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The first thing someone looking to buy a new grill might notice is the sheer number of seemingly great options available. But what’s ideal for one grill master’s backyard might not be for another — especially given that grills tend to come in three main styles: pellet grills, charcoal grills and gas grills.
Grills are built with speed, convenience, price and quality in mind, but when it comes to flavor, it’s hard to beat a charcoal-fired grill, according to Chris Lilly, a world championship pitmaster and spokesperson for Kingsford. “When fat renders from meat slowly simmering over the fire, the juices hit the hot coals and create a charred moisture,” he said. “This directly affects grilled food flavor that you can’t replicate in any other grill type. Food over fire equals flavor and charcoal maximizes the grilled taste in foods.”
SKIP AHEAD Best charcoal grills
Charcoal grill features to shop
A charcoal grill is similar to a gas grill in that it’s typically used for direct grilling, where food is cooked directly over high heat, explained Robbie Shoults, co-owner of Bear Creek Smokehouse. The main difference is the heat source: A gas grill uses several gas burners, while a charcoal grill is powered by charcoal. But that doesn’t mean all charcoal grills are built the same — there are many other standout features to keep in mind while comparing different models:
- The metal and single vs double-walled insulation. The thickness of metal that the grill is made from is measured as the “gauge.” As the gauge number increases, the material thickness decreases and this makes comparing grills easy, explained Lilly. “Thicker metal makes for a longer lasting grill and better insulation,” he said. (Since you ideally want a thicker metal, you want to look for grills with a lower gauge.) “Some companies offer double walled grills which are the best insulation, resulting in steady cooking temperatures,” he added.
- Ceramic enamel. Ceramic cookers offer some of the best insulation on the market and result in rock steady temperature control, according to Lilly. “Once the ceramic shell is heated up, it stays hot for a long period of time and gets the most out of a charcoal fire,” he said.
- Gas assist. Gas-assisted charcoal grills are usually fueled by a small screw-on propane tank. “This allows you to fire up the charcoal with a quick twist of the knob as opposed to using a charcoal chimney or other lighting methods,” Lilly said.
- Gravity feed. With this type of grill, charcoal is poured into a vertical hopper. “As the fire burns, more charcoal is automatically fed — thanks to gravity — to the fire, resulting in long cook times,” he explained.
- Wi-Fi Bluetooth compatible. With this type of charcoal grill, the grill temperature can be set, changed and displayed on a smartphone through an app-based application. A probe can send internal meat temperature readings, giving you the freedom to do other things instead of being chained to the grill.
- Grill thermometer. According to Lilly, it’s always better to have a grill thermometer with numerical readings instead of indicators of “Smoke, Barbecue, Grill” so the exact temperature is clear. However, he noted that there are plenty of aftermarket grill thermometers available to swap out a substandard thermometer that a model might come with.
- The ash catcher. To make your grilling experience easier, you want an ash collector that is larger and easier to empty when filled. You can't just leave ash in the bottom of the grill piling up or you won't get a good fire going, but some grills don't give you a way to get them out and it's a pain, according to Lisa McManus, executive editor of equipment testing and ingredient tasting at America's Test Kitchen. She recommended looking for a good ash removal system, like Weber offers. “We love that it has an ash catcher shaped like a saucepan attached to the bottom; you just unhook it and dispose of the ashes,” she said. “You can do several grilling sessions before the ash catcher fills up; it's a generous size.”
Best charcoal grills
To help find the best model that will bring the most joy to your backyard barbeque, we consulted expert pitmasters for recommendations on the best charcoal grills across different needs.
Best charcoal grill overall: Weber
This 22-inch charcoal grill holds up to 13 burgers with 363 square inches of cooking space and offers extra work space for meal prep as well as a “One-Touch” cleaning system with an aluminum ash catcher for easy post-grilling cleanup. “It's a terrific kettle-style grill (round with a domed lid),” said McManus. “It’s set in a sturdy, useful rolling cart, with a bin for charcoal and an automatic ignition starter, as well as trays to hold the coals so you don't need a separate lighter and chimney starter.”
