Warmer weather is here, and with it comes the aroma of sausages, burgers and steaks -- and yes, vegetables and tofu -- sizzling on barbecue grills.
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Modern backyard chefs are seeking out more options than ever to create the perfect summer barbecue. And grill manufacturers have obliged. Popular today are products that allow adventurous backyard chefs to multi-task, giving them the chance to, say, grill and smoke meats at the same time. Also hot: Portable grills and smokers, and grills fueled by wood pellets, which purists say results in tastier fare.
Then there's the high-end side of the market, with manufacturers continuing to offer grills that appeal to those with plenty of discretionary income and a desire to duplicate the gourmet fare they see on cable cooking shows.
"In the culinary world in general we are seeing people taking cooking more seriously," says Russ Faulk, vice president of design for Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. "Chefs are the new celebrities. Home cooks are more adventurous, and that is extending to the outdoors. Our world isn't just brats, burgers and chicken breasts."
Environmentally conscious wood pellets -- made from compressed sawdust -- provide backyard grillers and smokers with a natural product that produces a slow-burning source of heat. The slower burning results in a smokier flavor, grill makers say. The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association says wood pellet smokers and grills are on the rise. You can spend a little or a lot on smokers that burn wood pellets. The Rec Tec Wood Pellet Grill, for instance, retails for $998. The Cold Smoker from Traeger Wood Pellet Grills retails for an affordable $199.
Grills go multi-tasking
Wood pellets play an important role in the multi-tasking trend that the association says is coming on strong. Many backyard chefs look for machines that can be used as a grill, smoker or traditional barbecue all at once.
Traeger's popular Texas Grill ($399 to $999) is a wood smoker that can smoke and grill meats, vegetables and seafood. For those on a budget, the Brinkman All-in-One ($89) can multi-task, too. The gas grill can serve as a smoker, grill or fryer.
The discriminating griller can cook on charcoal, wood or gas, as fancy strikes, with Kalamazoo's Hybrid Fire Grill ($17,595 and up). Open a drawer, insert some logs and chef can choose the fuel that suits the preparation.
Portability a plus
People like grilling in their backyards. But they also like grilling on the beach, while tailgating or while camping. Because of this, portable grills are popular choices.
Weber added a portable smoker to its popular Smokey Mountain Cooker series. The 14.5-inch model ($219) has two plated steel cooking grates. Smoking fans "have been asking for a compact smoker for multiple reasons," says Kim Lefko, Weber's chief marketing officer, such as smoking for smaller gatherings. The Weber Q series includes a wide range of portable grills. The Weber Q 1000 ($169) includes one stainless-steel burner and 189 square inches of cooking area. The higher-end Weber Q 3200 ($250) features a cooking area of 280 square inches.
The portable Aussie Walk-A-Bout charcoal grill ($60) is as compact as its price tag.
The high end
Well-heeled customers will seek a higher-end barbecue experience. The luxury end of the outdoor-grilling business is booming today, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, illustrated by a surge in new high-ticket gourmet grills and smokers this spring.
"People are looking not just to cook outdoors. They want to make it an event," says Sue Crosby, director of communications for the hearth association.
Customers with deep pockets and the desire to impress friends and family have plenty of options, including the Kalamazoo's new wood-fired Gaucho Grill ($17,495 and up), patterned after Argentine-style wood grills. A 36-inch wheel raises and lowers the 726-square-inch grill rack. The grill, available as a built-in installation or free-standing model, features gas starter system to quickly ignite a wood or charcoal fire.
Viking's new Professional 5 Series outdoor grills, propane or gas, now boast blue LED lights on the control panels, illuminating knobs for better visibility when grilling at night. There's a parade of companion products and accessories: side burner and wok cooker, warming drawers, ventilation and undercounter refrigeration. These can be strung together to create a fancy outdoor kitchen, or the grills can stand on their own.
The Big Green Egg is targeted toward higher-end buyers, too. This company's distinctive ceramic, egg-shaped cookers can work as a grill, oven or smoker. They're not always cheap, though. Expect to shell out $800 for the standard model.