Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky
A quality charcoal grill offers steady heat retention, weather resistance, and years of use.
Our favorite charcoal grill for most budgets is the tried and true Weber Original Kettle Grill.
It's well-built, versatile, and offers just the right space to feed up to about six people.
A charcoal grill is, at its core, a simple fire basin. The most basic requirement is that it can withstand the elements of any given climate or season as well as a 500-plus degree fire for hours on end.
Related Article Module: The 5 best gas grills in 2021
When it comes to charcoal grilling, kettle grills – sphere-shaped models with vents at the and bottom – tend to be the most user-friendly. Kettle grills come in a variety of materials, which can impact durability and cook quality. We spoke with chef Shola Olunloyo of Studio Kitchen, who told us that if you're opting for a metal charcoal grill, look for stainless steel models, which often cost a little more.
“Cheaper models tend to be made of galvanized steel that's painted with heat-resistant paint,” Olunloyo said. “They will work, but they don't last more than a couple of seasons with normal use and exposure.” Olunloyo also said pricier ceramic grills are a better option for those with room in their budget because they “encapsulate heat very well, allow good airflow, and work almost like a tandoor.”
We also spoke with Steven Raichlen, the television host of “Barbecue University,” and author of dozens of barbecue grilling books, including “How to Grill Vegetables.” Raichlen backed up Olunloyo, adding that if you're just getting your toes wet with barbecuing, a stainless steel kettle grill is a good starting point, but you can only expect about five years out of them – he has a bit more faith than Olunloyo. Still, he agrees that ceramic grills offer much more durability and longevity overall.
Here are the best charcoal grills of 2021
Best charcoal grill overall: Weber Original Kettle 22″Best upgrade charcoal grill: Kamado Joe Classic IIBest portable charcoal grill: Weber Smokey Joe 14″Best extra large charcoal grill: Masterbuilt 36″
The best charcoal grill overall
Weber’s Original Kettle Grill has a tried and true design that grills perfectly, lasts years, and doesn’t break the bank.
Available sizes: 18″, 22″, 26″Materials: Ceramic-coated stainless steel grill and grateWarranty: 10-year limited on bowl and lid; 5-year limited on One-Touch cleaning system, 5-year limited on plastic; 2-year limited on all remaining parts
Pros: Easy to use, clean, outfit, and repair
Cons: Not the thickest steel, likely won’t last much more than five years
It’s hard not to love the design of the Weber Original Kettle 22-inch charcoal grill. It’s been around for decades with hardly any changes.
The simple, circular shape naturally gathers charcoal evenly in the basin and makes for even heat distribution. Top and bottom vents allow heat control for direct and indirect cooking (as well as ash catchment on the bottom), and the basin is deep enough to add a pan of water to keep meats from drying out when you’re cooking low and slow.
It’s also a fairly weatherproof and highly mobile grill. The tripod leg design makes tilting and rolling a cinch (as does the handle), and because it’s such lightweight stainless steel, you can easily pick it up and place it in the bed of a pickup, or store it away for non-grilling season (if such a thing exists).
We also love how effortless cleaning is; the three-blade ash sweeper and removable ash catcher make disposing of ash easy as can be.
Save for grills made with painted galvanized steel (which, again, aren’t built to last), you’re not going to find a cheaper grill.
The Weber Original Kettle grill comes in three sizes — 18, 22, and 26 inches in diameter. We like the 22-inch model because it allows you to roast a whole brisket or pork shoulder, but you may want to size up or down depending on your needs. It’s also our pick for those on a budget. Buy a cheaper grill as you like, but the difference of about $20 (give or take) isn’t worth the loss of several, if not more, years of the good use you’ll get out of a Weber.
The best upgrade charcoal grill
The Kamado Joe Classic II is a ceramic-lined grill with a teardrop design that burns charcoal efficiently, doubles as a smoker, and retains heat best.
