The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

Grilling Season 2015-Part 2

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The previous blog entry: GRILLING SEASON 2015-PT. 1, covered some of the silly rituals and routines that mark the dates when the perceived start of the grilling season occurs. The conventional wisdom is everyone, or at least “normal people” grill only between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The coming of the “Official Grilling Season” marks the annual rollout of new grill models for the coming year. GRILLING SEASON 2015-PT. 2 will cover the rollout of the new grills for 2015.

If you look at the numbers backyard grilling is getting more popular and very mainstream. Generally when this happens the equipment becomes more available and gets better. Sadly this is not necessarily the case in grilling. The price increases in stainless steel have resulted in a “rise to the bottom”. Most grills for the average user are not as good as the models that proceeded them. Instead the build quality is reduced to keep the prices low and the grills are tricked out with a bunch of relatively useless and gimmicky features. I reminds me of classic Detroit when each year the look of the car was changed for the sake of change. Add some chrome trim here, remove some chrome trim there. In the fifties the cars had cosmetic only fins and ports on the sides that looked like WWII fighter planes. This “rise to the bottom” with grills is one of the reasons I bought my first Big Green Egg. My 10 year old grill and 8 year old smoker were better quality than anything I could buy in 2013 for anywhere near the price. When I found the Egg was a better cooking tool than either of them, I made the switch and got my other two Eggs. The fact they were so well built was icing on the cake. They will probably outlast me and I no longer have to face today’s crop of value engineered grills. Even though I am now a ceramic grill owner, I am still interested in grills and smokers. Every year I look at the new crop of grills hoping to find something good in a sea of poor.

One of the first spring rituals is the arrival of the shiny new grills in the various big box stores. The grills are starting to be displayed outside the stores and the amount of square footage in the stores devoted to grills had doubled or tripled in size. The new 2015 grills give you a clue as to where the industry thinks this hobby is headed. These are purely my personal observations, I have not researched the subject. Although I am now a Big Green Egg owner, I am still interested in all types of grills. First here are my general impressions based on the early crop of equipment that has rolled into the stores:
  • Outdoor cooking is more popular than ever judging by the wider variety of different grills and smokers found in the stores.
  • Backyard pellet grills are getting close to going mainstream. A few years ago it was rare to see even one pellet grill. Now many stores carry them and sometimes they carry several models.
  • Backyard smokers are mainstream and have been for a while. Most stores have one of more models of smokers, typically s horizontal offset barrel smoker.
  • Kamado grills are now mainstream or close to it. Most stores that have more than a few grills have some form of kamado grill. Many times they are el-cheapo knock off models, but I’ve also seen Kamado Joes at some of these stores.
  • Infra-red grills or specialized infrared burners are more popular than ever. Char Broil has an entire line of Infrared grills, but there are widespread reports of problems with pre-mature rusting on these units. In addition to regular grilling, Infrared burners are used to create specialized rotisserie burners or searing burners.

Value engineering is alive and well sadly. I truly hate this term. This is where you try to lower the total price by using lesser cost materials or components, while still maintaining the perception the item is just as good. Or if an assembly used 4 braces, you try to get by with 4 thinner braces or just 3 braces. Value Engineering began in the grill industry when the price of 304 grade (non-rusting low iron content) stainless steel skyrocketed in the mid 2000’s.

Value Engineering (VE 1) Item 1-Stainless Steel Grade: Over the years manufacturers switched to the lower cost 430 grade stainless steel. This grade contains more steel and less nickel than 304 grade. 430 grade stainless steel will rust. Any surface flaw that allows moisture to penetrate the outer surface of the 430 grade stainless steel will result in rusting. 430 grade stainless steel can be somewhat long lasting if it is sufficiently thick and care is taken in the manufacture. Thicker panels won’t flex and this flexing is one of the things that allows surface flaws to form. Care has to be taken during manufacturing with the connection details. Welding is harder to do with 430 steel and many grills use folded corners and screws which increase the chance of surface imperfections. With less steel in the mix, 304 grade stainless steel is non-magnetic. You used to be able to place a magnet on the grill panels to tell where 304 grade stainless was being used. These days it simply is not used for the exterior grill panels in mainstream grills.

