Great Gear for Picnics and Grilling
Charred burgers with all the fixings, ice-cold beer under a beach umbrella, toast with eggs scrambled over a campfire—food just tastes better in the summer. Whether you want a dialed-in picnic setup for concerts in the park, better tableware for camping, or great grill tools for cookouts, investing in a few well-edited items will make the difference between roughing it and dining in style.
Over the past 2 years we’ve spent more than 85 hours researching and testing new products, as well as collecting our favorite tools, equipment, and purely fun gadgets from past guides to help you have a great picnic or cookout of your own. We tested our picks over several picnic lunches with friends at Los Angeles’s Elysian Park and Rincon Beach, just south of Santa Barbara, CA.
Table of Contents
If you prioritize portability—and you don’t need your food to stay cold for more than about two days—the AO Canvas Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler is your best bet. Over a 24-hour test, the cooler produced 8 cups of meltwater from an original 9 pounds of ice, a measurement that was on par with the best coolers in our test. And it did this while being $20 cheaper and able to fit enough food and drink for a four-person family.
Its insulation is covered with 600-denier nylon and a thick vinyl liner, and its exterior uses origami-like folded corners and two buckles to create a rigid frame out of soft materials. This clever design helps the cooler retain its shape even when filled with bulky items and allows it to fold down flat better than any of the other coolers we tested.
Keep in mind, though, that the liner of the AO cooler is not removable, making it a little trickier to clean. We also read on some boating forums that these coolers can tear and spring leaks if you leave sharp items in them like broken bottles or the edges of crushed aluminum cans. So you don’t want to use this as your trash receptacle at the end of the day. Otherwise, with its collapsible design, excellent insulation, and good all-around durability, we think it’s a great fit for your standard family picnic. ↵
If you’re going to be out in the heat for multiple days and don’t have to worry too much about mobility, the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Cooler is the best hard cooler we’ve found. Despite its 5-day rating, our testing showed that it kept ice frozen to some extent for an entire week. It’s a lot less expensive than other similarly-performing coolers, and its channeled drain makes the hefty task of tilting and emptying it pain-free. ↵
To keep food cold without the mess of melted ice, we recommend the reusable drugstore-paperback-sized Rubbermaid Blue Ice Block. When tested in a small cooler, it kept ice frozen for longer than we even intended to test—in fact, when I came back to check the next morning, the ice we kept with the block had still only melted 50 percent. They’re cheap enough to stock up on so you can use several in a bigger cooler to keep a large quantity of beer or soda (or a whole picnic) cool.
For individual lunches, we also liked the Fit & Fresh Cool Coolers, which come in a four-pack. They’re much slimmer and lighter than the Rubbermaid—each one is 4.75 inches square and ¼ inch thick. While they didn’t keep ice from melting as well as the Rubbermaid, at less than half the weight of the Rubbermaid, they can be slipped into an insulated lunch bag without taking up too much room.
We called in the ThermaFreeze Reusable Ice Pack Sheets, but didn’t end up testing them—just the process of getting them ready to get in the freezer is laborious. You have to soak them in water for 5 to 10 minutes before they’re ready to go, and, if you’re using the whole sheet, they take up an awful lot of space in the freezer. And even if they’d been super easy to use, we’d still have qualms. Numerous user reports on Amazon complain of the gel leaking out, and that’s definitely something you don’t want on your food. ↵
Bounty Quilted Napkins are your best bet for outdoor gatherings. We initially tested napkins in our party hosting guide with the intention of finding something reasonably elegant, but came away impressed by the Bounty Napkins for their absorption capabilities and sheer toughness. They’re textured to grab every last bit of sauce off of your fingers and can absorb 13.6 times their own weight in water—that’s almost twice as effective as the second-place Vanity Fair’s 8.2 times. We ultimately recommended Vanity Fair napkins for party hosting because they look classier for indoor settings, but when it comes to eating outdoors, looks matter less than performance. ↵
Reusable grocery bags
A reusable grocery bag can come in handy for picking up snacks to take to an impromptu picnic or hauling empty recyclables home at the end of a get-together at the park. We recommend the Baggu. It holds the most groceries without becoming difficult to carry and folds up into a compact 5-by-5-inch pouch. We tested it against two of the other best-selling reusable bags—the ChicoBag and the Flip & Tumble 24-7 bag—and it beat them in (almost) every way.
Yes, we wish the bag folded into itself like the ChicoBag and Flip & Tumble. Because it doesn’t, it can mean sadness and despair if you lose the included stuff sack, and it becomes a little less portable. But we’re willing to forgive this because it’s just a better bag than the others. In our tests, it easily handled grocery loads that the other two struggled with. Whereas the ChicoBag and Flip & Tumble both can carry only 25 pounds, the Baggu can handle up to 50. It’s bigger, too, with plenty of space for at least two paper/plastic bags worth of groceries. Plus, thanks to its 2.5-inch-wide handles, it’s comfortable to carry (even over your shoulder!).
In more than a year of long-term testing we’ve loved everything about this bag—except the fact that its stuff sack is separate and thus easily lost. If you end up misplacing it, you can always do as one of our readers suggests and use a small Ziploc bag. It’s also worth stocking up on extras. Considering the bags are so inexpensive, it never hurts to pick up a few so you can keep them in your desk at work or your glove compartment. ↵
Picnics and barbecues can get messy. We pitted three instant spot stain removers against some DIY methods and our favorite is the Shout Stain Remover Wipes. We splotched a silk shirt with wine, coffee, lipstick, and mustard, treating the fresh stains immediately. In our tests, the Shout wipes easily outperformed the Tide To Go pen. They were the only stain remover that got rid of almost all traces of lipstick on the collar.
