Grill Grates: Buying Guide, Reviews, And Ratings, And Busting The Cast Iron Myth
"Grill grates are only there to keep your meat from falling into the coals. The smaller and lighter the better."J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of The Food Lab, 2016 Cookbook of the Year
Before we take a look at the different grill grates and consider their pros and cons you should read my article busting the myth of grill marks and flipping meat. It also discusses how to get the perfect surface color on your meats: Dark brown from edge to edge, with no tan and no black. That's max flavor. Just like the cowboy ribeye shown here.
When you buy a new grill, you might want to replace the grates.
Yes, I know you've been indoctrinated all your life to start drooling when you see grill marks, but the truth is that grill marks mean much of the meat's potential has been lost. Tan meat is meat that has less flavor than brown meat. So the goal should be an even dark brown all across the surface.
A lot of the conventional thinking surrounding gridirons is their ability to hold and transmit heat. That's why there is a mystique surrounding cast iron grates. They absorb and hold a lot of heat, and they brand the meat surface with that heat. But I don't want the grates to cook just parts of my meat. Grill marks mean that only about 1/3 of the surface has been altered by the magical Maillard reaction, the process by which tan, dull meat is transformed to brown, intense flavor-ridden crust. I want the radiant heat of the fire below, accompanied by smoke and combustion gases, to do the job. If I wanted metal to sear my steaks I could do it better in a frying pan. I want an evenly-cooked surface, not black scars on the surface.
Worse, big thick cast iron grates block smoke from contacting the surface. Smoke is one of the main reasons we cook outdoors, isn't it?
Think about the Brazilian steakhouse where everything is cooked on rotisserie. Waiters come to your table with the meat still on the spear and cut thin slices, not more than 1/4" thick from the surface of the meat. Then the meat goes back over the coals until the surface browns again. The whole purpose of the system is to give you evenly browned surface with medium rare immediately below.
But sometimes grill marks do come in handy. When you are cooking thin or small foods it is almost impossible to get dark brown surfaces with just radiation or convection before the center is overcooked, like skirt steaks, or asparagus, or kabobs, or shrimp. The only thing that works is conduction. And that means grill grates that transmit heat well. That's why my two favorite grill grates are polar opposites. The best solution? A gas grill with GrillGrates (TM) and a charcoal grill with thin stainless steel wires.
One more thing: When you get a new grate, fire up with the grate in place for about 30 minutes without food in order to burn off any grease, dirt, and manufacturing byproducts.
Thin stainless steel
Stainless steel can be made from thin or thick rods, but I prefer the thin ones that allow more radiant heat through, especially for charcoal grills. The problem with thick rods is that they block radiant heat and make large dark grill marks. But if you read my article on grill marks, you will see why I think they are not as desirable as an all over even browning.
Stainless steel grates are not to be confused with chrome or nickel plated grates (below) which are not as long lived.
The real advantage to stainless steel is that it has the same life span as a redwood tree and it is easy to clean. The good ones will never rust or corrode (read Max Good's article on stainless steel). Cheap stainless eventually ceases to be stainless, and you will need to replace them. You don't want rust or other oxides from the grill grates on your food.
Cast aluminum hard anodized GrillGrates (TM)
GrillGrates (TM) are an amazing recent invention and I recommend them for gas grills and many pellet smokers. They amplify heat, prevent flareups, make turning foods easier, produce great grill marks if you want them, keep small foods from committing suicide, kill hotspots, are easier to clean, flip over to make a fine griddle, allow wood right below the meat to smolder, and can be easily removed and moved from one grill to another. They may be the best thing to happen to gas grills and pellet smokers since salt and pepper.
Made by extruding aircraft aluminum into interlocking 5.25" wide rectangles, they are available in various lengths. Each section is a flat plate with five raised rails on which the food sits and they lie on top of your current grill's grates or they can be used to replace them.
Each plate has large holes in it so hot air, smoke, and combustion gases can rise through them while most of the heat is trapped below and builds. As a result, the base can get very hot and the aluminum alloy distributes the heat evenly across the cooking surface eliminating hot spots. The bottom plate, 3/4" below the food, becomes the main heat source. This is a similar concept to the new expensive infrared cooking systems on the market. The heat also wraps around the edges creating convection when the lid is closed.
