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How to Buy a Charcoal Grill

Let’s address the age-old question first before getting into how to buy a charcoal grill.

Charcoal or gas?

With so many options available on the market, you need to answer this fundamental question before heading to the store. The answer is quite simple, really. It depends on how you like to cook.

If you like to slow-cook your food and enjoy a smoky, charred-at-the-edges result, then you may prefer a charcoal grill. Think southern barbecued baby back ribs.  Does this make your mouth water?

However, if you need a fast feast, or would rather steer clear of this distinct smoky flavor, you might want to consider a gas grill instead. Read my article pitting the pros and cons of gas grills vs charcoal grills to help you decide which is best for you.

Let’s look specifically at why you may consider a charcoal grill and some of the things to look for to help you make an informed decision perfect for your budget and cooking needs. At the bottom of this article, I will leave a link that will take you to my list of the top charcoal grills for 2017 along with reviews and comparisons.

In this Grilling Life’s Guide on how to buy a charcoal grill, I’ll be giving you everything you need to know for buying the best charcoal grill you can afford.

Keep on reading to the end for a handy charcoal grill buying checklist.

Why a Charcoal Grill?

If any of the following four benefits seem appealing to you, consider choosing charcoal.

  1. You enjoy grilling, really enjoy it, and you want to slow-cook your meal: Charcoal grills are great for slow-cooking under a tightly sealed top with venting, allowing the drippings to pool in a catch basin and mix with the smoke to create a distinct smoldering flavor. Some see charcoal grilling as getting back to the basics, and this approach is ideal for the rustic outdoorsman.
  2. You want smoky, grill-marked meat that reminds you of being down South: When the drippings of the meat you’re cooking drip onto the hot charcoals and mix with the fumes beneath the cover, it creates a unique taste, and this flavor can only be achieved by cooking with a charcoal grill.
  3. You want a simply built, durable unit: Charcoal grills are more simplistic in their design and consist of less movable parts, so they tend to last longer and create less of a hassle long term than gas alternatives. You’ll want to consider a gas grill, instead, if you crave more complex features, or need to fire it up and cook a crowd-pleasing meal quickly.
  4. You need to grill on the go: Many charcoal grills are portable and even have wheels on one side of the base making them easy to haul. Looking to pack up the cooker for camping? Charcoal is your best bet for outdoor barbecuing in the boondocks and cooking up a meal quickly in the sticks.

Okay, so you’ve made up your mind – you’re choosing charcoal! Now what?

How to Buy a Charcoal Grill

When shopping for a new grill, the most important thing to do is properly plan before heading to the store and really get a good grasp on how to buy a charcoal grill. This seems like common sense, but we all know that person who’d rather ‘wing it’.

Planning is important when considering how to choose a charcoal grill, because of the variety of options available at a variety of prices. This is a home accessory you want to maintain as a relatively long-term investment.

You’ll be using it time and again and for years, hopefully. So, you’ll want to make sure you’ve really looked at all of the options and you’ve made the best personal choice possible amid the infinite number of grills available.

There is a wealth of information out there about how to buy a charcoal grill, and what to look for in a charcoal grill, but it really comes down to personal preference. Consider what features matter most to you.

Still unsure of the best approach for buying a charcoal grill? Check out this article: The Ultimate Charcoal Grill Buyers Guide.

What to Look For in a Charcoal Grill

What Is it Made Of | What Size is Best | Stability | Cooking & Charcoal Grates | What About the Lid | Grease & Ash Catcher | Easy Assembly | Proper Airflow | What Kind of Lighting System Does the Grill Use | Temperature Control | Add-on Features | 2 Zone Set Up

Here are some helpful tips regarding how to buy a charcoal grill. They are designed to guide you through the buying process.

Making an informed decision before dishing out your dough will help to prevent buyer’s remorse.  There’s nothing more frustrating than a winging-it purchase you wake up regretting the very next day.

At the bottom of this page, I will be including an easy-to-use buying checklist that highlights the qualities listed next. Print it out and take it with you when you go to make your purchase.

Consider the following when asking yourself what to look for in a charcoal grill:

What Is the Charcoal Unit Made Of?

For quality cooking, you need to start with a solid firebox and lid! Make sure that the grill you choose is made out of heavy-duty and durable material. High-quality stainless steel, ceramics, powder coated 16 or 18-gauge steel, and cast aluminum are all great options.

Also, consider the thickness and tight construction of the charcoal grill. Thicker materials hold heat a lot better than a thin and flimsy grill. A tight-fitting construction prevents unwanted oxygen from getting in (or out) and defeating the dampers.

