What’s the big deal with a BTU? What is it about these three little letters that get your guy excited and on a mission to find the biggest BTU’s so that he can out BTU his friends? Heck, what is a BTU?
BTU stands for British thermal unit and measures the amount of work necessary to raise the temperature of 1 lb. of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. As a visual reference, imagine one 4” wooden kitchen match burning until totally consumed—that is approximately 1 BTU. Now, imagine 50,000 of them and you get the picture.
So, how many are needed to cook dinner in a timely and successful manner? How many are required to scorch those marshmallows and keep family and friends toasty warm when gathered round the fire pit? Well, there are numerous factors which may affect the optimal number of BTU’s for any given cooking or heat source. Traditionally, for grilling purposes, there has been a rule of thumb that a grill should produce approximately 100 BTU’s per square inch of cooking surface. DO NOT be fooled by those manufacturers who lump all cooking surface BTU’s together in order to make you think the unit has mega BTU’s. The main burners, side burners, rotisserie burner, smoker burner, and sear burner each has its own BTU and should be considered separately.
Today, experts recommend a range of 80-100 BTU’s per square inch of cooking surface for gas grills but do place emphasis on the fact that what really matters is how hot the grill gets, not how much fuel is burned. And, using a higher BTU means using more fuel, which means higher fuel cost. Furthermore, experts warn against being overly concerned with BTU’s and ignoring other factors, such as quality. The quality of the metal framework (including the lid) and the burners will affect the efficiency of the unit’s use of those BTU’s. Therefore, it is important to do your homework and check all aspects of the unit you are purchasing and not be wowed by the BTU’s alone.
A low BTU, however, is not desirable either. This will cause the unit to have a slow preheat and recover time (the time it takes to heat back up to temperature after having cooled). It will also mean a longer cook time, which can lead to more fuel burned, as well as food prepared in a less than optimal manner.
BTU’s also figure prominently in the marketing and selecting of gas fire pits (wood fire pits, as with wood and charcoal grills, do not receive BTU ratings). And, as with grills, there are many factors which may affect heat output besides the BTU number: fittings, rings, size and length of fuel hose, or pipe, distance that the fuel must travel in the line, size and shape of the burner (especially in relation to the fuel type– natural gas or propane– and tank size). Generally, however, fire pits will have a BTU range of 30,000-100,000.
Maybe a new grill or a fire pit is on your guy’s Christmas wish list and maybe, loaded with a little BTU knowledge, you can actually surprise him with one that has been carefully researched and vetted to both his standards and yours. Good luck, girls!