The single-use towelettes mean you won’t wind up redepositing an old stain on another piece of clothing. They also did a fair job on wine and coffee spills, leaving a minimal ring where the stain spread out across the silk. ↵
After testing 13 water-resistant finalists, we’d recommend our overall runner-up pick, the UE Boom, for picnics and small get-togethers. Reviewer Brent Butterworth says, “The quality is excellent for the size; you can listen to whatever music you like without worry that the Boom will bury the boom of kick drums, the breathy sound of a flute, or anything in between.” It’s our runner-up pick because it’s not as loud or as rich as the UE Megaboom, but at 7 inches tall and about 3 inches in width—the size of a large can of beer—it’s much more portable. Like its big brother, the UE Megaboom, the water-resistant, cylindrical speaker offers rich, all-directions sound when placed upright on a table or hung by its loop from a tree branch, making it a great pick for large backyards. It’s also about 6 decibels louder than the budget pick, the Voombox-ongo, and just a little more than half the price of the Megaboom.
For an upgrade pick with more oomph, we recommend the UE Megaboom. At $300, it’s a little less than twice the price of the Boom, but our audio reviewer Brent Butterworth says it offers “big, clear, full, loud sound.” In our tests, the battery lasted an incredible 30.5 hours and we measured 42 feet of Bluetooth connectivity inside the house and running through four walls. This is the best pick for large, open spaces or beach parties with the ocean roaring in the background.
If you want something cheaper, we really like the affordable Divoom Voombox-ongo. It’s a great pick for smaller picnic groups with natural tone and portability (about the size and weight of a couple of apples). Like the Boom, the Ongo has an IPX4 water-resistance rating, which means it will be fine when splashed but it can’t be dropped into the pool. We got 12.5 hours of play time at full volume (75 dB at 1 meter), so it should last for the duration of your gathering. However, its small speakers mean there’s no bass, and it won’t work that well for large, open, or noisy spaces. ↵
For $9 you can get a flying disc that fits perfectly in most people’s hands and is easy to grip and balance. Plus, it’s the preferred disc of MLU frisbee player Nathan Hurst.
For working off that picnic meal, there’s no better game than frisbee. Rather than making do with a crappy promotional disc or one from 7-11, get a substantial one like the Discraft Ultra-Star 175. We asked MAKE magazine editor (formerly of WIRED and Outside) and Major League Ultimate frisbee player Nathan Hurst to help us pick. He plays for the San Francisco Dogfish and has tried every frisbee on the market. Note: Whammo has a trademark on the name “frisbee,” so they’re often called “flying discs.”
“The AUDL [one of the two ultimate frisbee leagues] uses what has traditionally been the most popular flying disc, the Discraft Ultra-Star, which continues to be used in most other non-MLU play, from kids to college to amateur to screwing around on the beach,” Hurst said. The Ultra-Star fits perfectly in most people’s hands and is easier to grip and balance—customer reviews and Yahoo Answers agree.
For weight, you can go up to 200 grams, which is supposed to be best for playing in the wind, but Hurst said, “it’s just a gimmick.” We’d stick to the standard 175 grams. For children or beginners, Hurst likes the Discraft J-Star. It weighs only 150 grams and is 9.5 inches wide instead of the regular Ultra-Star’s 10.75-inch diameter. ↵
Whether or not you’re watching birds (or people) out in nature, packing a pair of binoculars is a fun way to pass the time between courses of food or to help find errant kites lost in the trees. The travel-sized Nikon Trailblazer 8×25 were recommended to us by the Senior Director of Science and Conservation of the Connecticut Audubon Society, Milan G. Bull. They are waterproof, but note that if you get sea mist on the glass, do not wipe them down dry as salt crystals will scratch your optics; instead, get them damp to melt the crystals with a wet lens cloth and work that salt off and out. ↵
The Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket is roomier and better-insulated than other picnic baskets and backpacks we tried. Its place settings are also a bit sturdier.
For 2 years running, we’ve looked for an easy-to-store picnic basket to carry food and table settings to a park or beach. Unfortunately, none have really lived up to our expectations. After looking at four new models this year (and three last year), our previous top pick, the now-updated Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket, remains the best option we could find. Picnic at Ascot improved on the older model of this basket with an aluminum frame and reinforced sides that keep the basket upright even when empty, making it easier to fill, but it still folds down into a pretty flat package for storage (5 inches high by 18.5 inches wide by 11.5 inches deep).
It’s moderately well-insulated for keeping foods like salads and grapes chilled for a few hours and large enough to hold a decent-sized picnic for two or a small picnic for four. If you need something with more cooling power, we’d recommend you get a soft cooler and use that to lug your food, drinks, and plates to the park.
The new version of this basket comes with plastic plates, acrylic glasses, stainless steel cutlery with plastic handles, and cotton napkins for four (you can also buy the basket alone, if you like). All the servingware felt very sturdy in our hands and easy to use. Not everyone likes acrylic glasses, but you don’t have to worry about breaking them, and some public parks don’t allow glass containers on their grass.
