The Best Charcoal Grills Under $500, 2015 Edition

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The five best charcoal grills under $500

Editor's Note: We've been longtime admirers of the folks behind AmazingRibs.com, the site dedicated to unraveling the science of barbecue and grilling. You won't find a better source for thoroughly researched and well-tested techniques, tips, and recipes for cooking with smoke and fire anywhere in the world. We're happy to welcome them to Serious Eats to drop some backyard cooking bombs this summer. To kick it off, please welcome Max Good, the only person in the world whose full time job is testing, rating, and reviewing grills and smokers. The database he maintains contains 500 grills and smokers ranging in price from $30 to $50,000. When it comes to grilling and barbecue equipment, nobody knows it better.

This review was originally published in June 2015. Prices may have changed since then.

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If you have a lot of money, it's as easy to select a great grill as to select a great wine. The trick is finding a great one that's also affordable. Of course affordable is relative, so we have set the upper limit at $500 for this list, though some grills are considerably less expensive. All of these selections have won either the AmazingRibs.com Best Value Gold or Silver Medals.

The iconic Weber Charcoal Kettle was born in 1952 and set backyards on fire around the world. It became an emblem of backyard barbecue, but long ago gas grill sales overtook charcoal. Heated debate routinely flares up between gas and charcoal advocates. My editor Meathead Goldwyn and I have at any moment 10 of each in our yards, and they each both have strengths and weaknesses (read more about their pros and cons on AmazingRibs.com). But there's always more to learn, and we look forward to you letting us know how stupid we are in the comments section.

Whatever grill you choose, we cannot emphasize this enough: Pay no attention to the cheap, inaccurate dial thermometers in the lid. Those ancient bi-metal heat estimators can be off by 50 to 100°F! Furthermore, they are usually located in the lid, not down on the grill where the food is, which means they're only useful if you plan to eat your lid medium rare.

To achieve your goal of backyard domination you absolutely need an accurate digital thermometer, and if you're a data nerd, we encourage you to take a look at the database of ratings and reviews of more than 150 digital thermometers on AmazingRibs. Get one now and you'll never have to make excuses for overdone meats again, or worse still, apologize to a guest who got sick from underdone chicken.

Why Charcoal?

Charcoal grills remain popular in large part because many believe their flavor is superior to gas. It's true that charcoal takes more effort and time to start up and control, and that you may get your hands dirty handling those coals, but don't kid yourselves, gas lovers: gas grills need maintenance too, and you could even make the argument that it's easier to clean a charcoal grill than a gas one, as charcoal grills have fewer mechanical parts and incinerate leftover food drippings more effectively.

Then there's the cost difference. The simple design and construction of a charcoal grill means it's significantly less expensive than gas, and less prone to mechanical failure. A good $200 coal grill will smoke and sear rings around a gasser that costs twice the price; unless you go for an expensive gasser with a sear burner, it can't match charcoal's firepower.

Charcoal grills also offer more control than gas. Gas designs require plenty ventilation to continuously feed a steady supply of oxygen to the burners and prevent hazardous flame outs. But you can easily shut a charcoal grill vent to keep the fire low and slow, letting smoke linger and work its magic on meat.

The Reliable Stand-By: Weber Original Kettle Premium 22-Inch Charcoal Grill

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[Photograph: Weber]

If you want a family-sized charcoal grill for less than $200 that can cook anything and will last forever, the Weber Original 22-Inch Kettle Grill is it. When George Stephen, Sr. introduced the Weber Kettle in 1952, he set America's backyards on fire. Today's design is not far from the original, and it is by far the most popular backyard grill in the world.

For searing, Weber Kettles put most backyard gas grills to shame. Add an inexpensive Smokenator (see AmazingRibs.com's review here) or a Slow 'n Sear smoker conversion kit and turn your dowdy Kettle into a damn good smoker for ribs, pork, brisket and fish. There are several upgrades to the $99 base kettle, some with tables, propane ignition, and more. And it's made in the USA.

In 2015, Weber made a few tweaks to this classic kettle and changed the name from One-Touch Gold 22.5-Inch to Premium 22-Inch. The size has not changed and the grate continues to provide 363 square inches of cooking surface. The large arched lid is big enough to accommodate roasts and turkeys.

