Editor's Note: Considering an upgrade in your backyard cooking setup this summer? You're probably looking for a little advice. We're longtime admirers of the folks behind AmazingRibs.com, the site dedicated to unraveling the science of barbecue and grilling. Please welcome back Max Good, the only person in the world whose full-time job is testing, rating, and reviewing grills and smokers. The database he maintains includes over 500 grills and smokers, ranging in price from $30 to $50,000. When it comes to barbecue equipment, nobody knows it better.
This review was originally published in June 2016. Prices described may have changed since then.
I'd say that kamados are the best residential outdoor ovens going. These charcoal-fueled devices are modern versions of the Chinese and Indian earthenware cooking ovens and urns that came into use several thousand years ago. Most look a bit like ancient burial urns, or giant eggs. Some are made of ceramics or refractory materials, the same stuff used to make kilns, crucibles, and pizza ovens—all extremely good insulators that store and radiate heat effectively. They're superb smokers and roasters, and they're unmatched as backyard pizza and bread ovens, because the sides and domes absorb heat and radiate it back like a professional brick oven, so the pizza and bread can cook properly from above. They're also great for paella and tandoori cooking. So it's no wonder that ceramic grills/smokers/ovens is a fast-growing category, with more competitors throwing their hats into the ring every year.
Considering a kamado? Let me be your guide.
A Few Pros and Cons
Ceramics are so well insulated, and the interior absorbs and radiates heat so evenly, that they are very good at holding steady temps. Get a kamado started, bring it to temp, and there's little need to touch it until the meat is ready. Kamados can be especially handy if you live in a cold climate and want to cook outdoors all winter.
The downside is that those thick walls take longer to warm up than some other cookers, and once they get hot, they stay hot. They aren't as nimble as a charcoal kettle, which can switch gears from warm to hot if you control airflow. Whatever you do with your kamado, don't overshoot your target temperature, or you'll be cooling your heels while the fiery beast cools down.
One more thing to think about: Kamado cookers are very heavy and can easily crack if dropped or knocked over. But when taken care of, they'll last forever. Some newer designs utilize modern fiber insulation clad in a steel casing. Each material has its strengths and weaknesses. Some cooks prefer the heat retention of ceramic over the steel models, but, on the other hand, steel doesn't crack. Then again, ceramic doesn't rust...
History of the Kamado
Early clay ovens appeared in China about 3,000 years ago. (The Chinese, as you may recall, also developed the fire-hardened clay we now call ceramics, as well as porcelain coatings.) Around 300 BC, this technology was exported to Japan, and the ceramic ovens were dubbed kamados, or "stoves."
How did the kamado come to the States? After World War II, thousands of Westerners stationed in Japan saw these wonderful cookers for the first time. Returning home, many brought kamados back, and some even started importing and selling them. One such entrepreneur was Ed Fisher, who sensed there might be an interest in these ceramic charcoal burners back in the USA. In 1974, he opened a store in Atlanta, and the Big Green Egg was born. Big Green Egg is now the most popular brand of kamado in the world, with legions of devotees who affectionately call themselves Eggheads.
But the Big Green Egg isn't the only kamado out there. You now have a wide range of choices in all different sizes, shapes, and colors.
Advantages of Oval-Shaped Kamados and Problems of Round Kamados
We are strong believers in the two-zone system for grilling. The concept is to place the coals on one side of the grill and leave the other side without coals. On a gas grill, you turn on the burners on one side, but not on the other. With two zones, you can move food from very hot, direct radiant infrared heat to mild, indirect convection heat, quickly and easily.
Oval-shaped kamados, like those made by Primo and Komodo Kamado, can easily be set up for two-zone cooking, but round kamados cannot. The oval shape enables more separation from side to side, while heat in the round models tends to even out rather quickly. Most round-kamado aficionados concede that their best way of creating different heat zones is by moving foods closer to or farther from the fire. This is done with various deflectors and rack systems that can be costly and awkward to manipulate.
Can You Grill on a Kamado?
Kamados can get mighty hot. We cranked a Big Green Egg until a column of fire shot out the top, and it was like a blast furnace inside. That's great for searing the snot out of thin meats like skirt steak that you just want to cook hot and fast, but once kamados get hot, they take forever to cool down. Along with the difficulty of creating a two-zone setup, this is why we believe most kamados function better as smokers and ovens than as grills.
If you really want to take your grilling skills to the highest level, then you need to master two-zone cooking and get a charcoal grill in addition to the kamado, or select a kamado that can do two-zone cooking.