Best overall affordable charcoal grill: Weber
For McManus, this 22-inch grill is the “best buy” when it comes to budget-friendly yet reliable charcoal grills. “It's the same grill as the Performer, but without the cart and other features,” she said. “It's a classic for a reason. You can do basic grilling, or fancy stuff like smoking or barbecue or grill-roasting, no problem.”
The porcelain-enameled lid and bowl are both rust- and heat-resistant and the grate is 363 inches and holds up to 13 burgers. “Weber grills get the most bang for your buck,” agreed Shoults. “Any of the basic Weber Premium Kettle grills can get the job done. These grills get to your desired grilling temperature, distribute heat evenly and [are] easy to clean up.”
Best affordable portable charcoal grill: Weber
From tailgating to camping, this lightweight charcoal grill is made to be on the move with a “Tuck-N-Carry” lid lock and handle that also doubles as a lid holder when you’re grilling so that the lid doesn’t touch the ground. The cooking area is 147 square inches — it fits six burgers at a time — and the porcelain-enameled lid and bowl come in six different colors. “It's a mini version of our winning grill,” said McManus.
And for those with little ones, there’s a matching Smokey Joe toy version for the tiniest of grill masters to enjoy.
Best high-end portable charcoal grill: Everdure by Heston Blumenthal
The Everdure grill by Heston Blumenthal is a great tagalong for the beach, lake or picnic, Shoults explained. “The small, 17-inch ‘Cube’ is lightweight and offers a ton of grilling possibilities,” he said. The compact design features bamboo prep and food-grade storage trays, chrome handles that stay cool to the touch while grilling and a powder-coated steel body with heat protection for grilling on different surfaces.
Best high-end smart charcoal grill: Everdure by Heston Blumenthal
The Heston Blumenthal Grill and Smoker leads in innovation and is a treat for the tech-savvy, according to Shoults. “The patent-pending ‘Fast Flame’ ignites with the touch of a button and the grill even connects to Bluetooth so that you can keep an eye on your grilling at all times,” he said.
The 21-inch grill and smoker combo is also pet-and kid-friendly with a cool-to-the-touch exterior and auto-locking lid. The temperature ranges from 230 to 725 degrees Fahrenheit and it can be controlled through your smartphone or the LED touch glass display. “This grill also has top and bottom vents that create a balanced air flow to grill meats evenly,” added Shoults.”The technical capabilities of this grill sends it well above your standard grill while the sleek and masculine graphite finish is just another reason we have all the heart eyes for this grill.”
Best high-end kamado charcoal grill: Big Green Egg
Although the Big Green Egg is at a higher price point than other traditional charcoal grills, “these ceramic cookers are almost a must for any backyard kitchen,” Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q previously told us. This versatile ceramic kamado-style charcoal grill might be worth the investment for you, given its ability to grill, roast, smoke, bake and sear.
The seven different sizes to accommodate different yard spaces all share the innovative egg-shape design, but the most popular is the Large, which can cook up to 12 burgers, six chickens vertically and seven racks of ribs vertically. And with a lifetime warranty, you can worry less about rust or how it holds up to the elements.
Best affordable kamado charcoal grill: Char-Griller
In addition to 314 square inches of cast iron grill space, this porcelain-coated steel grill also has a removable 133-square-inch warming rack and two folding metal trays. The grill’s body is made from 22-gauge steel with a double wall insulation and porcelain-coated interior that can cook at 200 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s also adjustable top and bottom dampers, an easy-to-dump ash pan and locking wheels for moving it in your yard.
Best smart charcoal grill accessory: Weber
You don’t have to have the budget for a smart grill in order to enjoy the benefits of one, according to McManus. She recommended skipping the smart grill and instead investing in a smart thermometer to track temperatures from your phone instead of needing to stay nearby or open the grill lid. “Thi is important when you're grill-roasting or doing low temperature, slow barbecue,” she said. “Every time you open the lid to check the food you let out all the heat, so it's good to monitor the temperature from afar and these also ensure that you don't overcook (or undercook) the food.”
