The Best Charcoal Grill
We’ve considered at least 200 grills since we first published this guide, and after evaluating the 46 new products released this year, we recommend the 22ʺ Weber Original Kettle Premium. This grill is technically new for 2015, but it will feel familiar to anyone who has ever used (and loved) a model based on Weber’s decades-old kettle grill design. Weber recently updated its branding, and this grill is a nearly identical replacement for our previous pick, the 22.5ʺ Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill, which we’ve enjoyed testing over the two years since we first published this guide. This version isn’t expensive, complex, or even a top-of-the-line product, but it is built to last.
After our annual survey of new models, the iconic 22ʺ Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill remains our pick for the best charcoal grill. It’s durable, easy to maintain, and capable of lasting decades—and it cooks like a champ. Weber has made no changes from the 2015 model aside from adding a new color option, crimson. Our runner-up is the Weber Master-Touch 22ʺ Grill, which comes with a few additional accessories (and a higher price). Our portable option is the Weber 14” Smokey Joe Premium Portable Grill. We also have picks for gas grills, in a separate guide.
This Weber model is our pick because it gives you everything you need in a charcoal grill at the best price you can find. The grill’s most important feature, which no other brand quite matches, is the brilliant, versatile kettle design capable of searing a steak or smoking a pork shoulder on a cooking surface that’s big enough for 15 burgers yet compact enough to fit on a patio. The grill is simple to use and easy to maintain, the materials are durable, and the company stands behind its products if anything goes wrong. People own Weber grills for decades, and the warranty on this one lasts 10 years. Our expert sources praised these basic charcoal grills unanimously because they’re better than the cheaper stuff on the market, and the more expensive models don’t perform significantly better.
You could pay more (for another brand or a better Weber), but really, you don’t need to. The particular model we’ve chosen is a midrange item that shares key features with grills carrying a much higher price tag. It offers a convenient spill-proof ash catcher, a grate with a hinge that lets you add hardwood or extra charcoal to a lit fire, and the same porcelain-enameled finish and heat-shielded handle that distinguish all of Weber’s products from any competitor’s grills. The additions that come with Weber’s pricier models—side tables, bins for storing charcoal, and a special grate that lets you drop in a wok or a pizza stone—aren’t necessary. But here’s another brilliant thing about the Original Kettle Premium: Buying the add-ons is actually cheaper than paying for the all-inclusive upgrade models.
If the Weber Original Kettle Premium is unavailable, look for Weber’s $200 Master-Touch 22ʺ Grill. It has all the same features as our pick has, plus the special grate mentioned earlier—the removable circular opening in the center lets you use a pizza stone, a wok, a Korean BBQ insert, and more. This model also has two extra inches of clearance for big foods such as pork shoulders and whole chickens, plus a warming rack and slightly different wheels. We think most people wouldn’t notice the different wheels or extra clearance, however, and if you want that special grate (called the Gourmet BBQ System Hinged Cooking Grate), we suggest you buy it separately for $35 and add it on to our main $150 pick.
If the standard kettle is bigger than your space can accommodate, or if you want a little grill to take camping or tailgating, we have a pick for that, too. The $40 Weber Smokey Joe Premium Charcoal Grill is kettle-shaped and measures 17 by 14¼ by 16½ inches. Its 147-square-inch cooking area is big enough to cook six hamburger patties, or steaks and veggies for two. (This model has a new name for 2015; it was called the Smokey Joe Gold last year, and you may still find it sold under that name—it’s the same grill.) This nine-pounder has sturdy aluminum legs and baffles, as well as an unusual two-piece carrying handle that can prop up the grill’s lid while you’re cooking and clamp the lid on top when you’re done, making the whole thing easy to move around one-handed, even when it’s full of hot coals. It’s made from the same tough porcelain-coated steel as the Weber Original Kettle Premium, and it has the same 10-year warranty.
You can find a lot of other portable grills out there, but none are much cheaper than the Smokey Joe—and none have this grill’s excellent reviews, reliability, and warranty, not to mention Weber’s reputation for excellent customer service. The only strikes against the Smokey Joe are the obvious limitations of its small size and the fact that its aluminum legs don’t collapse for easier storage—but neither of those flaws is a dealbreaker.
