Barbecue features explained
What is a barbecue?
At its most basic a barbecue is simply a grill, positioned over a heat source, that you use for cooking outdoors.
You can make one out of any heat-proof container with a heat source in the bottom and metal grill above it - even an old oil drum.
But these days barbecues have grown much fancier. And while they’re usually used for grilling, you can buy barbecues that allow you to roast, fry, sauté, boil and simmer a wide variety of foods.
Basic features of barbecues
These are the most common features you'll find on barbecues.
The grill is the metal surface that you cook food on. You might see it referred to a cooking grid or cooking grate.
It can be made from a variety of metals, including cast iron, stainless steel or chrome-plated steel; the latter being less durable and less expensive.
Cast-iron grills are more robust but can be heavy to remove for cleaning.
A raised edge or lip around the grill makes it easier to turn food because you can push the food up against it to help grip it firmly.
These are metal grills that have been coated in a layer of hardened glass – like the inside of an oven - and are generally considered a high-spec feature.
These grills are good because porcelain enamel is a non-toxic material that won’t burn, rust, or weather. It’s durable, easy to clean, and gives a smooth surface so food is less likely to stick to it.
The downside is that the coating can crack or chip, exposing the metal below, which may result in the grill needing to be replaced.
Different foods take different lengths of time to cook. A warming rack is a smaller second grill that’s positioned above the main grill.
Food that’s already cooked can be placed on this warming rack to keep it hot without cooking it further, while other slower-cooking food catches up.
Lids are typically just a cover for an open grill to protect it from the elements, although you might find that some hoods are referred to as lids.
A temperature indicator fitted to the hood is useful for checking the cooking temperature when the lid is closed. They also make pre-heating the barbecue easier because you'll know when the barbecue has reached its cooking temperature without using your hand to guesstimate.
Some indicators are removable and have a probe that can be stuck into food to check its temperature. The indicators can get hot if the hood has been closed for a long time, so take care when removing one.
Storage shelves and racks
The utensils, dishes and bottles you use for barbecuing can all add up to a surprising amount of paraphernalia and having somewhere to store this while you’re cooking can make barbecuing easier.
Side shelves and base storage trays let you rest your cooking utensils when not in use and store other things such as bottles of ketchup or trays of food.
Some well-designed barbecues will have tool hooks for hanging greasy utensils, and condiment baskets to let you keep bottles, sauces and matches close to hand.
Gas barbecue features
High-spec gas barbecues have some features that allow you to use gas in other ways to heat your food.
Other features make up for the fact that cooking on a gas grill does not automatically create an authentic barbecue flavour.
A griddle is a metal plate on a gas barbecue that’s heated to high temperatures and which offers versatile cooking – you can fry (either directly on the griddle or in a pan that’s placed on it), sauté, braise, stir-fry and even simmer sauces. It’s a great way to cook a wide range of foods, including fish, steaks, lean meats, eggs and vegetables.
Some gas barbecues have small burners at the side, which can be used to whip up a sauce or stir-fry.
They are convenient for warming sauces or frying onions on the side, but take care because pans can easily be knocked off them.
Some gas barbecues have a tray beneath the burners to collect the fat or a hole that drains it away to an external pot, so you can pull this out and clean it separately, rather than having to clean the base of the barbecue.
Lining fat-drip trays with a layer of foil and sand absorbs the fat and the liner can simply be thrown away, which makes cleaning the trays easier.
Lava rocks and vapouriser bars
Good gas barbecues will have lava rocks or vapouriser bars to help create that smoky barbecue taste.
Fat and meat juices dripping onto hot lava rocks below the grill evaporate, producing smoke and helping to add a chargrilled flavour to food.
Vapouriser bars work in the same way - fat and meat juices drip onto metal bars, positioned above the burners, and then vaporise to infuse food.
Charcoal barbecue features
Look out for these features on more expensive charcoal barbecues:
Some charcoal grills have flaps to make it easy to add charcoal while cooking, but wear gloves to open them because the handles can get very hot.
Air vents on charcoal barbecues help control the temperature. You can open the vents to make coals burn faster and hotter, and close them to reduce the heat.
You should always light charcoal barbecues with the vents opened.
With ash and grease as by-products, barbecuing can be a messy business - especially when it comes to cleaning. But removable ash collectors on charcoal barbecues can help.
They catch the ash, so you can pull out this tray and clean it separately, rather than having to clean the base of the barbecue.
Moving and storing features
Wheels and handles
Barbecues can be heavy and unwieldy; if you’re likely to move yours around a lot, you’ll need one that’s easy to move and manoeuvre. Most have two wheels so you can lift and wheel it from the opposite end – look out for models that have a handle to make this easier.
Some have castors instead of wheels, while others have two wheels and two castors; castors let you lock the barbecue in place so it's more stable to cook on.
If you intend to keep your barbecue outside, it’s worth buying a tight-fitting cover to protect it from the elements.
It's worth looking for a cover with straps so you can tie it on to your barbecue, because they have a habit of blowing off.