Ceramic cookers are great, because they are durable, and provide just the right temperature to smoke food to perfection. Because ceramic tops are heavy-duty and seal tightly, they provide the perfect environment for retaining and maintaining heat for proper cooking.

What Size Is Best?

This depends entirely on how and what you plan to cook. Charcoal grills come in a variety of sizes, large to small, including several standard sizes.

So, what will work best for you? Well, do you plan to cook one item at a time, or do you prefer to cook several items at once? Large or small portions? Do you want to be able to place some food aside on the grilling surface or warming rack, while heating other morsels?

Where do you plan to do the cooking? Can your patio or deck accommodate a larger unit? Do you plan to take the grill with you on camping trips or to your friends’ houses?

These are all things you should be asking yourself when considering the size. Take some time to consider what you intend to cook before heading to the store.

What Happens When You Give the Grill a Good Shove?

Does the unit wobble or appear tipsy, or does it maintain a sturdy stance? Will it withstand the weather or flop with drops?

You don’t want the unit to blow off your deck in a storm! It needs to be sturdy enough to get the job done without breaking down mid-way through the feat.

You want to bring home a grill that is reliable and capable of standing its ground. Inspect the overall workmanship of the grill before making the purchase.

What Do the Cooking Grate and Charcoal Grate Look Like?

Heavy duty, or cheaply made? What are the grates made of? You’ll want to make sure they’re sturdy enough to hold the food and coals, and can handle a hefty bit of food at once.

You need a good cooking surface, and believe it or not, many times, cheap wire grill grates are the best choice. They do a better job of allowing radiant heat and airflow through and provide a better all-over, even colored sear than cast iron grates.

Porcelain-coated cast iron grates are good for transferring heat directly into the meat and are not a bad choice. Just avoid using a wire brush while cleaning them, as they will start to rust much faster.

Lastly, a cooking grate with a hinged section option is super convenient for adding additional coals during a long cook.

What About the Lid?

There are several points to be made here.

Is the lid fully enclosed without ventilation? It shouldn’t be. Ever. The unit should include a venting system built into the lid. Look closely at this. Proper venting ensures the smoke doesn’t encapsulate the food, leaving an overpowering burnt taste.

The lid itself should also secure snugly, closing without gaps, and you’ll want to closely examine the available space on the cooktop once the lid is shut, especially if you plan to cook bulky food that will require headroom. Think whole beer can chickens or turkeys.

You Need an Effective Grease & Ash Catcher

You’ll want your grill to quickly collect the ashes and waste and allow you to discard it with little hassle or mess.  You don’t want to be left with hours of cleanup after you’ve finished consuming a delicious home-cooked meal.  Go for a model that can be quickly cleaned, so you can kick back and let your food settle.

Easy access to charcoal, especially while cooking is another extremely handy feature to have. There is nothing worse than having to remove your food mid-cook, then having to remove a hot cooking grate without burning yourself, (check out these awesome heat-resistant grilling gloves to help remedy that situation), add additional charcoal, then repeat the process backward.

Easy Assembly

If you’re not going with the floor model, you’ll at least want to choose a unit that could be paired with an edition of Grill Assembly For Dummies.

If it has a million miscellaneous pieces without clear identifiers, the sheer frustration of putting the grill together will leave you too spiteful to use it. That is if you can actually make it usable.

Charcoal grills by their very nature have fewer mechanisms than do gas grills, but some require a more engineeringly inclined mindset to construct than others. Go with a model that allows for quick assembly, so you can turn your grill on sooner. Plus, the fewer parts, the fewer parts waiting to malfunction.

Proper Airflow

The best charcoal grills can be turned off to cool down the fire, and the remainder of the unused coals reused in your next cookout. This way, you’ll save yourself from having to buy new bags each time, which can take a toll on your pocketbook.

The most efficient grills have the appropriate venting system allowing for the most efficient use through the grilling season. To be able to maintain a set temperature the grill needs to be able to seal up tightly so that the dampers (vents) are the only way for oxygen to get in and out of the grill.

Check the dampers. Charcoal grills need at least two, an intake and an exhaust. Make sure the intake damper fits tightly.

What Kind of Lighting System Does the Grill Use?

If it has a propane system capable of igniting charcoal, you won’t have to buy lighter fluid or fire starters. Additional cost savings.  Propane systems are also easier to light, so they’ll save you the frustration of having to try again and again before the unit is operable.

Or you can buy a charcoal chimney starter for your charcoal grill lighting needs.

Is There Temperature Control?

For charcoal grills, you’ll want to consider the lid, dampers, and the distance between the cooking surface and the coals.

Can you adjust the charcoal or cooking grates while cooking? