Best Charcoal Grills
We'd never used a Kamado-style grill until testing out the Char-Griller Akorn Jr., but this grill design quickly won us over. A typical Kamado grill is egg-shaped and insulated by thick ceramic sidewalls, which boosts heat retention and grants you the versatility to smoke at 200℉ or sear at 700℉. The Akorn Jr. is not ceramic, however — Char-Griller has instead substituted triple-walled steel, which is how they can offer this heat-efficient grill for a fraction of the cost of traditional Kamado grills. Though the pan is only sized for a small coal bed, we were still able to sear steaks at 500℉ within minutes of getting the coals up to temperature.
There was definitely a learning curve regarding temperature management with this grill — once it gets heated up, it's a challenge to get it to cool back down quickly. Out of all the grills we tested, this one has one of the smallest cooking surfaces, and it was challenging to find a spot on the edges to move the food to so it wouldn't burn as we were figuring out how to control the heat zones correctly. If you are looking at the price-per-square-inch of cooking surface, the Akorn Jr. could be considered costly. However, with its capacity to grill, smoke, sear (and possibly bake), it becomes clear that this is a small but mighty charcoal grill. If learning a new style of grilling seems daunting, Char-Griller includes helpful instructions suggesting damper adjustments to achieve the ideal temperature for whatever type of cooking you are doing.
Initially, we were skeptical of the design of the Royal Gourmet 24" Charcoal Grill, but it far exceeded our expectations. This grill features a "stick shift" on the front that allows you to control the height of the charcoal pan to six different levels. This seems gimmicky at first, but the innovative design provides a level of versatility in temperature control that we didn't have with other grills in our tests. We were able to keep a coal bed burning in this grill for an impressive length of time, thanks to the combination of a large coal bed with dual dampers — located underneath the twin side tables — and a chimney to allow for efficient airflow and maximum adjustment. If you need to adjust or add coals, the large front door allows easy access to the coal bed.
Overall, we can't find much to complain about on this Royal Gourmet grill. Our biggest criticism was common among all the full-size grills — there are no handles to help you pull it into place. There are wheels, but still, but we can't imagine that dragging this 57-pound grill around by its side table will help improve the lifespan of the otherwise superb design. Despite this gripe, it is worth mentioning that not only does the Royal Gourmet perform at the top of its class, but it does so at a fraction of the cost of the competition.
If you're looking for a portable but sturdy heavy-duty grill, check out the Char-Griller Side Fire Box Tabletop Grill. By utilizing a unique barrel shape that maximizes interior space, this Char-Griller manages to offer a cooking surface comparable to full-sized grills like the Beau Jardin 18". So, even though this grill's footprint is small, you get nearly the same capacity as a classic kettle-style charcoal grill. Our favorite feature is the slide-out drawer that allows quick access to the firebox. This simple feature — along with the grill's unique design — makes it easier to use a coal chimney to start a fire, gives you better access to the coal bed while cooking, and provides a quick and easy solution for dumping ash and spent charcoal.
The cooking grates might be cast iron, but don't be fooled by this grill's appearance — it is actually built out of heavy-duty powder-coated steel rather than a full cast iron construction like the Char-Griller Outlaw. Even though we still put this grill in the "portable" category based on size, it might be a bit much to haul the 42-pound frame out to your next picnic. Although the Side Fire Box is a bit more expensive than the other tabletop grills we tested, it is much more versatile, particularly when combined with the Outlaw to create a true Texas-style smoker.
Cast iron is known for its durability, versatility, and value. The Char-Griller Outlaw Grill and Smoker is a hulking cast iron grill that will undoubtedly become a gathering point for any backyard barbeque. The standalone grill offers the largest cook surface of any we tested, with 725 sq. inches of main grilling space plus a 250 sq. inch warming rack. Its versatility and grilling space is increased with the addition of the Char-Griller Side Fire Box, which can easily be attached/detached opposite to the side table, adding functionality as both a grill and smoker. Though this is a much more significant investment, we believe the 3-in-1 combination of full-size grill, smoker, and detachable tabletop grill presents an unbeatable value — not to mention the remarkable durability and longevity of their cast iron construction.
Although its versatility is top-notch, there are some control issues with the Outlaw that could be resolved for improved performance. The coal bed can be adjusted to four different heights, thanks to handles that extend up above the cooking surface. Unfortunately, in order to manage or add coals, you have to lift one of the five cast-iron cooking grates to gain access to the fire grate. The addition of a second damper underneath the side table would undoubtedly improve airflow. But at least when it comes time for indirect smoking, the heavy cast iron lid provides exceptional heat and smoke retention, easily maintaining the ideal internal grill temperature of 250℉ with only minimal fire maintenance.
