Larry Olmsted, Senior Contributor
June 2, 2021
Father’s Day falls between the nation’s unofficial kickoff to outdoor cooking season, Memorial Day, and our biggest national cookout weekend, July Fourth. Backyard cooking has boomed in popularity in recent years, fueled by the rising popularity of barbecue as a food, by culinary TV shows and online videos, and by a surge a of pandemic-inspired home cooking and outdoor entertaining during the spread of COVID.
At the same time, technology and variety has gotten better across every aspect of the backyard cooking landscape, so whether Dad already has a gas grill and is ready for a smoker, wants to channel his inner gaucho, or is simply overdue for an upgrade, choices are better than ever at every price point.
I have covered this topic in depth for years and have nearly 20 outdoor cooking devices of every type and culture at my home, but because Dad deserves the very best, I also enlisted two world-class experts for these picks. Steven Raichlen is the planet’s leading authority on barbecue, host of the PBS show Project Smoke, director of the annual BBQ University boot camps, a member of the BBQ Hall of Fame, and a 5-time James Beard-award-winning and New York Times bestselling cookbook author of 31 book on cooking with fire, including his brand new one, How To Grill Vegetables: The New Bible for Barbecuing Vegetables over Live Fire.
BBQ Guys is a venerable Baton Rouge, LA-based brick and mortar retailer turned online giant that has the biggest and best selection of hardware on the web - by far. They have gotten so big they have a full time expert BBQ chef to curate their offerings. If you can’t find a grill at BBQGuys.com you probably can’t find it.
Traeger Ironwood 885 Pellet Grill: If I could have only one grill it would be a pellet grill, because it is by far the easiest way to smoke, and can produce competition style “low and slow” BBQ, but can also be used for conventional wood fired grilling, roasting, even baking, all with the flavor of real wood and minimal fuss and via digital controls - no chimney starters, no lighter fluid, no long wait for perfect coals, no mess. Traeger basically created the entire pellet grill niche and popularized the style so much that many competitors have stepped in. So Traeger stepped up in recent years with a new lineup and new innovations like remote control via smartphone app, exceptional convection cooking for even easier, no-turning-needed, perfectly even cooking, more precise thermostats, and easier cleanup. They have three tiers, the Pro on top, Ironwood as the main one, and Timberline entry level.
The Ironwood comes in two sizes, and I always recommend going larger, so the 885 ($1500) has 885 square inches of grill (650 is the smaller version). Both Ironwoods are great smokers, great grills, great values, and a great gift for just about any Dad who wants to cook outside, which is why it is at the top of my list. They boast features like double walled insulated bodies for better heat retention, a unique downdraft exhaust system that forces the smoke to flow around your cooking more, a “Super Smoke” option that lets you infuse more smokiness at the touch of a button, included app-connected meat thermometer probe, Turbo Temp for faster heat up when you turn it on, and a dual position grill that lets you get your food closer to the flame when grilling or searing. Traeger basically took everything that was great about pellet smokers and upgraded it with better engineering across the board. Traeger grills are also available assembled nationwide from Ace Hardware stores.
Big Green Egg: The BGE, as it is known by its many avid enthusiasts, has developed a cult-like following and popularized the high-tech take on ancient Japanese ceramic cookers, leading the egg-shaped category known as Kamado grills. This is an ultra-insulated, ultra-efficient wood fired grill that can truly do everything: it’s a smoker, it’s great for pizza and baking, and it can get really hot for the kind of searing you usually need a commercial steakhouse broiler for. For the Dad who likes to play with live fire there’s no better option than a Kamado cooker, and Big Green Egg’s lineup runs quality circles around its many “big box” knockoffs - quality you need when getting this hot. Steven Raichlen has them in his own backyards and told me “I love BGE. It’s one of the most versatile charcoal cookers on the market, with a unique venting system that allows you to smoke pork shoulders low and slow at 250 degrees, sear-grill beef tomahawks at 700 degrees and cook at every temperature stage between them. We have several at Barbecue University, including the Mini-Max, which is very handy for small batch grilling. We did my ‘buffaque’ broccoli on it in the new season of Project Fire.” The lineup includes seven sizes, from the portable Mini $400, (mainly for outings) to the monster 2XL ($2000, 40 burgers, 20 racks of ribs, or 15 whole chickens). The Mini-Max ($628) Raichlen mentioned is the second smallest and among the most affordable, but can still cook a 12-pound turkey, whole chicken or four burgers at once. Like Hermes or Prada, Big Green Egg is a marquee brand that only sells via authorized retailers like patio specialists and is never discounted.
Burch Barrel V2: This is a unique and brand new addition to the outdoor cooking world, sort of its own category and perfect for the trendsetting Dad, the early adaptor, design freak or gizmo lover, but also has a rough side that lets Dad channel his inner cowboy. If it were a car, it would be a Tesla monster truck. A design forward, high-tech take on the traditional tripod kettle over fire of wagon train days, the Burch Barrel is a relatively portable and very versatile multi-function cooker that can smoke, grill, cook hanging meats above a fire or perform more than one of these functions at a time. It also doubles as social firepit! It uses highly engineered locking collars and pistol grip handles to allow you to vary the height between grate and fire, hanging food and fire, add more fuel and many other functions safely and easily, and utilizes high-quality materials and much better insulated double-wall construction. To really understand all the things it can do and the quality of the build, fittings and design, check out this detailed review by the very best grill review site, AmazingRibs.com, which awarded the Burch Barrel ($985) its coveted Best Value Gold Medal. Conclusion: “Because the Burch Barrel is so unique, it’s hard to compare similar cookers. It is well-built, versatile, unique and a ton of fun to use.” It also looks really cool and is great for anyone who has a second home or maybe wants to take it car camping or on a beach house vacation when not using it in the main backyard.
Weber Genesis II EX-315 Propane Gas Smart Grill: Weber has dominated the gas grill category for decades and has a broad lineup from entry level to deluxe, and Raichlen recommends the lower priced Spirit line as the best pick for middle of the road gas grills, but if you can afford to move up a tier, I like the above the middle Genesis, and the Smart Grills are Weber’s latest and greatest. This adds a digital controller for more precise temperature control, and it can also monitor fuel supply better and track the doneness of your food in very real time. If Dad is the classic charred outside/raw inside backyard steak cooker, he needs this! To me it’s always worth a bit more to get a 3-burner model than two, especially given how well the Weber three-burner design works for convection cooking - plus you get more grill space and can do more different foods at different temps at the same time. The EX-315 has all this in a well-made, reliable package with dual side tables and under cart storage for about a thousand dollars, while a three-burner smart Spirit is $850.
Fire Magic Echelon Diamond E790S: While Raichlen agrees that Weber is the go-to pick for a standard gas grill, this is his luxury suggestion, perfect for the Dad who uses commercial style appliances (Wolf, Thermador, Sub Zero, etc.) in his kitchen and wants the same kind of excellence on his patio. Fire Magic has been manufacturing grills in the US since 1937 and is renowned for having the most cooking area in its class. The E790S is a larger 36-inch grill and when you step up to this price point ( BBQGuys discounts it to eight grand ) you get extra heavy duty 304 stainless steel construction, extras like assisted lid closing, weather tolerant draws and storage, ultra-high output BTU regular burners, an infra-red burner for commercial steakhouse sear, over 90,000 BTUs of total internal cooking, a 15,000 unit external side burner for cooking with a pot, amazing searing grates, and a heavy duty motorized rotisserie with its own high output infra-red back burner. From 4-zone digital temperature control to backlit knobs, you get every bell and whistle imaginable, and the super heavy-duty construction will last far longer than most grills and become a statement piece for the neighborhood. I like this “off the shelf” model, but Fire Magic allows all sorts of custom configurations of types of burners and extras in different size grills and built-in outdoor kitchen units in addition to standalone carts.