One drawback is the ergonomics of carrying it when full. Caleigh Waldman, picnic-goer and product tester, said, “the basket, when loaded with food and ice, was difficult and awkward to carry, especially over long distances.” Some testers also didn’t like that the glasses are stored in the same compartment as the food.
We love the idea of an all-in-one picnic backpack for hiking or biking, which is why this year we also tested the Picnic at Ascot London Backpack for Four and the Tandoor Four Person Picnic Backpack by Picnic Plus. Unfortunately the execution for both fell flat. The London backpack is stylish, but its food storage part is too small, and it has flimsy outer hardware and cheap-feeling shoulder straps. The Tandoor is bigger, with plenty of room for food and two wine/water bottle pockets, but its plates and cutlery felt cheap (the plates are basically translucent plastic discs).
Last year we also looked at two insulated totes—the Picnic Time Topanga and the Lido 2-in-1 Cooler Tote Bag—but we didn’t find either wide enough for typical flat, broad food containers. We skipped over the traditional wicker baskets. Despite their chic appeal, they’re more form than function—the wicker isn’t insulated, so cold food might get hot (and vice versa). ↵
After considering 38 picnic blankets and testing seven, we think the two-person Nemo Victory Blanket offers the best combination of comfort, durability, and compactness. Made from a flannel top and padded waterproof polyurethane underlayer, the Victory is thick enough to lie on without feeling every stick and twig underneath you. Its woven flannel will withstand people walking, rolling, and jumping across it from time to time. And when you’re done with your day in the sun, it folds neatly into a 14-by-6-inch roll, thanks to an attached flap with two sewn-on elastic bands.
The two-person Nemo Victory Blanket measures 50 by 86 inches, large enough for three people and a child (or even four adults in a pinch) and costs $50, which is $20 less than our pick from last year, the Zip-n-go. For those who really need the extra space, the Victory is also available in an expansive 90-by-90-inch four-person model for $80.
In our testing, the flannel topper of the Victory wasn’t as soft as the Zip-n-go’s synthetic fleece lining. But the flannel was easier to clean and less prone to trapping particles of food, grime, and dirt. The top of the Victory was soft enough to comfortably nap on in the sun and definitely gentle enough for the delicate skin of children or infants. The blanket is machine-washable, though we found that the fabric top was resistant enough to easily wipe mud and dirt off with a damp cloth without leaving a mark. The underside of the Victory also kept moisture from seeping through.
The Victory was one of the simplest blankets we folded up, with no need to remember a special pattern or make sure all your edges align perfectly. It folds neatly into itself, and the elastic bands are strong but flexible enough to securely hold even the most haphazardly shaped fold-job. Compared to the REI Outdoor Blanket or the upcoming Evrgrn Center Stage Rug, which rolls up and stuffs into a separate sack (perfect for losing), the finicky Bed Bath & Beyond Out & About Blanket, or slightly less finicky Zip-n-go, getting the Victory folded takes no time at all. It also rolls more conveniently than the L.L.Bean Waterproof Outdoor Blanket and Picnic Time Blanket Tote that we tested last year.
If spills are a special concern, or you value toughness and durability over comfort, the 61-by-79-inch MIU Color Blanket is the easiest we’ve found to clean. Its polyester fabric feels similar to what you might find on outdoor lawn furniture or a tablecloth. It’s not soft exactly, and it doesn’t feel like a traditional picnic blanket, but it will definitely last.
For waterproofing, MIU Color Blanket’s bottom has a coating of ironed-on PVC vinyl film (not a separate sheet of waterproof material stitched on like most of the other blankets). While MIU says that their blankets are machine-washable, we can’t see the point. Every side of this blanket is built to be wiped down by hand.
The MIU was nearly as simple to fold up as the Victory, but instead of elastic bands it uses a velcro strip to fully wrap it up. This design means that you have to be fairly precise when you roll up your blanket. But for basic durability and spill and water resistance, the MIU can’t be beat.
Most blankets without some kind of barrier will pull moisture up from the ground like a sponge, especially if you’re lying on them for a few hours. That’s why we only tested blankets with water-resistant or waterproof backing materials. We placed all the blankets on a recently-watered lawn in the shade and lay on each for roughly 10 minutes. We also put a 45-pound plate weight on each blanket and inspected the weighted spot after 20 minutes for dampness. Thankfully for us and the comfort of our afternoon, none of the models tested let any of the moisture of the lawn through their layers of fabric. ↵
A good corkscrew should be kept in your basket at all times, so you’ll never ruin a picnic by forgetting one. Our guide found that the Truetap pick is a tried and true design that our picnic guests really appreciated. (In a pinch, the foil cutter can double as a small knife.) A picnic attendee used it to open a bottle of wine and said it was unremarkable in a good way: “The best design is invisible.” ↵
If you’re not in a wine- or beer-drinking mood, a flask full of your favorite spirit is the perfect way to booze up a picnic. We like the six-ounce handmade pewter flask from Steadfast and Strong, which replaces our pewter pick from Kaufmann Mercantile last year. Although available now, Kaufmann Mercantile has had stocking issues with their flasks in the past, and our new top pick is $10 cheaper.
