Eating outdoors is one of summer’s simplest and most rewarding pleasures. As such, we spent almost 80 hours researching and testing gear to help you have a great picnic or cookout of your own. As part of our testing, we also had kitchen editor Ganda Suthivarakom host a Sweethome picnic of our own on a beautiful day in Los Angeles’ Elysian Park to see how all this gear performed in the real world. In attendance were some of her friends, other Sweethome/Wirecutter contributors, and several prominent food bloggers who shared their opinions on each item. We looked at everything from blankets to hobo knives, but surprisingly enough, the item that stole the show was a Bluetooth speaker. Go figure.
(Opening photo by JenRenn on Flickr)
Table of Contents
Coolers | Ice Packs | Napkins | Reusable Grocery Bags | Bluetooth Speaker | Soda Maker | Stain Remover | Picnic Basket | Picnic Blanket | Corkscrew | Flask | Food Storage Containers | Hand Sanitizer | Hobo Knife | Enamelware | Paring Knife | Wine Tote | Beverage Dispenser | Camp Stove | Charcoal | Citrus Juicer |Outdoor Fire Pit | Full-size Grills | Portable Grills | Grill Tools | LED Lantern | Paper Plates | Pitcher | Popsicle Molds | Roasting Forks | Trash Bags | Disposable Utensils
A sturdy picnic bag might keep your deli sandwiches from going bad for a few hours or your bananas from getting brown in the hot summer sun, but will it keep your delicious fro-yo frozen after an entire day? Forget about it. When you need your frozen to food to stay frozen (whether your concern is safety or taste) or if you’re planning on taking a fridge’s worth of gourmet ingredients for an extended camping trip, a good cooler can be the difference between a good time and a great time.
As we found in our guide to soft coolers, if you want more portability and an easier time with the cleanup—and you don’t need your food to stay cold for more than ~2 days—the NRS Dura Soft Cooler is your best bet. It has a lifetime warranty, kept ice frozen for almost 48 hours during our tests, and can fit enough food and drink for a four-person family. It even has a removeable liner that makes cleaning a non-issue. The liner’s removability also makes way for a great hack: If you need extra insulation, you can stick a layer of air duct insulation in between the liner and the Dura Soft’s built-in insulation to extend the life of your frozen food past the normal 48 hours.
If you’re going to be out in the heat for multiple days and don’t have to worry too much about mobility, the Coleman Xtreme 70-Quart 5-Day cooler is the best hard cooler we’ve found. Despite its five-day rating, our testing showed that it kept ice frozen to some extent for an entire week. At $40, it is worlds less expensive than other similarly-performing coolers, and its channeled drain makes the hefty task of tilting and emptying it pain-free. -AL
If you want to keep your food and drinks cool on a picnic, at the beach, or at a ballgame, we recommend the Rubbermaid Blue Ice Block. When tested in a small cooler, it kept ice frozen for longer than we even intended to test—in fact, when I came back to check the next morning, the ice had still only melted 50 percent. And at $6 apiece, they’re cheap enough to stock up so you can use several in a bigger cooler to keep a large quantity of beer or soda (or a whole picnic) cool.
We also liked the Fit & Fresh Cool Coolers, which come in a four-pack and are designed for use in individual lunches. They’re much slimmer and lighter than the Rubbermaid—each cooler weighs 5.55 ounces versus Rubbermaid’s 14.25 ounces. But at 4.75 inches square and 0.25 inches tall, they’re slim enough to slip into a lunchbox or disperse evenly across a larger cooler. We tested them against the Rubbermaid, and while they didn’t do quite as good a job at keeping the ice from melting (they started dripping at almost exactly two hours), they’ll still keep meal-sized amounts of food cool until you’re ready to eat. But if you’re looking to keep large amounts of food or drink cold, go with the Rubbermaid.
We called in the ThermaFresh Reusable Ice Pack Sheets, but didn’t end up testing them—just the process of getting them ready to get in the freezer is laborious. You have to soak them in water for five to ten minutes before they’re ready to go, and, if you’re using the whole sheet, they take up an awful lot of space in the fridge. And even if they’d been super easy to use, we’d still have qualms. Numerous user reports on Amazon complain of the gel leaking out, and that’s definitely something you don’t want on your food. – JW
Bounty Quilted Napkins ($7 for 100) are your best bet for outdoor gatherings. We initially tested napkins in our party hosting guide with the intention of finding something reasonably elegant, but came away impressed by the Bounty Napkins for their absorption capabilities and sheer toughness. They’re textured to grab every last bit of sauce off of your fingers and can absorb 13.6 times their own weight in water—that’s almost twice as effective as the second-place Vanity Fair’s 8.2 times. We ultimately recommended Vanity Fair napkins for party hosting because they look classier for indoor settings, but when it comes to eating outdoors, looks matter less than performance. -MZ
If you need a reusable grocery bag to carry with you to the store, farmer’s market, pharmacy, or wherever, we recommend the $9 Baggu. It holds the most groceries without becoming difficult to carry and folds up into a compact 5-by-5-inch pouch. We tested it against two of the other best-selling reusable bags—the ChicoBag and the flip-n-tumble 24/7 bag—and it beat them in (almost) every way.
