By Marie Rama, Bryan Miller

If you’re in the market for a grill, your choices range from a small hibachi to a “grilling unit” that’s roughly the size of a Fiat and sports everything from gas burners and cutting boards to rotisseries and satellite TV (just kidding).

High-end grills can run into the thousands of dollars. Are the pricey models worth it? Or are you good to go with the hibachi? Look more closely at your grill options before you shell out the big bucks.

Obviously, the grill you choose is a matter of personal preference. But after you make your decision, you need to know how to master your heat source.

Charcoal grilling

Many hard-core barbecue experts prefer charcoal grilling over any other type because of the flavor it imparts to meat and vegetables. Charcoal grills can be short or tall, large or small, but they all have one thing in common: Instead of turning a switch or lighting a gas flame, you actually light briquettes or wood and cook your food over this sometimes temperamental heat source.

Charcoal grilling does produce a unique flavor you can’t get from a gas or electric grill, and charcoal grills are usually much less expensive. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about buying and/or refilling a propane tank; for charcoal grilling, you can use charcoal briquettes or real wood briquettes (which are dense chunks of wood).

Some briquettes are pretreated with lighter fluid so they’re easy to light; real wood briquettes and/or special woods like mesquite, hickory, apple, and others also are available.

The key to successful charcoal grilling is an even source of heat. Probably the most common failing of amateur cooks is cooking with a charcoal fire that’s too hot, either from having too many briquettes or positioning the grate too close to the fire. Here are more tips for having the perfect charcoal grilling experience:

  • As a rule, 30 charcoal briquettes can cook about 1 pound of meat. If you’re cooking 2 pounds of meat, you need around 45 briquettes. Don’t overload your grill with charcoal — too hot a fire will char food before it’s fully cooked.

  • Spread the coals in a solid layer about 4 to 6 inches below the food grate.

  • Never light cooking fires with kerosene, gasoline, or other chemicals unless you have a terrific home insurance plan.

    Perhaps the best lighting technique is using a stovepipe starter, which looks like a piece of stovepipe with a handle. All you do is crumple some newspaper in the center of the empty grill and place the pipe over it. Then fill the top with briquettes.

    When you ignite the paper, the heat intensifies and shoots straight up, quickly lighting the coals. When the coals are mostly white, reverse the pipe and spread them over the bottom of the grill. (If you need extra briquettes, just place them over the hot ones.)

  • Allow 30 to 35 minutes for the coals to burn to medium (they should be about 75 percent white). To gauge the temperature, place the palm of your hand just above the grill’s grid. If you can hold your hand in that position for 2 seconds, the coals are hot; a 3-second hold tells you the coals are medium-hot; 4 seconds is medium; and 5 indicates it’s time to think about the microwave.

  • If you’re cooking a large quantity of food and the fire begins to fade before you finish, add a small amount of fresh charcoal.

Gas grilling

Gas grills can get pretty fancy . . . and pretty expensive! But they look impressive on the patio. Thankfully gas-powered grills have become increasingly popular and more affordable in recent years. And they have several advantages over charcoal grills:

  • They heat up quickly.

  • The heat is adjustable and consistent.

  • They are easy to clean and maintain.

Some gas grills use lava rocks to simulate charcoal, which works exceedingly well. The cooking technique is the same as for charcoal grills, but the flavor isn’t as pronounced.

One major difference between a gas and a charcoal grill is that gas grills run off a propane tank. That means you need to buy propane, attach it to your grill, and refill it when it runs out — usually when the steak is barely seared. Some people shy away from propane, but if you follow the directions for your grill, propane is safe.

Grilling with wood chips

Home cooks don’t need a professional barbecue pit or a smoker when working with wood chips. All you need is a kettle charcoal grill with a cover or a standard gas grill with a wood chip-smoking box. (Charcoal yields the best results.)

Hard woods that are low in resin, such as cherry, apple, mesquite, and hickory, make the best smoking chips. But not all smoking chips are the same. Hickory and mesquite are relatively strong; apple, peach, cherry, and other fruit chips are relatively mild and sweet. Experiment with different types to discover what you like most and how much smoke you want in your food.

To use chips in a charcoal grill, simply cover two to three large handfuls with water in a bowl or other container and soak them for about 30 minutes. The soaking keeps the chips from burning when you throw them directly on the charcoal. Open the grill vents in the lid halfway.

Ideally, you want the food enveloped in smoke, but you also want to keep the smoke circulating and moving. Depending on how long it takes to cook the food, you may need to add more chips to the coals. So keep the container of soaking chips close, just in case you need to throw on another handful.

For gas grills, put the soaked chips in a smoker box or wrap them in aluminum foil poked with lots of holes. Place them on the grill as close to the heat source as possible so they can smolder.

A low, slow cooking fire extends the cooking time and gives the smoke time to impart its flavor into the food. Fish, burgers, vegetables, and other relatively soft, quick-cooking foods absorb the smoke more quickly than thick cuts of meat like briskets, pork shoulders, and whole chickens or turkeys.