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The 5 best charcoal grills: A summer cookout staple

What is the best charcoal grill? The Weber Original Kettle is our top choice. It's a staple of summer. Whether you're throwing some burgers on for a weeknight dinner or doing up ribs and chicken for family reunions and parties, there's no substitute for the smoky-charred flavors you get from a classic charcoal grill.
taylor-clemons
Written by Taylor Clemons, Staff Writer on
Reviewed by Elyse Betters Picaro

Charcoal grills are a staple of summertime; the smell of steaks, ribs, and chicken roasting over applewood chips and hot coals never fails to draw a crowd. And even though a charcoal grill has a somewhat simple design compared to its propane counterparts, that doesn't mean that they are all created equal. There are two main types of charcoal grills: kettle and barrel. 

Kettle grills are what you picture when you think of Weber models or what you usually see when flipping through old family photos of your grandpa grilling burgers at the family Fourth of July cookout. They have the perfect design for cooking things like burgers, hotdogs, chicken breasts, fish, and even veggies. Barrel-style charcoal grills are more likely to be seen at BBQ cook-offs, restaurants, and the homes of serious grillmasters. They have larger cooking surfaces that are better suited for large cuts of meat like whole briskets, full racks of ribs, and whole chickens. Some even feature offset fireboxes for indirect heat cooking or smoking.

If you want to get super fancy, you can also buy ceramic-bodied kettle grills like the Kamado Joe or Big Green Egg. These kinds of charcoal grills act like smelting furnaces: the ceramic lining reflects and retains heat better than regular steel, allowing for more even cooking, slow roasting, and indirect heat cooking. You could even burn charcoal or hardwood fuel to reach a high internal grill temperature and then use the residual heat to cook things like flatbreads, pizzas, fish, and veggies. 

This also means you won't have to use as much fuel to get the same grilling results. The downside is that these ceramic grills are much, much more expensive than their metal-bodied brethren. However, since they feature ceramic linings, lids, and fire bowls, they aren't as susceptible to damage from the elements as a steel kettle or barrel grill; ceramic doesn't rust, which means the $750 may be a better investment if you live in an area with wet summers and unpredictable winters. 

To help you find the charcoal grill of your dreams, I've rounded up five of the best you can buy right now. I've also broken down their defining features and price points to help you decide which is the best fit for your outdoor space and budget.

Must read:

A woman using a Weber kettle grill in her back yard.
Weber

The Weber Original Kettle is the quintessential charcoal grill, and the absolute best you can buy. The classic design is perfect for both direct and indirect heat grilling as well as smoking tougher cuts like ribs and brisket. The 26-inch diameter gives you an incredible 508 square inches of cooking surface, which is enough space for 19 burgers or two spatchcocked whole chickens. The stainless steel grill grate features a hinge that makes it easy to add more fuel as needed or rearrange the coals to eliminate hotspots. 

The bottom of the grill has a convenient, one-touch ash catcher for easy cleaning and disposal. The side handles have integrated hooks to keep tools like tongs, spatulas, and brushes close at hand while the body of the grill has a cradle for the lid so you don't have to set it on the ground in order to check on your food. The lid features a built-in thermometer so you can keep an eye on your food without having to take off the lid, and it also has adjustable vents to control cooking temperatures for perfect steaks, chicken, and fish every time. The Original Kettle has two 8-inch plastic wheels that make it easier to maneuver the grill around your patio or deck in order to keep it out of the way or get to a more convenient cooking area. Both the lid and body of the grill feature porcelain enamel coatings to help prevent rust and scratches and keep your grill looking great season after season.

Pros:

  • Hinged cooking grate
  • One-touch ash catcher
  • Porcelain enamel coating
  • Wheeled frame

Cons:

  • On the pricey side
  • Kind of short (just 42 inches tall)
A Char-Griller Maverick grill on a flagstone patio
Char-Griller

The Maverick by Char-Griller proves that a great grill doesn't have to break the bank. This barrel-style charcoal grill sells for under $100, so even if you're working with a more modest budget, you'll be able to upgrade your outdoor cooking space. The Maverick has 320 square inches of cooking space, which is enough room for about 15 burgers, as well as cast iron cooking grates for durability. A fixed side shelf is the perfect place to set utensils, grill brushes, seasonings, and sauces to keep close at hand while you're grilling. A built-in thermometer lets you quickly see internal grill temperatures, and dual dampers let you control air flow for more consistent cooking. The Maverick also features two wheels for easier maneuvering when you need to move the grill out of the elements. The charcoal and ash pan lifts out of the grill for quick and easy disposal of spent coals and ashes in order to keep your grill clean and in great condition.

