Thinking of buying a grill? You'd do well to remember that you're not just buying a grill. You're buying a piece of equipment that could make a dinner with friends and family a fond memory for the ages -- or a disaster. Botch the grilling, and you might turn a stomach or a formerly meat-loving friend into a vegetarian. Worse, you might catch your food or yourself on fire. You could blow up the backyard.
This is not a simple purchase.
So if you're thinking a grill will complement your summer but are unsure what to buy, no worries. We did some grilling of our own -- that is, consulted some experts -- and found out what novices should know before purchasing a grill.
Gas or charcoal? There's no right or wrong answer, although plenty of barbecue enthusiasts have strong opinions and will tell you that one is better than the other.
Still, in a perfect world, says Allan Penn, co-author of the new book, "Wieners Gone Wild: Out-of-the-Ballpark Recipes for Extraordinary Hot Dogs," you'd have two grills, one gas and one charcoal. "A gas grill for weeknights and charcoal for the weekends," he says.
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Why two? Because a gas grill is easier to cook with, but food grilled with charcoal tastes better, he says. The charcoal smoke, he says, "gives a classic barbecue flavor to foods."
His co-author, Holly Schmidt, agrees. If you buy a charcoal grill, she advises against soaking the charcoal in lighter fluid. "You want your meat to taste like smoke, not butane," she says.
You could also buy an electric grill, popular among apartment dwellers, and if you're a purist, you could even go with a grill that burns wood.
"Most grills are not made to accommodate real wood, but the real die-hard, fire-cooking lovers will tell you that there's nothing like cooking over real firewood embers," says Hugh Preece, general manager of Salt Creek Grille in Princeton, New Jersey, which is known for its open, exhibition-style kitchen. But if you're a novice or just occasionally grill out, Preece recommends going with gas.
"Charcoal emits more carbon monoxide, particulate matter and soot into the atmosphere," Preece says. Meanwhile, gas is "consistent, fast to heat, and easy to clean," he says.
If you can't make up your mind, you might want to follow the wisdom and tastes of the crowd. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, in 2013, Americans bought eight million gas grills, five million charcoal grills and 302,000 electric grills.
Must-have features. Grills almost resemble cars in terms of the numerous amenities available -- and some cost as much as an automobile. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, based in Chicago, makes a line of gas grills that can be purchased into the teens, and one that retails for $21,195. While it's easy to find good gas and charcoal grills in the low hundreds of dollars, many high-end gas grills can cost $3,000 to $5,000. Charcoal grills are generally cheaper than gas grills, but the pricey charcoal grills also cost in the low thousands of dollars.
As for features, you could get dizzy thinking about upgrades for your grill. Do you want a rotisserie burner? What about a high-intensity ceramic infrared bottom burner for searing? Maybe you want the knobs to light up for nighttime barbecuing or alarms to ensure you don't overcook your food.
Arguably you don't need any of that. Some people manage to make a pretty good burger or steak with a $10 portable charcoal grill, but some features are much more important than others.
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If you're in the market for a new grill, you'll probably want to buy one with the following:
-- A built-in thermostat. "Or at least a place to put one," says Ray Whitlock, executive chef at the Georgia Club, an upscale golf community in Athens, Georgia. "Smoking is all about the meat, wood [or fuel] and temperature, so you must be able to read the internal grill temperature."
-- Sturdy shelving on the sides. "To hold mise en place," Whitlock says, using the French phrase that basically means "the setup." You'll need a place to hold the meat before it goes on the grill, not to mention your condiments, cheese, spices and anything else you put on your burgers, steak or whatever you're cooking.
-- A grill cover. It will protect your investment, Whitlock says. He also advises buying a pair of heavy-duty professional tongs and a spatula, which can be found at restaurant supply stores. "You will be thankful that you did," he says.
-- Grill burners with at least 12,000 British thermal units per burner. "This means quicker cooking," Preece says. And while you don't need one, a feature many gas grills have these days is an infrared burner, Preece says, explaining its appeal: "This burns extremely high, searing or caramelizing whatever you're cooking, like a rib-eye or double-cut pork chop."
-- Ample cooking space. Preece recommends that the cook space on the grill be at least in the neighborhood of 600 to 900 square inches. Put another way, many experts say 100 square inches are needed per person. So if you have a big family or expect to cook for a lot of people, you can see why you don't want to go too small.
What you don't need. Here are some features that might be nice to have but are unnecessary for novices and casual grillers.
-- Smoke box. This small, metal container can sometimes be purchased as an add-on feature, or you can buy one separately for any type of grill. The box, which you fill with damp wood chips, infuses food with a smoky flavor. "This is something to grow into once you've mastered the basics," Whitlock says.
-- Electric charcoal starter. This is a looped heating tool that is plugged in and placed on the charcoal. "They burn out quickly and build uneven fire," Whitlock says. For an alternative, he recommends a charcoal chimney starter. "This dandy piece works great, and there are no fumes or plugging in," he says.
-- A rotisserie. "This piece of equipment will end up on the garage floor," Whitlock says. "It's time-consuming and difficult to get right."
If you're really lost. Do your due diligence with online research, and take an experienced friend with you to the store. Or start with a $15 hibachi, and work your way up to a more expensive model.
What you don't want to do is spend a lot of money on a grill you end up hating or avoiding because it's too complicated. In more ways than one, buy the wrong grill, and you can really get burned.
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