Even though the calendar doesn't say so, Memorial Day signals the start of summer. After the parades and the commemorations comes the barbecue. Nearly three-quarters of American grill owners fire up that day, according to a survey from grillmaker Weber. And what's on the menu? The three most popular items are hamburgers (73 percent), chicken (41 percent) and steak (40 percent). When Consumer Reports tests gas grills, we cook dozens and dozens of rib-eye steaks. As a result we've learned how to grill the perfect steak as well as how to choose the best grill to cook it on.
Once the grilling season starts, 74 percent of grill owners continue to cook out at least once a week, says Weber, an increase of five percent over last year. That's why it's important to buy a grill that fits your everyday needs and not one for the occasional holiday bash. Midsized models are the most popular and we recommend 21 of them in our latest gas grill Ratings, including six Best Buys. The Vermont Castings Signature Series VCS300SSP, $950, is the top rated midsized grill but the $350 Kenmore 16142, for example, cooked almost as well for substantially less. For large grills we salute the Huntington Patriot 658184, which at only $700 is a CR Best Buy.
If you prefer charcoal
Some ardent barbecuers won't grill with anything but charcoal. We recently put the claims of "easy lighting" Match Light charcoal to the test. Already infused with lighter fluid, Match Light claims the briquettes, are "ready to cook in 10 minutes." And they were, but so were the other coals that we had squirted with lighter fluid. We also discovered that the briquettes need to be stored in a tightly sealed bag, as the manufacturer recommends. Otherwise the lighter fluid can evaporate and the briquettes can no longer be lit with just a match.
Improve your grilling chops
Over the years our gas grill testers have cooked hundreds of steaks. Here are some tips on cooking the perfect steak from John Macchia, a senior laboratory technician who is also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. The results should be a steak that's seared on the outside and tender and juicy inside:
- Use fresh beef that you've just bought or have refrigerated for up to three days. Do not use meat that has been frozen.
- Preheat your gas grill on high for at least 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grates. Remember to keep the lid closed during preheating and as you cook.
- Trim excess fat from the steak. Then season the meat with freshly ground pepper and kosher or coarse salt, using a little more salt than usual since some will drip off during cooking.
- To get steakhouse-quality grill marks, place one end of the steak diagonal to the grates facing left (pointing to 10 o'clock). Then, without flipping the steak, move the end so that it now faces right (pointing to 2 o'clock). Flip the steak and repeat the previous two steps.
- Grill a boneless steak, such as rib-eye or sirloin, 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick, for 90 seconds for each step if you prefer rare meat. Grill a bone-in steak, like a porterhouse, for 2 minutes per step for rare. Add 30 seconds per step for medium-rare. Cook for 3 minutes per step for medium-well. Remove the steak from the grill.
- A meat thermometer should register 145 degrees F for medium-rare, 160 degrees F for medium, and 165 degrees F for medium-well, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thirst-quenching wine and beer
Whether you're taking a bottle of wine to a party or buying one for yourself, our wine experts have found some tasty and affordable choices. The wine we test at Consumer Reports typically costs $10 to $12 a bottle although you can pay a bit for some varietals. We currently have Ratings for cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, red blends, red zinfandel, rosé, sauvignon blanc, shiraz and sparkling wines. Next week we'll have the results of our tastings of 38 pinot grigios and rieslings, two summer favorites. One of the best pinot grigios cost $4.50 and is sold at some Target stores.
Beer. Our experts also conducted blind taste tests of eight top-selling regular and light beers, plus offerings from Trader Joe's and Walgreens. And the winner was Coors regular, which has balanced flavors with some citrus notes, and no off-tastes. At less than seven dollars for a six-pack we named it a CR Best Buy. Three runners-up are also CR Best Buys: Name Tag (Trader Joe's), Big Flats (Walgreens) and Miller High Life.
Condiments that get compliments
Our pick of the pickles we tasted recently is a store brand. The organic kosher dills by 365 Everyday Value from Whole Foods were the only spears to get a judgement of excellent. They have a pleasing balance of garlic, salt, sourness and spices. Store brands from Trader Joe's, Walmart (Great Value) and Target (Market Pantry) scored very good, along with such national brands as Vlasic and B&G.
Barbecue sauce. The best sauces we tasted all have complex flavors, though they tasted somewhat different. Stubb's was tangy; Archer Farms (Target) and Great Value (Walmart) were smoky; Emeril's had a hint of cumin and celery-seed flavor; and KC Masterpiece was sweet with a lingering spicy heat. The priciest sauce, Bone Suckin', lacked complexity and was extremely sweet.
Mustard. We sampled five yellow and six Dijon mustards. None was complex enough to be excellent, but Gulden's yellow and French's Classic yellow were very good, as were five of the Dijons. Don't spend a lot for this staple, and don't waste time looking for the word "natural," a French spelling, or a celebrity name. Among yellow mustards, a 12-ounce bottle of top-rated Gulden's cost less than half that of a 9-ounce bottle of lowest-rated Annie's Natural. Among Dijons, a 13-ounce bottle of top-rated Trader Joe's was well under the price for 9.7 ounces of Maille Originale or 12 ounces of Emeril's.
—Mary H.J. Farrell