Table of contents
- The best small portable grill
- The competition
- Charcoal grill maintenance and cleaning
- Wrapping it up
How we picked
People love grilling. There’s no shortage of experts to consult, and even though we’ve been reviewing grills and long-term testing our picks for years now, many editorial sources have far more experience than we do. To figure out what matters in a charcoal grill, we talked to our friends at AmazingRibs, Max Good and Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn, as well as Jeff Potter of Cooking for Geeks, and WIRED Deputy Editor Joe Brown, who was a professional chef before becoming a journalist. Here’s what they look for in a grill:
- At least 300 square inches of grilling surface, which can cook for four people with room to spare.
- A stainless-steel cooking grate, which can handle extreme temperatures and is easy to clean. Stainless steel is also less prone to burn-through or rust than aluminum or iron, and it’s tougher than porcelain-covered cast iron.
- A durable firebox and dome. Porcelain-enameled or powder-coated steel can be great. Cast aluminum can work nicely if it’s designed well. Super-tough 300-series steel usually costs too much, and stainless steel doesn’t hold up to the elements.
- A reputable, well-established company with a strong warranty and widespread availability. Your product will last a long time, and it’ll be covered if it fails.
Our selection research also led to the bigger question of why you’d use charcoal to begin with. After all, a gas grill is simple: Hook up the fuel, turn it on, and cook and clean up quickly. You get more consistent heat, and temperature control is a cinch. If that sounds good, check out the gas grill we like best.
But here’s the thing: Charcoal cooking can be well worth the extra effort. If you apply a little patience and technique, a charcoal grill can cook some of the most flavorful, mouthwatering meals of your life. Jeff Potter of Cooking for Geeks put it this way: “If you’re doing real BBQ, wood and charcoal are better, and give off that smoky characteristic that [gas or electric] grilling just won’t get.” Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn of AmazingRibs agrees: “If you are a big steak lover, you really want charcoal,” says Goldwyn. “The secret to really good outdoor grilling is temperature control,” he says, and “charcoal gets much hotter than gas grills.” By stacking the charcoal on one side of the grill, Goldwyn says, “you can start the meat at a low temperature and gently bring it up to the temperature you like, and then move the meat over to the hot side and sear it.” You could try this technique on a gas grill by turning off half the burners, but charcoal has a more intense searing heat, and “it imparts a nice flavor,” Goldwyn says.
The other major advantages of charcoal include a lower price than gas grills (both for the grill itself and for the fuel), a dead-simple design that’s easy to maintain and nearly impossible to break, and the grill’s ability to slowly smoke larger cuts of meat at a lower temperature for hours at a time. You can toss a chunk of hardwood onto the coals to vary the flavors further, a technique that gas grills imitate but never really duplicate.
The choice is mostly about charcoal or gas, but you’ll also find wood-pellet grills, which burn compressed sawdust. They require little maintenance, have a low preheat time, and can grill or smoke. A computer regulates the temperature and cook times, too. If that sounds expensive, it is: A good entry-level pellet grill can set you back around $1,000. (Max Good of AmazingRibs says he’s seen pellet grills at Sears for under $1,000, but he questions their materials and durability.) Oh, and electric grills? Come on, that’s not grilling.
With all these distinctions and our experts’ specifications in mind, we scoured the Web’s big BBQ subculture, seeking out forums such as The Smoke Ring, The BBQ Brethren, and The Texas BBQ Forum for insight into what hardware grilling aficionados respected. We also searched through charcoal grill reviews on shopping sites like Amazon, Cabela’s, Home Depot, Overstock.com, Target, and Walmart to see how users rated, loved, or hated different makes and models of grills.
