for the kitchen, in technical terms it's awful for grilling, drawing moisture away at incredible speed. The big upside is speed.
Electric often does not get hot enough, when it does it seals pretty well and it's clean convenient.

Charcoal is slower and messier but it gives a true char-grilled flavor.

Which would you recommend? Why?

Charcoal is by far the best option in terms of the end result.

Are there any hidden costs a BBQ buyer should look out for?

In the case of gas, often the bottle is an additional cost, then there's refilling it. With charcoal you have the ongoing cost of charcoal, which is not cheap.

What accessories would you recommend when buying a BBQ? What about accessories you would not recommend?

Long tongs, spatula and a good sharp knife are key, when slow cooking a meat thermometer is absolutely essential.

Are there any specific materials that are more durable than others when it comes to BBQs?

Ceramic lasts for decades, metal parts can rust in our maritime climate.

What about storage when not in use, what should a buyer factor into their thinking when buying a BBQ?

Covers are essential, however using some sort of protection from rust is highly recommended, just some silicone on non cooking areas and canola oil on the rest will give you a better outcome when the time comes to unveil the BBQ for summer.

What pitfalls are there for the unwary buyer with BBQs?

You get what you pay for.

If there were 5 things a buyer should look for what would they be?

1. Covered cooking is a good way to go for slower cooks
2. If you want street cred at your BBQ's - go charcoal
3. Stainless steel or powder coated metal parts - not painted
4. Think about portability, are you going camping of staying put, do you need one for home and one for the road

Any tips for BBQ maintenance?

Always clean it before covering it up, especially the cooking area. When using gas make sure the "kitty litter" is changed regularly as fat can build up and catch fire.

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