Yes, we wish the bag folded into itself like the ChicoBag and flip-n-tumble. Because it doesn’t, it can mean sadness and despair if you lose the included stuff sack, and it becomes a little less portable. But we’re willing to forgive this, because it’s just a better bag than the others. In our tests, it easily handled grocery loads that the other two struggled with. Whereas the ChicoBag and flip-n-tumble both can carry only 25 pounds, the Baggu can handle up to 50. It’s bigger, too, with plenty of space for at least two paper/plastic bags worth of groceries. Plus, thanks to its 2.5-inch-wide handles, it’s comfortable to carry (even over your shoulder!).
I’ve been using the Baggu for a year and love everything about it—except the fact that its stuff sack is separate and thus easily lost. That does hamper its portability if you lose it; while it can still be folded down, it’s not as easy to toss into a bag. I was hoping to find the ChicoBag or flip-n-tumble provided a better experience, but neither could top my Baggu. Just keep an eye on the stuff sack (I always throw it into the bottom of the bag when unfolded) and stock up on extras. Considering the bags are only $9, it never hurts to pick up a few so you can keep one in every bag. -JW
Our favorite rugged Bluetooth speaker, the UE Boom ($176) is perfect for all kinds of outdoor gatherings in all kinds of situations thanks to its combination of volume and water resistance. We initially hemmed and hawed about including this in our test picnic, but ended up buying one on the way to the park. It’s a good thing we did, too, because it stole the show! Not only was it easily heard above the din of a busy LA street, guests couldn’t stop raving about how good it sounded—no small feat considering Lauren’s audiophilic disposition.
Our business manager, Chris, liked the fact that it has a loop so you can hang it from whatever you want in order to get better sound. Kelly, our operations manager, liked that it fit perfectly into a cup/bottle holder of a car or bike. Ganda, our kitchen editor, exclaimed, “I love it. I want it.” Prominent food blogger Adam Roberts was similarly effusive, saying, “This is my favorite of all the items you brought.” -MZ
great things about our pick for best soda maker, the Mastrad Purefizz, are that it’s super portable and doesn’t require any kind of power. That makes it great for taking to picnics, cookouts, and other outdoor gatherings. And you can use it to carbonate beverages other than water. Fresh-squeezed lemonade is good, but freshly carbonated lemonade is something your guests are sure to notice. (Gin, mint, and a few slices of cucumber are optional—but great.) -MZ
Keep a Tide To Go pen ($5) for little spots that are bound to happen when barbecue sauce and wine are involved. It tied for first place in Consumer Reports’ 2011 mini-test of instant stain removers with two other store brand generics. Shout Wipes ($5) are a better form factor for larger splotches. While the wipes aren’t widely reviewed, the New York Times found that Shout gel was the most effective stain remover in their 2010 stain remover road test. They also got high praise in About.com’s tests. -MZ
We skipped over the traditional wicker baskets. Despite their chic appeal, they’re more form than function—the wicker isn’t insulated, so cold food might get hot (and vice versa). The fabric walls of the Picnic at Ascot basket are lightweight, held in place by an aluminum frame, so you can fill it with whatever oddly shaped foods you prefer. Not to mention the insulation, which does a great job of keeping foods like grapes and salads chilled. But it’s not without its flaws: “Nobody was particularly enthusiastic about these,” Ganda wrote after testing it at the picnic. Despite its claiming to be collapsible, doing so is a difficult affair. And food researcher Paola Briseño said it “looked kind of cheap.” And once it’s filled up with food, finding space for plates can be difficult.
We did look at two insulated totes—the Picnic Time Topanga and the Lido 2-in-1 Insulated Cooler Bag. Neither works well for a picnic; while they are quite roomy, as Ganda pointed out, “Tall isn’t as useful as wide when it comes to transporting food plates.” Ultimately, if you want a basket that’s specific to picnics, we recommend the Picnic at Ascot basket. But if you plan to use it for anything else, just go ahead and get a soft cooler, which is much more versatile. -JW
Sitting on wet grass sucks, so if you’re going to have a picnic, we recommend bringing along the $60 Zip-N-Go blanket. Its easy packability made it a favorite at our picnic, earning high praise from prominent food podcast host Zach Brooks of Food is the New Rock: “I’ve always wanted one of these for the beach. Oh, and it has a pocket for storage? Done! This is way better than the other one.”