You could, of course, pick up a budget stainless-steel flask, but many complain that the material imparts an unfortunate metallic taste to liquor (although we haven’t found hard evidence that stainless steel actually affects the taste of your whiskey). Pewter won’t pick up any funky flavors, and unlike stainless steel, it won’t rust because it’s made mostly of tin (92 percent). And because pewter is a softer alloy, manufacturers need to create thicker walls to keep it from denting. Thus the flask is sturdier and more solid—it’ll last longer so you can pass your love of surreptitious drinking on to your grandchildren.
The only potential drawback is that this flask doesn’t have a captive lid, which has an attached arm to secure the cap to the flask itself. It would be easy to lose the screw-on cap in the grass. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, our prior Kaufmann Mercantile pick does have a captive lid. ↵
In an ideal world, we’d have access to a sink with warm water and soap every time we needed to wash our hands. That is almost never the case. Carrying hand sanitizer and using it properly can fill the gaps between sinks.
We like Method’s Sweet Water sanitizer because it combines the well-established antibacterial properties of 62 percent ethyl alcohol (the CDC recommends 60-95% alcohol) with inactive ingredients and moisturizers. I tested it against EO and Purell Advanced and found that it went on the lightest, dried the quickest, and left the least amount of residue after evaporating. And at about $2 per two-ounce bottle, it doesn’t cost much more than your typical bottle of Purell.
We’ve found that the two-ounce bottles of Method Sweet Water can sometimes be hard to find. As an alternative, there’s nothing wrong with picking up some Purell in its place. It feels a little more like lotion than Sweet Water, evaporates a touch slower, and leaves a bit more residue, but overall it performs about equally.
We also looked at alcohol-free sanitizers, but the CDC doesn’t recommend them and neither can we. The compounds used in some of these have been shown to trigger antibiotic resistance in some cases—i.e. bacteria that can’t be killed with medicine. Yikes. For others, based on thyme and other essential oils, which—to their credit—have been shown to have antibacterial properties, it’s hard to find information on how effective they are in comparison to alcohol-based solutions. Better to stick with what you know works. ↵
Reusable utensils set
Stowable utensils that can be slotted together are the workhorses of any overnight camping adventure. These knife, fork, and spoon sets are usually made of stainless steel with rivets, holes, and sometimes hinges to help them snap or fold together for tidy storage. They’re great to own if you eat outdoors often, don’t like wasting disposable plastic cutlery, and prefer not to break up your good flatware set every time you go out.
We tested four of the top-rated sets and we think that the 4 N 1 Utensil Set offers the best quality at the best price. The individual pieces are sturdy and compact when fit together. The knife is sharp enough to cut through meat; the set should last a long time.
We also tested a German Army Surplus model that was sturdy but larger than we liked and difficult to pack away after use, and the Stansport Camping Set, which was decent but more expensive and still not quite as sturdy as our top pick.
Last year we chose the Ka-Bar Hobo Knife ($19), a utensil set that folds down into a multitool-like package. While we still like it, we wanted to find a more affordable alternative that would work for a multi-person picnic setup for this year’s update. You can buy four of the 4 N 1s for $20, while the same number of the Ka-Bar Hobo Knife would set you back nearly $80. The 4 N 1 has a slimmer profile to the Ka-Bar when it’s packed together, and we didn’t notice any substantial difference between the cutlery sets when cutting chicken, slicing bread, or spreading cheese. In fact, the knife on the 4 N 1 seemed better suited for spreads than the more aggressive pocket-knife style blade found on the Ka-Bar.
I once spent six months living in a tent, eating more meals than I can count with a utensils set nearly identical to the 4 N 1, and I found the experience to be excellent. Having my spoon, fork, and knife snapped together in one spot every night made sure that, come dinner time, they were always where I left them. ↵
Enamelware is great for outdoor eating because it has the lightness and durability of plastic and an appealing aesthetic. After considering seven sets, we found two we like. For an inexpensive set that’s good enough to replace disposable plates, bowls, and cups, look into GSI Outdoors’ enamelware. You can get plates, bowls, and mugs for four people for about $50, or you can buy them separately for about $4-8 apiece (here are the plates and bowls, though we don’t love the mugs). We don’t think the GSI is the absolute best quality, but we think quality is vastly better than other cheap sets and will work perfectly fine for picnics or camping.
Most of the speckled enamelware, regardless of who brands and sells it, is made by the same company in Mexico. So you’re basically looking for the brand that has the strictest quality control; GSI is it. While other brands’ user reviews complain of chips out of the box or corroding enamel, GSI has very few issues. The 10-inch plates, the highlight of the set, have a large usable area. The bowls are decently sized but have narrow bases that leave us a bit concerned about their stability. The mugs, however, are the weak link. The handles are simply too small. This makes them unusable with hot liquids because the thin metal conducts heat straight onto your knuckles and can burn you.
There are a few Amazon user complaints about this set rusting and being overall low quality, but those complaints are from a few years ago. After a year of owning these and using them while camping, we haven’t seen rust from normal use. Most of the new reviews are 4 or 5 stars, and the set receives 4.2 average stars of 15 reviews.
If you want a higher-quality set with a nicer overall design, get Best Made’s Two-person Seamless and Steadfast set (also available piecemeal: plates, bowls, mugs). Yes it’s about four times as expensive, but they’re arguably four times better. Just don’t lose them at the beach!
