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May/June 2016

Gas Grills Under $500

It doesn’t matter how powerful a grill is. If it can’t distribute and hold the heat where you want it, your food will suffer.

How We Tested

It’s easy to drop several hundred dollars on a gas grill and not get what you need. We’ve cooked on models that never got hot enough; models that were too small to cook more than a couple of burgers at once; models that rusted, wobbled, and warped; and models that couldn’t handle anything beyond the simplest jobs—never mind roasting a holiday turkey or smoking tender ribs. The bottom line: For the best results, you need a well-designed, responsive, durable grill.

The winner from our previous gas grill testing was discontinued, so we went shopping for some new models to test, priced at $500 or less. We focused on six major brands, asking them to help us choose their best contender. The grills in our lineup were outfitted with three to five burners, as well as two wing-like side tables. All but one grill were equipped with side burners set into one of the wings. All were fitted with warming racks, narrow wire shelves suspended across the back of the grill, and all featured built-in lid thermometers. You can buy a gas grill fully assembled or opt to put it together yourself. After trying both, we would strongly encourage you to order your grill assembled. Some stores do it for free.

We fired up the grills to cook (and smoke) a variety of foods, from burger patties to thick strip steaks to 5-pound pork butts. We checked that a 12-pound turkey fit under each lid with room to spare. We used slices of white bread to map each grill’s heating pattern, and we checked the accuracy of the grills’ lid thermometers with a calibrated thermocouple.

Along the way, we observed design elements of each grill that made cooking easier or more complicated. Scrubbing down grills after cooking and emptying grease trays showed which were simplest to maintain. And rolling them in and out of our grill garage over bumpy pavement revealed grills that fought us and rattled to pieces—literally—while others glided steadily and remained sturdily intact.

The Heat Is On

Most people choose a gas grill because it’s convenient: Turn a knob and you can start cooking in minutes. But whether that grill performs as it should is another matter. For simple grilling, the most important requirement is strong heat that spreads evenly across the grates. To determine which grills met the mark, we preheated each grill on high for 15 minutes (our standard method) and mapped the heat by covering the entire grill surface with white sandwich bread. Top grills gave us evenly browned toast. The worst made an uneven patchwork of black, brown, and white toast. Others dried out the bread, leaving it white with black stripes. Wrecked toast is no big deal, but when we grilled a quartet of pricey, thick New York strip steaks, the same thing happened. Spreading 4-inch burger patties across the hot grills, we saw those heat patterns a third time.

So what made the difference in how well food cooked? While manufacturers may try to dazzle customers with their burners’ high BTUs (British Thermal Units, a measure of heat output per hour), in our tests this number turned out to be less relevant than the grill’s construction and heat distribution. All gas grills share a similar construction: At the bottom, perforated metal tubes (the burners) produce a row of flames when the gas is ignited. Above them are metal heat diffusers shaped like inverted Vs. As we used the grills, we realized that these tent-like bars are very important. First, they shield burners to keep fallen food from clogging holes. Second, when dripping fat hits them, the fat turns into smoke that makes food taste grilled (they are sometimes called “flavorizer bars” for this reason). Third, and perhaps most important, they help spread heat horizontally across the grill. The flames’ heat wants to rise straight up, and without these tent-like bars to deflect it there would be distinct hot spots directly over each burner and cooler zones everywhere else.

All of the grills we tested had bars right over each burner, but our top-performing grills had further design tweaks to help spread out the rising heat for more even distribution and much-improved cooking results. One achieved this with extra bars between the burners, while the other featured a full layer of perforated stainless-steel plates beneath the grates, which, like the tent-like bars, diffused heat.

While powerful, even heat is critical in a good grill, so are a few other factors. First up: capacity. Sometimes you want to feed a hungry crowd. When we packed our grills with hamburger patties, the results were surprising. While the grills in our lineup featured different numbers of burners, more burners didn’t always correspond to more cooking space. The “smallest” grill—the only one with just three burners—held 19 burgers, while one of the four-burner models fit just 15 burgers. As it turned out, the four-burner grill was only 2 inches wider than the three-burner model (they were the same depth), a negligible advantage that was negated by the fact that the four-burner grill’s wide warming rack blocked access to the back of its cooking grates. Other grills shared this design flaw.

Grate material also mattered: Our two highest-ranking grills had cast-iron grates, while most of the lower-ranked ones used stainless steel. Cast iron did a better job of transferring heat for crisp, flavorful grill marks. Finally, the angle of the open lid also mattered. Curved, low-angled lids directed smoke right into our faces, even when fully open. Our favorite grills had lids that opened wide to let smoke flow straight up.