According to the manufacturer, GrillGrates amplify the temp of gas grills 200°F and pellet grills 150°F. Charcoal is more variable depending on how many briquets, and how they are distributed.
The base blocks flareups and helps prevent burning. As a result you get really crispy chicken skin without scorching. Juices drip into the valleys between the rails where they are vaporized and the vapors penetrate the meat, enhancing flavor. The holes in the base allow some juices through where they burn, and smoke and combustion gases travel up through the holes to reach the food adding more flavor. The bottom plate spells the end of asparagus falling into the fire.
You can throw wood chips, pellets, and sawdust into the valleys between the rails and then put food on top. The wood begins smoldering almost instantly and imparts a delicate wood smoke flavor even on fish and other quick cooking foods.
They also work well on pellet smokers, which innate flaw is that they are primarily convection cookers. They can get up to 500 to 600°F air temp in there, but there is little radiant heat. Place GrillGrates on top of the factory grates, but don't go all the way to the edges so you don't mess with the airflow. They can really even out the hot spots common to these devices.
The sturdy stainless steel custom designed spatula has fingers that slip between the rails and lift even the most delicate pieces of fish with ease. There are even special stainless steel tongs with fingers available as an option.
GGs are easy to move from one grill to another. The manufacturer has several pre-cut sizes, but he will custom cut to fit your grill. But don't sweat it. Get the closest size and just place them on top of your current grates.
If you leave a gap between the GGs you can easily set up a 2-zone system. The air gap is a great way to keep one side of the grates from heating up.
Notice that I have two grate panels on the right upside down. GrillGrates can be flipped upside down so you can put meat on a scorching hot flat metal griddle surface with holes that allow smoke through. Some people place all the grates right side up and they keep a spare section around just for griddling. This section is sitting top of a set of right-side-up GrillGrates, and I often throw sawdust or wood pellets on the right-side-up set so the smoke gets up into the burgers. Now that's what I'm talking 'bout.
The surfaces of GrillGrates are easy to clean with a wire brush when hot. There is almost never grease buildup, just carbon in the valleys. It tends to build up there, reducing efficiency. A long bristle wire brush from the hardware store works well, but the standard wire brushes designed for grills do not. I've had good luck cleaning the valleys with a narrow paint scraper blade (and heavy glove) when they are hot. I tried superheating them and then hitting them with a hose, and, sure enough, most of the carbon popped right off, but one of the sections warped. After it cooled, I flipped it upside down on my deck and stood on it and it flattened right out!
The hard anodized aircraft grade aluminum rail tops are flat and wide and make the most beautiful dark crunchy grill marks you've ever seen where they contact the food and cook it by conduction. They do wonders for thin foods getting brown flavors to the surface in a hurry before the centers overcook.
Finally, let me allay any concerns you may have about aluminum. Here's a quote from Alzheimers.org's page on myths: "During the 1960s and 1970s, aluminum emerged as a possible suspect in Alzheimer's. This suspicion led to concern about exposure to aluminum through everyday sources such as pots and pans, beverage cans, antacids and antiperspirants. Since then, studies have failed to confirm any role for aluminum in causing Alzheimer's. Experts today focus on other areas of research, and few believe that everyday sources of aluminum pose any threat." Aluminum is everywhere, it is the third most abundant element on the planet. Studies always rate aluminum intake from cookware far down the list, behind dust, drinking water, antacids, antiperspirants, buffered aspirin, occupational sources, etc. And the healthy human body has the capacity for excreting what very small levels end up in the body. The manufacturer of GrillGrates claims that the anodizing process hardens the aluminum in GrillGrates making them harder than any steel.
If you own a charcoal grill, toss them on top of the factory grates when you have thin or small foods but take them off when you want to get a dark sear on a steak. If you own a pellet smoker, I recommend them for improving the surface color of your foods. If you own a gas grill, I cannot recommend GrillGrates more enthusiastically as a replacement for your factory grates or on top of your factory grates for all your cooking.
