Where there's smoke, there's fire, but the reverse is not necessarily true, as anyone who has tried to get barbecue flavor out of a gas grill knows all too well.
Gas models now make up an estimated two-thirds of the $2 million US market for grills, and the appeal is obvious: No messy charcoal, no messy ashes, no smelly lighter fluid. That makes gas the obvious choice for everyone whose primary desire when cooking outdoors is no-hassle burgers and dogs at a moment's notice. But for those seduced by the alchemy that happens when smoke slowly infuses meat -- the definition of true barbecue as opposed to grilling -- something other than gas has to burn.
I tested five grills (one gas, three charcoal, one electric) that purport to allow both high-heat grilling and low-heat barbecuing, plus one that's a low-heat smoker through and through. I looked at how easily temperatures could be achieved and maintained, how much tending they require, how easy they are to clean, and, most importantly, how tasty and tender they rendered steaks, baby-back ribs, and chicken thighs.
The gas grill by Vermont Castings, a solid model with heavy porcelain-coated grates and three burners, could heat up to 500 degrees within about a half hour. With one burner on, one off, and one on low, it could hold the right temperature for barbecuing (225 to 250 degrees) indefinitely. But the recommended method for producing smoke -- setting a tray full of soaked wood chips right on one of the burners -- resulted in mere wisps that seemed to bypass the meat altogether.
An electric grill/smoker made by Traeger that burns wood pellets, delivered on its promise of convenience and control, and was the most intriguing model. It lights within minutes and can hold three different temperatures for hours without baby-sitting. But the meats that emerged had less smoke flavor than those cooked over lump charcoal (cleaner burning than briquettes), and in some cases had a slightly odd taste, even though the pellets are all natural.
The most traditional charcoal design was the offset-firebox model by CharBroil. You can grill in the main compartment, or build the fire in the side box for barbecuing. The firebox has a large door for adding charcoal, and dampers let you control the temperature, with some trial and error. But the design isn't as tight as the others, meaning more of the smoke escaped than seemed to get into the meats.
That was not an issue with the Big Green Egg, a ceramic model that operates like a small kiln. The design is so efficient that the thing can hit 700 degrees without much charcoal, and such heat can last for hours without much fuss. It's awkward to replenish coals when you do have to, and the cooking area is quite small, especially considering the high price, but the ceramic design holds in moisture beautifully.
For the money, though, it's hard to beat good old Weber, whose name has become synonymous with grilling. The Weber Performer is an improvement on the tried-and-true kettle design, with a little propane canister to help light the coals, and a built-in ash bucket for the easiest cleanup of any of the charcoal models. A work table hides a bucket to protect a bag of charcoal from the rain. And inside, hinged grates allow easy tending, while separate charcoal baskets let you move the heat to one side for indirect cooking on the other.
The most devoted barbecue aficionado, however, should consider Weber's bullet-shaped Smokey Mountain Cooker. The coals are far from the meat, and a pan of water helps buffer the heat, keep meats moist, and carry the smoke flavor deep into them. It's not designed for high-heat grilling, but when it comes to low and slow, this baby helped me turn out the best baby-back ribs I've ever made.
Joe Yonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.