I’m in the process of building a new house, so my wife and I have been taking a lot of trips to Lowe’s lately. Whenever we’re there, we always spend some time window shopping grills, as well as other appliances, fantasizing about what we’re going to get for our new house.
The last time we were there, my wife said, “Hey, come here and check out this grill!” I walked over there and began examining it. As soon as I lifted the lid, I realized I wasn’t looking at a grill, I was looking at a griddle – AKA a “flat top grill.”
What Is a Flat Top Grill?
A flat top grill is simply a freestanding, propane powered griddle – similar to the griddles you see in hibachi restaurants, fast food restaurants, and casual diners, such as the Waffle House and Denny’s.
The only differences between these and the ones used in restaurants are that they are portable, fueled by liquid propane, and intended for outdoor, home use.
For the rest of this article, I am just going to refer to flat top grills as griddles because that’s what they are. They are not a grill at all, they are a griddle.
What’s the Difference Between a Griddle and a Grill?
The main difference between a griddle and a grill is the cooking surface. A griddle has a flat, solid cooktop. It is essentially a giant frying pan. A grill has a cooking grate – parallel metal bars with small spaces between them where open flames can pass through.
The difference between these cooktops is significant, as can they can produce drastically difference results, and each one is better suited for certain foods than the other. What we’re essentially dealing with is two different cooking methods.
I think it’s fairly intuitive when to choose one over the other. For example, you wouldn’t fry an egg on a grill grate, nor would you grill an ear of corn on a frying pan.
Pros and Cons
Now let’s talk about the pros and cons of each. I’ll start with a traditional grill, including gas, charcoal, and wood pellet.
Traditional Grill Pros
Grills have a good amount of versatility. Just about any piece of solid food can be cooked on a grill. The only exception would be foods that are small enough to slip through the bars.
A grill’s versatility can also be expanded with accessories. I mentioned earlier that you wouldn’t fry an egg on a grill, you’d use a frying pan; but there’s no reason you can’t heat a frying pan over the grate of a grill and get the same end result.
A grill can also be used as an oven. My wife and I do not have an oven in our tiny house, so instead, we use our gas grill. We have successfully used it to roast vegetables, bake brownies, pizza, bread, and just about anything you would cook in a convection oven.
Lastly, I think it’s very important to mention: You can put a griddle pan on your grill, effectively turning it into a griddle. You won’t get the same massive cooking area, but that shouldn’t matter much unless you are cooking for a large group of people.
2. Cooking Area
Even small grills provide a decent amount of space to cook on. For example, a standard kettle grill – the classic round charcoal grill most of us are familiar with – has a much larger cooking area than most frying pans.
Burner grills typically range from 2-burners to 6-burners. A 2-burner grill has enough space to cook a full meal for one or two people; or, enough individual burgers, hot dogs, etc… for five to 10 people at once.
On the other end of the spectrum, a 6-burner has enough space to cook a full meal for four to five people, or enough individual items for a large party – 20 people or more.
The cooking area can also be expanded by the warming rack – the small rack above the main cooking grate. This rack is often used for toasting buns and cooking veggies while grilling your main dish on the grate below.
Despite the large cooking area of grill, you’ll find that it’s no match for a griddle.
3. Cooking Time
Cooking time can be a pro or a con depending on the type of grill and how you look at it.
A propane grill ignites instantly and is ready to cook on in about five minutes. Once the grill is ready, just about any food can be cooked quickly due to the extreme heat of the flames.
A wood pellet grills takes about five minutes to get burning, and then another five minutes to preheat.
A charcoal grill, though, is notoriously difficult to light, and takes a long time to preheat – usually 30 to 45 minutes. However, once the grill is ready, food can be cooked quickly.
4. Fuel Efficiency
Excluding charcoal, grills are more fuel efficient than electric stoves and griddles. They heat faster, which uses less fuel. The fuel also lasts a long time for what you get from it. For example, a 20 lb propane tank typically provides 18 to 20 hours of cooking time.
5. Cleaning and Maintenance
Grills, especially gas grills, require little cleaning and maintenance. Most of the time, you can clean the cooking grate by simply burning the gunk off and scraping it with a wire brush.
If you use your grill a lot – say, every weekend, for example – then you should probably remove the grate and clean the bottom and the burners about once every one or two months, though from what I’ve observed, most people rarely do this.
Charcoal and wood pellet grills produces ashes that need to be removed frequently, but this is a simple task that doesn’t take much time.
6. Low-Fat and No-Fat Cooking
A grill, by it’s very nature, reduces the fat content of whatever you cook on it. We’re all familiar with those flares you get when the burger grease or chicken fat drips on to the flames.
You can also cook naturally low-fat foods with little or no additional oil. I’ve grilled vegetables many times with nothing more than a light brushing of extra virgin olive oil on the grate.