Is It Okay to Use Regular Charcoal Briquettes?
Many kamado manufacturers recommend or even dictate that you use more expensive lump charcoal rather than briquettes. They argue that briquettes produce more ash than lump, and the ash can block airflow as it builds up over long cooks. Most kamado manufacturers also sell private-label lump charcoal, so they just might have a conflict of interest. Generally, we recommend using Kingsford Original Briquets in charcoal burners, because they're affordable, consistent, and readily available. Lump charcoal, especially the bargain-basement varieties, can be inconsistent. We've seen bags that were half pulverized charcoal dust and half large chunks of construction material. It's not unusual to find metal and plastic debris mixed in. Nonetheless, I personally prefer high-quality lump in a kamado over briquettes, because it's lighter and easier to stir around at the bottom of the deep firebox, while briquettes tend to get compacted.
Firing Up a Kamado
Do not use lighter fluid to start your charcoal in any ceramic cooker; that stuff can get into the porous interior, which is bad news. Instead, it's best to always use a chimney, electric starter, or firestarter.
Here's a trick we learned from Dennis Linkletter of Komodo Kamado: Fill the charcoal basket, bury one Weber paraffin firestarter cube in the pile of charcoal, and light it. It will ignite about five briquettes immediately around it. They will burn slowly, producing very little heat, and the combustion will spread gradually to unlit coals. When shooting for low-and-slow smoking temps of 225°F, once you get a fist-sized cluster of briquettes glowing, it's already time to shut down both the lower intake damper and upper exhaust damper to let just a small amount of air in and out. The smart move is to let your kamado slowly come up to the desired temp and stabilize, rather than risk overshooting your mark.
Easy as it is to maintain temps over a long period in these stable cookers, some like to go a step further and use thermostatic temperature controllers, like the popular BBQ Guru, which control cooking temperature by regulating a small fan affixed to the air intake damper. These gizmos enable you to run a kamado for days at low-and-slow smoking temps, with no babysitting.
But first, a cooker. Should you go for the Green Egg or look for another brand? Here are my top 10 kamado cookers for your consideration.
Uncrackable Char-Griller Akorn Kamado Grill
The Akorn is a double-walled, insulated steel egg that is much lighter and in some ways more durable than the popular Big Green Egg—and it's less than half the price. Char-Griller has mostly been known over the years for inexpensive grills, and, until now, you pretty much got what you paid for. But this design and Char-Griller's manufacturing process may be a match made in heaven. This cooker performs fairly close to traditional kamados at a fraction of the cost. Don't expect the Akorn to last forever, but if you're curious about kamados and you've been waiting for the right time and price, this could be it.
Cooking Area: 302 square inches (about 14 burgers)
Self-Starter: Vision Professional S-Series Kamado
Vision's Professional S-Series kamado has some unique and interesting features not found on other ceramic cookers. The bottom dampers are part of a slide-out ash drawer, which also has a slot for the included electric starter. And you gotta love the stainless steel two-level grates: The top grate is hinged for easy access to the lower level, which is also hinged for adding wood and tending to charcoal. This nice package deal includes a solid, powder-coated stand on four casters, with fold-down wood side shelves and a cover.
Cooking Area: 302 square inches (about 14 burgers)
Rule the Backyard Roost: Big Green Egg Large Ceramic Cooker
Many view the Big Green Egg as the Weber of kamados. Big Green Egg popularized kamado cookers in the US, and it's often viewed as the industry standard. In fact, some competitors design their kamados to work with Big Green Egg accessories. Big Green Eggs are available in seven models in progressively larger diameters—from 10 inches to 29 inches. This "Large Egg" (18 inches in diameter) is the most popular size—big enough for a 20-pound turkey. The BGE design is simple and built to last, with a limited lifetime warranty. They're manufactured in Mexico.
When you buy an Egg, you start with just the ceramic oven, and everything else is à la carte. By the time you add a few basics, like a stand and diffuser plate, the cost has gone up significantly. Eggs are not sold on the internet, but they have a lot of dealers coast to coast, so you shouldn't have much trouble getting your hands on one.
Cooking Area: 262 square inches (about 12 burgers)
Super Bowl of 'Cue: Grill Dome Infinity Series Large
Grill Domes are known for heavy construction, with top-quality 304-grade stainless steel, excellent heat retention, and beautiful enamel finishes. The ceramic was developed by Grill Dome founder Tarsem Kohli in Atlanta. Called Terapex, it's more durable than traditional ceramic, Grill Dome claims, and can withstand much higher temperatures. Instead of a ceramic-glaze finish, the six colors available come in baked-on enamel. The company believes these finishes help mitigate crazing, the tiny cracks that can form across the exteriors of glazed kamados. Either way, they sure are pretty.