Cooking Area: 363 square inches (about 17 burgers)

Check out a full review of the Weber Original Kettle Premium 22-Inch Charcoal Grill on AmazingRibs.com for more details.

The Retro-Cool: Portable Kitchen Grill (a.k.a. PK Grill)

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[Photograph: Portable Kitchen]

Another basic, elegant model that was introduced in 1952 (the same year as the Weber Kettle) is the Portable Kitchen Grill. PKs continue to win over fans who love the durability, versatility and shiny retro-cool appearance. Ownership of the company has changed over the years, and production stopped for a while, but the current grills are pretty much the same as the older ones.

That includes the original thick-cast aluminum body that retains and radiates heat efficiently. PKs never rust, and older models often show up at garage sales or get passed along from one generation to the next. The flat bottom, rectangular shape, and unique damper placement of two on the lid and two in corresponding locations under the coal make the PK particularly well suited for two-zone cooking as well as smoking. The charcoal is very close to the cooking surface, too, so they make a lean mean steak machine.

In fact, three of the top five finishers at the World Steak Championship used PKs. The grills can be lifted out of the cart for cleaning, camping, or tailgating. Made in the USA.

Cooking Area: 306 square inches (about 15 burgers)

Check out a full review of the Portable Kitchen Grill on AmazingRibs.com for more details.

The Behemoth: Char-Broil CB940X Charcoal Grill

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[Photograph: Char-Broil]

The Char-Broil CB940X Charcoal Grill is the one model in our list that sticks out like a sore thumb. The construction isn't the greatest—it has uncoated cast iron grates that rust and require additional maintenance—and it comes with one of the weakest warranties you'll find. But if you just need a large-capacity charcoal grill (26 burgers at once!) that will last a few years, the CB940X deserves your attention.

It has a couple of nice features we like: An adjustable charcoal tray brings the coal right up under the cook surface for fast searing, then drops down to the bottom for slow roasting and smoking. A large front door gives easy access to replenish coal or remove ash with a slide-out tray, and two big wooden side shelves provide ample work space. Made in China.

Cooking Area: 540 square inches (about 26 burgers)

Check out a full review of the Char-Broil CB940X Charcoal Grill on AmazingRibs.com for more details.

The Contender: Napoleon NK22CK-C Charcoal Kettle Grill

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[Photograph: Napoleon]

It's hard to beat a Weber kettle, but the Napoleon NK22CK-C Charcoal Kettle Grill holds its own and adds a few interesting twists to the recipe, like a removable, convex steel heat diffuser that rests in the center of the coal grate to distribute heat away from the middle of the cooking grate.

The grill has a heavy cast iron cooking grate with hinges on each side for easy coal replenishment, and the grate can be placed closer or further from the coal by grabbing the handles and moving them onto supports inside the kettle at three set positions. The grill also has a hinged lid that swivels 180 degrees around the kettle, so you never have to figure out where to set down a hot grill lid while making coal or food adjustments in the middle of a cook.

Cooking Area: 365 square inches (about 18 burgers)

Check out a full review of the Napoleon NK22CK-C Charcoal Kettle Grill on AmazingRibs.com for more details.

The Interstellar: Dancook 1900 Charcoal Grill

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[Photograph: Dancook]

The sharp-looking flying-saucer-style Dancook 1900 Charcoal Grill is about the same size as a Weber 22-inch kettle. But instead of Weber's single wall bowl with a charcoal grate, Dancook has a double wall. A stainless steel "liner" floats inside the gray powder-coated aluminum bowl, which retains heat while reducing the rate of charcoal burn.

Dancook has been made in Denmark since the early 1990s. Danes love cooking outdoors, and have embraced American barbecue with a passion. (In fact, Denmark is Weber's number one export market per capita.) With quality construction, great performance, and appealing fit and finish, the Dancook fits naturally among premium grills.

Cooking Area: 410 square inches (about 20 burgers)

Check out a full review of the Dancook 1900 Charcoal Grill on AmazingRibs.com for more details.