Unlike the cheaper, thinner, Mexican dishes, Best Made’s Seamless & Steadfast are made in Poland and come across as thoughtfully designed place settings that are durable and lightweight enough for outdoor use yet classy and solid enough to use as rustic table settings at home. The bowls are deep and have a wide base that resists tipping. And the mugs have larger, more squared-off handles that give your knuckles plenty of space to avoid burns. Our only complaint is that the plate has a large bezel that cuts into the usable surface area. Each dish is embellished with Best Made’s signature red X logo. Picnic attendees had nothing but praise for their lack of seams, substantial (but not heavy) weight, and flawlessly painted finish.
Though expensive, we think the Best Made dishes are worth the money. We tested Best Made’s mug against similarly priced mugs from Emalco (they make similarly priced mugs for Stumptown and Ghostly International, among others) and everyone agreed that the Best Made was a noticeably better product. The Best Made mug is taller and can hold a full 12-ounce cup of coffee without spilling, while the Emalco can only safely handle 11 ounces. ↵
Having a small, sharp knife is important for slicing cheeses or charcuterie and for opening packages. While the knife in a reusable utensil set can cut many things, you’ll want a separate knife for shared foods. The Victorinox 3¼-inch paring knife fits that bill perfectly. We found in testing that it performs just as well as models that are about five times more expensive, yet it’s cheap enough that you won’t miss it if you lose it. We also like that it comes with a little plastic sleeve that makes it safe and easy to transport. ↵
The Wine Enthusiast Two-Bottle Neoprene Wine Tote is kind of dorky-looking—like something you might carry home from a winemaker’s trade show—but it’s excellent. We compared it directly against the popular Built totes, and it kept white wine cool for longer in our tests. As nice-looking as the Built totes might be, they just can’t compete with the Wine Enthusiast bag. Both bags are made of neoprene, but where the Built bag just has a thin layer that meets in the middle to create two separate wine compartments, the Wine Enthusiast tote is structured with a section for each bottle (or one bottle and some glasses) and a zippered top. As a trump card, it also includes two gel packs that can be frozen, ensuring your white wines will stay cold for much longer than the Built could ever promise. But even without freezing the gel packs, it still beat out the competition.
Picnic attendees thought that it was a good idea but didn’t like the neoprene’s aesthetic. Ganda said, “I thought it was quite comfortable, good if you accidentally drop the bottles along the way. I can’t imagine having the forethought to put the freezer pack in the freezer, but I guess you could just leave it in there all the time.”
In addition to having our guests evaluate the totes, we tested the two top totes for insulation performance. With two bottles of white wine, and even without the frozen packs, the Wine Enthusiast bag caused temperatures to raise an average of 11.5ºF over two hours. The Built bag caused temperatures to raise an average of 15ºF. It’s not a huge difference, but it is absolutely noticeable in the taste and temperature of the wine.
Beverage dispenser/water jug
Water pitchers and stoppered bottles can dress up a dinner table, but it’s a lot more convenient to have a large dispenser that you don’t have to worry about refilling. We were hard-pressed to find many reliable professional writeups of beverage dispensers, but after sifting through hundreds of user reviews, we found the 3.5-gallon Buddeez Unbreakable Beverage Dispenser. Not only will this dispenser’s internal ice cone keep your drinks pleasantly chilled (and undiluted) for a few hours, it’s made of Tritan plastic (making it virtually unbreakable), is BPA-free and dishwasher-safe, and it has a non-skid base (which you’ll be thankful for when tilting the thing to get the last drops of your beverage out on a hot day) and liquid measurements on the back for mixed drinks. Buddeez also makes a double-walled version ($37) for extra insulation on those unbearably balmy August weekends.
People love the Buddeez. Its 475 reviews combine for an average of 4.6 stars on Amazon. 88 percent of reviewers like the product, compared to just 60 percent for its closest competitor, the popular Three-gallon model from CreativeWare. This significant difference in ratings is partially the result of the CreativeWare’s inefficient design, which places the ice storage below where the beverage sits. This means that the ice will only be in contact with the beverage for a little bit until it melts, at which point it loses most of its cooling effect.
As for other options, we also initially considered glass or stainless steel dispensers. But the stainless ones, such as the cafe-classic fustis (originally meant for olive oil), were deemed too expensive (you could buy five of our pick for the price of one similarly-sized fusti). Glass looks nice, but is heavy. Safety is also a concern, especially if there are little kids involved. ↵
*At the time of publishing, the price was $20.
Whether you’re hosting a cookout at home, in the park, or on the beach, we recommend you have a bag of Stubb’s 100% All-Natural Briquettes with you. After we tested it head-to-head with six other top brands of briquettes, Stubb’s emerged as the clear winner. This charcoal burns hot and evenly so you’ll get a good sear while grilling up meat, but it doesn’t spark or spit like some other all-natural briquettes. It also doesn’t add any bad flavors to your food and flakes less after burning than the competition, which means there’s less danger of ash blowing everywhere if the wind picks up. The only real minus for the Stubbs is that it can be difficult to find at times (and expensive to buy online). We’ve found Walmart is probably the most reliable source, where in store you can pick up a 15-pound bag for $5 to $10, depending on the time of year.