Cuisinart Clermont Pellet Grill: I noted the advantages of pellet grills above, and Cuisinart, the very well-respected kitchen brand that got into the grill game a few years back, has carved out a niche as a value leader, offering a lot of functions typically found only in much pricier grills at entry level rates. As a best buy pick, the Clermont is no exception - under $700 - and lets backyard cooks of almost any budget add smoking perfection to their arsenal. There are two standout features I really like on the Clermont - one is glass windows, found on very few grills, which let you see what is going on without opening the lid and changing temperature, and second is the unique vertical high-capacity design. Most grills focus on square inches of grill space, but smoking doesn’t require contact with the grates, and here capacity is greatly expanded through the extra volume from the height. This makes the Clermont a great option for the tailgating or entertaining Dad who sometimes needs to smoke multiple slabs of ribs or dozens of chicken wings for a crowd. Perfect add-on for someone who already has a primary gas or charcoal grill and wants to do real BBQ.
Puma by Nuke: I love Argentina’s wood fired cooking culture, derived from its gauchos (cowboys) and the fact that along with neighboring Uruguay, it leads the world in red meat consumption, double that of our country. Argentina is nearly religious about and obsessed with about the weekend cookout for friends and family, every weekend year round, and they have their own distinctive style of grills, the asado, with large grates that can be raised and lowered, ideally with a heavy duty wheel system, over a live fire of coals from wooden logs, along with a side firebox to constantly produce additional hot coals to be added as needed, keeping the party going all day. Nuke grills are made in Argentina and are awesome, I have the original backyard model, the Delta ($1500 and another AmazingRibs.com Gold Medalist), and reviewed it here , but the Puma is the new upgrade, trading the lever system for a wheel, and adding inverted V-shaped grates, a hallmark of Argentinean cooking that feeds fat dripping to the fire for flavor while protecting the meat above from flare ups. The Puma ($2600) is another showpiece that will make the neighbors jealous, and can handle any size crowd, but even though it is big and substantial, it includes free delivery and is easy to set up.
Kudu: Inspired by South Africa’s obsession with social gatherings around the grill known as braais, the Kudu is an open fire cooking system that uses a central base full of coal with two vertical rods from which any manner of grates, griddles and d Dutch oven kettles can be suspended. The ingenious design is very flexible, allowing you to control the temperature by varying the heights of the cooking surfaces and also to pivot them over or w away from the fire completely, so you can cook a whole bunch of different things at once and have it all ready at the same time. The Kudu system(s) start at $499 and are pretty portable, making it perfect for tailgates or the beach or second home getaways.
Backyard Pizza Oven: This has been another hot growth niche as the popularity of Neapolitan-style pizza has skyrocketed and the backyard pizza oven is the next frontier for adding a third or fourth (or 21 st ) outdoor cooking device. But I’ve been unimpressed with the small, albeit affordable tabletop units, and this is one I don’t have so I turned to BBQGuys Chef and Product Expert Tony Matassa who gave me these two picks. Wood fired is the traditional away to go, but requires too much time and effort to justify pizza for two or four, which a lot of people want to be able to do, so we have two options, one gas and one wood.
“Whether built-in or used on a countertop, Alfresco’s 30-Inch Pizza Oven Plus ($6500) brings just about everything we look for in pizza ovens. For starters, it cooks perfect pizzas in only 4 minutes thanks to the powerful natural gas burner and infrared hearth heating system. Even the realistic-looking gas logs help to hold and radiate heat for lightning-quick cooks. The top is double-walled for superior insulation, which ensures no heat is lost. We’re also quite impressed by the suite of features: stylish glass doors, internal halogen lights for nighttime cooking, adjustable legs for personalized use, and a stainless-steel wood and herb box that can double as a water pan when baking.”
“The Alfa Allegro 39-Inch Wood-Fired Pizza Oven ($5900) deserves to be in the conversation as well. This model is hand-crafted in Italy, so it’s no surprise to see how well it combines new technology with traditional construction. Alfa’s patented Forninox technology lets you fully preheat in just 10 minutes, while the arched dome and refractory cooking floor work in tandem to trap heat for an even cook. Beyond that, this Alfa model has a generous amount of cooking space - enough to bake up to 5 pizzas at once! As a bonus, it comes on a sturdy cart so you can harness the power of wood-fired cooking wherever you’d like.”
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