Thin porcelain enamel coated
A sturdy porcelain enamel coating is applied to a variety of metals of different weights. You'll find it on rods or on upside down U shaped rails (below). It can be coated on cast iron or tempered steel. I prefer the thin rods so they don't block the radiant heat needed to brown the surfaces of foods.
Porcelain is easy to clean. It is hard to crack the surface, but dropping them can do the trick, and then they start to rust. Vigorous scrubbing and scraping can scratch them and eventually wear off the coating. But with proper care they work just fine, last for years, and they are a lot cheaper than stainless. I recommend them for charcoal grills.
Cheap chrome or nickel plated wire grates such as the Weber Hinged Cooking Grate
Yes, they warp under extremely high heats. Yes, after a year or two they pit and the plating chips off, then they rust, and you've got to heave them. But they're so cheap that replacing them is not painful. Their chief advantage is that they stay out of the way of radiant heat from below leaving the surface open for real searing. They're the next best thing to no grates at all. The only love they get is from this Meathead.
Much better than the grate that came with your 22.5" Weber Kettle, this hinged grate let's you easily add charcoal for long low and slow cooks. Made from nickel-plated steel, you just lift the flap and drop in coals. No fumbling to lift up the whole grate only to have your meat slide off and onto the coals. Yuk. They are perfect for adding coal to the Smokenator, something you must do on long cooks, and it even works with GrillGrates which are cut to leave room for you to lift the hinged section.
If you have a Weber Kettle, I strongly recommend you upgrade to the hinged grates so you can easily add more coals and wood. Click here to order the Weber Hinged Cooking Grate.
Because cast iron fry pans and griddles can become non-stick with use, many people are under the misimpression that cast iron grill grates are also non-stick. They are not. Pans and griddles become non-stick because, believe it or not, the metal is slightly porous and the surface is textured, so oil nestles in there and forms a slippery polymer that can last for years if it is not overheated or scrubbed with abrasives.
The problem with grill grates is that they get a lot hotter than most fry pans and that burns off the oil or turns it to carbon. No more non-stick. Then, when you are done cooking on a grill, you scrub and scrape off the grease and food residue along with any non-stick properties.
Because cast iron grates are so heavy and therefore so efficient at holding and transmitting heat to meat, they make definitive grill marks. But they really produce a strong contrast between marks and the rest of the meat, and that leaves much of the meat surface undeveloped.
Worse, cast iron grates need babying. You have to scrape them immediately after cooking, then oil them while they are still warm. The oil will fill the pores that have opened during cooking and prevent rust. To do it right, you need to run the food into the house, leave the fire on in order to burn off residue, and while everyone is waiting for you, run back out scrape and paint. If you forget, within days they can start rusting and that stuff is a pain to remove. If you don't use cast iron grates for months, they will rust even if you oiled them after the last use. If there are long gaps between use, you should clean them and bring them into the house.
Then, when you warm up the grill for your next cook, that oil becomes stinky smoke. And whatever you do, don't drop one of these on your toes.
Frankly, I think they are more bother than they are worth.
Some manufacturers sell cast iron with a porcelain coat. These are a lot easier to care for but they are still strong heat retainers and tend to make dark grill marks when, as I have pointed out, I don't want grill marks.
Here is what my friend, Clint Cantwell of Grillocracy.com, does with his cast iron grates.
Common on large barbecue pits, tempered steel grates often come in expanded metal diamond grids. Their main strengths are that they are inexpensive, that the make diamond shaped grill marks without having to rotate the meat, and that they are lightweight. On the down side, they rust, they warp, and they are hard to clean in the apex of the V shaped parts. Like cast iron, they must be kept oiled. Many careless pitmasters just let grease build up, and that's not tasty or healthy.
Teflon and non-stick coatings
These surfaces are found on electric "grills" and some portable gas grills. As with non-stick pans, the surface is easy to scratch, so you don't want to use a metal spatula and you need to treat them gently. Their best feature is that they clean up easily, with soap and water, and can even go through the dishwasher. But, hey -- put out dangerous gases if they get too hot. Depending on the specific coating, "too hot" is usually 500°F.
Thick enameled bars and thick stainless steel bars
As with cast iron, these materials retain and transmit a lot of heat making big bold grill marks. They are easy to clean and sturdy, but if they are dropped and crack, they can rust.