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Published Jul. 31, 2021

The charcoal grill is an icon of the American backyard and it’s more popular than ever. The best charcoal grill is an affordable way to cook mouth-watering meat and veggies. With better temperature controls and smoking options, charcoal grills are becoming the cooking device of choice for serious outdoor eaters. The smokey flavor of charcoal briquettes or hardwood lump charcoal infuses burgers and chicken with distinct summer magic. These grills are easy to use, so even if you are a terrible chef, you can still cook up impressive food. Vegetables, hotdogs, pork chops, ribs, and more will all taste better when you cook them with these dependable, high-quality charcoal cookers.

What to consider when shopping for the best charcoal grill

If you’re still using an old grill that’s more rust than a cooking appliance, it’s time for an upgrade. Today’s modern charcoal grills are as stylish as they are useful. And with the right grilling know-how, you’ll be hosting gourmet backyard parties and family dinners all season long. 

What’s the difference between a gas grill and charcoal?

Gas grills are easier to use, easier to clean, and cook food faster. So why would you ever want to ditch the gas grill and opt for a charcoal cooker? Simple answer: The best charcoal grills are cheaper and the food tastes better. But there’s more to these grills than just an attractive price point. 

Yes, the charcoal grill creates ash that must be cleaned. And yes, it can take a few minutes to get the charcoal hot and ready for cooking. But the flavor is unmistakable and delicious. The smokey charcoal penetrates burgers, chicken, and steak with a taste that screams hot-weather fun. And charcoal grills are also more affordable. For a reasonable price, you can have a great backyard grill that will last for years. Setting up a charcoal grill is simple, since the device itself is simple: Three or four metal legs, a pit for hot coals, a metal grill for the food, and a dome lid to contain the heat and smoke.  

And best of all, there’s something to be said for the ritual of charcoal. Everything takes a little longer, but feels more important and sacred. From starting the coals to dumping the ashes, it’s a time-honored tradition and a quasi-religious experience. (Or maybe it’s just a cheap way to make burgers taste yummy.)

Cart or kettle charcoal grill?

When you think of charcoal grills, you probably imagine a kettle grill. These charcoal grills have the classic design of a circular surface with a rounded dome lid. They’ve been around for nearly 100 years, so clearly the design works. They are smaller than gas grills, but that’s a good thing for getting the right temperature without wasting heat and space. They are also easy to assemble and easy to store in a garage or shed during the off season. 

A charcoal cart grill looks more like today’s gas grills, with a rectangular grilling surface and boxy shape. They may also come with a handy side tray and storage shelf underneath. Cart grills are typically bigger than kettle grills, and that means you’ll need more charcoal to heat up the large area. Getting up to the right heat is critical for charcoal, so a bigger model can be more hassle if you’re only cooking a couple of cheeseburgers. But for big parties and big families, a large charcoal cart grill does an amazingly efficient job. 

Direct vs. indirect charcoal grilling

There are two ways to cook on a charcoal grill: With direct heat or indirect heat. For burgers and hotdogs, you want the heat directly under the food to give it a blast of cooking power and sear the surface of the meat. Chicken should be cooked with indirect heat, meaning the hot coals are pushed to one side of the grill and the meat rests on the other side. This lets chicken heat up to the right temperature slowly and evenly without drying out. 

Charcoal grills can also be used to smoke meat over a long period of time. With strategic placement of the charcoal, you can smoke a rack of ribs in an afternoon. Simply shifting the charcoal position provides a whole new cooking option.

Rising to the right temperature takes time

The biggest drawback to charcoal grills is cooking time. Unlike a gas or electric grill that is ready to start cooking at the touch of a button, charcoal grills need extra love and support to get the coals hot enough. 

