Six-Model Barbeque Test
We fired up gas models from five makers. The Force 10 is our overall winner, and Magma edges Si-Port II in a clash of kettles.
The last time we evaluated marine cockpit-mounted barbecues, in 1991, all of the test units were charcoal models. If you keep a charcoal version on board, it's wise to wrap the grill after each use in a large plastic garbage bag to keep ash and grease from contaminating the other contents of the locker. It's difficult to keep a barbecue clean.
This year, as we contemplated another summer afloat and the joys of barbecuing aboard, a search of catalogs showed that the most popular models now are fueled by propane. Most companies still offer charcoal models, essentially the same except there is no burner or regulator, but it’s the propane model they’re promoting. And the reason they promote gas is because that’s what their customers are buying. There still will be grease on the grill, but there’s no messy ash to dispose of after dinner. Worse, we hear that, at least in some locations, you’re not supposed to dump the ash into the water, meaning you’d have to let the briquettes totally cool and then empty them into a garbage bag for shoreside disposal. What a pain.
Only one of the models tested uses lava rock or ceramic briquettes to spread the heat—the Tasco. (Magma has a model, not tested, which uses ceramic briquettes as a less expensive alternative to its stainless flame spreader). All of the other companies have devised a diffuser plate that tries to spread the flames more evenly under the cooking surface.
All of the companies making marine barbecues note that their systems can be plumbed to the boat’s large propane tanks. This requires a pressure regulator. While this is a convenient set-up, owners of smaller boats may prefer using the 1-pound propane bottles commonly found in camp stores. These sell for a few dollars each. All barbecues tested in this report were operated with the 1-pound propane fuel supply. As reported in our evaluation of single-burner stoves in the March 2002 issue, the American Boat & Yacht Council does not approve of the use or stowage of these 1-pound propane canisters belowdecks.
While barbecues seem fairly simple—and it is tempting to just throw a steak on each grill and cook 'em—we found there’s more to designing and manufacturing a barbecue than meets the eye.
In our evaluation, we examined materials for resistance to the harsh marine environment and for long-lasting finish; design elements such as ventilation for convection cooking; ease of lid removal; ease of cleaning; and ease of mounting and dismounting; burner design for evenness of cooking and flame control; and mounting options. In the end, we did grill some burgers on each, and “baked” a square of pizza dough as a measure of evenness of heating. In the case of the burgers, we learned more about the grills trying to clean up the mess than we did cooking.
This well-known maker of stainless steel marine equipment is based in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, not far from two other competitors, Dickinson and Si-Port II Industries. Force 10 makes three models of marine barbecues, a large and small cylinder type, and the round kettle type. The test model is #83720, the large 9-1/2" diameter cylinder type.
The Force 10 is made of type 304 stainless steel. The front handle, which has a nice spring coil to keep your hand from getting burned, is brass. So is the name plate, the knurled mounting knobs underneath, and a few machined pieces in the lid mechanism, which cleverly rolls back around the cylinder on four pivoting arms. In this manner it avoids having to be hinged with a lid that would stand up and scoop air.
The burner is an inch-diameter tube that runs the length of the cylinder and has lots of small holes for the flame to come out. Heat is spread by a corrugated steel plate with rows of half-inch holes. Both the grill and heat spreader are removable for cleaning. Grease drippings find their way to the bottom of the cylinder where they drain into a drip pan that slides out to one side for cleaning. The round body carries grease away better than flat bottoms. The drip pan is thoughtfully tethered to the unit so you don’t lose it overboard, but the wire is very thin and pulled out of the Nicopress-type clamp.
Vents are found on both ends of the cylinder and have a small ear-like handle to open and close them. They cannot be closed all of the way because barbecue grills require some air intake for convection and to prevent getting too smoky. Cooking with the lid off or open results in longer cook times.
Wind is the enemy of outdoor grills, and we were fortunate to have a brisk breeze during the cook-out. The Force 10 initially gave us trouble staying lit at the high setting. Turning the gas regulator slightly down cured the problem. The rollaway lid is easy to operate for checking food for doneness. A major convenience of the cylindrical or box-type grills is that when trying to slip a spatula under a burger or other food you want to turn over, there are back and side walls against which to push the patty. Try this with a kettle type grill and you can end up pushing the burger right off the cooking surface into the water or cockpit. You need a stopper in your other hand.