VE Item 2-“Feel Good” Warrantees: Look at the warranty terms very carefully. Message boards are filled with complaints from people whose grills began rusting almost right out of the box. The warranty will give you an idea of what to expect. The latest line of Sears Kenmore Elite Gas grills have a warranty that appear to try to offer a bit of a smokescreen. The burners are covered with a 15 year warranty which sounds very impressive and is highly touted in the advertising copy. The gotcha is the exterior of the grill carries a 2 year warranty. What good are burners that last 15 years if the exterior of the grill has rusted out several times over. Sadly it is not hard to find users complaining their grills started rusting in 1-3 months. Yes I meant months, not years.

VE Item 3-Less Burners: There are very few 6 burner gas grills out there any more. What once were 6 burner gas grills are now 5 burners or even 4 burners. While it may still be possible to get even heating with 5 properly designed burners, you will never be able to do an equal sized 3 zone fire. 6 divided by 3 = 2, 5 divided by 3 = 1.67.

VE Item 4-Less Powerful Burners: Some grills have maintained the same number of burners, but the burners themselves have lower BTU ratings. The Kenmore Elite line now has added a 6 burner unit back into the line. But the BTU ratings for the burners is far less than the model I owned, about 33% less. Now it isn’t just the pure BTU rating that affects how the burner cooks, the design of the burner can influence how well the burner cooks too. But at 33% less BTU’s I am guessing these burners are cheaper, not better designs and won’t cook as well.

VE Item 5: Bells and Whistles of Questionable Value: The price increase in 304 grade stainless steel pretty much wiped out the “true” mid-priced gas grill. What seems to pass for a mid-price gas grills these days is simply based on a lower end model tricked out with lots of bells and whistles. Look carefully at some of these “features” to see if they are things you need or will actually use more than once. Many of these “features” seem to be designed to make the grill look attractive on the show floor, but are rather useless in real life. A good example of this is Williams-Sonoma’s $1,200 4 burner stainless steel gas grill. It lists 5 important bullet pointed features. Stainless steel construction is number 1, but nowhere does it mention the type of stainless. This tells me it is the Grade 430 which can rust. If it was the 304 grade they would be trumpeting that. Now what is the 5th important bullet pointed feature in the advertising copy? Wait for it: A “signature bottle opener”. Are you kidding me? A $1,200 grill and the bottle opener is a top 5 feature. This is what I mean by bells and whistles of questionable value.

Every year many grill manufacturers tout some new or improved features. While some of these features truly are new and improved, many of them seem to be there to try and help move the grill off the show floor. You must decide if the feature is something you will actually use, how well it is executed or if it is simply there to distract you from the fact this is an average grill fitted with a bullet point list of “feel good” features. A “feel good” feature gets you to feel good about the grill long enough to buy it and take it home. Then when you actually go to use it may or may not be something you want or need. It may work so poorly you try using it once or twice and never use it again. So when confronted with a list of bullet pointed new features you must decide the usefulness for your use case. Look for reviews on the internet to see what current owners of the grill have to say.

New or Improved 1?-Let There be Light: Many new grills are coming with lighted knobs and/or lighted control panels, plus better grill lights. The advent of LED lights is allowing for an improvement in grill lights. If this is important to you, you should evaluate them in person. Some grill lights are pure gimmick-a bullet point on the features list. Others are truly useful. Look for reasonably bright and even illumination across the entire grilling surface.