The Zip-N-Go is large enough for four people to sit on comfortably, and it will keep them dry if the ground happens to be wet, thanks to its nylon backing. We tested this by placing it atop a wet towel and weighing it down with a heavy Dutch oven, and it stayed perfectly dry. It’s 4.75 feet wide and 5.91 feet tall, making it one of the smaller blankets we tested, but just big enough for four people to enjoy. When you’re done, it easily folds up into a neat 18-by-5-inch tote bag with its own pocket for carrying plates, snacks, or whatever you’d like.
Compared to the L.L.Bean Waterproof Outdoor Blanket, which rolls up and stuffs into a separate stuff sack (just ripe for the losing) and the finicky Picnic Time XL Blanket Tote, getting the Zip-N-Go folded back up took no time at all—just follow the (super simple) instructions, fold, and zip. It sounds like an advertisement, but once you get the hang of it, it really is that easy.
We dismissed a few promising contenders that were significantly less than 5 by 6 feet, like the JJ Cole Essentials Blanket, because a picnic blanket that can only seat two people is great for a couple but not so much for an event. We wanted the blanket we selected to work well for two people, sure, but also to be able to hold a bigger crowd in case you’re picnicking with family or friends. -JW
A good corkscrew should be kept in your basket at all times. That way you’ll never ruin a picnic by forgetting to pack it. And in a pinch, the foil cutter can double as a small knife. Our guide found that the $8 Truetap pick is a tried and true design that our picnic guests really appreciated. Doug used it to open the one bottle of wine. He said it was unremarkable, in a good way: “The best design is invisible.” -MZ
If you’re not in a wine-drinking mood, a flask full of your favorite spirit is the perfect way to booze up a picnic. There’s not much variety out there in the way of hip flasks: Either you pick up a stainless steel flask for something like $5, all of which appear to have rolled off the same assembly line, or you spend more on a pewter flask. We like the 6-ounce Handmade Pewter Flask from Kaufmann Mercantile, which costs $79. (They also sell a 3-ounce Purse Flask, if that’s more your style).
Even though stainless steel flasks are cheap, pewter’s got the advantage in pretty much every way: First, while there’s no hard evidence that stainless steel actually affects the taste of your whiskey, some users complain about an unfortunate metallic taste. This is only magnified if, heaven forbid, you leave your liquor in there too long and the steel rusts—that’s a sure recipe for some funky tastes and smells. The Kaufmann Mercantile flask is made from 92 percent tin, which doesn’t oxidize quickly—meaning it is significantly less likely to rust—and has a low toxicity.
That’s not to mention its sturdiness: Because pewter is a softer alloy, manufacturers need to create thicker walls to keep it from denting. Hence, the flask is sturdier and more solid—and will by extension last longer, so you can pass your love of surreptitious drinking on to your grandchildren. -JW
In an ideal world, we’d have access to a sink with warm water and soap every time we needed to wash our hands. That is almost never the case. But carrying hand sanitizer and using it properly can fill the gaps between sinks.
We like Method’s Sweet Water sanitizer (also at Soap.com) because it combines the well-established antibacterial properties of 62 percent ethyl alcohol (which is what the CDC recommends) with safe inactive ingredients and moisturizers. I tested it against EO and Purell Advanced and found that it went on the lightest, dried the quickest, and left the least amount of residue after evaporating. It’s also the highest-rated hand sanitizer on Good Guide—a resource dedicated to assessing the health, environmental, and societal friendliness of common household products. They gave it a 10/10 for health, concluding that, ”This product contains no ingredients that raise a health concern.” Good Guide also commended Method for their solid reputation of environmental responsibility and sustainable business practices. And at about $2 per 2-ounce bottle, it doesn’t cost much more than your typical bottle of Purell.
Right now, Method Sweet Water is a new product that can be a bit difficult to come by. And that’s okay, because these things all work more or less the same way. There’s nothing wrong with picking up some Purell in its place. In fact, if you look at the ingredients of Purell’s Advanced formulation, you’ll find that there are no chemicals that pose more than a “low” risk to health according to the Environmental Working Group (link is to the “most” risky ingredient, which is still low risk). My only reservations have to do with personal preference. I find that the advanced formulation feels a bit more like lotion than Sweet Water. It evaporates a touch slower and leaves a bit more residue.
The other minor problem, which is the same for all alcohol-based sanitizers, is that alcohol dries out your hands if you use too much of it. That being said, it shouldn’t be a problem unless you’re using it all the time—and even then, most people will be fine. Most formulations, like our pick, include glycerin, aloe, and other moisturizers in the formulation to counteract any drying effects of the alcohol.