If you can’t find Stubbs, we recommend Royal Oak as your next best pick. It will burn just as hot and for almost as long, which is still plenty of time to cook the next round of hamburgers. In our tests, Royal Oak was a nearly as good alternative that burned just as hot as the Stubbs briquettes, though they didn’t last quite as long. For your average outdoor picnic grill though, Royal Oak is an excellent natural charcoal briquette to cook over. Like the Stubbs, it can get pricy to buy online ($30 for a 17.6-pound bag, with free shipping for Prime customers), so we recommend keeping an eye out for it at local grocery stores or other retailers. ↵
If you’re planning to make enough fresh lemonade to hydrate a block party, you should invest in our favorite electric citrus juicer: the Black & Decker CJ625 30-Watt 34-Ounce Citrus Juicer. We tested it against seven other models and found no significant performance difference between the CJ625 and a $200 Breville. It’s not the prettiest and it’s not the quietest, but it gets the job done cheaply and efficiently. If you prefer a manual press for making cocktails, we recommend the $25 Chef’n FreshForce citrus press. It comes recommended from several top bartenders and outperformed other popular, highly-rated models in our tests. ↵
Outdoor fire pit
A grill is essential for the actual cooking, but when it comes to ambiance (and roasting marshmallows), you want an outdoor fire pit. There is a wide variety of pits available, all with different vibes (one even looks like a flaming Earth). For a more universal aesthetic, our pick is the Landmann City Lights Memphis. It has a look that will appeal to just about everyone. It’s durable, holds a good amount of wood, and is easy to assemble. We initially made this pick for our holiday party hosting guide, but it works just as well, if not better, for backyard cookouts in the summer.
We like that the sides of the Landmann are partially exposed. This does two things: It allows air to circulate around the fire, and it lets your partygoers enjoy the flame whether they’re sitting or standing, no matter how small the fire is. Solid-walled models, like the CobraCo Copper Fire Pit ($255), block out the view of a small flame unless you’re standing right next to them.
Because the Landmann is deep, it offers a lot of flexibility in fire size. The large bowl (almost 2 feet across) also translates into less stress—you don’t have to worry about the fire shifting and a log falling out like you do with shallower models similar to the Fire Sense Folding Fire Pit ($45).
The Landmann comes with a cooking grill so you can keep the party going while the kids make some hot dogs for themselves (though for actual grilling, we suggest charcoal or propane and an actual grill as opposed to a difficult-to-control wood fire). It also has a screen for wayward sparks and a built-in safety ring so boozed-up Uncle Billy won’t burn his leg when he stumbles past.
If the weave pattern of the City Lights Memphis is too humdrum for your tastes, Landmann has a number of similar models with different bowl cutouts, including the popular Big Sky Stars and Moon ($120) and Wildlife ($130). ↵
We’ve chosen a Weber as our favorite charcoal grill for most people for three years in a row. Weber gets near universal praise for the company’s kettle grills from professional chefs, barbecue champions, and scores of backyard grilling aficionados. We’re working on an update to our charcoal grill guide, but if we were to buy one now, we’d get the 22” Weber Original Kettle Grill Premium. It comes with all of the features that made Weber’s now-discontinued One-Touch Gold grill great, including a one-touch ash disposal system and ash catcher, premium hinged steel grates, a tough enameled steel firebox and dome, and one of the best warranties in the industry.
In our guide to gas grills, Weber beat out the competition once again with their Spirit E-210: A two-burner gas grill that’s compact enough to fit on smaller decks or a balcony but, thanks to its excellent design and build quality, provides enough heat, versatility, and durability to serve most people well for years to come. What’s more, just like the Weber One-Touch Gold, the Spirit E-210 comes with a ten-year limited warranty. ↵
Barbecues don’t always happen in the backyard. While you could haul along a full-sized charcoal or gas grill with you to every picnic, camping trip, or day at the beach, to actually do so is a pain. What you want is a compact grill that’s small enough to be thrown in the trunk of your car but still large enough to cook a reasonable amount of food for you, your family, and your friends. While we have both gas and charcoal offerings, it makes a bit more sense to go with gas in this case, since a single 16.4-ounce canister can last for two to two-and-a-half hours and is only the size of a Nalgene bottle, while you’d need a whole bag of charcoal to get the same cooking time as a couple of canisters.
The Weber Q 1200 is a gas grill equipped with a single stainless steel burner that kicks out 8,500 BTUs of cooking power. That might not sound like a whole lot of heat, but when paired with the Q 1200’s well-designed cast aluminum dome, fire box, and porcelain-coated cast iron grates, it’s more than enough to cook and sear chicken breasts, skirt or flank steaks, burgers, hot dogs, or sausages beautifully. The grill’s 189-square-inch cooking surface provides enough space to cook enough hamburgers to feed six people at a time while still leaving adequate space between your meat or veggie patties to allow for convection.
The Q 1200 comes with a one-touch electric ignition system and is designed to run off of 14.1- or 16.4-ounce liquid propane cylinders (but you can also buy an adapter that’ll allow you to pair it with a 20-pound propane tank). And to keep your food out of the dirt while you’re preparing to put it to the fire, the Q 1200 also comes equipped with a pair of fold-away side tables large enough to set a small plate on. At just over 27 pounds, the Q 1200 isn’t feather light, but the grill’s chunky fiberglass-reinforced nylon frame and handles make it easy to pick up and haul around. Finally, it’s covered by a five-year limited warranty. That’s not as good as what you get with a full-sized Weber grill, but it’s the best coverage you’ll find on a portable piece of hardware for the price. It gets 4.7 stars over more than 500 reviews on Amazon.