How we tested
Given the exceptional breadth of info on the Web about grilling, smoking, and all things BBQ—as well as our experts’ unanimous recommendation of the Weber kettle as the standard-bearer in consumer charcoal grills—we didn’t conduct a formal test of the entire market this time around. However, in the two years since this guide first appeared, we have been running long-term tests of our pick, the Weber kettle grill, as well as our portable pick, the Smokey Joe. So far, the hardware has lived up to its reputation. Honorable mention goes to the Smokey Joe, which stayed out in the elements uncovered for more than a year (sorry!) and proved to be in perfect working order after we cleaned it up this spring.
After considering 46 new grills for this year’s update, we’re recommending a durable and easy-to-use Weber charcoal kettle grill for the third year in a row. This year’s pick is the midrange, $150 22ʺ Original Kettle Premium, a roughly equivalent replacement for our previous pick, the Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill. It has all the best features of the pricier Weber models—the kettle itself, the tough porcelain-coated finish, a convenient ash catcher, and a heat-resistant handle, to name a few—but omits the costly frills we think you can do without (like a side table and a bin for your charcoal).
The kettle design—a round, deep lidded bowl introduced in the 1950s—is perfect for searing or smoking. The materials are durable enough to last decades, the product is dead-simple to use and easy to maintain, and the company has a proven track record of standing behind its products if anything goes wrong. These basic, universally loved charcoal grills are better than the cheaper models out there, and the more expensive hardware on the market doesn’t perform significantly better.
The cooking surface is large enough to suit most people’s needs. Its plated steel grate—which is less prone to burn-through or rust than the aluminum or cast iron grates you see on cheaper competing grills—has 363 square inches of surface area, enough space to cook roughly 15 burger patties or five or six good-sized steaks with room to spare. Yet even with this much cooking real estate to work with, the grill’s 39½-by-27-by-22½-inch size makes it a good pick for use in areas where space is at a premium, such as a balcony, a small deck, or a modest backyard. The kettle shape makes very efficient use of its small footprint, with a deep bowl that lets you stack charcoal off to one side to create hotter and cooler zones on the grill surface, which is essential for searing steaks and for generating the convection effect that makes the Weber a great smoker.
Constructed from heavy-gauge porcelain-coated steel, the grill’s kettle and lid are tough and rust-resistant, but still light enough that you’ll be able to move the grill around your backyard using a pair of all-weather wheels on the base. The tripod stand is aluminum, and it feels sturdy on a deck, on a patio, or in a yard. Altogether, the Original Kettle Premium weighs just under 35 pounds.
The barbecue’s three plastic nylon handles include two on the kettle and one patented heat-shielded handle on the lid. Each will stay cool enough to touch with the fires of hell blazing away underneath. The handle on the lid is unique to Weber’s line of charcoal grills—no other brands have it. That handle is also a relatively new feature, a nice upgrade from the Weber grill you may have owned for years.
Another feature that sets this model apart is a hinged cooking grate that allows you access to the coal bed while you’re cooking. This is a perk that you don’t get on Weber’s $100 kettle model, and we think it’s one of the most useful features your extra money can buy. Just move the food off to one side, lift up a section of the grill, and pour your fresh fuel in. This feature is also quite handy when you’re cooking with hardwood, which you typically want to add after the grill is full of blazing hot coals.
The Original Kettle Premium also has a cleaning system called One-Touch that isn’t available in the most basic grill. This system represents a big upgrade from the open (spill-prone) ash tray that anyone using a Weber more than a decade old is probably still dealing with. It gives you a covered container seated at the base of the kettle to collect your ash and leftover cooking crud. With the flick of a lever, the grill whisks all that junk from your cookout into a bin that’s easy to dump into the trash (and won’t spill when you wheel the grill across the yard).
Like most other charcoal grills, the Weber Original Kettle Premium has vents on the top and bottom that can open by degrees to let more oxygen into your coals for a hotter fire, or close slightly for a slower, cooler cook, and then shut completely to snuff your coals out after you’re done. Using these vents can help you control the fire to produce the kind of intense heat or smokier flavors that cooks using a gas grill can only dream of. If you’ve used a cheaper, older grill in the past, you may have seen the top vent rusted shut, but that isn’t an issue with the corrosion-resistant aluminum damper plate on the Weber. A nice aluminum damper isn’t a feature that’s unique to Weber models, but it is a quality touch.
