One of the most important features of a grill is the cooking surface the grill grate. It holds your precious meat while it cooks, transferring heat from the source to produce those delicious grill marks that everyone looks for when it comes to outdoor cooking.
But does the type of grate really affect your grill’s performance? Which one is considered the best? Well, the answer to that question isn’t as easy as you think. Best can mean different things to different people.
The type of grate you choose will all depend on your preferences. Do you want your grate to last or are you willing to replace it every couple of years? Are you looking for something that creates serious grill marks? How thick do you want those grill marks to be?
Do you mind cleaning your grate every single time you use it? Before you decide which one would give you the taste of grate-ness, it’s best to know the pros and cons of each grate.
Cast Iron Grates
Pros: Cast iron grates are a favorite among grillers because it retains a lot of heat (up to searing temperatures) for a long period of time, better than any other grate material. This means food gets cooked faster. More importantly, they produce great grill marks and last for decades.
Cons: Though it holds heat for a long time, it takes a while to heat up. Also, cast-iron grates need regular maintenance to ensure that it does last a long time.
Cleaning them takes a bit of effort and time. It’s best to clean the grate when it’s still warm so it’s easier to take off residue. Aside from cleaning it after each use, the grates also need seasoning covering the grid with oil periodically even when it’s not in use to prevent rust.
Since you need to do as well while the grate is still warm, you’ll run the risk of your food getting cold before you finish this task. Also, big thick cast-iron grates prevent smoke from touching the food which means no added flavor.
For some BBQ experts, cast iron grates aren’t really good for grilling as most people believe. This is because they believe that this type of grate cooks food unevenly.
While the rods of the grate radiate intense heat causing the parts of the meat to get cooked (grill marks), the rest of the meat doesn’t get the same amount of heat (within the same time frame) so they cook is uneven.
As one grill master said, “I want an evenly-cooked surface, not black scars on the surface.” Another mistaken belief about cast iron grates is their ability to become non-stick like griddles.
The oil and grease that prevent food from sticking get burned off at high heat and when you scrape off the grease and residue after each grill.
Stainless Steel Grates
Pros: Stainless steel has great heat retention and easy to maintain because cleanup is a breeze and seasoning isn’t necessary. It doesn’t rust and can withstand harsh elements like rain. A stainless steel grate will definitely last a long time. Many of them come with a lifetime warranty.
Cons: They don’t get as hot as cast iron grates. And they do get dark (appearing dirty) after a couple of uses though this doesn’t affect the cooking or the taste of your food at all. One big drawback is the price because quality stainless steel is expensive.
Tip: Don’t mix this up with tempered steel or chrome-plated steel as those are prone to rust and not as long-lived. Also, thin stainless steel rods (under 1/3”) are less expensive than cast iron. Thicker rods (1/3” – 1/4”) are expensive and can block radiant heat from reaching the rest of the meat so you get uneven browning.
Chrome-plated Steel Grates
Pros: These grates are the least expensive in the market and perfect for infrequent or temporary use. You can easily replace them when they rust.
The rods of this type of grate is very small (like a thick wire) so a lot of radiant heat touches the meat while cooking which is the next best thing to cooking over an open fire.
Cons: Plating will chip off after a couple of years which leads to rusting. Chrome-plated steel grates also warp under very high heat.
Porcelain Coated Cast Iron Grates
Pros: This type of grate has the same ability as cast iron grates in retaining heat but without the pain of regular cleaning and seasoning. Because of the porcelain coating, the grate is much easier to clean. Just like with bare cast iron grates, these will last a long time with proper care.
Cons: The coating can crack, chip, or wear off which can cause rust. While it doesn’t require as much maintenance as bare cast iron, you’ll need to be more careful in cleaning (no vigorous scrubbing or scraping) so you don’t chip or wear off the coating.
Also, seasoning the grates still need to be done, just not as regularly as bare cast iron. Lastly, this type of grate doesn’t have the same ability to withstand searing heat that non-coated cast iron does.
Tempered Steel Grates
Pros: These are lightweight and inexpensive grates that usually come in expanded metal diamond grids which means that you get diamond-shaped grill marks without having to reposition the meat.
Cons: Like cast iron grates, these are hard to clean and needs to be oiled to prevent rust. And similar to chrome-plated steel grates, these also warp easily under very high heat.
Hard-Anodized Cast Aluminum
Pros: A new BBQ crowd favorite made by GrillGrate, this type of material is lightweight and a lot easier to clean (hosing it down with water while it’s piping hot will get the residue right off).
More importantly, this grate is able to amplify heat, kill hotspots (by evening out heat distribution across the cooking surface), and reduce flareups.
In addition, this grate reduces preheating time and fuel consumption (it holds heat for a long period of time). According to some BBQ experts, this grill is extremely durable and better at conducting heat than cast iron or steel.
Cons: Using a metal wire-based grill brush to vigorously scrape off the residue from the grate can damage the grate. You’ll need to invest in a bristle brush if you aren’t able to clean the grate right away with cold water.
You’ll also need to “season” the grill generously for the first few cookouts before heating them so the food will not stick and clean up becomes easier. You’ll know when to stop seasoning when the grates have darkened. Another drawback is the cost 2 panels will cost you around $40 which would only cover about one-third of most rectangular grills.
But Which is Grater: Thin or Thick?
Aside from the material, there is also much debate on the thickness of the grates. As mentioned above, some grill masters believe that thick grates block smoke and radiant heat from touching the surface of the meat which means that the meat doesn’t get evenly cooked or browned.
Thick grates are also not popular with some people because of practical reasons. The thicker they are, the heavier the grate is. Thick grates also cost more. On the other hand, thin grates are believed to wear down more quickly due to intense high heat.
So, the answer? It all depends on preferences and beliefs. Just like with the material of your grate, the thickness (or lack thereof) of your grate is all up to you. Whichever one you choose, as long as you know how to take care of it properly, you’ll get great results.