For the fans of portable pit-cooking, we offer up the Weber Go-Anywhere as your solution to taking your backyard grilling on the road. This suitcase-sized grill incorporates Weber's traditionally durable porcelain-enameled steel construction into a conveniently compact package. Unlike other portable grills we tested, the legs on the Go-Anywhere fold up and snap into place to secure the lid, preventing an ash or charcoal spill in the trunk of your car. The rectangular basin is capable of holding a significant amount of coal for its footprint, and the thick steel sidewalls provide ample insulation to help keep your coal bed roasting hot.
Although we love that this grill's design includes two bottom dampers — bringing the total vent count up to four — the aluminum construction of all four vents means that they get very hot, very quickly. On top of that, the bottom dampers fit too tightly to the grill body, making them particularly tough to adjust. The combination of these two factors increases the potential for hand and finger burns, so we recommend using gloves when adjusting any of the vents. It also takes some time to learn how to properly adjust the airflow for maximum heat output. That said, though the Go-Anywhere's surface area is small, the grill's shape and adjustable airflow facilitate a nice distribution of heat zones across the cooking surface.
We consider the Weber Original Kettle Premium 22" to be one of the most reliable grills on the market. The porcelain-enameled steel construction is proven to be both sufficiently insulating and durable enough to last for decades with very little fuss. The classic kettle shape includes both a deep coal bed and a huge lid to cover the 22"-diameter cook surface — we've heard that the lid is tall enough to even accommodate a full, 15-pound turkey (though we haven't tried this… yet!) The reason the Original Kettle Premium sets the standard for all kettle-charcoal grills is the patented One-Touch cleaning system. With the flick of a handle, you can easily adjust airflow during cooking, and then quickly clean out ash afterward.
The top grip benefits from a heat shield, but despite its glass-reinforced design, the nylon handle on the front of the grill still manages to get unexpectedly hot. We also can't quite understand why the hanger is not located more towards the middle of the lid — if it were, it would more effectively serve as a wind barrier. But regardless of whether or not it offers any truly standout features, we still love the thoughtful design of this classic grill and will likely continue to love it for generations to come.
The Royal Gourmet 30" Grill and Offset Smoker provides an accessible option to the world of Texas-style smoking with much less investment than other comparable grill/smoker combos. Unlike the Char-Griller Outlaw, the side firebox is fully incorporated into this model. Even if you are not into smoking, this is particularly useful for simultaneously cooking other foods over an independent fire. Considering that the main grill surface is 438 sq. inches, the warming rack is 179 sq. inches, and the side firebox offers an additional 183 sq. inches, this is a lot of cooking space at a reasonable value. When it does come time to try out smoking meats, we appreciate that the side firebox has an additional access port, allowing you to add or stoke the coal bed without having to open the lid, a critical escape point for smoke and heat.
You will likely make constant use of that extra access port because this grill does not do a great job when it comes to insulation. Through indirect heat, it took well over an hour to get this grill up to the ideal smoking temperature of 250℉, and then it took a lot of additions of coal to keep it at that temperature. Although it is a steel construction, it is thin and flimsy — when you open the lid, you can actually see it flex under its own weight. But despite its flaws, we do believe that this is a price-point option for those looking to dip their toes into the world of charcoal grilling and Texas-style smoking but who maybe aren't quite ready to invest a significant chunk of change in doing so.
The Beau Jardin Premium 18" is the archetype of the classic charcoal grill. This unit offers some nice features often not available at this price point, like insulated handles and a lid hanger. Specifically, we like that the design of the grill surface includes handles so that you can easily and securely remove the grates to add or adjust coals. Otherwise, it is entirely basic. We mainly appreciate this model for its portability, where its light weight and small footprint make it a great option for those tight on space.
The bowl and lid are porcelain-enameled steel but are slightly thinner than other grills in this same class. While this does not ultimately result in poor insulation — in fact, we were quite impressed with its overall heat retention — it does bring to light more substantial worries about durability. Despite the base's wide footprint, we worry about the thin aluminum legs not providing the most stable support system. While there is nothing particularly remarkable or unremarkable about this grill, it is notable as a much more affordable option than many other kettle-style charcoal grills on the market.
