This story is by Max Good of AmazingRibs.com.
For a long while, charcoal grills were the primary tool of backyard grillers. Hasty-Bake introduced its wonderful cooker with a crank that raises and lowers the charcoal rack in 1948, and it remains one of our favorite brands to this day. When Weber-Stephen rolled out its now iconic charcoal kettles in 1952, they lit a fire in backyards coast to coast and barbecue grew into a national pastime. In the early 1960s, gas grills entered the market and gained popularity, and gas eventually became the fuel of choice for most residential grillers. However, charcoal still runs a close second, and lately we've seen an uptick in its popularity.
There's no denying gas grills offer convenience. They're easy to start up and you can start cooking on them in minutes with little effort. Although cooking on charcoal requires a little more skill and labor, you don't need a PhD to start the fire. Yes, you do have to remove ash but, unlike with gas grills, most of the grease that drips off food will burn up on the hot coals, rather than collect at the bottom. Don't get me wrong, I love a good gas grill—in fact, you can read about my favorite gas grills right here—but I'll take cleaning a charcoal grill over a gasser any day of the week.
Many folks strongly believe charcoal produces better flavor than gas. Let’s just say different fuels have different characteristics—and we won't even get into all the different types of charcoal available today. Is one fuel better than the other? That's a loooong debate. To each their own.
However, charcoal does offer a few distinct advantages. Charcoal grills are typically less expensive, have fewer moving parts to break down, and have a much wider temperature range. You can get a very good quality charcoal kettle for 100 bucks that will cook anything you want from low and slow smoked ribs to sizzling T-bones. And you can bet there are plenty of models to choose from in all price ranges. So where do you start?
What to Look for In a Good Charcoal Grill
It's true that great charcoal grills don't have to cost a lot, but there are many high-end models with superb construction and compelling features. For most of us, price is a key element in all purchasing decisions. Whatever your charcoal grill budget may be, I strongly advise getting a model that has an ash removal system, such as Weber's One-Touch removable ash bucket. Even if it costs a little more, you'll be glad you shelled out the extra dough for that convenience, which takes away much of the pain in the ash.
Many condo and apartment dwellers want a small grill that fits on their modest patio, but they often encounter restrictions on using charcoal and likely need to look at alternative fuels. Portable charcoal grills for tailgating and camping are popular and effective. But if you want a full-size, backyard family grill, go big. You want enough cook surface to avoid crowding the grill—always leave at least a half inch between foods—and even though it doesn't take much skill to run a charcoal fire at low temperatures, you still need the ability to create a two-zone setup. This is typically accomplished by piling or corralling your charcoal fuel on one side to create a hot direct cooking zone over the fire and a moderate indirect zone on the opposite side. A two-zone setup helps you avoid charred chicken and exploding sausage, plus it gives you the option to gently roast or sizzle and sear at the same time.
Finally, be sure to get a model with a lid. Lidless charcoal grills may be good for simple grilling, like cooking burgers and shrimp over direct heat, but you need a lid to successfully roast turkeys and smoke ribs.
Construction and Air Control
Gas grills need to be well vented for safety reasons. If the burners are deprived of oxygen, the flame goes out, but the gas fuel keeps coming, building up under the hood and creating a serious fire hazard. The opposite is true of charcoal grills, which function best as sealed systems with solid, tight construction for effective air control. Just as with gas, the charcoal fire needs oxygen to burn, and you can use this oxygen flow to your advantage. Shut down the air dampers to drop the cooking temp or snuff the charcoal out entirely when finished. Open them wide to flood the fire with oxygen and create a rip-roaring, red-hot coal bed.
Flimsy charcoal grills with loose, warped lids and rickety moving parts make temperature control a nightmare. Charcoal grills don't need to be tanks made of heavy, quarter inch-thick steel, but they shouldn't be tin cans that lack structural integrity.
The air control required for charcoal grills actually makes them dang good smokers, too. Unlike smoking on a gas grill, where wood chunks or chips burn up quickly and the small amount of smoke generated blows out the back before your very eyes, charcoal grill vents can be closed down to allow very little air in and out. This gives smoke plenty of time to leisurely caress foods and impart that magic, smoky goodness.
Whatever grill you choose, do not rely on the built-in dial thermometers, which can be off by 50°F to 100°F (10-38°C). These dials are usually located in the lid, not down on the grill surface where the food is—and you're not eating the lid, so its temperature is irrelevant.
To grill properly, you'll need accurate digital thermometers: an instant-read thermometers to get quick, accurate readings anywhere you want in a piece of meat, and probe thermometers, which can track the progress of cooking and sound an alarm when your target temp is reached.
Why You Should Trust Us
I've been reviewing grills and smokers full time since 2012. To my knowledge, nobody else does this full time, and nobody else has cooked on as many grills and smokers as I have. I assemble products, measure temperatures, slam lids, turn dials, kick casters, study warranties, take pictures, and cook a lot of food.
I also consider look, feel, functionality, durability, and price. Given the enormous variety of products and designs, there is no one-size-fits-all test.
With charcoal grills, I test for effective air control by smoking low and slow at 225°F, roasting in the mid-range around 350°F, and letting 'er rip with a blazing, red hot fire. Leaky grills are harder to control and get rated accordingly. To dial in my target cooking temperatures accurately, I use multi-channel digital thermometers with temperature probes clipped to the cooking surface. Charcoal grills usually don't have as many bells and whistles as gassers, but I assess whatever goodies are included, particularly ash removal systems.
How We Picked Our Winners
For this review, I focused on the top-rated Gold and Platinum Medal winning models from the AmazingRibs.com database of almost 600 searchable equipment reviews. The list below spans a range of features and prices, including both newer models and well-established leaders in the field.
The Best Charcoal Grill Under $200: Weber Original Kettle Premium 22" Charcoal Grill
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 (in a good way). Today's design is not far from the original, and it's by far the most popular backyard grill in the world.
For searing, Weber kettles put most backyard gas grills to shame. Add an inexpensive Slow 'n Sear smoker conversion kit, and turn your grill into a damn good smoker for ribs, pork, brisket, and fish. (Slow 'N Sear is next on our list; scroll down to learn more.) The large, arched lid is big enough to accommodate roasts and turkeys. There are also several upgrades to the base kettle, including tables, propane ignition, and more. And it's made in the USA!
The Best Affordable Charcoal Grill With Smoker Upgrade: Slow 'N Sear Kettle Grill
Speaking of Slow 'N Sear, this company was built on their innovative charcoal insert, mentioned above. It's a high quality, stainless steel accessory that instantly upgrades Weber kettles and many other round, charcoal-burning cookers by enhancing two-zone separation and intensifying sear power. Toss in some wood chunks and smoke ribs low and slow on the opposite side over smokey, indirect heat. In addition to the enhanced performance for low-and-slow smoking, Slow 'N Sear creates a super sear zone when filled with red hot charcoal.
Recently, they changed the company name to SnS Grills and introduced their very own Slow 'N Sear Kettle Grill. Aside from the Slow 'N Sear insert, their kettle is similar to Weber's cart-mounted Performer Charcoal Grill with a few noteworthy upgrades, like a high quality stainless steel cooking grate and covered port for threading a digital temperature probe onto the cook surface. If you add the cost of a Slow 'N Sear insert to a Weber Performer (and you should) the Slow 'N Sear Kettle is about the same price. This makes it a solid package deal that's definitely worth the consideration of folks on the lookout for a new charcoal burner.
