Historically, grill buyers were told to look for a grill that produces around 100 BTUs per square inch. However, this rule is passé. Today, salespeople advise you to factor in how hot the grill actually gets, rather than how much fuel it burns. So do BTUs even matter anymore?
Let's look at the facts.
A BTU rating states the maximum output of the primary or main burners (the burners that reside underneath the cooking grate). This rating does not include the BTU output of any side burners, or rotisserie or smoker burners. Still, some manufacturers lump all the figures together, tricking you into thinking a grill is much more powerful than it really is. Some brands also try to overstate the BTUs-per-square-inch, too, by combining the total measurements of all of the cooking services (including the accessory burners). This fools you into thinking the grill is actually bigger than it is.
Power vs. Efficiency
When shopping for grills, note the sturdiness of the components and the overall size of the grill. Also, check out the BTU rating for the specified grill size. You can spot an inefficient grill—one that can't hold the heat that it generates—because it will list a higher BTU output (but it won't cook a steak to your liking). A quality grill, conversely, has heavy, metal parts—particularly the cooking grates—made specifically for holding heat. A good grill also has small vents to let a controlled amount of air flow through, allowing it to heat up quickly and maintain a high temperature. So even if the BTUs on a sturdy metal grill seem lesser, componentry and design weigh heavy for efficiency.
The Infrared Exception
Infrared grills are different. While the burners of a standard gas grill heat the cooking chamber by convection, an infrared grill converts the heat of its burners to radiant energy by limiting airflow. This allows the chamber to heat up fast and maintain a high temperature, making this type of grill one of the most efficient on the market (hence the lower BTU-per-square-inch rating). That said, fast and hot doesn't always mean "better tasting." So, before you try this trendy option, sample meat that's been grilled by infrared burners and see if it suits your expectations.
Weighing Your Purchase on BTUs
Today's grills are more efficient than older models and typically don't need as high of an output. When buying a standard gas grill, look at how the lid fits the body. If it fits snugly and the grill's components are heavy, a grill with 80 to 100 BTUs-per-square-inch will heat up fast and maintain cooking heat. The same rules apply for an infrared grill, but the BTUs should be more in the 60 to 80 range. Of course, BTU ratings will be all over the map, but if you stick to these specifications you won't be disappointed.
Too High or Too Low
Beware. A grill with a really high BTU-per-square-inch rating is probably hiding something. The lid might be thin, the grates lightweight, and the vents poorly designed. These gas grills—engineered to cut costs—should be avoided. And if a grill advertises a BTU range lower than the recommended ranges above, chances are it will be slow to preheat and have a lagging recovery time (the time it takes for a grill to heat back up after opening and closing the lid).