Consumer Reports, About.com, and AmazingRibs.com are all fans of Weber’s Q series grills. When we asked AmazingRibs’ Max Good recently about the hardware, he simply told us, “the Weber Q series gassers and their portable kettle grills will perform well, because they’re designed so well. You can’t beat those things, particularly for tailgating.”
Speaking of Weber kettle grills, If you’d rather cook over charcoal, we’ve got your back: weighing in at 22 pounds, the 18” Weber Jumbo Joe is a portable, 18.5-inch iteration of our favorite full-sized charcoal grill, the Weber One-Touch Gold. Boasting a porcelain-enameled, stainless steel firebox and dome, rust-resistant aluminum dampers, an ash catcher, and a stainless steel 240-square-inch cooking grate, the Jumbo Joe employs the same simple kettle design that has made Weber’s charcoal grills so popular with amatuer cooks and professional chefs for decades.
The Jumbo Joe has garnered a five-star rating from About.com’s grilling expert Derrick Riches, a gold medal from AmazingRibs.com, and a 4.7-star average with 215 five-star reviews out of a total of 259 amongst Amazon shoppers. That high percentage of praise from Amazon users is rare in our experience.
To get you off on the right foot with your new portable charcoal or gas grill, we asked grilling and barbecue expert Steven Raichlen for some tips on getting the most out of your portable grill. He told us the following:
- Bring aluminum foil and an insulated cooler to improvise a holding oven.
- Select foods that can be direct grilled in minutes—chicken breasts, hamburgers or sliders, skirt steak, fish fillets, hot dogs or brats, etc.
- Neither a small gas nor charcoal grill has the space to allow two-zone cooking. Create a “safety” zone by placing a wire cooling rack next to the grill. Move food there when flare-ups occur.
- Always pack extra fuel, whether using propane or charcoal.
- Do as much prep work as you can at home.
- Make arrangements for the safe disposal of spent charcoal and propane canisters. ↵
No matter what size or kind of grill you opt to cook with, having a few simple, high-quality tools can make cooking over open flames a whole lot safer and more pleasurable. We have a full guide on grill tools, but here’s what you need to get going.
For starters, you’ll need a long, strong set of tongs for flipping food on your grill or manhandling it to and from your cooking surface to your plate. The OXO Good Grips 16″ Locking Tongs come with comfortable rubber grips, a strong spring so they pop back open when you release your grip on them, and a locking mechanism so they can easily be stored in a drawer. What’s more, they’re long enough to keep your hands away from the intense heat that comes as part and parcel of cooking over an open flame.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $20.
In two rounds of testing against multiple competitors, OXO’s Good Grips Stainless Steel Barbecue Turner proved to be the best grilling spatula we could find, thanks to its comfortable grip, 16-inch reach, strong stainless steel neck, serrated cutting edge, and vent holes in the spatula head that proved large enough to allow steam to escape from the cut of meat the turner was flipping but still small enough that the meat’s patina wasn’t caught up or scraped off by the holes.
To ensure that your grilled meals are cooked safely and accurately, you’re going to need an instant-read probe thermometer. Our pick is the ThermoWorks ThermoPop. It takes extremely fast and accurate readings and is designed equally well for indoor and outdoor use. The large backlit display makes it convenient for night grilling, and the numbers on the screen rotate with the push of a button, so you can see the temperature from any angle. The plastic-covered buttons mean the ThermoPop can withstand splatters from marinades, spilled beer, or even a little rain (although it’s not considered waterproof). And the clip-on probe cover makes it easy to slip the thermometer onto an apron or into a pocket so you don’t lose it. It’s by far the best standard digital thermometer we’ve found for under $100.
If you regularly grill or smoke large cuts and you don’t want to constantly check the meat’s temperature, we’d go with the ThermoWorks ChefAlarm. This professional-grade probe thermometer can be left in the meat, with the grill lid down. The probe reads up to 572°F, while the cord is good up to 700°F, considerably higher than the 400 degrees allowed by other models. It also has an Ingress Protection rating of IP65, meaning the body of the unit is completely protected against dust and “low-pressure jets of water.”
Probe thermometers have a tendency to break easily, but we’ve been longterm testing the ChefAlarm for six months and still love it. We’ve used it about once monthly and found that it’s easy to operate and very durable. Its Amazon rating of 4.8 stars over 364 reviews puts it miles ahead of the competition in customer satisfaction. Although it’s expensive, if you do a lot of roasting and grilling throughout the year, this thermometer would be a good investment.
If you’re looking to sauce up a cut of meat or add some moisture to a veggie pattie with a bit of marinade, we suggest using a Elizabeth Karmel’s 15-inch Super Silicone Angled Barbecue Brush. Its silicon bristles are dishwasher-safe and far more sanitary than a traditional horsehair or cotton marinade mop, and its long angled arm will allow you to spread sauce over the food roasting away at the back of your grill without running the risk of burning your hand in a flare-up.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $10.
From time to time you’ll want to protect your hands from the scorching heat of your grill. Cheap, washable, and tough as nails, these welding gloves from US Forge are just the thing. With a pair of the company’s 400 series lined leather welding gloves on, you’ll be able to pick up hot potatoes right off the grill, safely add charcoal to your barbecue’s firebox half way through a cook or even handle a hot grill grate—that’s something a silicone oven mitt can’t do.