The Best Charcoal Grill for Under $1000: PK 360
The Portable Kitchen PK360 Grill and Smoker takes all the great elements of the classic 1952 PK Grill, tweaks and improves the design, beefs up construction, and delivers one of the more cosmetically beautiful charcoal grills we've seen. With 360 square inches of primary cooking surface, the grill box is larger than the 300 square-inch Classic model, but retains PK's characteristic flat bottom and rectangular shape. There's also a unique configuration of bottom left and right adjustable air intake dampers and corresponding top left and right exhaust dampers. The wide flat bottom makes it easy to push charcoal to one side and create two very distinct direct and indirect zones.
The Best Charcoal Grill That Doubles as a Fire Pit: Burch Barrel
Been on the hunt for a sturdy camping grill that doubles as a firepit? The Burch Barrel is a combination camping grill and firepit that hangs from a tripod. This is not your grandpa’s cowboy cooker: It blends an open-fire camp grill with a vertical lift Argentine-style mechanism like a Santa Maria grill. The bottom accommodates charcoal, wood, or both for fuel. The unique, adjustable height charcoal and cooking grates can also be set in multiple positions for different heat levels. When you’re not busy cooking, you can raise the lid via a locking cable and use the Burch Barrel as a fire pit. This grill is made by and for lovers of the great outdoors who enjoy hunting and camping, but Burch Barrel reports residential sales are on the rise.
The Best-Looking Charcoal Grill: Napoleon Charcoal Professional Cart Grill
If you're committed to charcoal, but envious of your neighbor's shiny gasser, the Napoleon Charcoal Professional Cart Grill may be the answer. Only a few premium and luxury BBQ brands offer stainless steel charcoal grills. Napoleon's Professional is one of the more beautiful models we've seen in this price range. This stainless steel charcoal burner feels right at home in a shiny outdoor kitchen ensemble. It has 605 square inches of cooking surface, with an adjustable-height charcoal grate that has several notched height positions to place the heat closer to or further from the cook surface. A front door allows easy access to the charcoal during cooking and the double-lined hood is a nice feature to help hold in heat. The Professional Cart Grill has an interesting rotisserie design, too, that uses a special charcoal basket across the back for a dedicated rotisserie fire.
The Best Luxury Charcoal Grill and Smoker Combo: Hasty-Bake 357 PRO
Our new favorite charcoal grill is the Hasty-Bake 357 PRO. It is just about the perfect charcoal grill/smoker combo. The core concepts of the design go back to 1948. Since then, Hasty-Bake has refined and polished off the rough edges. The new spring-loaded hood design is a significant improvement over earlier models. It lifts up almost vertically and glides fairly easily.
The 357 PRO wouldn't be a Hasty-Bake without their classic adjustable-height charcoal tray that can be raised and lowered with a crank. The coals can move from 14.5 inches to 2.5 inches away from the cooking surface for serious direct infrared searing, a lot like a classic Santa Maria-style grill. Energy at the food level reduces rapidly as the coals move away, so this is a very effective temperature controller. And if you want that great dark mahogany steakhouse sear, crank the coals to right below your steak. This arrangement is better than the Santa Maria-style grill where the food moves up and down and the coals are stationary because the head room above the food isn’t reduced.
Perfection doesn’t come cheap. The $3,600 price tag will be a non-starter for many, but talk about getting what you paid for: PRO is made of heavy, top quality stainless steel from head to toe and loaded with excellent, unique features.
Please note: Production has stopped on this particular grill under late 2021. We'll let you know when it's back in stock!
Charcoal Grill FAQ
What's the Difference Between a Gas and Charcoal Grill?