Slow Down

Direct cooking is important, but a good gas grill must also excel at cooking with indirect heat for roasting large cuts of meat or smoking them low and slow. To do this, after preheating the grill, you leave one burner on, turn off the rest, and set the meat over the unlit burners. For our test, we put wood chip packets over each lit burner and set pork butts (each cut into three pieces) over pans of water on the cooler side of each grill, maintaining a temperature of 300 degrees by watching the grills’ lid thermometers. All of the roasts should have reached an internal temperature of 200 degrees in 4 hours, yet even after a whopping 7 1/2 hours, some roasts still weren’t done. Others yielded tender meat but no smoke flavor. Only one grill rendered the meat both tender and smoky.

We realized that the problem causing this almost-uniformly poor performance lies in the grills’ construction and is, in fact, endemic to gas grills.

For indirect grill-roasting or barbecuing on charcoal, you push all of the coals to one side of the grill, put the meat on the other side, and then adjust the vents to customize heat level and airflow, putting the lid vent over the meat on the cooler side to draw heat and smoke over it. But all of this control is out of your hands with gas grills. The clamshell-shaped “cookbox” on a gas grill has nonadjustable vents, and all of those vents are in one place: across the back of the box. That means hot air and smoke flow in one direction when the lid is closed: straight out the back of the grill. This didn’t cause a problem with our previous winning grill (nor with several other models from our last testing). Its burners ran from side to side, so we could send the smoke and heat over the meat by turning on the burner in the front of the grill, putting the wood chips on this burner, and putting the meat directly behind. Heat and smoke traveled front to back, over the meat, on the way to the vents. But the burners in all of the grills for our current testing run from front to back. We’re not sure why manufacturers have all gone this route, but it means that the lit burner with the chip packet is always to the side of the meat, and so heat and smoke travel straight back to the vent—bypassing the meat.

Because of this, the integrity of the cookbox—specifically the box material and the number and position of the vents—became essential to success. Even though we had confirmed that the lid thermometers were all accurate and we had been adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a temperature of 300 degrees, we realized that the thermometer was only monitoring the air behind it and not the entire cooking surface. Lower-performing grills had row after row of vents that perforated the back of their cookboxes (some even lacked full back panels). The boxes themselves were thin, with lids that closed loosely over the grates. This translated to an inability to retain heat. When we tried a second time, placing meat much closer to the lit burner, the recipe timing and meat tenderness improved, but smoke flavor was still absent from most.

By contrast, our top grill—the only one that gave us smoky, tender meat—has a cookbox with its bottom and sides made of thick cast aluminum and a heavy, double-layered steel lid. The lid seals tightly, and the box has just one narrow vent across the back. Meat cooked properly in a timely manner every time because this fortified construction and minimal venting forced most of the smoke and heat to stay in the box with the food.

In the end, this grill’s competence and versatility, its sturdiness, and its easy cleanup (including the largest, most stable grease tray, which can be lined with a disposable pan) earned it the top spot. The Weber Spirit E-310 ($499) is an updated three-burner version of our former favorite. Weber moved the control knobs to the front, freeing up space on the side table, and added a hook that holds the propane tank and shows the fuel level at a glance. This grill is fairly basic, with no side burner (available on model E-320 for about $50 more), but it does the job. For the same price, you may buy a bigger grill with more frills, but you won’t get a better one.

Methodology

We tested six gas grills priced under $500. Grills appear in order of preference. All were purchased online.

Burners: Gas grills heat via perforated tubes called burners that emit flames when ignited. Grills are described by their number of burners, though we found that this did not correlate with performance or capacity.

Grates: The grill grates are made of either cast iron or stainless steel.

Size of Main Cooking Grate and Heat Output: Manufacturers typically list the combined total square inches, including warming racks and side burners. More usefully, we list the dimensions of the main cooking grate and how many 4-inch burgers each can fit. Similarly, we only list the BTU (British Thermal Units—a measure of heat output per hour) numbers of the main burner.

Features: Some grills offer more extra features than others.

Grilling: We grilled hamburgers and steaks over direct heat, looking for distinct grill marks, well-browned crusts, and moist interiors. We mapped the heat pattern of each grill by covering its preheated surface with white bread slices and examining the toast.

Indirect Cooking: We prepared pulled pork, keeping the grill at 300 degrees for more than 4 hours. Thermocouples confirmed whether lid thermometers were accurate. We rated the pork on smoky flavor and tender, moist texture.

Design: Grills received higher marks if their designs made it easier to set them up and cook.

Durability: Models that were hard to roll; lost wheels, doors, or other parts; or showed greater wear and tear received lower scores.

Cleanup: We rated whether grates were easy to scrub clean and whether grills had secure, large grease trays and catch pans that were easy to reach.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.