As far as other options go, alcohol-free sanitizers are an increasingly popular alternative to alcoholic ones, but the CDC doesn’t recommend them and neither can we. Sure, they don’t have the drying effects of alcohol-based options, but they come with their own share of drawbacks. Zoe Dralos, M.D., explained in the Dermatology Times that although these quaternary ammonium and triclosan-based sanitizers are fairly effective at killing bacteria, they have also been shown to trigger antibiotic resistance in some cases—i.e. bacteria that can’t be killed with medicine. Yikes.
The other issue is that these are often billed as providing “hours of protection” by lingering on your hands. That sounds great, but really what it means is that you have a layer of residue on your hands that serves to attract dirt and grime. This is an issue because hand sanitizers are most effective on hands that aren’t visibly dirty. The final nail in the coffin is the lack of clinical studies, a fact that the Wall Street Journal reports concerns the CDC and medical professionals.
The other type of non-alcoholic sanitizer is based on thyme and other essential oils, which—to their credit—have been shown to have antibacterial properties, but it’s hard to find information on how effective they are in comparison to alcohol-based solutions. Better to stick with what you know works—especially when the alternative costs twice as much for half the amount. -MZ
At the Sweethome picnic, our headphone editor Lauren Dragan told us that she’s had a similar one for years and loves it: “It’s a glove compartment thing. I keep one in there for when they forget my utensils when I get takeout.”
Enamelware is our favorite place setting for eating in the outdoors because you get the lightness and durability of plastic with a much more appealing aesthetic and none of the concerns associated with handling hot foods with plastic.
If all you’re looking for is a reusable set to replace disposable plates, bowls, and cups, look into GSI Outdoors’ offerings. You can get plates, bowls, and mugs for four people for about $50, or you can buy them separately for about $4-8 apiece (here are the plates and bowls, though we’d avoid the mugs).
However, if you want a truly quality set that works great in the outdoors and on your home dinner table, get Best Made’s two-person Seamless and Steadfast set for $98 (also available piecewise: plates, bowls, mugs). Yes it’s about four times as expensive, but they’re arguably four times better. Just don’t lose them at the beach!
First let’s get into why we like the GSI. Mostly because it’s not awful. Here’s a secret: Most of the speckled enamelware, regardless of who brands and sells it, is made by the same company in Mexico. So you’re basically looking for the brand that has the strictest quality control and GSI is it. While other brands’ user reviews complain of chips out of the box or corroding enamel, GSI has very few issues by comparison. As for the GSI dishes themselves, they’re nothing to write home about. The 10-inch plates are the highlight of the set because they have a large usable area. The bowls are decently sized, but have narrow bases that leave us a bit concerned about their stability. The mugs, however, are unusable. The handles are simply too small. This makes them unusable with hot liquids because the thin metal conducts heat straight onto your knuckles and will burn you.
Unlike the cheaper, thinner, Mexican dishes, Best Made’s Seamless and Steadfast are made in Poland and come across as thoughtfully designed place settings that are durable and lightweight enough for outdoor use, yet classy and solid enough to use at home. The bowls are deep and have a wide base that resists tipping. And the mugs have larger, more squared-off handles that give your knuckles plenty of space to avoid burns. My only complaint is that the plate has a large bezel that cuts into the usable surface area. Each dish is tastefully embellished with Best Made’s signature red X logo. Picnic attendees had nothing but praise for their lack of seams, substantial (but not heavy) weight, and flawlessly painted finish. Doug remarked, “This is the kind of thing you could serve breakfast on easily, and use it in the house.”
While it’s true that the Best Made dishes carry a premium price, we think you get your money’s worth. We tested Best Made’s mug against similarly priced mugs from Emalco (they make similarly priced mugs for Stumptown, Ghostly International, and Signal Cycles, among others) and everyone agreed that the Best Made was a noticeably better product. Lauren found that the Emalco mug’s slightly more prominent lip made for a less comfortable drinking experience. I also preferred the Best Made because it’s a bit taller, which means it can hold a full 12-ounce cup of coffee without spilling, while the others can only safely handle 11 ounces. -MZ
Having a small, sharp knife is important for slicing cheeses and charcuterie and for opening packages. While the hobo knife can get you a long way, if you’re using it as your personal utensil, it’s a good idea to have a separate knife for shared foods. The $8 Victorinox 3¼ inch paring knife fits that bill perfectly. We found in testing that it performs just as well as models that are about five times more expensive, yet it’s cheap enough that you won’t miss it if you lose it. In preparing for our picnic, Ganda appreciated that it came with a little plastic sleeve that made it safe and easy to transport. -MZ
The Wine Enthusiast 2-Bottle Neoprene Wine Tote is kind of dorky-looking—like something you might carry home from a winemaker’s trade show—but that belies its true excellence. We compared it directly against the popular Built totes, and it kept white wine cool for longer in our tests. As nice-looking as the Built totes might be, they just can’t compete with the Wine Enthusiast bag in terms of longevity. Both bags are made of neoprene, but where the Built bag just has a thin layer that meets in the middle to create two separate wine compartments, the Wine Enthusiast tote is structured, with a section for each bottle (or one bottle and some glasses) and a zippered top. As a trump card, it also includes two gel packs that can be frozen, ensuring your white wines will stay cold for much longer than the Built could ever promise. But even without freezing the gel packs, it still beat out the competition.
