The Insider: Time to smoke out some perfect summer cooking

We all love a good barbie, but when the only thing that's certain about a British summer is the uncertainty of the weather, you might think twice before investing in an expensive barbecue. But, if the idea of a cheap one reminds you of hours spent waiting for food to cook and ending up with charred remains at the end of it all, then think again. The good news is that you don't have to spend much to get a decent barbecue that will cook food quickly and efficiently.

The first choice is whether to choose a gas or charcoal model. Gas models use bottled liquid gas – available from DIY stores and petrol stations – and consequently provide a continuous heat source. Charcoal models use either lumpwood or charcoal briquettes, which will remain hot until they have turned to ash.

"Both types have their pros and cons," says Ceri Thomas, editor of Which? Gardening. "It's largely a matter of personal preference whether you opt for a charcoal or a gas model – some people prefer the flavour you get from cooking with charcoal, but gas can be easier to control and quicker to heat up."

There are lots of extra features you could choose, so it's worth doing research. Consider vents on charcoal barbecues as they help to control how hot the coals burn and are useful if the grill height is fixed. Not all barbecues have a warming rack, which is handy for resting food away from the direct heat of the barbecue or for warming up buns.

In the recent Which? Gardening test of barbecues under £40, the Argos Square Smoker (£29.39) came out on top. It's large enough to cater for the whole family, but small enough to store neatly in a shed and scored well for convenience and performance. It also got up to cooking temperature quickly and the integrated hood helped preserve the heat, so food was cooked in just 20 minutes.

The barbecue that rated poorly was the Tesco Wooden Frame Bench Charcoal BBQ (£29.36) which took a long time to put together and was slow to cook food as it didn't heat up efficiently. It's large and would take up a lot of storage space when not in use.

Where to buy

Barbecues are widely available at DIY stores, garden centres and supermarkets, as well as online. You can check stockists and compare the latest prices using Which?'s price comparison service www.whichcompare.co.uk

Questions to ask...

Do you want charcoal or gas?

Charcoal barbecues provide a more traditional, authentic outdoor cooking experience, as long as you don't mind waiting a while before you start cooking. Gas is great if you want instant heat for quick, easily controlled cooking.

What size is it?

If you're catering for a small family, a two-burner gas barbecue or medium-sized – around 50cm x 50cm – charcoal grill should be sufficient. For larger gatherings, consider a three-burner barbecue, but remember they'll be heavier to move around.

What will you cook?

For roasting joints, choose a barbecue with a hood and check there is enough room on the grill when the lid is closed. If you like cooking fish, a griddle or hot plate alongside the grill is a useful addition. To ensure optimum flavour, choose a barbecue with a vapourizer bar or lava rocks to produce that familiar, smoky barbecue taste.

How difficult is it to put together?

Some barbecues require more construction than others. If you're not handy with a screwdriver, look out for one with pre-assembled parts as this will save you time and frustration. Ask to see the instructions in the shop – if they're not clear in the store, putting it together back at home could prove lengthy.

The Insider is written by Which?, the independent consumer champion. For more information go to www.which.co.uk/barbecues. To get three issues of Which? magazine for a special price of £3, call 01992 822800 and quote INADVICE.

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