7. More Nutritious Food
Not only do grills reduce the fat of whatever your cooking, they can also make foods more nutritious than other cooking methods. Fruits and vegetables retain more of their vitamins when they’re grilled, as opposed to boiled or fried. Just don’t overcook them.
8. Temperature Controll
Even thought it may seem like a grill only has two settings: flame on or flame off; grills allow for surprisingly good temperature control when you know what you’re doing.
On burner grills, you have several methods that can be employed. You can use the control knobs to adjust the size of the flames, just like on a gas stove; you can use different combinations of burners on or off; you can leave the lid open or closed to decrease or increase the heat; and you can move food around the grate to hotter and cooler spots.
Even with a charcoal grill there are ways to control the temperature. For example, you can move all the coals to one half over the grill to create a hot side and a warm side. You can also time when you put the food on the grill to get high, medium, or low heat.
9. Charred and Smokey Flavors
Charred food has a certain je ne sais quoi that most people enjoy. If you want to char something, there’s just no better way to do than over an open flame.
Similarly, if you’re cooking on a charcoal or wood pellet grill, they impart a natural, smokey flavor that is hard to imitate.
10. Grill Marks
When we think about food, we tend to only focus on taste and smell, but the way our food looks has a large impact on how much we enjoy it. Most people, myself included, love a neat row of grill marks across the surface of their food. This is also one of the ways we get that charred flavor I was just talking about.
Traditional Grill Cons
1. Food Limitations
Even though grills are versatile, without additional cookware, you are basically limited to meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables that won’t fall through the grate. You can also toast any kind of bread, including tortillas.
You cannot cook granular foods, such as rice; you cannot cook small vegetables, like frozen peas, frozen corn, and home fries; you cannot cook foods that start out as a liquid and then firm up, such as eggs and pancakes; similarly, you cannot cook battered foods, unless you don’t mind making a serious mess; and lastly, it’s tough to cook soft foods, like tofu, on a grill because they have a tendency to stick and/or fall apart.
2. A Grill is Just a Grill
Again, by itself, without any pots or pans; without any bonus features, like a side burner; a grill can only do one thing: grilling. And just because something can be grilled, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way you want to prepare it.
Maybe you’re like me, and you prefer a smash burger over a grilled burger. In case you don’t know what a smash burger is, it’s a super thin, crusty burger that is smashed flat on a frying pan or a griddle. You can make thin burgers on a grill, but you can’t make a proper smash burger.
3. Food Burns Easily
Whenever you’re cooking over an open flame, you can easily burn your food if you’re not careful. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve put something on the grill, closed the lid, walked away for a few minutes, and returned to something that was utterly incinerated.
4. Potential Fire Hazard
It’s not just your food that can get burned. Whenever you’re working with an open flame, there is a risk of accidentally starting a fire. A wooden spoon or paper gets left too close to the grill while unsupervised, and voila, you’ve got yourself a fire that needs to be put out.
Grills can, and usually do, create a lot of smoke; especially charcoal wood pellet grills. This is obviously a potential health hazard. Even propane grills, with their smokeless flames, still give off toxic fumes and particulates, and therefore should always be used in an open and well ventilated space.
I live in a place that is very windy, so this one is all too familiar to me. Cooking on a grill when it’s windy is both inefficient and frustrating. I can’t tell you how many times a gust of wind has blown out the flame on my side burner.
I’ve even experienced strong gusts blowing out the flames inside the grill while the lid is up. Even with the lid closed, the wind knocks a lot of heat off the grill, slowing down cooking times.
1. Lots of Food Options
It’s hard to think of a dish that can’t be prepared on a griddle, other than baked goods. I supposed you could technically bake something on a griddle with a lid, but it wouldn’t be ideal. I also wouldn’t fire up a griddle just to boil a pot of soup or spaghetti noodles, but you could if you wanted to.
Griddles are great because you can make so many different meals on them. You can make pancakes, hash browns, burgers, sausages, sandwiches, fried rice, stir fry, fish filets, seared steak, etc… I could probably spend my whole day just listing all the things you can make on a griddle.
This is definitely one of their strongest selling points.
2. You Can Cook Many Different Foods at the Same Time
There’s no better way to cook a big, diner-style breakfast than on a griddle. That’s because you can cook every part of the meal all at the same time on one cooktop.
You can have eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, toast, and whatever else you want, all going at the same time in different areas of the griddle. No need at all for lots of pots and pans.
3. Large Cooking Area
Griddles give you a huge surface to work on. They’re designed to be big so you can do all the things I’ve been talking about. Even a small griddle tends to have a larger surface area than a 2-burner grill.
This really comes in handy if you often cook for large groups of people. It’s also convenient for making large meals with several components, like the breakfast example I just gave.
