Nothing Beats the Thrill of a Simple Little Grill
Those $4,000 Stainless Steel Behemoths Seem to Miss the Point
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page F05
I have a little Weber dome-top grill in my back yard that doesn't get much use and has gotten a little rusty over the years, so I don't profess to be an expert on barbecuing. Nevertheless, I do love to crank it up occasionally, and if my kitchen weren't on the second floor and my cats always trying to escape, I would surely break out the charcoal more often.
Despite my relative lack of experience over an open fire, though, I have come to wonder whether these enormous stainless steel, do-everything, impress-everyone, $4,000 gas grills that are proliferating in stores, magazines and catalogues aren't missing the point just a little. It seems to me they've taken us too far afield from the real attractions of barbecuing.
I don't want to impugn gas grilling in general, since it's obviously a useful, convenient and consistent way to cook out. Nor am I trying to suggest that high-end, six-burner grills with coolers, convection action, rotisseries and warming drawers don't have their place and their utility for some avid barbecuers. But is that really why people are buying these grills?
Based on the luxurious layouts one sees in home decor magazines, outdoor catalogues and at some barbecue retailers, one would never know that grills costing more than $1,000 represent just 1.5 percent of all barbecue grills sold, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. They do, however, account for nearly 15 percent of sales.
But these grills have had an upscaling impact on the whole outdoor grill market. Many grill buyers today are "trading up," and sometimes pretty significantly, making models in the $400-to-$800 price range the fastest-growing category in the business. Legions of people are going from a $100 or $200 grill to a more substantial, feature-laden style with something of the look and feel of the big-ticket versions most people can only drool over.
People want better grills for many good reasons. Barbecuing has gotten a tremendous boost as baby boomers age and more people entertain at home. And people who have taken advantage of historically low interest rates to remodel their homes or buy new ones have invested in inviting outdoor entertaining space.
Along with that new orientation have come books and television shows teaching people how to barbecue better, and this more knowledgeable audience wants the right tools to work with. There are now more than 50 companies making high-end grills, while a few years ago there weren't even 10. Expo Design Center can hardly keep its best-selling grill, the $1,199 Glen Canyon, pictured at right, in stock.
The culinary results from these pricey platforms may also be better than those from a hastily built charcoal fire. Separate burners and thermometers to get the heat just so make it easier to replicate your cooking successes and actually master a technique, rather than just hoping your leg of lamb comes out as well as it did last time.
But even barbecue experts aren't necessarily convinced that the fanciest grills are worth it. "There are many of these giant gas super-grills that don't perform any better than the smaller ones," said Steven Raichlen, cookbook author and host of the PBS television show "Barbecue University With Steven Raichlen."
"You could spend $400 on two very well-known brands of grills, where the drip pan . . . is one quarter of an inch deep. It's just a really stupid design," he said. "I think a lot of grills are designed by marketing people and engineers and not people who are actually cooking."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company