Picnic attendees thought that it was a good idea, but didn’t like the neoprene’s aesthetic. Ganda said, “I thought it was quite comfortable, good if you accidentally drop the bottles along the way. I can’t imagine having the forethought to put the freezer pack in the freezer, but I guess you could just leave it in there all the time.”
In addition to having our guests evaluate the totes, we objectively tested in two ways: First, we tested to see if the bags could hold a red and a white and preserve the coolness of the white without sacrificing the warmth of the red. Second, we ran two trials with two white wines to see how much their temperatures would rise over two hours. Neither of the bags had any trouble keeping red wine warm with a cold white bottle next to it. The red wines went in and came out at 63ºF; the white rose 15ºF in the Built and 16ºF in the Wine Enthusiast. That’s more than it rose when it was just two cold white wines, which is understandable. With two bottles of white wine, the Wine Enthusiast bag caused temperatures to raise an average of 11.5ºF over two hours. The Built bag caused temperatures to raise an average of 15ºF. And remember, that’s without freezing the gel packs. It’s not a huge difference, but it is absolutely noticeable in the taste and temperature of the wine.
So yes, the Wine Enthusiast bag is a little dorky. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad product—just silly-looking. We can’t find any complaints about construction quality online, and reviewers love this thing. On Amazon, it has 4.6 stars with 27 reviews, and on Wine Enthusiasts’ own site, it has 4.5 stars with 69 reviews. -JW
Water pitchers and stoppered bottles can dress up a dinner table, but it’s a lot more convenient to have a large dispenser that you don’t have to worry about refilling. We were hard-pressed to find many reliable professional writeups of beverage dispensers, but after sifting through hundreds of user reviews, we found the 3.5-gallon Buddeez Unbreakable Beverage Dispenser ($30). Not only will this dispenser’s internal ice cone keep your drinks pleasantly chilled (and undiluted) for a few hours, it’s made of Triton plastic (making it virtually unbreakable), is BPA-free and dishwasher-safe, and it has a non-skid base (which you’ll be thankful for when tilting the thing to get the last drops of your beverage out on a hot day) and liquid measurements on the back for mixed drinks. Buddeez also makes a double-walled version ($37) for extra insulation on those unbearably balmy August weekends.
People love the Buddeez. Its 212 reviews combine for an average of 4.6 stars on Amazon. 91 percent of reviewers like the product, compared to just 74 percent for its closest competitor, the popular 3-gallon model from CreativeWare. This significant difference in ratings is partially the result of the CreativeWare’s inefficient design, which places the ice storage below where the beverage sits. This means that the ice will only be in contact with the beverage for a little bit until it melts, at which point it loses most of its cooling effect.
As for other options, we also initially considered glass or stainless steel dispensers. But the stainless ones, such as the cafe-classic fustis (originally meant for olive oil), were deemed too expensive (you could buy five of our pick for the price of one similarly-sized fusti). Glass looks nice, but is heavy. Safety is also a concern, especially if there are little kids involved. -AL
If you’re looking for a stove to take on car camping trips or to supplement your grill during your next tailgate or cookout, get the Stansport 2 Burner Propane Stove (also available at Walmart). It puts out 25,000 BTUs from each of its two burners and costs only $65, which is a lot of power for not much money. For perspective, the camp kitchen standard Coleman Perfectflow 2 Burner only puts out 10,000 BTUs per burner and costs $50—that means the Stansport gives you 150 percent more firepower for only 15 percent more cash.
You might think that 25,000 BTUs per burner is excessive for a camp stove, and it kind of is (according to the Kitchn, the large burner on a typical home stove only has 12,000 BTUs). But that extra power translates directly to less time waiting for water to boil, which is pretty much the most important function of any stove when it comes to outdoor cooking. Outdoor Gear Lab found that it was capable of boiling a liter of water in only 2 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s twice as fast as the Coleman Perfectflow 2 burner, which took nearly 5 minutes to do the same thing.