4. Only One Surface to Clean
If you absolute hate washing dishes, like I do, then a griddle might be right for you. Since you can cook just about anything right on the griddle without the need for other cookware items, the only thing you have to clean is the griddle.
5. Griddles Are Fun!
I know, grilling is also fun – for some. Every cookout has that one person who’s “the grill master,” and usually a few others who hover around them, trying to squeeze their way in; but some people don’t like grilling. Some even proclaim they downright hate it.
A griddle, on the other hand, I think is really fun for anyone who doesn’t mind cooking. When it comes to the fun factor, I think a griddle beats a grill because it makes you feel like you have a professional restaurant at home.
1. Cleaning and Maintenance
Griddles require more cleaning and maintenance than grills. You can’t just burn the gunk off. You actually have to wipe down and scrub the surface. Griddles also need to be seasoned properly, something many new griddle owners complain about.
I think griddles also have a tendency to get dirtier much faster than a grill. Anyone who has ever used a frying pan, which is pretty much everyone, knows that it usually only takes one use to gunk it up. A griddle is no difference since it is just a giant frying pan.
2. Temperature Control
You might think that a griddle would have better temperature control than a grill, but that isn’t the case. You’re cooking on one continuous, solid mass, which means the heat is going to be pretty even across the entire griddle.
Sometimes that can be a good thing, but other times not so much. If I’m cooking on a 2-burner grill, and let’s say I only have the right burner on, the difference between the left and right side of the grill is going to be substantial. Provided the lid is open, the left side will be so much cooler, it becomes more of a warming rack than a cooking surface.
It’s much harder to do that on a griddle. Yes, griddles have multiple burners that can be turned on/off and adjusted independently just like a burner grill, but heat from one side of the griddle can and will conduct to the other side more so than a grill. On a grill, it’s the flames that are doing most of the cooking, not the grate. On a griddle, it’s the total opposite.
Another problem with temperature control on a griddle is that they take a while to heat up and tend to stay hot for a long time once they are hot. The degree to which this happens also depends on the type of metal.
Griddles are usually cast iron, stainless steel, or carbon steel. Cast iron takes the longest to heat up and retains heat the longest, followed by stainless steel and then carbon steel. No matter the type, though, you cannot instantly turn the heat up or down.
This is why professional stainless steel pots and pans have copper or aluminum plats on the bottom or sandwiched in between layers of the steel. Copper and aluminum are great conductors, so they can heat the steel pan quickly as soon as it goes on the stove burner.
3. Cooking Time
It takes at least 10 to 15 minutes to preheat a griddle, which is slightly longer than a gas or wood pellet grill. Griddles also don’t typically operate at as high of heat as a grill, so it takes a little bit longer to cook whatever you’re making.
350º F is the ideal temperature for a griddle, whereas 400º F is ideal for a grill. However, either can be operated at temperatures higher or lower than those.
Griddles usually involve more cleanup time, as well; whether that happens before or after, or both.
4. Greasy Food
Food cooked on a griddle is almost always oilier than food cooked on a grill. It’s hard to cook good food on a griddle without a liberal amount of cooking oil or animal fat, though not impossible.
If you’re concerned with healthy eating, a griddle is probably not going to be conducive to the types of foods you want to make.
5. Smoke and Fumes
Griddles can also produce smoke and fumes. This is one of the reasons high heat cooking on a griddle is not ideal, and you’re better off staying in that 350º F range.
When the griddle gets too hot, the surface begins to smoke, and it’s really nasty stuff you don’t want to breathe. It can even sting your eyes quite a bit. Just like grills, you want to use griddles in a place with a lot of open air flow.
Restaurants can get away with indoor use because they – hopefully – have high end, commercial–grade hood vents.
Grill People vs. Griddle People
Some people are loyalists when it comes to choosing one over the other. I’ve heard several people say they will never buy another grill again after getting their first griddle. Other folks are so devoted to grills, and such purists, they won’t even cook on anything but charcoal.
Of course, this is all just personal preference and perception. Some people might have been a short-order cook, and love griddles because that’s what they cooked on for so many years. On the other hand, someone like that might hate griddles for that same reason.
You won’t know which type of person you are until you’ve tried both. You also might not be either. I’ve come across plenty of people who love their grill and griddle equally.
Is One Objectively Better Than the Other?
Most people are going to tell you that neither one is better than the other, and you should really have both. I disagree. I think a gas grill slightly edges out a griddle, and if I could only have one, that’s the one I’m going with. Unless there is some specific reason that you need a massive griddle, a grill will probably serve you better.
I say this for two reasons:
- A grill can double as an oven, and work just as well; especially if it has a temperature gage and a window on the lid.
- A grill can easily be converted into a griddle by placing a griddle pan over the grate.
Of course, there’s no reason not to have both if you just really want one of each.