Available sizes: 18″Materials: Cast iron, powder-coated cast aluminum vent, ceramicWarranty: Limited lifetime on ceramic parts; 5-year on all metal and cast iron parts; 1-year on thermometer and gaskets
Pros: Excellent insulation and heat retention, fuel-efficient, doubles as smoker, grates set at different heights, sturdy wheel locks
Cons: Heavy, tricky to learn how much charcoal to use (easy to overheat)
As Olunloyo told us, if you have the money, a ceramic kamado grill — a design that originated about 3,000 years ago in Japan — is the best investment you can make in a charcoal grill.
We like Kamado Joe’s Classic II because it makes few, if any, concessions in quality, but is priced well. Shockingly, you could find yourself paying much more for a grill of similar if not equal construction.
Unlike simpler, less-sealed grills (including the rest of our recommendations), this one will allow you to cook between 225 and 750 degrees Fahrenheit, and maintain a consistent heat while doing so thanks to the inner ceramic layer, which has an oven effect. This also makes it unbelievably efficient, and you’ll be amazed at how little charcoal you have to use to heat it (“Barbecue University” host Steven Raichlen recommends using about half of what you normally would in a stainless steel kettle grill). By the same token, that does make it a little tricky to learn how to use, but with a little practice you’ll get the hang of it.
This grill is good for just about anything you might use a charcoal grill for, save for smoking a whole hog, or feeding large parties (but that’s obvious of an 18-inch grill), and it excels at both low-and-slow and hot-and-fast cooking.
The only real downside to this grill is that there’s no ash-catching tray and you have to clean it out with your hands or a vacuum. Still, if you’re looking for the best-performing grill without spending several thousand dollars, you won’t find much competition for the Kamado Joe Classic II.
The best portable charcoal grill
Weber’s Smokey Joe is everything we love about the brand’s Original Kettle grill, but is travel-sized and even more affordable.
Available sizes: 14″Materials: Stainless steel grill and grateWarranty: 10-year limited on bowl and lid; 5-year limited on One-Touch cleaning system, 5-year limited on plastic; 2-year limited on all remaining parts
Pros: Lightweight, same design as our top pick
Cons: Not entirely spill-proof, bulky for a portable grill
If you’re in the market for a portable charcoal grill, the first thing that you need to know is that they’re messy. They’re all liable to leak, spill, and trash the trunk of your car, so don’t set out without a storage bin or a large, heavy-duty sealed bag to contain grease, ash, and grit.
There are tons of portable grills out there, but the most basic and familiar is the miniature version of our top recommendation, Weber’s 14-inch Smokey Joe.
It handles about five (crowded) burgers on the grate, so it’s plenty for a normal carload of people, which we find is just right.
If you’re looking for something highly portable for camping, there are plenty of fancy options out there, and if you want to spend a few hundred dollars on something extra compact, we really like Snow Peak‘s. If you’re looking for a fire pit and charcoal grill in one, check out Picnic Time’s X-Grill, which folds and comes with a pouch to contain the mess — I tend to keep this one in my car, and while it’s not the best for cooking, it manages just fine.
Still, if you’re looking for something basic and affordable, the Weber Smokey Joe is as convenient and easy to use as our top pick, and it’s going to last every bit as long.
The best extra large charcoal grill
Masterbuilt‘s charcoal grills are ruggedly built to accommodate the largest jobs, but cost a fraction of the price of the upscale grills on the market.
Available sizes: 30″, 36″Materials: Stainless steel, cast ironWarranty: 1-year limited
Pros: Solid steel and cast-iron materials; easily loads from front; adjustable rack height; large, sturdy casters
Cons: Heavy, relatively lengthy setup process, doesn’t seal perfectly, 1-year limited warranty
If you’re looking for a big charcoal grill, barrel-style smokers are the most common. Because these grills (which are traditionally made using 55-gallon steel drums) are favored for use as smokers, they depend on a quality gasket system that doesn’t allow smoke or heat to exit anywhere but the chimney(s).
That’s why, after scouring retail store floors as well as the decks and patios of neighbors and friends, we settled in on Masterbuilt’s 36″ Charcoal Grill. We haven’t found anything quite as heavy-duty for anywhere near the price, though we did find plenty of similarly-priced grills made using lesser materials.
