The Tests

  • Map heat with toast

  • Grill steaks

  • Grill burgers

  • Barbecue pulled pork

  • Roll grills back and forth over bumpy pavement

We focused on six major brands, asking them to help us choose their best contender.

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.

Differences in build quality became evident over time. Some models rattled loose, leaving a trail of miscellaneous pieces.

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.

By preheating the grills for 15 minutes and then covering the grates with white bread, we were able to map each grill’s heat distribution. The burnt toast in the center indicates an extreme hot spot.
In comparison, evenly distributed heat produces relatively consistent browning and even grill marks across the entire grill surface.

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 bars 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 (the bars 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 bars to deflect it there would be distinct hot spots directly over each burner and cooler zones everywhere else.

What’s Under the Grate?

If you look beneath the cooking grate on a gas grill, you’ll notice tent-shaped metal bars covering each of the burners. These flame tamers, or heat diffusers, deflect heat, making them critical to how evenly a grill heats—without them there would be distinct hot spots and cool zones. These bars also help flavor the food (one manufacturer appropriately calls them “flavorizer bars”) since drippings from the food hit the bars, vaporize, and then waft up and adhere to the food.

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 flavor bars, worked to diffuse heat.

Capacity is an important consideration when choosing a grill, so we checked to make sure a 12-pound turkey could fit comfortably inside the hood of each gas grill.

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.

Gas grills are lined up as executive editor Lisa McManus, center, prepares to put them through their paces, loading each one up with New York strip steaks to test heat retention, airflow, ease of use, and overall design.

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 7½ 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.

To test the grills’ ability to cook with indirect heat and to impart smoked flavor, we slow-cooked pork butts at 300 degrees. What we discovered is that there are restrictions to optimal airflow built in to the design of most gas grills.

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.

What Makes Our Winner Great? It’s Not the BTUs.

With one of the lowest BTU numbers of any of the models we tested, our winning grill, the Weber Spirit E-310, produced better results (richly browned, evenly cooked food) than grills with up to 72 percent more firepower. The real measure of a great grill? How well it retains heat (and smoke) and spreads it across the grates.

1. Tight-fitting lid: A lid that closes firmly traps both heat and smoke.

2. Minimal vents: Grills with huge vents and gaps or holes in the lid or cookbox let out too much heat. The Weber Spirit has just one narrow slit across the back.

3. Even heat diffusion: All grills have heat diffusers over each burner. Our winner heated the most evenly because it has extra diffusers between burners.

4. Heat-retaining cookbox: Our winner is made of thick cast aluminum and enameled steel. The worst were made of thin stainless steel. Thin walls allow heat to escape.

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.

Winning Traits

  • Extra flame tamer bars between burners to help spread out heat

  • Cast-iron grates, which transfer heat best

  • Well-built cookbox with tight-sealing lid and few vents

  • Lid that shuts tightly to retain heat and opens wide so smoke isn’t directed toward your face

  • Large-capacity cooking grate so food is not crowded

  • Sturdy construction