After the grills cooled, we set about cleaning them. It’s not a pleasant job. Most of the grease never makes it to the drip pan, collecting instead on the interior walls of the grill. The Force 10 was relatively easy to disassemble and clean.
Next we “baked” pizza dough on all of the grills to check for evenness of heat. We did not notice great differences among the grills, so it appears that the compact marine barbecue grill has evolved to the point that hot and cold spots aren’t as much of a problem as earlier models. The Force 10 heated the dough evenly.
Bottom Line: The Force 10 is perhaps the most finely crafted of the grills. Parts fit with close tolerances and machining seems superior. It, along with the other brushed stainless grills, retained its appearance better than the polished lids of the kettle-type grills, which were discolored after use. While not quite as big as the Dickinson Sea-B-Que and Sport Supreme, the Force 10’s price is substantially lower: $185 versus $300 and more. That makes it a good buy … if you like the cylindrical style.
Magma Marine Kettle
One of the most commonly seen marine barbecues, the Magma Marine Kettle is a round, double-wall design with a lid that can be hung on the grill body at any location. A washer inside on the lid handle bolt cleverly holds the lid.
Several sizes of the Marine Kettle are available, including the “Original Size” (#A10-007) and “Party Size”(A10-017). We tested the smaller of these two, which has a cooking surface measuring 133 square inches, compared to the larger one at 204 square inches. Other styles offered include charcoal models and a gas one that has a “radiant screen and ceramic briquets” in place of the patented “radiant burner plate and dome system.” And it is introducing a two-burner "professional" model, the Avalon, that is shown in this year’s West Marine catalog for a whopping $599.
Construction is 18-9 spun stainless steel that is polished and hand-finished for a shiny surface. To ignite, an electronic gas grill igniter is recommended. Owners are cautioned not to drop a lighted match through the lid’s vent holes. Good advice. Because of the danger of gas build-up, never light a grill with the lid on.
Magma’s “radiant burner plate and dome system” allows you to remove the normal grill that you would put meat on, and place standard pots and pans on the three-finger burner plate. The idea is to give the standard barbecue more versatility by enabling you to do other sorts of cooking as well, such as boiling water or pan frying. Whether you find this an important feature probably depends on what sort of stove, if any, you have below. On a small boat, a versatile barbecue would be helpful; on a larger boat, with a stove/oven combo in the galley, being able to boil water in the cockpit isn’t a big deal. But we did try pots and pans on the Magma and it does work as advertised.
Magma makes a very complete line of mounts (rail, deck socket, fish rod holder, shore stand and more) and accessories, including Sunbrella covers, cookware, a Fish & Veggie Grill Tray, canister storage bag and a variety of polyethylene serving and cutting tables that give you a sort of countertop next to the grill.
The Magma has vent holes in the lid that are not adjustable. Like the others, the Magma is designed to be used with the lid on. The 11,000 Btu burner is round and connects to a venturi tube that rotates 360° for convenience in hanging the gas bottle.
Grease is collected in a pan at the bottom; to clean it thoroughly you have to take apart the grill.
In operation, the Magma was the only grill that wouldn’t stay lit during the burger test. It’s not clear whether the wind caused this or some other factor. We like Magma’s adjustable gas regulator, which lets you orient the gas bottle in any direction. When used on its feet on the ground, this lets you lay the bottle on its side, rather than having to elevate the grill so the bottle can hang down, as with the other grills tested.
In baking the pizza dough, the grill grew hot much faster than the others, probably because of its 11,000 Btu burner and smaller size (the similarly sized Sport Extreme has just a 7,000 Btu burner). Consequently, the bread burst into flame and soon was reduced to ash. Obviously we should have turned down the flame, but we were “baking” on all five stoves at the same time, so that conditions (ambient temperature and wind speed) would be the same for all, and, hey, we just didn’t check it fast enough. Anyway, judging from the red glow of the flame spreader, heat is very uniform across the cooking surface.
Bottom Line: The Magma is available with the widest range of accessories. It looks great when new, but like the other kettle types, tends to become more discolored after use than the brushed finishes. The 11,000 Btu burner needs to be watched, but will be appreciated when cooking on a windy day. It’s priced $20 less than the Sport Extreme, but does not come with feet standard—no big deal unless you want the option of cooking on the dock.
Sport Extreme and Supreme
Relatively new to the marine barbecue market is Si-Port II Industries of Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. Si-Port offers both the round-kettle style and the cylindrical or box-style (as they call it) grill. Each comes in two sizes, the smaller with 7,000 Btu burners, the larger with 12,000 Btu burners. The kettle type has a polished stainless steel lid and brushed body. The box type is all brushed stainless.