If all of that isn’t enough to convince you that the Original Kettle Premium is the grill you want, consider this: Weber has designed the grill to be upgradable. By swapping out the grill’s stock grate with the company’s $35 Gourmet BBQ System Hinged Cooking Grate, you’ll be ready to safely set up and use a number of new grilling accoutrements, including a wok, a griddle, a pizza stone with built-in carry rack, a poultry/vegetable roaster, a Korean BBQ insert, a sear grate, or an ebelskiver. This unique Gourmet BBQ System grate is a standard feature on Weber’s higher-priced model, the Master-Touch 22ʺ, which usually runs $200. We feel this is the best additional detail on the Master-Touch (the other differences are an alternate lid holder, different wheels, and a warming tray). If you want to replace your grate with this one—whether on a new grill or on an older Weber—you can do so for an additional $35. Add it to our pick, and the total cost is still $15 less than the price of the Master-Touch.
The Weber Original Kettle Premium is a new product for 2015, so you won’t find as many reviews for it yet compared with our previous charcoal-grill pick, the Weber 22.5ʺ One-Touch Gold. That said, Weber’s kettle grills scarcely change from year to year. Aside from the half-inch reduction in the total circumference of the hardware and a few minor accoutrements, the two grills are essentially identical. This lack of innovation in grill design isn’t a sign of Weber’s stagnation. Rather, it’s a testament to how well the company’s decades-old design functions. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—instead, give it a few tweaks and release it into the wild.
Generally speaking, Weber grills are well loved. WIRED Deputy Editor Joe Brown used to be a chef before he entered journalism. When I last talked grills with him, he told me:
Grill reviewer Derrick Riches, writing for About.com, awarded the 22ʺ version of the Weber Original Kettle Premium five stars, saying: “When you talk about charcoal grills, this is probably the one. This is the grill that made the Weber Company and the charcoal grill you always see on TV. The reason? It’s the best. The design of this grill is so good that it hasn’t changed in decades. The circular shape creates a convection grilling environment. The large space and excellent venting allows this grill to smoke, making it one of the least expensive smokers on the market.”
Our friend Max Good at AmazingRibs liked the Original Kettle Premium enough to give it his site’s Best Value Gold award. In his review of the hardware, he commented on the fact that the comparatively high cost of a Weber to other charcoal cookers out there could be a barrier to purchasing one for some people, but “when you consider that they last decades, the price is easy to justify. In fact, when you consider the fact that some cheap grills fall apart after three years or so, Webers might be considered a bargain.” And although it’s been on the market for only a few months, regular folks who have bought the grill are already showing a lot of love for the hardware.
On Amazon, the Original Kettle Premium has an average score of 4.4 out of five stars, while Home Depot users currently award the hardware five out of five stars. These high-scoring reviews fall in line with what we’ve seen from Weber hardware in the past.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As cool as it is, the Original Kettle Premium isn’t perfect. For starters, it offers no out-of-the-box method for raising coals closer to your cooking surface in order to increase direct cooking temperatures required to sear meat quickly. And unlike many of its competitors, it doesn’t offer a side table to set down your grilling tools, plate, or condiments while you’re cooking (unless you step up to Weber’s Performer models, which are at least $100 more than this one). But this is a minor inconvenience at best.
Then there’s the cost. Weber grills are kind of pricy compared with the $50 kettle grill knockoffs you can get at most department and hardware stores. But in this case you get what you pay for: The Weber Original Kettle Premium is a high-quality piece of gear that will last you for decades if you clean and maintain it on a regular basis. We found that the competitors’ grills lacked several features that we considered essential for us to make a recommendation.
We also need to mention that a number of reviewers have noted that when they unboxed their new Original Kettle Premium, they found a few damaged components. That’s bad packaging design. A conversation with Weber’s customer service department (or a trip back to the store where you bought the grill) should resolve the problem.
