Weber Charcoal BBQ Grill review

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I recently bought a made-in-USA, Weber 18.5″ One-Touch Silver charcoal grill. It’s what we laymen know as an old-fashioned BBQ, a spheroid hibachi with tripod legs. It doesn’t use propane; only charcoal. I am a complete novice griller. The following outlines why I bought the Weber, the accessories I purchased for it (all prices CDN, before taxes), how I use the Weber, and what my overall impressions of it and charcoal grilling are.

Why I bought a Weber charcoal grill:

I live in a small, 1st floor bachelor suite on a hilltop in Victoria, BC, Canada. My landlady built a large, brand-new deck with a spectacular view, of which I get nearly sole access to. I wanted a BBQ (which I quickly learned is really a term reserved for slow, indirect-heat cooking units; what most of us want and use is a grill) for the summer of 2004 to entertain friends on said deck, and to learn and enjoy some good meat grilling.
After some basic research comparing gas to charcoal, I decided to buy a charcoal grill for the following reasons, in order of most important to least:

  1. I didn’t want a large, un-portable grill. The generally smaller charcoal units are easier to transport and pack up should I have to move;
  2. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money
  3. Simplicity of design and extra style points for grilling the “old fashioned” way;
  4. Save money on buying small, disposable propane tanks for small gas grills;
  5. Better taste.

I specifically bought the Weber because:

  1. Canadian Tire only had cheap charcoal grills or cheap to expensive gas ones;
  2. Only Capital Iron—a pretty unique store where the service is OK—had a large selection of both charcoal and gas grills, including the stylish-looking Weber line;
  3. I read up on Webers online (at both the company website and a few sites and forums on gas vs. charcoal and reviews of Weber in particular). The Weber has the range of models I was interested in and the quality that would hopefully last me years;
  4. I then debated over purchasing the 18.5″, tripod-legged charcoal Weber over the smaller, table-top Smokey Joe Weber and went for the former because I don’t own an outdoor table to place the small version on and I want to entertain groups larger than say, 4 people. I purchased the 18.5″ Weber for $119 (a rather high price as it turns out) at Capital Iron in Victoria. Go big or go home, right?

Accessories for the grill:

Locktong.gif Tongs: for flipping/moving items on the grill and arranging briquettes. I read in a number of places NOT to use a prong or large fork for flipping meat, as this needlessly pierces it, releasing precious juices and flavour. The Paderno prices also reflect Capital Iron’s 15% off sale and the brand is pretty stylish. There was a BBQ-labelled version of the tongs, with angled grabbing tips and plastic-covered handle, but it didn’t look as elegant as the all-steel ones.
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Turner: though seemingly less useful than tongs, it has actually proven more convenient for flipping large or somewhat irregular-shaped items. During my third outing with the Weber (my third as a grilling cook, period) the turner also came in handy as the dedicated meat-handler, while the tongs I reserved for handling the veggie items, as a courtesy to my casually-vegetarian friends.
products_bag_1.jpg Fire starters: I was warned lighting charcoal would be a pain. Capital Iron attempted to sell me a starter chimney, a simple cylinder in which you light the briquettes and, when they’re ready, release into the grill. I declined such a superfluous accessory, though in hindsight the starter chimney seems almost worth it (see Starting the Weber below) despite its lack of cool factor. Wal-Mart didn’t seem to have regular starter fluid, only a gel-type variation, so I bought a package of the Zip-brand starters: white, flammable cube-shaped substances wrapped in what looks like plastic. Again, less cool factor than fluid, but easy to use for now.
73881_3a_1.jpg The only basting brushes I could find at the Bay were unsightly silicon-bristled versions, or else ungainly large and expensive. It seemed only the pastry brushes had that beige, natural-looking bristle quality. The higher-end Henckels pastry brush was only .5″ wide, while the OXO mid-range model seemed appropriate, despite the lack of a “basting” label.

Starting the Weber:

I have now operated the Weber grill three times. This is the process I have developed for starting it so far:

  1. Pour approx. 30 (for small meals, i.e. 1 or 2 steaks) to 40 charcoal briquettes directly from bag onto bottom grill of Weber. Arrange briquettes in two pyramid-shaped piles. Centre of each pyramid should contain one starter cube. Arranging charcoal into even, stable structures is challenging.
  2. Make sure Weber’s bottom, three-fanned vent is fully open. This helps feed oxygen to the starters. In a windless area (difficult on my blustery hilltop deck), ignite one extra-long wood match and light both ends of starters in both pyramids. Monitor starters for a couple minutes to ensure they flame up, do not blow out or otherwise die. After a few minutes starters should be fully engulfed in flame that may shoot 5 or 6 inches high.
  3. At this point I have experimented with keeping the starters flammable enough to kindle the briquettes, while also trying to heat the grill as a whole. In very windy situations I have had the starters go out, even after a few minutes of flame. I also placed the cover (its vent always open) on the Weber too early once, and this seemed to starve the cubes of oxygen. I found that once I get the starters fully going, I still leave the lid off for at least 10 minutes until a majority of the briquettes are glowing red in the areas immediately nearest the starters, as well as acquiring a light-gray film. Small flames are usually still visible from the nearly consumed starters, and after another 5 or 10 minutes the starters are spent and most of the surrounding briquette surfaces are gray in at least part.
  4. With tongs, dismantle pyramids and spread briquettes evenly over lower grill. Put upper grill in place, cover entire unit with lid, again ensuring both its and main body’s vents are fully open. In 10 minutes (a total of 20-25 minutes of starting time) my Weber seems ready to accept its offerings. The temperature is usually hot enough that I cannot hold my hand near the upper grill for more than a few seconds.