Scouring your grill’s grate clean after you’ve finished cooking (and in some cases, before you start cooking) is key to making a great meal and will prolong the life of your hardware. Weber’s 6464 18-inch Bamboo Grill Brush is a simple, long-handled bamboo grill brush with tough stainless steel bristles that will make short work of the sticky residue and carbonized gunk left over on your grill grates after a cookout.
Oh, and if you have a charcoal grill, you’ll want to think about picking up a charcoal chimney like the Weber 7416 Rapidfire Chimney Starter. Just fill the chimney up with charcoal, set a flame to its base, and watch as your cooking fuel ignites and comes up to temperature in no time. When your coals are ready, all you need do is carefully pour the chimney’s red-hot contents into your grill’s firebox and start cooking. Magic!
If you don’t want to haul a chimney starter to the park, we recommend Weber Firestarters. These odorless and non-toxic cubes won’t light your charcoal pile as uniformly as a chimney, but they’re much easier to carry and their performance is good enough to get your standard grilling session started. We looked at and dismissed three other firestarters that were all too expensive, before choosing to test the Weber cubes.
In our tests they left no lingering odor or residue once it was time to cook. It did take a little longer for our charcoal pile to light than it would have in a chimney, but not by much. I would suggest one or two cubes per 70 to 100 briquettes (or about a Weber chimney’s worth), enough for one of those public grills in recreation parks. For a mini Weber, which uses about half that number of briquettes, one Weber Firestarter would suffice.
We asked Weber directly to confirm what they’re made of and they did not respond. This material safety data sheet from Home Depot lists the chemical name as N-Alkane Hydrocarbon (C10-C13), a generic term for the Firestarters’ mix of hydrocarbons, the compounds all fats and oils are made of. Lowe’s says these cubes are made of paraffin wax.
The good times in the great outdoors don’t have to stop when the sun goes down, provided you’re prepared to beat back the darkness with a little man-made light. We tested 13 different lanterns before coming to the conclusion that the UST 30-day lantern is the one you should get.
Slightly larger than a pint glass, the UST 30-day lantern has three different brightness settings, can crank out up to 300 lumens of illumination, and boasts a crazy-long maximum runtime of 720 hours (on its minimum 29 lumen setting) off of three D-cell batteries. What’s more, the lantern comes with a lifetime warranty. ↵
After testing several popular models, our favorite paper plate from our party hosting guide is the Vanity Fair Impressions because it’s tougher than its closest competitors. It’s thick and resists sogginess, which makes it great for wet side dishes like collard greens and chili. Sure, it’s not as environmentally friendly as reusable enamelware, but if you’re having a big cookout with a lot of guests, costs can add up quickly and washing 20 plates covered in barbecue sauce and mac and cheese residue is no fun. ↵
A good roasting fork needs to provide enough control to hold your hot dog/marshmallow at a comfortable distance away from the fire. A sharpened stick you found at your campsite is perfectly capable of that, but you’ll have more success with our favorite roasting fork. We considered five models, and found the Rolla Roaster ($13 for 2 at REI, also at L.L.Bean) to be the best by far. It adds a rotisserie mechanism built into the handle that lets you rotate the fork about the handle using just your thumb. This allows you to continuously rotate your food with minimal effort, which leads to more even browning and less burning. Finally, despite extending out to a full 42 inches, it manages to retract down to just 12 inches for better portability and easy storage.
69 L.L.Bean reviewers gave it 4.7 out of five stars. Multiple reviewers mentioned that they appreciate how portable the forks get when fully retracted and how long they get when fully extended, meaning you don’t have to sit right next to the fire. 15 REI reviewers also give it a 4.7-star rating. Reviewer Sorefeet offered some comparison to similar products: “We also had along some Coghlan’s extendable forks of a very similar design to this one, but the Rolla Roasters win out on several fronts: [They] extend longer, by a full 8 inches; come in a reusable plastic case, which is surprisingly valuable, as these are an awkward thing to pack; [are] American made; [and are] available in multiple colors.” ↵
A good cookout needs good trash bags to clean up after it. We researched the best heavy duty bags for party hosting and found that Husky’s 42-gallon Contractor Clean-Up Bags are what you want. Whereas your typical kitchen bag is about ½-1 mil thick (1 mil = 1/1000th of an inch), contractor bags like this one are 3 mils thick. What makes Husky’s variety stand out are winning reviews on Amazon, near flawless marks at Home Depot’s site, a recommendation for toughness from Good Housekeeping, and a smart price: about $1 each if you buy a 32-pack on Amazon, or just 45 cents each if you buy 50 at Home Depot. ↵
Costco’s Kirkland Crystal Clear Cutlery is the best disposable set we’ve found—our tests found that they don’t break easily, and they come in real-world proportions.
We looked into the best disposable cutlery for our party hosting guide and found that Costco’s Kirkland Crystal Clear Cutlery are the best. They won’t break on you mid-meal unless you’re dining with the Hulk, and they come in a huge quantity for cheap, so one package should last you through quite a few dinner parties, bake-offs, and picnics. The 360-piece set comes in real-world proportions of 180 forks, 120 spoons, and 60 knives. If you have a Costco membership, you can get the set for around $16 in stores. In testing, we found them to be consistently stronger than other top-rated disposable utensils. ↵
Originally published: May 17, 2015