While it may seem like we don't like the Weber Smokey Joe 14" Portable based on its position in our review, it is simply that this classic-take on a portable charcoal grill has been overtaken in recent years by modern improvements in design. As a portable grill, the Smokey Joe presents an outstanding value that still offers Weber's reliable, porcelain-enameled steel construction, a staple of charcoal grill design. This small, relatively lightweight option can just as easily be pulled out for a tailgate as it can for an impromptu backyard hangout.
Like all basic grills, it is impossible to add or adjust the coal bed without completely lifting off the cooking grate, food and all. Fortunately, the grate returns to sit in position much better than its direct rival. We wish that Weber would incorporate lid latches, which would significantly improve its portability. There is very little wrong with the Smokey Joe; it just simply doesn't present the same value that it may have 30-40 years ago.
A petite, portable version of the classic kettle-style grill, the Cuisinart Portable 14" offers an inexpensive option for tailgates and picnics. A seriously simple design that won't wow anyone, this 5-pound grill still gets the job done for barbeque basics — especially for the price. It is wrapped up in a very cute package, looking right at home on the table at a backyard party.
But as with most cheap products, the monetary value comes at a price. This portable grill is a perfect example of a throwaway commodity. Its flimsy aluminum construction is wonky from the moment it is assembled, and the paint on the lid bubbles when exposed to the high heat of an open flame. If you need a portable charcoal grill to use occasionally at a tailgate party, this presents a cost-effective solution — but for any regular action, we suggest looking elsewhere.
Why You Should Trust Us
Bringing a serious appreciation for the art of pit cooking to this review is Aaron Rice. As one of our culinary experts, Aaron has worked in and around kitchens for the better portion of a decade — alongside his wife, he now grows and manages an on-site culinary garden for a fine dining restaurant in Santa Fe, NM. As a wilderness instructor, he has helped teach many hungry teenagers how to cook over an open flame. Additionally, Aaron lends his knowledge and experience to the reviews of portable grills here at GearLab.
Before diving headfirst into the world of open-flame grilling, our experts perform their due diligence of online research. After hours of looking through some of the best and most popular charcoal grills on the market, we settled on ten to test side-by-side. We purchased all of these grills at retail cost so that we may bring you an objectively honest and comprehensively comparative analysis. From assembly to smoking brisket, our experts scrutinized every aspect of these grills. Over the course of a week, we grilled nearly every single meal, comparing important features, measuring temperatures, analyzing airflow, and carefully assessing heat retention. Whether you are looking for a full-size grill and smoker combo or a tabletop model to cook the occasional kabob, we offer a variety of products that aim to suit the needs of any prospective grill-master.
Analysis and Test Results
There is nothing quite like pit cooking over an open flame. Despite significant advances in grill technology, most professional chefs will agree that you simply cannot pull the same amount of flavor out of a cut of meat or roast veggies as tenderly as you can when cooking over charcoal. To assess the best charcoal grills on the market, we consider five key characteristics: output power, control, portability, cooking area, and wind resistance. Our experts are the everyday backyard chef, and as such, seek to put each of these grills through a series of creative, real-life cooking scenarios. By evaluating the performance and function of these grills through side-by-side testing, we are able to illuminate the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. That way, our in-depth comparison can help you pick out the best charcoal grill for your own backyard.
Unlike the BTU rating of gas grills, there is no great way to quantify a charcoal grill's output power. However, ample information can be collected by drawing connections between the size of the firebox, the volume of the coal bed, the insulation factor of the material in the grill body, how well the grill retains heat, the ability to adjust airflow, consistency of temperature — and of course, how well you can cook your meal.
Without a doubt, the Kamado-style Char-Griller Akorn Jr. is at the top of our list when considering output power. Through the combination of features like a triple-wall steel frame with a seal between the lid and base, the Akorn Jr. is not only the most insulated grill in our review, it is also the most efficient. Even a small fire can produce temperatures in excess of 500℉, thanks to top and bottom dampers and a design that promotes air circulation.
Of the full-size options, the Char-Griller Outlaw provided the most output power thanks to a huge fire pan and insulating cast iron construction — although the heavy steel of the Royal Gourmet 24" came in a close second. The key factor for the success of both of these grills is a sizeable fire pan capable of supporting a substantial coal bed. While the Royal Gourmet is able to quickly crank up the heat — thanks to dual dampers on either side of the grill — the Outlaw Grill is capable of effectively retaining the low-and-slow temperatures required to smoke meats.