Finally, there’s no getting around the fact that this is a charcoal grill. All such models are slow to heat up relative to gas grills, and even with cleaning features such as the One-Touch ash-disposal system, they still get pretty messy. Plus, cooking on one for a few hours can make you smell like a campfire. And this might not be an issue for everyone, but they are full of white-hot charcoal, and the bottom of a kettle grill will get very hot—use caution around small children or drunk houseguests.
In the unlikely event you can’t find the Weber Original Kettle Premium, we suggest that you go for Weber’s $200 Master-Touch 22ʺ Grill. It comes with all of the features that the less-expensive Original Kettle Premium does, but its design includes two extra inches of clearance so that you can cook slightly larger foods (a large chicken or a pork roast, for example), as well as a warming rack and slightly different wheels. The Master Touch grill also comes with Weber’s Gourmet BBQ System Hinged Grate, which has a removable circular opening in the center that allows you to use a number of grilling accessories such as a pizza stone, a wok, a beer-can chicken attachment, or a Korean BBQ insert.
If you buy the Original Kettle Premium ($150) and the Gourmet BBQ System Hinged Grate ($35) separately, however, you’ll save around $15 compared with what you’d pay for a Master-Touch grill. That isn’t a large amount of cash, but it is money you could put toward some new grilling tools. Those few extra inches of clearance on the Master-Touch might be nice to have, but considering the fact that most people will use their grill for cooking steaks, chops, hot dogs, and hamburgers with the occasional pepper or potato thrown into the mix, I’m not sure that the average user would even notice the difference in dome clearance.
The best small portable grill
The best grill we’ve found for anyone traveling to a campsite or tailgate party, cooking alone or for a couple, or just grilling in a location with limited outdoor space is the Weber 14.5ʺ Smokey Joe Premium Portable Grill ($40). Yes, $40! (This is a new name for 2015; Weber called this model the Smokey Joe Gold last year, and you might find it still sold under that name. It’s the same grill.) I own one, and it has never failed to cook my steak, chops, fish, and burgers to perfection, at home or when I’m camping. That said, it’s really small.
The biggest perk of owning a Smokey Joe Premium is its portability. It weighs about 9 pounds empty and roughly 11 pounds loaded with charcoal, an easy enough weight to carry down to the beach, and a cinch to move in and out of storage. I’ve found that even when the grill is laden with hot coals, its glass-reinforced nylon handle remains cool enough to the touch that I can comfortably pick the hardware up and manhandle it without fear of burns.
The handles are among this grill’s best features, but they’re a little hard to explain. First you’ll notice the main handle, which is the same type of glass-reinforced nylon grip available on Weber’s kettle grills. This chunky handle stays cool to the touch and withstands the elements. Then you’ll notice a second metal piece called the Tuck-n-Carry lid lock and lid holder. When you’re grilling, you can tip the lid back into this piece and use it to cradle the hot lid. When you need to transport the grill, this metal bar pivots up to the top of the grill, rests on top of the lid’s handle, and holds the lid in place so that you can carry the whole thing securely, even when it’s hot. Plus, when the grill isn’t hot, you can still carry it one-handed, and the lid won’t pop off (inevitably spilling ash everywhere). This feature does not appear on the regular (non-Premium) Smokey Joe, which costs only $30, but having it makes this grill so much easier to deal with that it’s easily worth the extra $10.
In the opening of this guide, I mentioned that the Smokey Joe Premium’s 147 square inches of stainless-steel grated cooking space is adequate for cooking a fully grilled meal for two. You can also just barely fit up to six hamburger patties at a time, but doing so will leave you with no room to move meat around your grill to avoid flare-ups. Over the three years I’ve owned a Smokey Joe, I’ve used it to cook for my friends and extended family on getaways and picnics, and I’ve never had a complaint about the quality of the food the hardware has produced.
You can control the amount of heat the Smokey Joe Premium cranks out by changing the amount of charcoal you dump into it (duh), and by adjusting three rust-resistant aluminum dampers built into the side and the top of the grill. As with the bigger kettles, you can raise the fire’s heat by opening the baffles all the way, and if you are looking for a little less heat or are cooking indirectly, you can partially close the lid and slide the baffles. Once you’re done cooking, closing the baffles and locking the handle into place extinguishes the charcoal in short order. I find that the grill usually cools down enough that I feel comfortable putting it in the trunk of a car an hour after cooking.