For most people, this is a great and affordable option (the brand also offers a 30-inch model at $200). Its outer parts are made with robust stainless steel and cast iron, and the cast-iron grates (while a pain to clean) are hardy.
There are two side-arm tables, which offer a lot of resting and work space that comes in handy when working with a grill so large. Speaking of which, you can easily fit over 20 burgers on here, or a couple of racks of ribs, or up to about eight chickens, and when you’re not cooking for a full party, simply start a fire on one side and you have a massive multi-zone cooking station that’ll allow you to do anything from sear, to cook low and slow, and even smoke.
Lastly, it’s great for wood-smoking, too, thanks to the front-loading door that lets you slide entire split logs into it.
What else we considered
Big Green Egg: The Big Green Egg and the Kamado Joe are almost identical and stack up neck and neck, with the exception just a few considerations. The Kamado Joe comes with everything you need, while the Big Green Egg is merely the egg itself, meaning you’ll need to buy the stand and the side tables, so it gets a bit more expensive (and also more complex to set up). The Kamado Joe also has sturdier (if smaller) casters (wheels). In terms of cooking, the Kamado Joe is designed with adjustable grates for cooking at different levels, and also has a counterbalanced lid so that it’s both easier to lift and it doesn’t slam shut on you while your hands are full.
Broil King Keg 5000: A kamado-style grill but made with double-walled stainless steel instead of a ceramic liner, this should function like a Kamado Joe or Big Green Egg, but might not last as long. It probably won’t do you wrong, but you may want to save up and invest in a ceramic model down the line.
Char-Griller Acorn Kamado Kooker: A more affordable take on the kamado (made without a ceramic liner), this grill outperforms our top pick in heat retention, but at more than twice the cost. It’s a fine grill and we wholeheartedly recommend it, but we think the Weber is the better pick for most people and most budgets.
Char-Griller Double-Play: A two-in-one gas-and-charcoal grill, this is a fine option, but it’s not built as well as we’d like, as we noted a few flimsier parts including the wheels, the hardware, and the grate, and the lid doesn’t seal terribly well. You’d do better buying your gas and charcoal grills as separate items.
IG Charcoal Grill: We’re a big fan of this grill, especially considering the price. If you want to cook over a large, open, adjustable bed of coals, this stainless steel grill can take a beating. We’ve left it out in the elements (and a stone’s throw from the Chesapeake Bay) for two years and counting without so much as a spot of rust. Still, we wouldn’t recommend it for most people as it’s oversized and doesn’t come with a lid, so you have no way of trapping heat. Read our full review of the IG Charcoal grill here.
Kudu: If you want a heavy-gauge steel grill that’s going to last ages and make you feel like you’re homesteading across the great divide, look no further. We love this grill and highly recommend it. It also makes for an excellent campfire. But when it comes to cooking, it’s probably a little too involved for most people. That said, if you want to sit beside a grill and enjoy the heat and atmosphere (this thing also excels with wood fires), it’s a wonderful option. Steven Raichlen is a big proponent, too.
Napoleon 22″ Pro Charcoal Kettle Grill: About twice the price of our top pick, but roughly the same design, we’ve assembled it and given it a bit of time outside. We like it so far, but are looking to see if there’s anything that makes it worth the price jump.
Nexgrill 29-inch Barrel Charcoal Grill/Smoker: if you’re on a tight budget or you just want a charcoal grill (and smoker) in a pinch, this is the best you’re going to do, and you will make do. Our hesitation is that this is one of those grills that you could outfit with gaskets to function very well, but the quality of the parts means it’s not destined to survive past a couple of years with moderate use.
Our testing methodology
During our most recent round of testing, we retested our top pick alongside two other contenders to determine which ones were the most convenient to use, offered the best surface area (and use of said surface area), and considered ease of cleaning as well.
In order to select the grills we tested, we walked through The Home Depot and Lowe’s to consider options, disregarding grills made with inferior parts or use questionable construction materials, and also taking price ranges into account.