The best grill accessory for a charcoal grill is a charcoal starter or charcoal chimney. These metal tubes ensure all the briquettes are red hot. Put newspaper at the bottom and load your bricks to the top. Light the bottom and the charcoal will start working together to get each brick hot enough. When you start to see flames at the top of the chimney, the coals are ready. Carefully remove the chimney and spread out the coals. (A charcoal rake is another great accessory to have on hand.) The whole process shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. Yes, that’s a lot longer than clicking a gas grill starter. But good things come to those who wait. Patience is part of the process. 

If you don’t have a charcoal chimney, you can still stack the bricks in a pyramid formation and hit it with the lighter fluid to get things burning. But the chimney really does make things easier and more consistent.

Speaking of the best charcoal grill accessories: Temperature control is a big part of any grilling process. Many come with built-in thermometers, but these are notoriously inaccurate. It’s always best to use a trusted meat thermometer to make sure the food is properly cooked.

The two types of charcoal

Charcoal is basically wood that’s been through a rough couple of years. But there are two types of charcoal to pick from. Charcoal briquettes are the trusted old friend of traditional suburban backyard grills. These evenly shaped bricks are usually made of sawdust plus a binding agent to keep everything in the right shape. They are cheap. They are consistent. They are available in any grocery store or hardware store. The downside is flavor and heat. Because they are not 100-percent wood, they lack the smokey depth of lump charcoal. And they can struggle to get up to the proper temperature quickly. However, they are fantastic for slow and low cooking, such as smoking a rack of ribs for several hours. 

Hardwood lump charcoal is exactly as the name says: 100 percent hardwood. They are not in a uniform shape and size, so they can’t cook food evenly. But they do get very hot, very fast. The biggest benefit: They give burgers, hot dogs, and any meat you’re cooking a deliciously distinct seared flavor. Hardwood lump charcoal will be more expensive, and they aren’t ideal for long, multi-hour cook times. That said, for foodies and backyard chefs who demand top-quality cooking materials, hardwood lump charcoal can’t be beaten.

And you can always go for the best of both worlds by throwing a handful of hardwood lump charcoal on your traditional briquettes. 

The best charcoal grills:

While there are small differences between various models, the basic science and design remain the same. More robust temperature controls and smoking options can bump up the price, but these can be well worth it for serious outdoor chefs. With a budget in mind, look for the options that will make your grilling experience easier and the food tastier.  

Best charcoal grill overall: Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill

Classic Design

The icon of outdoor cooking is still the best. Weber

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For over 70 years, the Weber kettle charcoal grill has cooked perfect burgers and deliciously smokey chicken. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Weber charcoal grill is an easy-to-use, basic grill that can comfortably cook ten burger patties on its 363 sq. in. of grilling space. The handle on the lid doesn’t get too hot thanks to the shield, so you won’t fling the lid into the pool in anger. And ashes collected in the bottom bin are easy to remove. This is a great grill for cooking dinner every day. It’s consistent. It’s dependable. And it will last a long time.

The best for experienced grillers: Char-Griller E56720 AKORN Kamado Charcoal Grill

Impressive Temperature Control

A sizable option for those who take backyard BBQs seriously. Char-Griller

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The Char-Griller charcoal grill is a powerful backyard beast. The 447-square-inch cooking surface makes this one of the best large charcoal grills. It’s more expensive than a basic charcoal model, but you’re paying for temperature control and even cooking. The grill can reach temperatures of 700 degrees to sear big steaks, but can just as easily maintain a cool, smokey 200 degrees for ribs. The adjustable top and bottom dampers give you more control over the heat and smoke. The folding side shelves offer a helping hand when moving food to a serving tray. This large model is designed for those who want absolute power over the heat and smoke, to fine-tune the flavor profile of any grilled food.   

The best for big families: Royal Gourmet CD2030AN Charcoal Grill and BBQ Smoker

Large Grilling Surface

This model is perfect for big gatherings and events. Royal Gourmet

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It looks like a gas grill, but the Royal Gourmet cart grill uses charcoal to cook anything on its spacious 764-square-inch surface. (511 square inches of cooking space and a 253-square-inch warming rack.) A side crank raises and lowers the coals for better temperature control. The smokestack makes it easy to keep air circulating without smoking out the chef. Even though it’s bigger than others, it’s easy to move and maneuver around a backyard. And a charcoal cart grill has more storage options with shelves and side tables ready to support the grill master’s tools.