Overall, it’s a great portable grill that, thanks to the quality of the materials and the wide availability of spare parts such as new cooking grates (they all wear out eventually), you’ll likely be using for years to come. But let me tell you, it’ll probably be a long time before you wind up forking over cash to replace any of the grill’s components, because the Smokey Joe Premium is covered by the same excellent 10-year warranty as Weber’s other charcoal grills.
Smokey Joe Premium is the new name for Weber’s Smokey Joe Gold grill. But although its name may have changed, the hardware remains the same, and that hardware is certainly loved. Derrick Riches at About.com, writing about the Gold, awarded the grill four out of five stars, explaining that the grill “does things other little portable charcoal grills don’t. This portable actually has temperature control and works very much like a full sized Weber.
Weber’s Smokey Joe earned AmazingRibs’ Gold Seal, which, considering the depth of insight AmazingRibs has into all things grilling, should be taken as a serious statement regarding the quality of this hardware. It’s also popular on Amazon, where it has an average rating of 4.4 out of five stars, with 146 five-star reviews out of a total of 204.
As much as we like the Smokey Joe Premium, there’s no getting around the fact that even though it is large enough to cook six burgers at a time, doing so can be cramped, leaving you with no room to keep finished cuts warm or to avoid flare-ups. And the smaller overall size of the kettle doesn’t provide a whole lot of space at the bottom to pile up coals strategically. This limitation makes the grill less than ideal for indirect cooking, but you can do that if you’re dealing with only a few pieces of meat or vegetables. Finally, as I mentioned up top, you could complain about the fact that its aluminum legs don’t collapse for easier storage. But given that the grill measures only 17 by 14¼ by 16½ inches, you can see that the hardware is pretty compact to begin with. Storing it in the trunk of your car when you go camping, or stashing it in your basement or on your balcony when you aren’t using it, shouldn’t be a big deal.
Our pick for the best charcoal grill in this guide’s previous versions was the 22.5ʺ Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill, which the manufacturer has discontinued. It’s still great, and as of late May 2015 it was still available on Amazon from some third-party sellers. The price should be just about the same as that of our current pick, and if you see it in stock for less than $150, go for it. In features, it’s nearly identical to the company’s newer version. One detail you do gain with the Original Kettle Premium is the heat-shielded lid handle, which didn’t exist on the previous version. (Even without that feature, though, the handle rarely got excessively hot in our tests, and if you’ve found that your handle is too hot to touch, you probably already have an oven mitt or glove out by the grill.) The older grill’s diameter is nominally a half-inch larger, although the 363-square-inch cooking area is the same on the two models.
For $50 less than our pick, you could get one of the company’s $100 Original Kettle Grills, but I don’t recommend doing that. While the Original Kettle comes with the same excellent build quality and warranty as the Premium version does, it lacks the Premium’s hinged cooking grate, so adding extra charcoal during cooking is more difficult. It also lacks the One-Touch ash-disposal system and ash storage bin. Weber does provide a very basic ash plate for catching the remnants once you sift them out through your grill’s vent holes, but I’ve always found that this task gets messy. The alternative is to scoop ash out of the top of the grill and dump it in a bucket. That’s very annoying. And it’s worth $50 to never have to deal with the chore.
If you want a kettle grill but you absolutely must have a side table, you could always go with a Weber Performer Charcoal Grill ($249). It features the same great kettle design as the Original Kettle Premium does, but it’s built into a four-wheeled cart with a shelf. Other models in the Performer series, like the Performer Deluxe ($400), give you an even bigger table and a bin for unused charcoal. A reader also reminded us that the latter model has an electronic ignition system, which lets you skip the charcoal chimney for a quicker startup. These features sound nice, but we don’t think they’re really worth the expense. That’s a lot of extra scratch for basically the same grill attached to a storage cart. What’s more, the Performer weighs close to 100 pounds without any charcoal in the kettle or its bin. It might be fine sitting on a deck, but if you need to haul it across your lawn, be prepared to sweat.
AmazingRibs, BBQ Sauce Reviews, and Cook’s Illustrated all liked the $360 Portable Kitchen PK 99740 Cast Aluminum Grill & Smoker. Amazon reviewers are into it as well, and have awarded it with a 4.7-star rating so far. Like Weber kettle grills, the PK is based on a design that has been around for decades. It comes with a hinged grilling surface for easy mid-cook refuelling, a side table, and a large storage table underneath the grill that runs the total length of the hardware’s 35½-by-20½-by-35-inch dimensions. The PK is roughly 20 pounds heavier than the Original Kettle Premium is, too, so its heat retention will most likely be better. But it has a smaller amount of cooking surface than our pick does (306 square inches versus the Original Kettle Premium’s 363), and Cooks Illustrated noted that the PK’s cooking grate sits level with the rim, so food could slip off. Plus, Cooks Illustrated reported that the grill’s bottom vents released soot onto the storage shelf beneath the grill. Given this model’s comparatively high price, I think you’d do well to take a pass.
The $216 Napoleon NK22CK-L-1 Charcoal Kettle Grill boasts a design similar to that of Weber’s kettle grills. And like our pick, the Napoleon comes with a built-in ash disposal system. Napoleon equipped this grill with four legs for greater stability (although I’ve never had a problem with a three-legged grill) and a heat diffuser to make indirect cooking with the hardware a little easier. It offers only two more square inches of cooking surface area than our Weber pick does, though. What’s more, the Napoleon comes with stainless aluminum cooking grates, whereas the Weber’s grates are steel. Because steel can stand up to the extreme heat of grilling over charcoal better than stainless aluminum can, on the Original Kettle Premium you won’t have to replace your cooking grate as often. Last, Napoleon’s warranty coverage sounds great, as it guarantees the hardware for life, but the fine print is full of all kinds of sketchy clauses. My favorite is that the Napoleon warranty doesn’t cover “corrosion or discoloring due to heat,” but then in the next paragraph of the disclaimer, it states that it will cover rusted-through or burnt-through parts. A warranty that’ll cover burnt-through parts, but not signs that the part is about to burn through? Meh—and especially so when the grill itself costs $50 more than our main pick.
The Kingsford OGD2001901-KF Outdoor Charcoal Kettle Grill comes with a 22½-inch cooking surface, and it costs only $80. But the Kingsford name, which people normally associate with charcoal, has in this case been licensed to a company called Rankam Group, which doesn’t even list this hardware on its corporate home page. I wasn’t able to find any information on what materials the Kingsford grill is made out of, but it weighs 19 pounds. Our Weber pick, by comparison, weighs 32.3 pounds. This speaks to the build quality of the hardware. With grills, lighter is not always better. As for the Kingsford hardware, I’d be much more concerned about the longevity of the grill due to burn-through. The folks that make this model likely are, too: The grill comes with only a 30-day limited warranty.
The Char-Griller 2828 Pro Deluxe Charcoal Grill ($112) costs a little less than our pick does, and it comes with a side table and a condiment tray. What’s more, barrel-shaped grills such as this one tend to have more flat space at the bottom of their fire box than comparatively sized kettle grills do, so it’s easier to strategically pile up charcoal in one part of the fire box and leave the rest without it for indirect cooking. But users have complained that the 2828 Pro Deluxe is difficult to set up and poorly manufactured, with parts that are hard to fit together and holes that are out of alignment. Additionally, the grill comes with uncoated iron cooking grates, which rust easily. And according to the Char-Griller corporate website, the 2828 Pro Deluxe isn’t warranted against heat damage (which is insane, as grills are full of fire), and its firebox is warranted against rust-through for only five years. The same goes for the company’s $111 Char-Griller 2123 Wrangler and $75 1515 Patio Pro Model Grill.
Dyna-Glo’s DGN576SNC-D Dual Zone Premium Charcoal Grill looks like a serious piece of cooking hardware, and it features two adjustable charcoal baskets, enameled cast iron cooking grates, and enough cooking area to grill 30 hamburgers at a time. But it costs $280, and I found multiple complaints about shoddy build quality, poor heat retention due to bad seals around the lid, difficult heat control, and firebox access doors that warp from the heat. So you should take a pass on this one, too.