New or Improved 2?-Searing stations: This is one of these features that looks real cool on paper, but whether it is truly useful or not may depend on your needs. Once found only on a few high priced grills it is moving more into the mainstream The searing station involves an area of the grill with a special high temperature burner which can get up near 1,000 degrees (540 C) or so to put a nice sear on the food. Several potential problems though. The first is if the burner is located in the main section of the grill, you may be losing that area for regular grilling. Secondly the area of the sear burner is always smaller than the regular grilling area. So you are limited in how much food you can fit on the sear station at once. If you are grilling 6 steaks and can only fit 2 or 3 at a time on the searing station what then? Some of the searing stations are being moved to the side table. This solves the problem of loosing main grill area to a searing station, but doesn’t solve the problem of size. In fact it may aggravate it. You now have a lot more main burner area with no sear station in the main grill. But you only have slightly more area for the searing station located on the side table. Now you have the problem of potentially having even more food coming off the main burners than the searing station can handle in a single pass
New or Improved 3?-Folding Side Tables: Those of you using the Big Green Egg on a Nest (Rolling Cart) probably also have folding side shelves and are familiar with this feature. It seems to be moving into gas grills now too. Color me cynical, but I don’t think the reason for this is truly the stated reason. The stated reason is this is good for people using their grills in tight quarters. This seems odd to me because unless you are moving the gas grill in and out of some tight corner, you would need enough space to fit the shelves in the open position to use them. Most people I know keep there large gas grills in one location because they aren’t so easy to move. If you can use the shelves in the open position, why do you need to fold them up to make room? Fixed or folding, the grill still needs say 6’ linear feet of space to use the shelves. I suspect the real reason is the dreaded value engineering. These folding shelves seem flimsier, use less materials and likely they would cost less to manufacture than a sturdy fixed shelf.

New or Improved 4?-Steaming Attachment: This is an attachment that adapts the side burner for steaming veggies or other items. The ones I’ve seen can be removed so you get the typical side burner. I first saw these about 3 years ago and I thought they might be a short lived gimmick. They seem to be getting a bit more common. I have no experience either first or second hand with these so I will offer no comments but one. If this is an important feature for you on a particular grill, do some research. Go online to the manufacturer’s web site and see if there are user comments posted about the grill. If so, there are sure to be some comments about the usefulness of this specific feature. You may find your money will be better spent on a similar grill without this feature, if the feature doesn’t work well to begin with.

Grills are more Colorful and Look Different: Grills are being value engineered to keep the cost of materials down. Parts that were once bright shiny stainless steel are now some form of painted metal. Gas grills were once all silver with black accents. These days grills are every color in the rainbow. Parts that were once metal are often plastic these days. At first these plastic parts were squarish black or grey shapes, just like the metal parts they replaced. Since it is relatively easy to mold plastic in any shape or color there is no reason these parts have to look like metal parts. Lately grills are using plastic parts that are not simply square or round tube shapes. They are now being molded in free form shapes and various colors. Many smaller charcoal grills are taking on more free form shapes using curved or free form shaped parts. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Just be sure of two things: First make sure the good looks don’t distract you from properly evaluating the grills other features. Second make sure that the shape of the grills body won’t limit you in what you can fit on it or use for accessories such as rotisseries or multi-tiered shelves.

I am sorry for sounding so cynical here. I used to really look forward to seeing what was new in grills and smokers every year. It used to be that manufacturers tried to do things to add value to their product to make them last longer and be easier or better to use. In these days of value engineering they are looking for things to take out our source more cheaply. Items added in are often of questionable use value and seem more like a smokescreen to get you to feel good about a grill on the show floor. Sadly these days with the high price of truly non-rusting 304 grade stainless steel, to get a high quality gas grill you must add some zeros to the end of the price tag. But do the math an $800 gas grill that lasts 3 or 4 years or a $4,000 gas grill (in todays dollars) that lasts 20 years. This works out to be the same. You get what you pay for after all. One of the reasons I added a Big Green Egg to my grills was to try to extend their life. The replacement models for my gas grill and smoker were not of the same quality. I figured the Big Green Egg would help spread out the load and extend the lives of the other two grills. Instead I discovered the Egg could do a better job than the other two grills and would last 20 or 30 years. There was a true life time warrantee on the ceramics. Sure with 3 Eggs I paid around $3,500 dollars total, but spread that figure across 20 or 30 years. When I bought the Egg I wasn’t thinking too much about the longevity factor. But this proved to be the solution for me. Your mileage may vary,you may choose to go a different route based on your needs. At least after reading this entry your eyes will be wide open and you won’t have unreasonable expectations in these days of value engineered grills made in China.

   GRILLING SEASON 2015 - PART 1 2015 Blog Entry about the annual rituals involving the coming of “Official Grilling Season”.

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