The only other portable stove that came close is the Camp Chef Everest, which is actually the same exact stove under a different name. Both stoves share Outdoor Gear Lab’s editor’s choice award, but we like the Stansport because it typically sells for about $30-$50 less than the Camp Chef.
As a final note, many of you will find it more cost-effective to get an adapter hose for about $20 that lets you use these stoves with full-sized 20-pound propane tanks as opposed to the green 16.4-ounce canisters. You lose out on portability, but a canister only lasts about an hour before needing to be replaced for a couple of bucks. Take that same couple of bucks and an empty tank to your local gas station and you’ll get enough propane to last several days in a row between refills (or even weeks, depending on how often you use it). -MZ
Whether you’re hosting a cookout at home, in the park, or on the beach, we recommend you have a bag of Stubb’s 100% All-Natural Briquettes with you. After we tested it head-to-head with six other top brands of briquettes, Stubb’s emerged the clear winner. This charcoal burns hot and evenly so you’ll get a good sear while grilling up meat, but it doesn’t spark or spit like some other all-natural briquettes. It also doesn’t add any bad flavors to your food and flakes less after burning than the competition, which means there’s less danger of ash blowing everywhere if the wind picks up. At 93 cents per pound, or $10 for a bag at Walmart, it’s also a great value for all-natural briquettes. -EO
A grill is essential for the actual cooking, but when it comes to ambiance (and roasting marshmallows), you want an outdoor fire pit. There is a wide variety of pits available, all with different vibes (one even looks like a flaming Earth). For a more universal aesthetic, our pick is the Landmann City Lights Memphis ($134). It has a look that will appeal to just about everyone. It’s durable, holds a good amount of wood, is easy to assemble, and it just looks cool. We initially made this pick for our holiday party hosting guide, but it works just as well, if not better, for backyard cookouts in the summer.
We like that the sides of the Landmann are partially exposed. This does two things: It allows air to circulate around the fire, and it lets your partygoers enjoy the flame whether they’re sitting or standing, no matter how small the fire is. Solid-walled models, like the CobraCo Copper Fire Pit ($255), block out the view of a small flame unless you’re standing right next to them.
Because the Landmann is deep, it offers a lot of flexibility in fire size. The large bowl (almost 2 feet across) also translates into less stress—you don’t have to worry about the fire shifting and a log falling out like you do with shallower models similar to the Fire Sense Folding Fire Pit ($45).
The Landmann comes with a cooking grill so you can keep the party going while the kids make some hot dogs for themselves (though for actual grilling, we suggest charcoal or propane and an actual grill as opposed to a difficult-to-control wood fire). It also has a screen for wayward sparks and a built-in safety ring so boozed-up Uncle Billy won’t burn his leg when he stumbles past.
If the weave pattern of the City Lights Memphis is too humdrum for your tastes, Landmann has a number of similar models with different bowl cutouts, including the popular Big Sky Stars and Moon ($117) and Wildlife ($124). -DM
When it came time to choose a gas grill, Weber beat out the competition once again with their Spirit E-210: A $399, two-burner gas grill that’s compact enough to fit on smaller decks or a balcony but, thanks to its excellent design and build quality, provides enough heat, versatility, and durability to serve most people well for years to come. What’s more, just like the Weber One-Touch Gold, the Spirit E-210 comes with a ten-year limited warranty. -SB
Barbecues don’t always happen in the backyard. While you could haul along a full-sized charcoal or gas grill with you to every picnic, day at the beach, or camping trip you undertake, thanks to their size and weight, doing so is a pain in the ass. What you want is a compact grill that’s small enough to be thrown in the trunk of your car, but still large enough to cook a reasonable amount of food for you, your family, and friends. While we have both gas and charcoal offerings, it makes a bit more sense to go with gas in this case since a single 16.4-ounce canister can last for two to two and a half hours and is only the size of a Nalgene bottle, while you’d need a whole bag of charcoal to get the same cooking time as a couple of canisters.
The Weber Q 1200 is a $199 gas grill equipped with a single stainless steel burner that kicks out 8,500 BTUs of cooking power. That might not sound like a whole lot of heat, but when paired with the Q 1200’s well-designed cast aluminum dome, fire box, and porcelain-coated cast iron grates, it’s more than enough to cook and sear chicken breasts, skirt or flank steaks, burgers, hot dogs, or sausages beautifully. The grill’s 189-square-inch cooking surface provides enough space to cook enough hamburgers to feed six people at a time while still leaving adequate space between your meat or veggie patties to allow for convection.