You could also forgo low-end grills altogether and throw your money at a high-end cooking option. Many people consider the Big Green Egg to be the pinnacle of grilling technology. Inspired by Japanese kamado grills, the charcoal-and-wood Big Green Egg performs well at high and low temperatures. Its ceramic shell holds consistent heat, which makes it great for maintaining a constant temperature. Like the Weber Original Kettle Premium, a Big Green Egg is designed to last for ages. Unlike our Weber pick, a Big Green Egg isn’t cheap—models start at $700 and go higher from there depending on size. And because of the materials that go into a kamado-style grill, these things tend to be quite heavy, and therefore are more difficult to move around your yard or throw in the back of your vehicle for a weekend away. That’s less than ideal.
We mentioned pellet grills earlier. A model like the MAK Grills 2 Star General will electronically maintain its temperature, the combustion, and the amount of pellets it consumes. It includes an insanely accurate digital thermometer, gives off even heat, and comes with a meat probe so that you can check your food’s internal temperature. Sounds amazing, right? Priced at $2,599, it’d better be.
If you’re a handy sort, and you don’t mind getting your hands dirty in the name of superior grilling technology on a somewhat inferior budget, you might want to take a look at Joe Brown’s epic instructional love letter to grill hacking: How I Got At Least $2,000 Worth of Grill for $540. Brown explains in detail how, with a few power tools, accessories, and research, he was able to tinker and turn a midrange grill and smoker into an amazing collection of hardware whose results can stand toe-to-toe with those of gear worth three times as much money. But let’s be honest: Do you want to spend more on a grill than many families are likely to spend on half a year’s worth of groceries? For most people reading this, the answer will be no. The Weber Original Kettle Premium will provide you with years of excellent service and great food, at a price under $150.
Charcoal grill maintenance and cleaning
Keeping a charcoal grill clean, inside and out, will not only help to prolong the life of your hardware, but, as you’ll be washing away dried grease, carbon, and other nasty stuff, it can also improve the flavor of the food you cook on it. The most basic of grill maintenance routines—scouring the grease and food debris off of your cooking surface with a wire brush while the grill’s still hot—is a must for every backyard chef, and you should do it after each use of your grill. But from time to time, you may want to get a little more OCD with your hardware sanitation regime. When that happens, these tips should help.
- Clean the outside of your grill with warm, soapy water and dry it off. If it has some serious grease buildup that the soap and water can’t remove, spray the grill’s exterior down with Windex and then wipe it dry with a lint-free cloth.
- Over time, the inside of your grill’s dome will accumulate a flaky layer of carbon caused by grease and smoke. Use your grill brush to scrub off the carbon deposit. Next, wash the dome’s interior with warm, soapy water and a lint-free cloth. Don’t use a paper towel—it’ll only shred and make a bigger mess. When you’re done, rinse the dome out.
- For a deeper clean, start by measuring a half load of charcoal into your charcoal chimney, ignite it, and allow it to burn until ready. Next, dump the hot charcoal into your kettle grill, and place the grilling grate back in the grill. Cover the grill with the barbecue’s lid, and let the fires burn for 15 minutes. When you remove the lid, any grease or debris that was stuck on the cooking surface will have carbonized. Use a wire brush to remove the carbonized debris. Finally, wait until the grill has cooled, and then wipe the grilling surface down with warm, soapy water.
Wrapping it up
Because of its rock-solid build quality, its ease of use and maintenance, the love it gets from both experts and regular folk, and its insanely long warranty, we’ve picked the Weber 22ʺ Original Kettle Premium as the best charcoal grill. It’s a barbecue that’ll serve you and your family well for years to come. And for anyone seeking a more portable option that meets the same exacting standards of our main pick, the $40 14.5ʺ Weber Smokey Joe Premium Grill is a great option that provides enough space to cook six hamburgers at once.
Opening image by Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive
Originally published: June 3, 2015