Editor's Note: We're 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 anywhere in the world for thoroughly researched and well-tested techniques, tips, and recipes for cooking with smoke and fire. We're happy to welcome them to Serious Eats to drop some backyard cooking bombs this summer. Please also 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 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. It was updated in June, 2019.
If you have a lot of money, it's as easy to select a great grill as it is to select a great wine. The trick is finding a great one that's also affordable. Of course, affordable is relative, so we've set the upper limit at $500 for this list, though some grills are considerably less expensive. All of these selections have won the AmazingRibs.com Best Value Gold or Silver Medal.
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 gas grill sales long ago 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 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.
Charcoal grills remain popular in large part because many believe the flavor they produce is superior to what you can get from 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 of 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 Standby: Weber Original Kettle Premium 22-Inch 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. 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 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)
The Retro-Cool: Portable Kitchen Grill (a.k.a. PK Grill)
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—two on the lid, 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, making this grill a lean, mean steak machine.
In fact, three of the top five finishers at the 2015 World Championship Steak Cook-Off used PKs. The grills can be lifted out of their carts for cleaning, camping, or tailgating. Made in the USA.
Cooking Area: 306 square inches (about 15 burgers)
The Contender: Napoleon NK22CK-C Charcoal Kettle Grill
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 farther 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° 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)
The Interstellar: Dancook 1900 Charcoal Grill
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 grills have 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)