Pros:

  • Under $100
  • Dual dampers
  • Side shelf

Cons:

  • Cast iron grates require more maintenance
  • No ash door
A Kamado Pro with burgers, buns, and a beer glass on it. The background has a picnic table and well-tended hedge.
Vision Grills

If you're serious about grilling, you'll want to spend the extra money on the Kamado Pro from Vision Grills. While it is on the more expensive side, the price is backed up by solid, durable construction. The body of the grill is made of a heavy duty ceramic material that is designed to better retain and more evenly distribute heat for more consistent cooking and smoking and to reduce how much charcoal you need to use in order to get perfect steaks, ribs, and chicken every time. The ceramic also shields the outer shell from heat, reducing the risk of burns when you lift the lid or accidentally brush against the grill while it's in use. The lid features two assist springs to reduce the lift weight of the lid, making it easier to quickly check on your food or move things around to prevent burning. The Kamado Pro has a cooking surface of 604 square inches, which is plenty of room for grilling and smoking most cuts of meat, fish, and even veggies. 

The grill comes with two grates for cooking on different levels; which is perfect for cooking different foods at the same time, like meat on the lower rack to be closer to the fuel source and veggies up higher so they don't burn. It also includes two solid shelves for cooking things like pizza and flatbreads or delicate foods like fish. The front of the grill features a port for use with the included electric starter as well as two knobs that control the dampers for consistent temperatures. The pull-out ash drawer makes it easy to empty and clean the Kamado Pro when your charcoal is spent. Two side shelves make it easy to keep seasonings, sauces, and tools close at hand while the four caster wheels make it easy to maneuver the grill around your deck or patio. The Kamado Pro comes with a vinyl cover to protect it from the elements when not in use as well as an electric starter for faster charcoal lighting. You can also purchase a gas insert to convert the grill into a propane-fueled model for cleaner cooking.

Pros:

  • Ceramic body 
  • Plenty of cooking surface area
  • Electric starter and cover included

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Not suited to beginner grill cooks
  • Very heavy
A Char-Griller Smokin' Champ on a patio near a flower bed.
Char-Griller

The Smokin' Champ from Char-Griller is a great option for anyone who wants a charcoal grill to pull double duty. Along with the main cooking barrel, this grill features a side firebox that can be used for offset smoking. The main cooking grate has 675 square inches of surface area, which is enough space for 4 briskets, 6 racks of ribs, or 8 whole chickens. There is also a warming rack in the lid for keeping food heated through before serving. The fire pan can be adjusted up or down for more direct-heat cooking or slower roasting; a smoke stack and dampers also help control air flow and temperature for perfect meat, fish, and veggies. The removable ash pan makes cleaning out your grill fast and easy, and the dual 8-inch wheels allow for quicker maneuvering around your deck or patio. The Smokin' Champ has a perforated side shelf as well as a perforated bottom shelf which are perfect for keeping utensils, seasonings, and even extra fuel close by for more efficient cooking. 

Pros:

  • Side firebox for offset smoking
  • Warming rack
  • Large cooking surface

Cons:

  • Adjusting fire grate may be tricky
  • No ash door
An out-of-focus couple is on a picnic in a park with a Weber Smokey Joe in focus in the foreground.
Weber

The Smokey Joe gives you the Weber quality you've come to expect from a charcoal grill in a portable package. This miniature grill measures just 14.5 x 17 x 14.25 inches, making it small enough to pack into a truck, RV, or SUV for picnics and camping trips. The steel cooking grate has 147 square inches of surface area, giving you plenty of room for burgers, chicken, veggies, and steaks. The Smokey Joe features dampers on the lid and bottom of the fire bowl for optimal airflow and temperature control, while the drip/ash pan catches runoff from your food and spent fuel. The lid and fire bowl have Weber's signature porcelain enamel coating to protect the steel from rust, corrosion, and scratches; and if for any reason you need to replace a part or the whole grill, you can take advantage of Weber's impressive 10 year warranty.

Pros:

  • Dual dampers
  • Ash/drip pan
  • Porcelain enameled steel construction
  • Plenty of cooking surface area

Cons:

  • Legs don't fold up

What is the best charcoal grill to buy?

In my opinion, the Weber Original Kettle is the very best charcoal grill you can buy. It features a simple, classic design that provides plenty of cooking surface area as well as great temperature control for consistent cooking across a variety of foods. The cooking grate also features a hinge for quickly adding more fuel or rearranging coals for indirect heat grilling or to eliminate hot spots. The one-touch ash door also makes cleaning out the grill a breeze.

Charcoal grill

Price

Cooking surface area

Grill style

Weber Original Kettle

$429

508 sq. in.

Kettle

Char-Griller Maverick

$99

320 sq. in.

Barrel

Vision Grills Kamado Pro

$799

604 sq. in.

Kettle

Char-Griller Smokin' Champ

$229

675 sq. in

Offset barrel

Weber Smokey Joe

$46

147 sq. in.

Kettle

Which charcoal grill is right for you?

Once you've finalized a budget for your new charcoal grill, you have to determine what your main cooking style will be. Will you use your new grill for low-and-slow roasting and smoking? Choose a model that has an offset firebox or multiple levels for maintaining lower temperatures. Do you just want to grill up burgers and hotdogs for weekend get-togethers and family barbecues? A standard kettle-style grill will be more than enough to handle a couple dozen burger patties.