The Q 1200 comes with a one-touch electric ignition system and is designed to run off of 14.1 or 16.4-ounce liquid propane cylinders (but you can also buy an adapter that’ll allow you to pair it with a 20-pound propane tank). And to keep your food out of the dirt while you’re preparing to put it to the fire, the Q 1200 also comes equipped with a pair of fold-away side tables large enough to set a small plate on. At just over 27 pounds, the Q 1200 isn’t feather light, but the grill’s chunky fiberglass-reinforced nylon frame and handles make it easy to pick up and haul around. Finally, it’s covered by a five-year limited warranty. That’s not as good as what you get with a full-sized Weber grill, but it’s the best coverage you’ll find on a portable piece of hardware for the price.
Consumer Reports, About.com, and AmazingRibs.com are all fans of Weber’s Q series grills. When we asked AmazingRibs’ Max Good recently about the hardware, he simply told us, “the Weber Q series gassers and their portable kettle grills will perform well, because they’re designed so well. You can’t beat those things, particularly for tailgating.”
Speaking of Weber kettle grills, If you’d rather cook over charcoal, we’ve got your back: weighing in at 22 pounds, the 18” Weber Jumbo Joe is a portable, $60, 18.5-inch iteration of our favorite full-sized charcoal grill, the Weber One-Touch Gold. Boasting a porcelain-enameled, stainless steel firebox and dome, rust-resistant aluminum dampers, an ash catcher, and a stainless steel 240-square-inch cooking grate, the Jumbo Joe employs the same simple kettle design that has made Weber’s charcoal grills so popular with amatuer cooks and professional chefs for decades.
The Jumbo Joe has garnered a five-star rating from About.com’s grilling expert Derrick Riches, a gold medal from AmazingRibs.com, and a 4.8-star average with 104 five-star reviews out of a total of 118 amongst Amazon shoppers,. That’s a rare, high percentage of praise from Amazon users, in our experience.
To get you off on the right foot with your new portable charcoal or gas grill, we asked grilling and barbecue expert Steven Raichlen for some tips on getting the most out of your portable grill. He told us the following:
- Bring aluminum foil and an insulated cooler to improvise a holding oven.
- Select foods that can be direct grilled in minutes—chicken breasts, hamburgers or sliders, skirt steak, fish fillets, hot dogs or brats, etc.
- Neither a small gas nor charcoal grill has the space to allow two-zone cooking. Create a “safety” zone by placing a wire cooling rack next to the grill. Move food there when flare-ups occur.
- Always pack extra fuel, whether using propane or charcoal.
- Do as much prep work as you can at home.
- Make arrangements for the safe disposal of spent charcoal and propane canisters.
No matter what size or kind of grill you opt to cook with, having a few simple, high quality tools can make cooking over open flames a whole lot safer and more pleasurable. We have a full guide on grill tools, but here’s what you need to get going.
For starters, you’ll need a long, strong set of tongs for flipping food on your grill or manhandling it to and from your cooking surface to your plate. The $15 Oxo Good Grips 16″ Locking Tongs come with comfortable rubber grips, a strong spring so they pop back open when you release your grip on them, and a locking mechanism so they can be easily be stored in a drawer. What’s more, they’re long enough to keep your hands away from the intense heat that comes as part and parcel of cooking over an open flame.
From time to time you’ll want to protect your hands from the scorching heat of your grill. Cheap, washable, and tough as nails, these $10 welding gloves from US Forge are just the thing. With a pair of the company’s 400 series lined leather welding gloves on, you’ll be able to pick up hot potatoes right off the grill, safely add charcoal to your barbecue’s firebox half way through a cook or even handle a hot grill grate—that’s something a silicone oven mitt can’t do.
Scouring your grill’s cooking grate clean after you’ve finished your meal (and in some cases, before you start cooking) is key to making a great meal and will prolong the life of your hardware. Weber’s 6464 18-Inch Bamboo Grill Brush is a simple, long-handled bamboo grill brush with tough stainless steel bristles that will make short work of the sticky residue and carbonized gunk left over on your grill grates after a cookout.
Oh, and if you have a charcoal grill, you’ll want to think about picking up a charcoal chimney like the Weber 7416 Rapidfire Chimney Starter. Just fill the chimney up with charcoal, set a flame to its base, and watch as your cooking fuel ignites and comes up to temperature in no time. When your coals are ready, all you need do is carefully pour the chimney’s red-hot contents into your grill’s firebox and start cooking. Magic! -SB
The good times in the great outdoors don’t have to stop when the sun goes down, provided you’re prepared to beat back the darkness with a little man-made light. We tested 13 different lanterns before coming to the conclusion that the $30 UST 30 Day Lantern is the one you should get.
Slightly larger than a pint glass, the UST 30 Day Lantern has three different brightness settings, can crank out up to 300 lumens of illumination, and boasts a crazy long maximum runtime of 720 hours (on its minimum 29 lumen setting) off of three D-cell batteries. What’s more, the lantern comes with a lifetime warranty. -SB
After testing several popular models, our favorite paper plate from party hosting guide is the Vanity Fair Impressions because it’s tougher than its closest competitors. It’s thick and resists sogginess, which makes it great for wet side dishes like collard greens and chili. Sure, it’s not as environmentally friendly as reusable enamelware, but if you’re having a big cookout with a lot of guests, costs can add up quickly and washing 20 plates covered in barbecue sauce and mac and cheese residue is no fun. -MZ
We compared the Frigoverre to the Takeya Airtight Pitcher, which also has a sealable lid and holds approximately the same amount of liquid. We much preferred the shape and structure of the Frigoverre, which is a little squatter, but much shorter—those with medium-sized refrigerators (myself included) might not even be able to use the Takeya, as it doesn’t fit into the shelf. It’s just too tall.
The pitcher’s attached handle is a little small, which has its pros and cons—because it’s so petite, it hardly takes up any additional space in the refrigerator. However, compared to the weight of the pitcher and the added weight of the liquid inside, we’d prefer a slightly sturdier handle to make pouring easier. But this isn’t a dealbreaker as much as a wish, and the Frigoverre still pours steadily.
The hermetic lid is its best feature: Simply twist the inner ring to the left and it’s sealed. Unlike the Takeya, which dribbled whenever we tilted it, even when the lid was sealed, the Frigoverre didn’t even spill when we held it upside down. Not that we recommend this—the lid is well-sealed, yes, but avoiding situations where it could fail would be ideal. But if you wanted to throw it in your trunk to take to a party or a picnic, you’d more than likely be fine. And the tight seal is great for keeping other refrigerator odors from seeping into your drink. -JW
For a cool summertime treat, you really can’t go wrong with popsicles. And for that we recommend the Zoku Round Slow Pop Mold ($18). After trying 16 different molds and eating dozens of popsicles, we prefer this Zoku mold, mostly because of the unusual shape. The short, rounded popsicles it makes are a perfect serving size (3 oz.) and end up being easier to eat. The shape means it drips less than your typical pop and the set as a whole takes up less space, which comes in handy when you’re packing a cooler. This model works well with basic popsicle recipes–if you want to get fancy with fruit chunks or other more complicated mixes see our other suggestions. Just remember to stick them in the fridge the night before. -EO
A good roasting fork needs to provide enough control to hold your hot dog/marshmallow at a comfortable distance away from the fire. A sharpened stick you found at your campsite is perfectly capable of that, but you’ll have more success with our favorite roasting fork. The Rolla Roaster ($13 for 2 at REI, also at L.L.Bean) adds a rotisserie mechanism built into the handle that lets you rotate the fork about the handle using just your thumb. This allows you to continuously rotate your food with minimal effort, which leads to more even browning and less burning. Finally, despite extending out to a full 42 inches, it manages to retract down to just 12 inches for better portability and easy storage.
65 L.L.Bean reviewers gave it 4.7 out of five stars. Multiple reviewers mentioned that they appreciate how portable the forks get when fully retracted and how long they get when fully extended, meaning you don’t have to sit right next to the fire. 14 REI reviewers also give it a 4.7-star rating. Reviewer Sorefeet offered some comparison to other similar products: “We also had along some Coghlan’s extendable forks of a very similar design to this one, but the Rolla Roasters win out on several fronts: [They] extend longer, by a full 8 inches; come in a reusable plastic case, which is surprisingly valuable, as these are an awkward thing to pack; [are] American made; [and are] available in multiple colors.”
A good cookout needs good trash bags to clean up after it. We researched the best heavy duty bags for party hosting and found that Husky’s 42-gallon Contractor Clean-Up Bags are what you want. Whereas your typical kitchen bag is about ½-1 mill thick (1 mill = 1/1000th of an inch), contractor bags like this one are 3 mills thick. What makes Husky’s variety stand out are winning reviews on Amazon, near flawless marks at Home Depot’s site, a recommendation for toughness from Good Housekeeping, and a smart price: about $1 each if you buy a 32-pack on Amazon, or just 45 cents each if you buy 50 at Home Depot. -KP
We looked into the best disposable cutlery for our party hosting guide and found that Costco’s Kirkland Crystal Clear Cutlery are the best. They won’t break on you mid-meal unless you’re dining with the Hulk, and they come in a huge quantity for cheap, so one $20 purchase (even cheaper in-store at Costco) should last you through quite a few dinner parties, bake-offs, and picnics. The 360-piece set comes in real-world proportions of 180 forks, 120 spoons and 60 knives. In testing, we found them to be consistently stronger than other top-rated utensils. -JW
(Picnic photographs by Joy Hui Lin.)
A picnic with domo...is no picnic, Flickr, October 20th, 2011,