Cooking Area: 254 square inches (about 12 burgers)
Two-Zone Kamado: Primo Oval JR
We'll go ahead and say it: We like these cookers better than the popular Big Green Egg. As mentioned above, kamados can also be used as grills for cooking hot and fast, but the cone shape of most of them doesn't make them ideal for two-zone cooking. There are a few exceptions, however, including the cookers from Primo, which are oval-shaped. They come with two-position split cooking grates that can be set up high for indirect cooking, or flipped over to position foods down low to the fire for searing. The split, half-moon-shaped grates allow you to accentuate the difference between a direct and an indirect zone by piling charcoal on one side and positioning one grate over it down low for a direct zone, with the other grate up high and away from the fire for an indirect zone.
Cooking Area: 210 square inches (about 10 burgers)
Hitch a Ride: Broil King Keg 5000
Most kamados are made of heavy ceramic that can crack if dropped or knocked over, so they're not the kind of thing you tend to bring to a tailgate. Unless, of course, you have a Broil King Keg. It's made with lightweight fiberglass encased in powder-coated steel, and, while it's not light enough to pick up and carry around, it's easy to lift off the base and pop onto the optional trailer hitch. And if it does get dropped, this baby won't crack like Humpty Dumpty.
Broil King put together a nice package deal for the 5000 that includes a sturdy stand with big wheels and removable side tables, a multifunction tool for handling the grate and removing ash, and a secondary extender rack that hovers above the primary grate to provide extra cook surface. The side tables have handy tool hooks, and there's even a couple of bottle openers built into the handle.
Cooking Area: 280 square inches (about 13 burgers)
Red Is the New Green: Kamado Joe Classic
The Kamado Joe Classic is an elegant, well-crafted ceramic cooker that presents strong competition to other 18-inch models in the premium-priced market. This company pays attention to detail and offers upgrades, like top-quality 304 stainless steel cooking grates, as standard features while holding its prices just a bit lower than the other guys. In 2014, Kamado Joe introduced a unique multilevel grate and heat deflection system called "Divide and Conquer," which comes standard with this model at no extra charge. The system is a grouping of multilevel racks and deflectors that relieves some of the pain and cost of creating different cooking zones in a round kamado.
Cooking Area: 256 square inches (about 12 burgers)
Kamettle? Kettlelado? The New Weber Summit Charcoal Grill
Introduced this April, the Weber Summit Charcoal Grill is a radical departure from George Stephen's original Weber Kettle. It's Weber's first major upgrade to the Kettle in decades. Sure, the prices are in line with Summit gas grills and premium-quality kamados on carts, but they're a big leap up from the Kettles we know and love. It's true that a regular classic Weber Kettle can grill and smoke, but the new Summits are just plain bigger and better in every way. You get more capacity, ease of use, and more versatility. It actually is an excellent dedicated charcoal smoker by design, and the adjustable coal grate that burns directly under the cook surface for better searing also makes the Summit an even better grill than the classic Weber Kettles.
Cooking Area: 452 square inches (about 22 burgers)
BBQ Guru: Homdoor Charcoal Tandoor
The Homdoor Charcoal Tandoor is a traditional Indian clay oven with a stainless steel outer shell. It has no cooking grate. Put meat or vegetables (sweet peppers are especially good) on skewers, saving an onion or potato chunk for last to keep the meat from sliding off into the red-hot coals; lower the skewers into the open, upright cylindrical oven; and you can get tender, juicy seared meat and veggies in four to eight minutes.
Cooking Area: 144 square inches (about 7 burgers)
Big, Bad, and Beautiful: Komodo Kamado Big Bad 32
Komodo Kamado makes some of the highest-quality, most striking cookers we've seen. Stunning assortments of inlaid tile finishes are available, but these cookers aren't just another pretty face. Attention to detail is evident in everything you see and touch, from the 304 stainless steel grates and hinges to the heavy-duty casters. And the casters have to be powerful to support this bad boy—it comes fully assembled and weighs in at almost half a ton. At 32 inches wide, this is the biggest kamado on the market. Want to make it even fancier? Plenty of options are available, including teakwood carts and gas ignition.
Cooking Area: 576 square inches (about 28 burgers)