We also spoke with several experts in the field about what to look for in a charcoal grill, from chef Shola Olunloyo of Studio Kitchen, to veteran author and TV host Steven Raichlen, and famed New York City butcher Pat LaFrieda.
Here’s what we looked for in our top picks:
Ease of use: While a reasonable surface area is a given, we looked for grills with sturdy stainless steel or cast-iron grates, good (open) spacing to allow heat to pass through, and a raised edge to prevent food from rolling or falling off the surface. We also considered the ease of cleaning, and made sure there was a reasonable way of disposing of ashes. Surprisingly, we learned that many charcoal grills don’t offer ash catching systems.
Material quality: Grills have to live outside, generally, and while you should purchase and use a cover, a grill is going to have to stand up to some abuse with normal use. We looked for quality stainless steel or ceramic, and seeing that those grills tend to get expensive, we also looked for thinner steel with enamel coating (rather than easily chippable and not-so-rust-proof paint). We also took caster and wheel quality into consideration.
Performance: Of course, performance was a factor we considered as well, but because charcoal grilling depends so largely on the material of the grill, as well as the type, amount, and placement of fuel you use, we chose to focus on the experience of using the grill and the quality of the materials and the design itself. We didn’t encounter any grills that cooked poorly, but if we did, they would’ve been immediately disqualified.
Warranty: While there’s not much a warranty will cover if you misuse (or neglect) your grill, it’s good to know when a brand stands behind its products. Because of its prolific presence and its 10-year warranty (on the bowl and lid) to many other brands’ one-year warranty, Weber was an easy pick in this department. And while Masterbuilt sadly only offers a year, it’s in line with contenders of similar size and price (though we’d still love to see a better warranty offered by the brand).
What we look forward to testing
Masterbuilt Gravity Series: These are pellet-grill style charcoal grills, that self-feed charcoal from a hopper into the grill box. We are enamored with this idea as you can’t always go around the corner to the hardware store or bodega to get pellets, but charcoal is almost always widely available. We’ve also heard pretty good things, but we’ll wait to try first hand.
Everything you need to know about charcoal grills
How charcoal grills work
A charcoal grill is a metal/ceramic container that can hold burning charcoal in the bottom. You place the food you want to cook on a metal grate in the center of the container, above the charcoal. Closing the metal container’s lid when cooking holds in the heat. The direct heat from the charcoal sears the bottom of the food, while the indirect heat circulating throughout the grill cooks the food. Leave the lid off the grill if you only want to use direct heat.
When it comes to techniques for lighting charcoal and for understanding how charcoal works, charcoal manufacturer Kingsford is a great resource. Charcoal is the ideal fuel for grilling because it burns hot for searing, but it also burns for a long time, creating plenty of indirect heat for slow cooking. You can add wood for smoky flavors with charcoal grilling, too.
Charcoal vs. gas (and propane)
Charcoal grills differ from propane and gas grills in the fuel source used. Like their namesakes, charcoal grills use charcoal and gas grills use gas (in the form of either a direct hook up to your natural gas line or propane tanks).
Practically speaking, gas grills operate much like a stovetop: you set the heat with a turn of the knob. Charcoal requires more time and hands-on work. Charcoal takes about 15 to 20 minutes to heat up, and doesn’t produce a continuous flame. This heat variability makes charcoal grills a great choice for barbecue, since it offers you more flexibility and control. Charcoal also leaves gray ash after the flame consumes it, while propane and gas grills leave no ash at all.
Key differences in charcoal grills
Here are some of the biggest differences to consider when shopping for the best charcoal grills:
Grilling versus smoking: Some charcoal grills can double as smokers, meaning they cook meat very slowly, using more indirect heat than direct heat. You’ll need a charcoal grill with a large interior to smoke bigger cuts of meat.Large versus small: A large charcoal grill will offer a big cooking surface, making it good for someone who wants to cook for several people at once. If you want more of a portable grill to take to tailgates or camping, though, you’ll have to sacrifice the cooking surface for portability.Using indirect grilling: If you are looking to cook meat slowly without searing, but you don’t have the time for smoking, indirect grilling is the technique to use. You’ll place the lit charcoal on one side of the charcoal grill and the meat on the opposite side. Controlling cooking temperatures: Achieving precise temperatures with a charcoal grill is difficult. However, if you want a bit more control over the temperature inside the charcoal grill, the unit should have air vents on both the top and bottom. Additionally, you should be able to adjust the height of the grate over the charcoal.Headroom: If you plan to cook poultry or beef roasts — any food with some height to it — make sure the charcoal grill is tall enough to accommodate the food with the lid attached.
