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Performance is key to selecting outdoor grills

| Saturday, April 14, 2012, 3:51 p.m.

Outdoor cooking has become a force in household design as well as meal-time lifestyle.

Bill Vighetti, manager of Dormont Appliance, sees interest in the huge market in outdoor stoves as being the reason prices for outdoor kitchens "creep ever upward."

The Virginia-based Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association reports the increasing number of grills is a reflection of what outdoor cooking writer Jamie Purviance calls a "multi-zone" mentality that dominates the market.

Vighetti and Mike Buckiso, co-owner of the Fireplace & Patioplace store in Mt. Lebanon, say outdoor chefs no longer are satisfied with cooking a few burgers on a Saturday evening. Rather, Buckiso says, they want rotisseries for doing whole chickens -- of even the Thanksgiving turkey.

That leads to more money being spent on equipment as well as outdoor areas housing the gear, Vighetti says.

While a chef can get good results with a $179 Weber grill, Vighetti says, it also is possible to spend $7,800 to get an outdoor Viking stove and put it in a setting that costs thousands more.

Flavor, says Michelle Zeller from the Georgia-based Char-Broil manufacturing firm, still is "the No 1 reason people cook outdoors."

But the ways of getting that flavor have become a little more costly.

Growing heat in cooking

Zeller and Brooke Jones, director of marketing for Weber-Stephen Products, say performance is the key to any outdoor stove.

To achieve that function, the two grill makers look at matters as simple as getting the stove lighted. But more sophisticated matters come into play too, such as providing places to cook various parts of a meal at the same time.

For instance, Jones says chimney charcoal starters, which cost about $20, show constant double-digit growth in sales. At the same time, she adds, Illinois-based Weber also has a series of charcoal grills with "touch and go gas ignition" to make starting easier. Those units cost about $379.

"We have also seen interest in gas grills with a high-heat zone for searing steaks and chops," she says.

But searing grills ($65) also are made for Weber's charcoal cookers.

Buckiso and Vighetti say that step up in the preparation of food is the reason home chefs are willing to spend more money on their equipment. They want to prepare the main course, along with the vegetables, side-dish casserole, potatoes and dessert outside.

Providing equipment to do that can go from $399 for a three-grill Char-Broil unit with infrared heating to Weber's multi-function Summit series at about $3,900 to Viking outdoor ranges at $5,000 or more.

It also can lead to accessories such as smokers, a function that has gained more popularity, says Weber's Jones. They have smoking boxes ($90) that fit in grills or separate cookers ($299), she says. Purviance's current book, "Weber Smoke," also deals with that topic.

Zeller says Char-Broil's research has led it to concentrate on fuel-economy and providing good results in the infrared process. She says infrared cooking in some ways mimics the charcoal process by using the heated grill as the source of the cooking.

A grill for every reason

Zeller says the hearth and patio group reports 68 percent of households have a gas grill and 47 percent have a charcoal type.

"You can see that adds up to more than 100 percent," she says. "That's because people have more than one."

There are 150 grills for every 100 homes, she says, rising from a total of 120 per 100 homes in 2007, she says.

The increase is because many outdoor chefs use various grills for various function. They might prepare vegetables, starch products or desserts on gas grills, but have a charcoal unit around for meat.

Some even have smaller units for tailgating, she says, adding to the total.

Cheryl Jamison, who with her husband, Bill, are authors of "Good Grilling" and "Smoke & Spice," says the multi-grill strategy is the way to go.

"I'd say buy as much as you can afford in heavy-duty construction that will last," she says.

Vighetti says the breadth of outdoor cooking always is growing.

"It's not like people are making only burgers and hot dogs anymore," Vighetti says. "We have discovered that practically anything can be done outdoors."

Purviance, who has degrees in cooking from Stanford University and the Culinary Institute of America, agrees the "multi-zone" mentality is a key to backyard cooking these days.

Most cooks simply want to know "how do get great results that do not show off my shortcomings as a chef," he says.

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