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Finding the grill of your dreams

The unofficial start of summer is here, which means it’s time to fire up the grill. So, what's the totally tricked-out grill wearing this summer? Think stainless steel, a few side burners, a rotisserie, a smoker and a little infrared technology.

Men enjoying beer while grilling food © Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

From a basic $30 patio model to an outdoor dream kitchen with a price that rivals the down payment on a house, there really is a grill for everyone. The trick to getting the perfect model is deciding what features you want and how you want to cook, then shop specifics.

"The first big trend, I think, is all the stainless steel," says Mark Connelly, senior director of testing for appliances at Consumer Reports. The good news for consumers is that manufacturers have "been doing that without the price getting too crazy."

The abundance of stainless steel is a reflection of what's going on in the high-end kitchen market, he says. "The more stainless steel, the more expensive," he says, but its popularity has made the sleek, shiny look more affordable for everyone over the past year.

The other hot grill item? Plenty of side burners with heat "equivalent to what you have in your own kitchen," Connelly says.

For a gas grill, people pay an average of $250 to $300. | Spatula illustration © Colorlife/Shutterstock.com

Rotisseries are big, too, says Karen Adler, co-author of "The BBQ Queens' Big Book of Barbecue." "Over the past few years, this has been the most popular add-on," she says.

And "there seem to be more smokers," says Lynn Blanchard, test kitchen director for Meredith Corp., issuer of the Better Homes and Gardens publications.

If you're going to spend big bucks on a grill, get a test drive first. Some specialty retailers will fire them up on the weekends so that you can try them out first. Some things to watch:

"Don't be enamored with the high BTUs per hour they advertise," says Connelly. Quality "has to do with how well they distribute heat. It's no horsepower race. And unfortunately, that's what a lot of manufacturers tout."

How evenly does it heat the grate? Will burgers in different corners cook at the same rate, or will one burn while the other stays pink inside?

Does it flare up? This is important to most people, says Connelly. And it has a lot to do with the construction underneath the grate -- the part few people see. One feature to look for in gas grills is metal pyramids beneath the grate surface. The construction gives grease a way to drip down while allowing flames to rise unhindered at the same time, he says.

80 percent of all U.S. households own a grill or smoker, according to a 2013 study conducted by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. | Burning match illustration © Colorlife/Shutterstock.com

Can it handle low-temperature grilling? That's important if you want to cook something such as salmon, says Connelly.

Another feature to examine on a gas grill: the number of controls. Does each burner have its own control? "Generally speaking, the more burner controls you have, the more flexibility it gives you as a chef," Connelly says. His recommendation after shopping grills is to look for at least three burner knobs.

Check how easy it will be to clean, too, says Blanchard.

And ask about assembly. "It can be an eight-hour nightmare on a Saturday," says Connelly. "It's probably worth the money" to have the store do it.

Gas or charcoal?

Before you get in the car, ask yourself (and whoever else might be using the grill) a few questions. The hardest one first: gas or charcoal?

Charcoal grills are priced from $20 up to $500 or more, according to the HPBA. | Charcoal grill illustration © Colorlife/Shutterstock.com

Charcoal tends to be less expensive, gets hot enough and creates that traditional "cookout" flavor. You don't have to worry about filling or returning propane tanks. (And it's easy to tell if you have enough charcoal for the big day.)

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