This is a key factor for any high-performing grill and the reason that so many professional chefs — particularly in the BBQ world — choose to cook over a charcoal flame. Unlike gas or electric grills, charcoal can easily be moved around to create ideal "heat zones" — perfect temperature pockets to accommodate a variety of foods and target temperatures. To qualify this category, we assessed how easy it is to access each grill's fire pan and how easy it is to maneuver the coal bed to create these heat zones. We also noted how well each grill works to distribute heat evenly and any differences between cooking with the lid on or off.
This is the area where the Royal Gourmet 24" really shines, thanks to its adjustment mechanism that allows you to move the coal bed up and down by nearly a foot. This type of control — in both the vertical and horizontal planes — is also available on other full-size grills, like the Char-Griller Outlaw and Royal Gourmet 30" Grill and Offset Smoker. However, neither of those have the fire box access that the front door of the Royal Gourmet 24" affords.
Similarly, the drawer design on the Char-Griller Side Fire Box sets it far apart from the competition in this metric. This design makes starting a fire easy and allows for easy adjustment or addition of coals without having to lift a grate or a lid. This can make a big difference in internal grill temperature since it lets out a significant amount of heat each time you want to move your coals.
Admittedly, this category pertains more to the smaller tabletop grills in our review, but it is still an important consideration for your full-size options. Will you be able to take your charcoal grill on the road without fear of constantly dumping ash in your trunk? We made a note of features like lid latches that make charcoal grills plausibly portable, while also taking into consideration major factors like weight and footprint. Most of the full-size grills we tested come with wheels, but how easily can these models be moved around a yard or porch?
True to its name, the most portable charcoal grill we tested is the Weber Go-Anywhere. This 12-pound, suitcase-sized grill easily fits into the footwell of any backseat and is thoughtfully designed for transport by using the foldable legs to secure the lid in place. Most importantly, its low-profile frame is sturdy and just heavy enough to comfortably use on a table or out in the grass. The only full-size grill that we would deem reasonably portable is the Beau Jardin Premium 18". As a full-size, standup model, it weighs a mere 18-pounds and has a scant footprint of only 2.3 sq. feet. To put that in perspective, its closest competitor, the Weber Original Kettle Premium 22", weighs in at 32-pounds and has a footprint of nearly double the size, at 4.2 sq. feet.
This was an easy metric to quantify by measuring the size of the cooking surface. Using this simple paradigm, the Char-Griller Outlaw is the clear winner, with a total surface area of 975 sq. inches. However, while the cooking area is clearly related to the overall size of the grill, there are some important exceptions. We also took into consideration how the size of the cook surface compares to footprint and height — particularly important for those with limited space.
Most notably, the Char-Griller Side Fire Box offers a cooking area that rivals the full-size Beau Jardin 18", but in a much more compact package, with a footprint of 2 sq. feet and a height of merely 17 inches. It is also important to mention here that while the Akorn Jr. excelled in most aspects of our testing, it has a remarkably small cook surface, measuring only 153 sq. inches. It is so small that we actually found it difficult to find space for our food when removing the plate in the center that allows you to access the coal bed.
Grilling in the wind is a tough proposition, even with a gas grill. Grilling in the wind over charcoal is notoriously difficult. So how easy is it to start coals in the wind on each of these grills? Are the sides tall enough to block the wind and keep coals a consistent temperature? What about the loss of convective heat?
Similarly to output power, the grills with the best insulation tend to fare the best in a stiff breeze. Even though the Akorn Jr. is essentially a fully-sealed unit, we found it tough to easily maintain a consistent temperature with the lid closed all the time — and it's impossible if you need to stoke the coals. Alternatively, the drawer-style firebox on the Char-Griller Side Fire Box allows you to pull the coal bed out for adjustment without having to release a ton of heat. The heavy-duty design and shape of this model also make it particularly apt to cook in nearly any environment. Similarly, the heavy lid of the Char-Griller Outlaw excelled in retaining heat.
With the exception of the Beau Jardin 18", only Weber designs their grills to use the lid as a wind wall. Both the Original Kettle Premium and Go-Anywhere employ angled hooks inside the lid to hang them outside of the grill — this serves to effectively block the wind and as a convenient way to store the lid while cooking. Unfortunately, this same feature is not extended to the very basic Weber Smokey Joe Portable.
From all-day brisket smoking to on-the-road pit cooking, we love the simplicity and natural beauty of charcoal grilling. It is a culinary technique that has transformed into an art form. Whether you are interested in cooking over an open flame for the first time or are a seasoned grill master looking for a canvas to create your next masterpiece, we hope our comprehensive review knocks down the time spent shopping online and gives you more time to cook outside.
— Aaron Rice
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