Cooking on the Weber:

My first meal on the Webber was 1 steak. The second consisted of 2 steaks, 6 veggie kebabs, and 1 sausage. The third outing totaled 2 salmon steaks, 1 blue marlin steak, 3 large ribs, 1 sausage, 6 veggie dogs, 12 veggie kebabs, 3 frozen chicken breasts, and 1 garlic clove. The food and the Weber easily fed a party of ten over a period of 2 hours.
During my first meal I was amazed at the speed and taste the Weber grill, or at least charcoal grilling in general, imparts. The 1″-thick steak was medium-done. I had spread one side of it in Bull’s Eye Bold Original BBQ sauce after flipping it once half through. After approx. 15 minutes total cooking time the steak was very evenly cooked, barely charred and tasted amazing. The smoked quality was evident. In fact, a trail of smoke was constantly emanating from the lid vents of the Weber. When cooking with the Weber my shirt smells very strongly of charcoal smoke.
For my third and latest outing I cooked using about 35-40 briquettes. The large ribs took approx. 30 minutes to cook, sharing the grill-space at various points with the salmon and kebabs. Again, the meats all tasted excellent. I did notice an increase (an extra 5 minutes) in cooking time between pieces of rib that were near the perimeter of the Weber and those only a few inches closer to the center. The fish, I was told, was a little over-cooked; again, more a comment on my novice skills than the Weber itself. Kebabs (10″ skewers with chunks of mushroom, tofu, green and red pepper and cherry tomatoes) took approx. 5 minutes. By the end of the 2-hour cooking portion of the evening the Weber’s interior temperature, I would guess, was approx. 30-50% less than at the beginning of the evening; a majority of the briquettes were half their original size, or else completely crumbling and disintegrating. Next time, for such a large party, I will use more briquettes. 50 Kingsford-sized should completely cover the bottom grill.

Opinion of the Weber:

Pros:

  1. Looks cool, kind of classy and old school, almost cute in an R2D2 way
  2. Very light, easy to move. Not too big, not ostentatious in style or size. Easily fits into a hatchback or large trunk of a car; possibility to disassemble and store in original box if I move.
  3. Pretty good quality for its type.
  4. No gas: another cool factor, requires skill to operate, no propane tank to smell, lug around or refill. Better taste.
  5. 10-year warranty.
  6. Simple, elegant design and simple to use.

Cons:

  1. Kind of a bitch to assemble. Directions only included diagrams, no text. Although most of it was monkey-simple to assemble (a marketing point emphasized by Weber), some of it was too simple. Inserting the tripod legs at angles into the base of the unit, while two of the legs are already set in fixed positions at one end, attempts to defy physics by requiring both legs to be forced—without hammering or wiggling—into tight-fitting receptacles at initial angles that are mutually antagonistic. In short, I really had to grip those legs, struggle and twist and almost bend them into place for 10 minutes.
  2. Overpriced, some cheap construction: The legs are rather thin and flimsy aluminum as are the plastic wheels, which are held on their simple axles with primitive pressure-fitted caps, one of which came off under regular wheeling on its third use. All the handles and prongs for the grill are spot-welded, which I realize eliminates the need for rust-prone bolting, but also seem like the first areas that will go. Flimsy grease catcher.
  3. Some awkward design: The bottom vent fans scrape excessively on the unit’s surface, as does the lid vent. Aluminum lid vent extremely hot during operation but with no insulated handle to turn it. Only one handle on one side of main body, thus awkward to lift unit over steps, especially when hot. Grease catcher held in place with primitive and ugly, curly pressure clips.

Overall:

Despite the increase hassle (longer start-up times, messier aftermath) I would recommend a charcoal grill over a gas one, and would recommend the Weber Silver model specifically. The smell of the real charcoal grilling is amazing, though it stays with your clothes and hair well after the meal is over. Charcoal grills are rather a pain to clean: the bottom fills with ash after every use and you have to empty it often (after every second use or so) or it blows over your food. Apparently Weber is known as a good brand. They’ve been around since the 50s, their website is OK, the warranty excellent. It seams rather overpriced for its quality and simplicity, though for non-gas grills in this size range it is probably worth the exponential cost increase for something twice as good.

Questions Remain:

  • What is the average cost difference between regularly replacing briquettes and replenishing small or large propane tanks?
  • Is there a big difference between pastry and basting brushes?
  • Is it worth it to buy “better”, more expensive charcoal?
  • Is it worth it to get into burning different types of wood chips with your briquettes to enhance flavour?
  • Is Weber really a good brand?
  • What’s the best, i.e. most effective yet tasteful, fuel or method for starting a charcoal grill?
  • Does a windy area greatly affect cooking times or methods with a grill?
  • What’s the best way to remove used charcoal and to clean a grill?

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