Humblest greetings, o grillmaster! Whether you’re actually a master of the grill or just looking to roast a nice, plump weiner (giggity), it would help to know a few things about gas grill BTU ratings. So let’s start out with the most basic tidbit of backyard barbecue trivia: A “BTU” is a British Thermal Unit. See that? B. T. U. Scientifically speaking, one BTU is the amount of energy required to heat one pound of water (about a pint) by 1 degree Fahrenheit. That’s nice and all, but how does that relate to the very manly art of grilling? And just how many BTUs do you need in a grill, anyway?
As for how BTUs relate to grilling, the thing to know here is that the grill BTU figure is a measure of how much heat a grill can produce with the burners cranked up to full blast. Granted, nobody actually cooks this way (well, hopefully), but it’s a benchmark that can be applied to all grills. This means that lower-BTU grills will generally take a bit longer to heat up than high-BTU grills, assuming the primary cooking area size is the same. It’s also worth noting that a high grill BTU number usually means higher fuel consumption. The lone exception to this is if you’re cooking with an infrared grill, but that’s a conversation for another time. And if you’re suddenly asking yourself, “What is an infrared grill?” I explain that here.
Now let’s talk about how many BTUs you actually need in a grill. Truth is, the gas grill BTU figure alone doesn’t really tell you much. Sure, it might sound impressive to say that this little Char-Broil Classic 280 propane grill puts out 20,000 BTUs or that this huge stainless steel Weber grill packs 72,000 BTUs of grilling power. But there’s something missing here. What you need to figure in with these grill BTU numbers is the size of the primary cooking area. Ideally, what you’re looking for should be around 80 to 100 BTUs per square inch. That’s what most grill manufacturers and barbecue scholars recommend. For example, the aforementioned Char-Broil propane grill does indeed produce a total of 20,000 BTUs between its two burners. Compared to bigger grills, that might sound woefully inadequate. However, consider that the Char-Broil grill we’re talking about has a primary cooking area of 280 sq. inches. Now let’s do some math…
20,000 ÷ 280 = 71.42
Ok, so now we know that this Char-Broil propane grill is at about 71 BTUs per square inch. That’s weaker than the 80-100 BTU per square inch guideline that the world of grilling has decided is optimal. Does that mean you shouldn’t buy it? In this case, not really. Remember that guidelines are usually meant to be a suggestion under ideal circumstances. Your ideal circumstance would probably mean buying a grill that’s bigger and fancier than this one, but if you’re shopping for a budget-friendly meat cooker then so be it! You can still get a quality grill, and this Char-Broil grill is a small unit that’s great for light-duty grilling. As long as you’re not trying to feed the entire neighborhood, don’t sweat it. It’ll get the job done, and it won’t hit you too hard in the wallet.
Now, let’s look at the very fancy, very shiny, and very pricey Weber Genesis II LX S-640 Liquid Propane Grill. This grill is pretty badass. Its six burners pump out a collective 72,000 BTUs of cooking power over a primary cooking area of 770 square inches. For the amount of money you’d have to shell out for this backyard centerpiece, that had better be enough heat! But is it? Let’s check the calculator.
72,000 ÷ 770 = 93.50
This Weber grill’s 93.5 BTUs per square inch is solidly within the 80-100 guideline. That means it has a lot more cooking power than the little Char-Broil Classic 280, as well it should. This is a premium product, so it’s reasonable to expect premium performance.
So now that you know a bit about grill BTU figures, there are a couple of other small things to consider if you’re shopping for a grill. What you should be looking at is factors that will affect how efficiently all those BTUs get used. A grill might be able to crank out a lot of heat, but how does it do at retaining that heat? Most grills these days are designed to hold heat in pretty well, but some cheaper models may not be. If a grill is made of flimsy materials, that will have an effect on how much of the grill BTU count is actually used for cooking. There’s also the cooking surface to think about. Some grills will come with stainless steel grates while others might have porcelain enameled cast iron grates. In terms of heat retention, stainless steel will heat up quickly and dissipate heat quickly. They’re also very durable and might even outlast the grill itself. Porcelain enameled cast iron, on the other hand, heats up more slowly, but it also stays hot for a longer time. The big knock on porcelain enamel is that the porcelain can chip off and expose the cast iron, which can lead to rusting. And if you go with porcelain enamel … NEVER, EVER USE A SCRAPER ON IT! Unless you’re trying to scrape off the porcelain on purpose, because that’s what a scraper will do.
In conclusion, the grill BTU figure is something to consider, but don’t obsess over it. No matter how much you pay for a grill, even if it’s this gorgeous $4,000 Lynx rotisserie, your grill does NOT have to generate the heat of a thousand suns to do its job. That Char-Broil with 71 BTUs per square inch will probably cook your steak just as well as the 93.5 BTU/sq. in. Weber, but you might have to turn the heat up a bit more to get it done in the same amount of time. The guideline of 80-100 BTUs per square inch is something to shoot for, and if you’re spending at least $200-$300, you should probably get that. And if you’re keeping it real with a sub-$100 model, you should probably pay more attention to user reviews than BTUs. And once you get it all set up, just enjoy the weather, grill that meat, and have a great time doing it!