Grate expectations: Which is the best grate for my gas grill?
June 2, 2007 11:17 PM   Subscribe

For an outdoor gas grill, which is the better cooking grid (grate) material, stainless steel, cast iron, or porcelain-coated cast iron?

We grill a lot of chicken, fish, and veggies but very little red meat. I will be buying a new gas grill and need the benefit of the hive mind's grilling expertise. I've read this excellent article on the subject, and the author seems to really like his cooking grates to be cast iron, and he cites some good reasons: better heat retention/distribution, searing-ability, etc. -- mmmmm, makes my mouth water just reading about it. However, based on 44 years of self-knowledge, I'm not convinced I have the dedication to maintain cast iron to the degree that it needs to be maintained. It doesn't look hard, but I know me, and I'm lazy.

Stainless steel, on the other hand -- now, that's a metal I can work with! Easy to clean, no seasoning to maintain, and typically not susceptible to rust until the last half of its life cycle. The downsides are that it doesn't retain heat as well (so less searing ability), and it's expensive...but not prohibitively so. This is the choice I'm leaning towards.

Porcelain-coated cast iron, of course, is the other common grate material, and also worth considering. It's benefits are that it doesn't need the level of maintenance that naked cast iron does, but this comes with the cost of diminished searing-ability and poorer heat retention. Also, the porcelain will eventually chip, which will lead to rusting, etc. I can't cite a good reason, but I don't find this to be a particularly exciting option, and it's currently my third choice.

BTW, I hope I'm not making too much out of this. I'm not a foodie per se, but I've gotten pretty good at grilling the food we like to eat, and I enjoy it. I'll be upgrading our grill for the first time in 10 years, and I don't expect to be replacing it for another 10, so I plan on getting a good one. Since the grate is the only part that actually touches the food, this seems like an important detail.

posted by mosk to Food & Drink (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I know me, and I'm lazy.

Go with the stainless steel (especially since you're leaning toward it anyway). It requires the lowest level of maintenance and it performs perfectly well no matter what you're cooking.
posted by amyms at 11:33 PM on June 2, 2007

Well, I really like cast iron grates (I'm actually trying to retrofit my semi-crummy propane grill with iron grates right now, actually), but you do have to maintain them. If you're the kind of person who doesn't have any other cast iron cookware, carbon-steel knives, or other 'high maintenance' kitchen tools, then you might just be asking for problems, since unmaintained, they'll get rusty. (Though this isn't the end of the world, you can still sand the rust off, grease them back up, and be OK. But you don't want to make a habit of it.)

I've never cooked on "good" stainless steel grates, just the crummy coated-wire ones that come in cheap propane and charcoal grills, so I have no idea how good they can be if you spend some more money on them. I suspect you can still get a good sear with them, if they're heavy enough.

The thing that's good about cast iron, besides its heat-holding ability, is that the slightly porous surface allows oils to permeate it and build up a naturally non-stick coating. On stainless, you might have to work a bit harder to keep foods like fish from sticking ... but if you're probably not going to be good about maintaining the cast iron, then this is a bit of a moot point, since unmaintained (read: rusty) cast iron has got to be worse than any kind of steel.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:36 PM on June 2, 2007

As someone who's been loving and maintaining a cast-iron skillet on my stove for years, now, I've got stainless steel grates on my grill. I've tried all three options, and what I've found is that even when I'm relatively careful, the fact that the grill is outside means that the two cast iron options inevitably start to rust. (The porcelain coating really didn't seem to make it take much longer before that started to happen.)
posted by LairBob at 7:53 AM on June 3, 2007

Let me advocate for porcelain-coated cast iron. You say it's your third choice, but it seems like it should be your first because it addresses exactly the issues you bring up. It's to got the heat distribution of cast iron but is dead easy to clean. A lot of new grills on the market come with this surface for a reason. Also, when and if it ever chips, you can pretty easily repair it by spraying on a new coating. They sell stuff to do this. Full disclosure - we just got our grill a couple months ago so maybe I don't really know what I'm talking about re: chipping yet.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:23 AM on June 3, 2007

Going back to Kadin2048's point about the "good" ones--definitely get those and not the round wire ones, although if you've got a grill that offers you a choice of materials, that's almost certainly what you're looking at. My stainless grates are basically the same shape as the cast iron/porcelain ones, with the thick, flattened slats. It does a perfectly decent job of retaining heat and putting a good sear on the food.
posted by LairBob at 8:24 AM on June 3, 2007

I wouldn't suggest the porcelain. As selfmedicating says, it'll chip, and then you eat it. If you grill with a lot of coarse-ground black pepper, no one will ever know!

If you go with cast iron, you may want to dig through askmefi for care suggestions. The difference between a cast iron grill and a cast iron pan don't put the grill in the oven to season it, you put it in the grill. Seasoning? Yep, still applies. Not using steel wool or wire brushes unless you want to reseason? Check. Being careful not to drop because it's brittle? Check.

(Don't listen to me. I'm lusting after one of these)
posted by onedarkride at 9:01 AM on June 3, 2007

Thanks, all. I was down at Barbecues Galore today to scope out the various options, and after doing some talking and a lot of looking, I think stainless will work best for me. Thanks for all the good, heartfelt advice.
posted by mosk at 10:56 PM on June 3, 2007

I have a 6-year-old grill with cast iron grates. As far as searing, heat retention and durability go, I don't think they can be beat.

For care, I'm afraid I'm rather lazy. But, I find that as long as I give them a good scrape with my brass brush and then spray them down with oil, they stay rust free. IMO, the brass is soft enough not to damage the seasoning too much.

I usually just spray them down with that canned oil once they're nice and hot. If you enjoy having eyebrows, make sure you turn off the flame and stand back.

I've heard that you can get them really clean by running them through your oven's clean cycle. However, I think that might be too harsh and take off any good seasoning you've managed to build up.

They're heavy as heck but that's the point. I think it make it actually a lot easier to grill because they don't move around on you.

Hint: for great grill marks, don't move your food. It should lift off pretty easily once seared well.
posted by robabroad at 9:10 AM on June 5, 2007

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