Si-Port's Michael Willingham feels that his models are evolutionary improvements of others, for several reasons. First, Si-Port uses a “circular continuous ‘rim of flame’ (similar to Asian restaurant style wok cookers) that produces a gentle, even heat conducive to convection roasting, baking or smoking.” Willingham says that the “standard star gas burner wastes heat, fuel and is less controllable and efficient at convection cooking.” In our tests, we did not measure gas consumption.
Secondly, the diffuser plate and standard grill top can be removed and a pot holder placed over the burner so that pots and pans (and woks) can be used for cooking. While in some literature Willingham says the Sport Extreme is the only grill with this feature, he elsewhere acknowledges that the Magma kettle has been made “pot friendly” but still criticizes it for its star-type burner and lack of hinged lid.
Thirdly, the gas controls are located on a front-mounted console, including piezo igniter.
The Sport Extreme does have several features not found standard on all others: carrying handles and feet for use on the dock or ground. The feet are short and do not obviate the use of other mounts for the rail and fish rod holder.
The Supreme box-style model is large, with a high lid so that large items, such as whole chickens, can be roasted inside. Like the Force 10, it has a corrugated stainless steel heat spreader, but in four sections. And, where the Force 10 has a rod grate over the cooking surface, the Supreme cooks right on the heat spreader. There is room for a warming tray and a nice grease catcher underneath, but it must be removed from the back instead of the side. If it's hanging over the water, this could be difficult for the operator.
The Supreme’s vent holes are in the back of the lid, which takes smoke away from the operator.
Willingham notes that the center console design brings gas into the burner faster than typical side entry models, which he says have “to push gas 3 times the distance to the burner—resulting in cold spots.”
Both kettle and box grills performed well. If you use these on their feet, say on a dock, you have to elevate them a foot or so because the gas bottle must hang down. This is an annoyance you won’t suffer when mounted on the boat though. Both grills burned hot and evenly. The hinged lid of the kettle model at first seemed like a convenience, but because you grab the handle on top rather than a side handle (as with the box-type model), you risk burning your wrist or forearm as you reach all the way back. This problem could be avoided if the lids didn’t hinge back so far, well over 90 degrees.
The Si-Port II grills were easy to disassemble and clean. Again, most grease never makes it to the drip pan, but what can you do? Avoid fatty foods, that’s what. The pizza dough was cooked evenly and the finished bread was edible, perhaps because these grills didn’t get as hot as some others.
Bottom Line: After cooking with the large model box type and the smaller kettle types, we grew to appreciate the extra room of the former. But they are heavier and more expensive. At $399 retail, the Sport Supreme is pricey, but we found the small for $220 and the large for $280 at www.bartswatersports.com. Of the three box-type grills tested, this is the largest, and we like the warming rack.
The Sport Extreme is nicely made, has some good features, and performed well, but we’re not convinced about the virtues of the hinged lid with top-mounted handle. We’d prefer side handles or an unhinged lid.
Dickinson, perhaps better known as the maker of stainless steel cabin heaters, also makes a cylindrical barbecue grill in small and large sizes. In appearance, the large model is similar to the large Sport Extreme model tested, with angular lids rather than the round lid of the Force 10.
The Dickinson has a few features the others lack: a thermometer on front and wooden lift handles. There’s also a handsome brass name plate on the front. Other standard features include metal feet (that appear to be black anodized aluminum) with studs for the optional rail mount, an igniter and the same corrugated stainless cook surface used by the large Sport Extreme grill. There is a convenient grease tray removable from the front. The grill vents between the lid and body, in the back. There are no adjustable vent holes. The long burner has a built-in flame spreader welded on top. Like all of the other grills, the gas regulator has an on/off feature and variable flame settings.
Construction is polished stainless steel. The small welds on our grill show a faint bit of rust. More assembly is required than with other models. The manual has minimal instructions and crude computer drawings. While the unit went together fine, we would have appreciated some advice, like installing the igniter before the burner, because the latter got in the way.
In operation, the Sea-B-Que performed very well, with hot, even heat. We forgot to spray Pam on the corrugated stainless steel cooking surface and so had a lot of meat stick to it (we’re not sure what the statement in the Defender catalog means when it says, “unique non-stick, no flare cooking surface.”) The plates are easy to remove and wash, however.