The best for gas-grill lovers: Weber 15501001 Performer Deluxe Charcoal Grill

Feature-Rich Design

The big brother to the brand’s traditional kettle model gives you instant cooking power. Weber

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If you want the power and ease of a gas grill but the flavor of a charcoal grill, the latest Weber Deluxe Charcoal Grill is the best of both worlds. The touch ignition uses gas to get coals cooking instantly. The deluxe version also comes with a handy side table that doubles as a charcoal bin for easy access and storage. The shelf underneath adds even more storage space. Plus, it’s a fantastic Weber grill made of high-quality materials. Is it worth the extra money to opt for the deluxe model over the basic? If you want easy ignition and extra space, it’s money well spent. 

The best budget charcoal grill: Fire Sense Black Notebook Charcoal Grill

Sturdy Tabletop Grill

A small, affordable option that goes anywhere and can be set up on just about anything. Fire Sense

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What can you get for $30? You can get a pretty great tabletop charcoal grill. The Fire Sense is the best budget charcoal grill, perfect for camping or setting up in a stadium parking lot. The 18-inch by 13-inch by 13-inch portable grill folds up and is easy to carry or stuff in a camping bag. This is a small charcoal grill, so don’t expect to feed 50 guests unless they don’t mind taking turns. But you can fit four burgers on the grill with room left over for veggies and hotdogs. Plus, this mini grill is easy to set up, fill, and light. For being a budget model, the Fire Sense is the best grill for the money.

FAQs

Q: Are charcoal grills easy to use?

Yes, charcoal grills are easy to use. They are even easier than setting up and using gas grills. They may take longer to heat up, and you will need to clean out the ashes, but charcoal models are very user-friendly. Add charcoal. Add fire. Add meat. And that’s it. Even the smoking options on some are simple to use, with instructions on how to maintain good airflow and smoke over long periods of time. Plus, the best are smaller and lighter than gas grills. They are easier to move and store. The only easier way to cook food outside is over an open wood fire, but that results in lost hotdogs and burnt marshmallows. Charcoal is alost the easiest way to safely cook food outdoors. Just make sure you’re cleaning your grill regularly, and this easy-to-use grill will serve you for years.

Q: How do I choose a charcoal grill?

To choose a charcoal grill, consider how big you want it. Some portable grills are small, and can only accommodate two or three chicken breasts. A grill with over 300 square inches of cooking space should be more than enough for a family of four. You also want to make sure the grill is easy to clean. Digging out the ashes of a poorly designed grill can be a real pain. Temperature control is a plus, but for fine-tuning heat, you may need to spend more for a grill with more features. And watch your wallet. It’s always a good idea to start with a budget. Luckily, there are a lot of great grills that cost less than $150. 

Q: Why are Weber charcoal grills so expensive?

Comparatively speaking, Weber charcoal grills are not expensive. The basic model is affordable and will do a fantastic job. You can find cheaper charcoal grills, but they tend to be smaller. The small portable grills are designed for camping and tailgating. Tabletop grills cost less, but they need a level surface to rest on. Weber makes deluxe models, and these offer gas-powered ignition for fast, easy cooking. Are they worth the money? Only if you want the extra features like instant fire and bonus storage space.

The final word

Charcoal grills are easy to use and affordable. For half the price of a gas grill, you can equip your backyard with a high-quality charcoal grill. Food tastes better when cooked with charcoal and with flavorful lump charcoal, you can experiment and give backyard food an extra special kick of charred goodness. While charcoal grills do take longer to cook, it’s not too much time. The fifteen minutes it takes to get it going is a thoughtful time for you to reflect on the cooking process or stir up some secret BBQ sauce. And it’s worth the wait. There’s no better way to grill meat and vegetables.

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