There are many differences! Check out the chart below or read our in-depth guide about the differences between gas and charcoal grills right here. But here's the TL;DR: When it comes to price, it's easier to stick to a lower budget with a charcoal grill—you can even get a good one for $99. A good gas grill will set you back more. When it comes to quick cooking, a gas grill will serve you well, but if you prefer longer, slower cooks where you want that smoky charcoal flavor, charcoal grills are best. Temperature-wise, charcoal grills can get much, much hotter—up to 1,200°F (650°C). They also can help you achieve that low-and-slow temp, whereas a gas grill's range is more limited.
|Gas Grills||Charcoal Grills|
|Price||500+ for a good one||$99 and up|
|Flavor||Good for fast-cooking foods||Superior for slow cooks|
|Smoking||Hard to track smoke||Built for smoking|
|Temp Range||Around 225°F to 600°F (with no infrared sear zone)||As low as you want to 1200°F and up|
|Temp Control||Very easy to set and maintain||Requires practice and constant attention|
|Fire Up/Cool Down Time||5 to 10 minutes||About 30 minutes|
|Clean Up||Occasionally emptying grease trap and cleaning bars||Regularly disposing of ash and cleaning bars.|
How Do You Clean a Charcoal Grill?
Make grilling season easier on yourself and clean your grill at the start of each grilling session, not at the end. Start by lighting your coals and letting your grill heat up for about 10 minutes. This should heat the grates enough that any crusted-on food can be easily removed with a grill brush. After you clean the grates, oil them using a paper towel dipped in oil and held in tongs. When you're done cooking for the day, give the grates a good once-over with the grill brush, but don't worry about getting them spotlessly clean—a thin layer of grease will actually help protect the grates from the elements and prevent rust from forming. Finally, make sure to empty your ashes, and keep that grill covered when not in use. Read more about how to keep your grill clean right here.
How Do You Use a Charcoal Grill?
We have a whole guide right here to help you get started with charcoal grilling, from arranging your coals to determining temperature and even controlling flare-ups. The best way to light your grill without the scent of chemicals is to forego lighter fluid and use a chimney starter. This model from Weber is our favorite for size and usability. To use one, load up the space on the bottom with a piece of newspaper or two, pile coals in from the top, then light the newspaper. The fire and heat from the newspaper ignites the bottom coals, then the fire builds up. When the top coals are covered with gray ash, you're ready to go. You can read more about using a chimney starter here.
Here are a couple of contenders that fell short of our highest ratings, but are still worth consideration.
Oklahoma Joe's Judge Charcoal Grill: Oklahoma Joe’s Judge Charcoal Grill is a solid, well-made grill with useful features. The large, rectangular, 18- x 30-inch cook surface is easy to set up for two-zone cooking with a moderate indirect side for smoking and roasting, and a hot direct side for searing and finishing. An adjustable-height charcoal grate enables you to drop the fire down to the bottom for low and slow smoking, then lift it up right beneath the cook surface for high temp sizzling. It’s a practical, versatile cooker that’s a pleasure to use. Still, we have to ding Judge just a little because, despite the heavy metal construction, it leaks air around the lid and chimney, compromising air control and coming up just a few briquettes shy of our top ratings.
Char-Broil Kettleman TRU-Infrared 22.5" Charcoal Grill: Forget about hot spots and flare-ups. With Char-Broil’s Kettleman Charcoal Grill, you can cover the 22.5-inch round grate with greasy burgers and never see a lick of flame from the red hot coals below. Kettleman’s TRU-Infrared design is very different and provides a forgiving cooking experience, similar to Char-Broil’s TRU-Infrared Commercial and Performance gas grills. By using a cook surface that is essentially a radiant sheet with raised grates and little direct exposure to hot coal, Char-Broil eliminates flare-ups and hot spots, reduces circulation of dry air convection heat, and provides concentrated radiant heat. The result is even cooking, moist food, less risk of burning and super searing power. Furthermore, small items like shrimp, wings, and veggies are spared from falling to a fiery death on red hot coals.
While we prefer the superior air control and open architecture cooking grate of Weber, those who struggle with charcoal will find relief with Kettleman’s radiant design. It works as advertised: Easy to use, no flare-ups, even heat, retains moisture in foods, and the unique air-intake holes that surround the coal grate turn Kettleman into a pretty decent smoker without the need for add-on devices.