The Sea-B-Que has a piezo igniter, but in our experience these are not always reliable, so we don’t mind using one of those special purpose gas grill lighters, which lights every time.
The Sea-B-Que did a decent job grilling the burgers and demonstrated evenness baking the bread, though the later was blackened on the bottom, which is when we noticed that its cooking surface is closer to the burner than on the Sport Supreme and Force 10 grills. With the pizza dough, this appears to be a liability, but on a cold, windy day, it might just as easily be an asset.
Bottom Line. The Sea-B-Que is the heaviest of the grills tested and about the same size as the Sport Supreme. The thermometer is a nice feature. The rusty welds are a worry, but none of these grills is likely to retain its shiny new appearance for long.
The Tasco kettle type, which was around for many years, has been phased out. Tasco now makes two box-style grills. The small one measures 16-1.2" x 8-1.2". That makes it the same size as the Force 10, and a bit smaller than the Sport Supreme and Dickinson Sea-B-Que. A larger size is available for $319. Tasco owner Clifford Bodge says they were designed in consultation with The Moorings.
The Tasco is made of stainless steel with a brushed finish. Instead of being welded, most parts are riveted.
The Tasco is the only grill tested that uses lava rocks to distribute heat; all of the others use stainless steel plates. (Magma, if you recall, offers a lava rock model.) The burner is a long U-shaped tube that provides much more burner area than any other grill. It’s adjustable up to 10,000 Btus. The cooking surface is a stainless grate, identical to a lower grate that holds the lava rocks. Cleaning this grill is no pleasure, if you want to go below the rocks, because they’ll have to be removed first. And there is no grease drip pan.
There is generous room under the angular lid for roasting. The rail mount has a handy quick release via a fastpin, perhaps the slickest arrangement of the lot. There are non-adjustable vent holes on both ends.
For our cook tests, we used just half the lava rocks, to see what difference they made. The burger over the open flame cooked somewhat faster, and the pizza dough over open flame was badly burned. The dough over the lava rocks baked nicely.
Bottom Line. The Tasco is an expensive alternative to the Force 10. The lava rocks may do a better job of distributing heat than the stainless plates, but make clean-up a bit more difficult.
Though Bodge says most grease gets burned up, the absence of a removable drip pan is regrettable. Two bottom holes, under a sliding plate, are for removing charcoal in that model.
There's a basic dichotomy between the kettle and cylindrical-style grills: light weight, versatility (pots and pans) and compactness versus larger, rectangular cooking surfaces. Therefore, it seems sensible to recommend the kettle grills for smaller boats and the cylindrical grills for larger boats, which can tolerate the weight and have the room to stow them in a locker.
We were impressed with the overall quality of the group.
Among the kettle types, the choice between the Magma and Sport Extreme is pretty much a toss-up. We'd take the Magma if its large line of accessories is important. Its lid is removable and can be positioned at any place around the grill to block the wind while you work.
The Force 10 is the least expensive (imagine that!) of the cylindrical or box-type grills and very nicely made. Then again, so are the Dickinson Sea-B-Que and Sport Supreme, which are larger and correspondingly more expensive. Between these two, again, it's essentially a toss-up. If we planned to use the grill on the dock or on shore as well as aboard, we'd take the largest grill, and that would be the Sport Supreme. The same goes if we had a really big boat and could tolerate its weight and size.
If we had to choose between all five grills, regardless of type, the Force 10 has our preferred rectangular cooking surface, quality parts and craftsmanship, and a price between the kettles and the larger box grills.
Also With This Article
Click here to view "Value Guide: Marine BBQs."
Contacts— Dickinson USA, 117-12310 Hwy. 99S., Everett, WA 98204; Dickinson Marine, 407-204 Cayer St., Coquitlam, BC, Canada V3K 5B1; 800/659-9768; www.dickinsonmarine.com/. Force 10 Marine, 23080 Hamilton Rd., Richmond, BC, Canada V6V 1C9; 604/522-0233; www.force10.com. Magma Products, 1201 E. Hill St., Long Beach, CA 90806; 562/427-7050; www.magmaproducts.com. Si Port II Industries Ltd., 19427 92nd Ave., Surrey, BC, Canada V4N 4G6; 604/888-2939; www.sportbbq.com/. Tasco Marine (Taunton Stove), 490 Somerset Ave., N. Dighton, MA 02764; 508/823-0786; www.tauntonstove.com/.