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How We Tested Portable Grills

Monday September 21, 2020

The bulk of our grill testing was done while making actual food for actual meals. It is in this "real world" testing that we can truly draw out all that matters to you and your ultimate choice. To quantify certain things, verify our field findings, and to identify strengths and weaknesses that aren't otherwise readily apparent, we also performed some standardized lab type measurements and tests. The combination is thorough and comprehensive. We have tested for years, sometimes using the exact same grills over many seasons. We continue to refine our testing in order to get the best possible information to you.

An infrared thermometer allowed us to precisely monitor the temperature of this grill  and identify the sweet spots for searing steak.
An infrared thermometer allowed us to precisely monitor the temperature of this grill, and identify the sweet spots for searing steak.

Output Power


The first thing we did to "test" output power was to note the manufacturer's claimed BTU output. We have no formal way of verifying this, but we take every opportunity to compare and contrast the different grills; our depth of experience and length of testing allows us to largely verify the manufacturers' claims. For charcoal grills, we considered the volume of the coal bed. Further, we considered surface area and the grill's lid effectiveness. We also test the grills by lighting them, turning the heat all the way up, and then checking the temperature every 5 minutes for 20 minutes. How long does it take to reach peak heat? How steady is the final temperature? The final and true test of output power is in searing an excellent cut of meat. Does the grill really blacken that meat in seconds, like it should? How about in colder weather? How about in wind? Our year-round testing allows us to reach pretty reliable conclusions.

Nothing tests max heat output like searing excellent steak. Here  ribeyes undergo infrared preparation.
Nothing tests max heat output like searing excellent steak. Here, ribeyes undergo infrared preparation.

Control


Again, just regular cooking gave us the best impression of control. How low and high can the grill go? Are there clear hotter and cooler zones on the grill surface. Recently, we added a "toast test." We cooked plain white bread on each of the grills. See some of the most recent additions and award winners for photos of the results. The toast gives a rough visual representation of the heat distribution across the surface.

For 2019 we added in this "toast test". The results are visually interesting  and largely validate our anecdotal findings.
For 2019 we added in this "toast test". The results are visually interesting, and largely validate our anecdotal findings.

Portability


We lugged them around, rattled down dirt roads and spent weeks living in tiny RVs with the grills. We weighed them and measured outside dimensions. Note that portability can be quantified in two different ways. "How easy is it to move from my locked shed to my apartment patio?" is a very different question from "How much space will this take up in my Honda Fit?"

Wheeled grills are great for short moves and for home patio use.
Wheeled grills are great for short moves and for home patio use.

Cooking Area


We measured the actual usable surface. We also noted what the grill grate is made of and whether it can be swapped for other options.

Cooking a variety of foods often demands greater cooking area.
Cooking a variety of foods often demands greater cooking area.

Wind Resistance


We assessed two major factors. Does the wind blow the burner out, and how much heat is lost to convective cooling. Our primary objective test of this was with a fan and the preparation of a standardized meal. This is a good test, but there are many variables, including ambient temperature, that we cannot control over the years and different grills. We find that regular use and anecdotal comparisons are actually more useful than the standard fan test.

The fan test assesses both a flame's resistance to blowing out and a grill's resistance to convective cooling.
The fan test assesses both a flame's resistance to blowing out and a grill's resistance to convective cooling.

Conclusion


Just like in all the categories we review, we dedicate a great deal of attention to designing a great testing regimen. We rely primarily on "real world" use both for individual assessments and for calibrating our overall preferences and judgments. When it complements our subjective testing, we design and execute objective tests.

A grill-reviewers tool kit: heavy-duty gloves  probe and infrared thermometers  lighter  scraper  and of course a note pad to jot down all of our findings.
A grill-reviewers tool kit: heavy-duty gloves, probe and infrared thermometers, lighter, scraper, and of course a note pad to jot down all of our findings.