How to start a charcoal grill
The best way to start a charcoal grill is to use a chimney starter like this one from Weber. Stuff some newspaper (or a fire starter, or anything reasonably flammable) in the bottom, fill the chimney with coals, and light from beneath. Within 15-20 minutes, the coals will become ashy, and you can carefully dump it into an even pile within the grill basin. If you’re using indirect heat, or trying to keep some resting space, put it to one side.
If you don’t have a chimney starter, you’ll probably still want to use some paper, but fire starters will work well, too. The one thing both Steven Raichlen and Pat LaFrieda instruct against is lighter fluid. You don’t want to drink the stuff, why would you eat off its fumes? Instead, make a substantial bed of newspaper, pile your charcoal atop it, and light.
How to clean a charcoal grill
The best time to clean your grill is while it’s hot after cooking. That’ll make the grease, grit, and whatever else might be attached to the grates that much easier to knock off.
If you forget, or decline to clean your grill after cooking (we get it), simply get it hot the next time, and go to town with a brush, scraper, and/or cleaning brick. Heat is your friend in the cleaning process and it makes things all the easier. Here’s our guide to grill cleaning tools, and how to use them.
How to build a charcoal grill
Charcoal grills can be as elementary as you want them, so yes, you can absolutely build a charcoal grill if you have some time and patience. Pitmasters have cut barbecues out of 55-gallon steel drums for generations, and while that’s a little more involved, it’s not unfeasible.
One of the easiest methods, as told to us by Olunloyo, is a three-walled structure with a fourth side exposed, using cinder blocks and cement, making sure to start on a safe surface:
The size and shape are entirely up to you, but stack the cinder blocks in a U-shape as high as you’d like, but not so high that the heat from your fire below won’t reach the grate you’ll place on top.Once you’ve decided on your dimensions, you can cut or order a grate from any industrial metal supplier that sells fencing or square grates, and ask for 3/16″ or ¼” stainless steel (either a grate or a flat top, as you like) to be cut to size. This will be the costliest portion of the build, but also the most crucial.Once you have the grate or flat top, be sure to hone the rough edges for safety, and then place it on the cinder-block structure and wipe or spray it with any cooking oil (Olunloyo recommends olive oil spray), saturate it, and get it plenty hot before cooking.
How long should charcoal burn before grilling?
Charcoal will take about 15 to 20 minutes to light and turn into embers, but that can vary a good deal depending on what type of charcoal and how much you’re using. The main thing to look for is that the coals are covered in a light grey ash. When the majority of coals look this way, it’s time to cook.
Do I close the lid after lighting charcoal?
If you’re using the grill basin to start your charcoal, leave the lid open while the coals light. The increased air circulation will help the coals light faster. Same applies if you’re using a chimney starter: keep the chimney uncovered.
Once the charcoal is fully lit (and transferred to the grill basin if using a chimney starter), cover the grill for about 10 minutes or so to heat the grill itself. Then, you’re ready to start cooking.
How do I calculate how much charcoal I need?
The amount of charcoal you want to use depends on what and how much food you’re cooking. If you’re dealing with, say, a steak you want to sear, you’ll want a full chimney starter (or a few pounds of coals).
If you’re cooking something light like a filet of white-fleshed fish, you can get away with about a third of a chimney starter. When in doubt, though, just fill your chimney starter and shape the bed of coals as makes sense. It won’t cost you too much to err on the safe side, and eventually, you’ll get a feel for how many coals you need for the type of cooking you’re doing.
Check out our other great grilling gear guides