This Smart Grilling Hub does just that with the ability to set your desired level of doneness, remote wifi access and food readiness countdown as well as flip and serve notifications.
How to shop for the best charcoal grills
The experts we consulted recommended keep these aspects in mind while considering which charcoal grill to make officially yours:
- Look at the lid. According to McManus, you absolutely want a charcoal grill that comes with a lid as you greatly limit what you can make without one. Also look for ones that leave plenty of room underneath for cooking taller foods when closed, like a 14-pound turkey.
- Check out the airflow. When it comes to controlling the temperature of a charcoal grill, it’s all about the air inflow and outflow from bottom and top dampers, explained Lilly. The more airflow, the hotter the fire. You also need to restrict the airflow to reduce the cooking temperature as needed. “Check the metal joints and seals to make sure they are flush with no cracks,” he said. “It’s impossible to control the grill temperature when air and smoke are free-flowing through all of the crevasses. The tighter the seals, the more temperature control you have when cooking.”
- Look for adjustable vents. In addition to making sure that the vents seal, you also want to ensure the vents are adjustable on the lid and base, McManus added. “They give YOU absolute control over the heat of the fire: More air getting in equals a hotter fire [and] less air getting in gives you a cooler fire that will cook slower, which is good for low, slow barbecuing like ribs and brisket.”
- Do a “shake test.” Lilly also recommended giving the grill a “shake test” by wiggling it side to side while holding the shelf or grill handle to make sure it’s sturdy and well-built. “Rap on the grill with your knuckles, checking the metal thickness,” he said. “The thicker the metal, the more thermal insulation and the longer it will last. Look for lower gauge metal for more thickness.”
- Maximize your budget. While it doesn’t make sense to splurge on some products, McManus explained that a charcoal grill is one purchase that you want to invest in. “[A cheap grill is] going to get beat-up, misshapen and fall apart when you try to move it around, and you'll only have to replace it,” she said. She explained that although her favorite Weber charcoal grill is about $150, “I've had these grills last a decade in good shape. So it pays off.”
- Know your intended use. If you have a large family or plan on grilling for large gatherings, the cooking area size you’ll want is going to be different than someone who doesn’t like to entertain. “Make sure you have sturdy grates that are roomy enough to fit the food you want to cook,” said McManus. “You don't want to have to cook 15 things one at a time. She recommended grills with round grates that are 22 inches in diameter, “which is a nice size for a family or midsize gatherings.”
- Check the grates. McManus prefers charcoal grills with grates that are easy to lift up if you need to add more coals. “Our favorite Weber has little doors that open on both ends of the grate for this,” she said.
The pros and cons of charcoal grills
The number one biggest benefit to cooking with a charcoal grill is the flavor it gives food. “You can't beat charcoal-grilled flavor,” said McManus.
But, a close second is the heat and airflow control a charcoal grill gives you. “With gas grills, usually all the vents are across the back of the grill, so heat and smoke flow out the back and there's nothing you can do about it,” McManus said. “Gas grills give you far less control over where the smoke and heat goes than with charcoal.”
Other pros that Shoults appreciates include the diverse price points and sizes. “Charcoal grills come in every price range, making it easier for [grillers] to find their perfect fit,” he said. “You can also buy a countertop grill for easy portability while folding grills are excellent for camping or hunting trips and kettle grills are great for apartment balconies.”
A potential downside is that charcoal grills are a bit slower to get started. “You have to set up the chimney, start the coals and wait 20 to 30 minutes before you can cook,” she explained. “With gas, you just switch it on like a stove.” However, she noted that with both styles, it's best to preheat the grates for about 15 minutes with the lid down to get the whole grill box good and hot. And scrub the grates every time — otherwise your food will taste like soot and you will not get great grill marks.