Buy this charcoal grill...

If you need...

Weber Original Kettle

A simple, reliable, and well-rounded charcoal grill

Char-Griller Maverick

A compact and affordable charcoal grill

Kamado Pro

A high-end charcoal grill for cooking a variety of foods

Char-Griller Smokin' Champ

A charcoal grill that can double as an off-set smoker

Weber Smokey Joe

A small, portable charcoal grill

How did we choose these charcoal grills?

I chose grills from well-known brands with reputations for quality and durability. I also chose kettle and barrel-style grills to suit different cooking styles and outdoor spaces. With different price points, I ensured that my charcoal grill picks would fit a wide range of budgets, from modest to opulent.

Is it cheaper to grill with gas or charcoal?

If we're talking strictly initial costs: charcoal grills tend to be a bit more affordable than their propane counterparts since they have much simpler designs. But if we're talking about fuel costs: a propane grill costs less per use than a charcoal model. A standard size, kettle-style charcoal grill uses at least 5 pounds of briquettes (about a third of a standard-sized bag) for each grilling session which requires you to buy a new bag every other week or so. Whereas a propane grill with a 20 pound bottle of liquid propane will last around a month. There are some charcoal grills, like the Kamado Pro, that can be used with LP gas inserts for cheaper operation or dual-fuel cooking.

Is cooking over charcoal safe?

This is a bit of a complicated question to answer. Grilling in general is considered a healthier way to cook food than frying or sautéing, but there have been studies done which suggest that cooking over charcoal raises the risk of certain GI cancers. This is because your food comes into prolonged contact with smoke and high temperatures, which causes the amino acids in meat to react with creatine to create polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are known to cause cancer. However, this doesn't mean that you have to abandon your grill. 

A propane-fueled grill cooks your meat at lower temperatures than charcoal and creates much less smoke, which reduces the chance of creating PAHs and other carcinogenic compounds. And if you're dead-set on keeping your charcoal grill, veggies, chicken, and fish are your best bets for healthy meal options; but if you're craving a steak, burger, or ribs, remember that moderation is key. If you want a more in-depth explanation of the risks and benefits of grilling over both propane and charcoal, you can read up on it over at Healthline.

How to clean a charcoal grill?

There are several ways to clean your charcoal grill to keep it in near-perfect working order. You can invest in a good wire brush to clear away charred bits of food from the cooking grates; it's best to brush your cooking grate while it's HOT. The heat from the coals will help loosen up any sticky grease deposits. You can also use a dedicated cloth or a thick wad of paper towel dipped in plain vegetable oil to rub on your cooking grate before placing food on it. By oiling your cooking grate while it's hot, you help to build up a non-stick surface which not only keeps your food from falling apart while it cooks, but it also helps prevent a lot of build up. 

You should also make sure you're emptying any ash pans or grease catchers after every grill session. Clearing away old ashes helps ensure better air flow, and therefore better burning, and cleaning out grease pans prevents things from going rancid as well as reducing the chance of a grease fire. 

If your charcoal grill is really dirty, you can scrub it out with a regular sponge or brush and some hot, soapy water. Just make sure you get it completely rinsed out so your food doesn't taste like soap. And make sure you dry your grill thoroughly with a soft towel or paper towels; letting water sit on the metal will make it rust faster.

Can I use pellets in a charcoal grill?

You can absolutely use hardwood pellets in your charcoal grill, with a few caveats. It's not a good idea to only use pellets, as most charcoal grills won't burn them efficiently enough for an even and consistent cooking temperature. Grills specifically designed for use with pellets have motorized augers that move the pellets to the fire box, ensuring a constant supply of fuel as well as enough air for consistent burning. Pellets would just sit at the bottom of the charcoal grill, and without an auger to agitate the pile and introduce air, you'd end up with a half-burned pile of pellets. 

However, you can always add a handful or two of hardwood pellets to your normal charcoal for a more distinct smoky flavor, or to simulate the flavor of smoking a brisket or whole chicken all day.

How hot do charcoal grills get?

When your charcoal has burned down to glowing embers, they've reached their maximum temperature of about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. When you use the air damper vents on the lid or bottom of your grill, you can control and regulate that ambient temperature for evenly cooked food without burning it to a crisp on the outside while leaving it raw in the middle. You can also control your cooking heat by carefully arranging the coals in the bottom of the grill. An even layer creates a consistent temperature across the cooking grate, which is ideal for things like burgers, brats, and kebabs, while moving the coals to one side creates what is known as indirect-heat grilling. This is better for cuts of meat that need more time to cook evenly, like whole chickens, thick ribeye steaks, and briskets. 

I recommend that before you cook on your grill for the first time, do a dry run with a small bag of charcoal. This will allow you to figure out the best way to arrange coals and use the vents to regulate the internal temperature of your grill for perfectly grilled food every time.

Are there alternative charcoal grills worth considering?

There are plenty of options out there if you're in the market for a new charcoal grill. Here is a short list of other models that I thought were great choices:

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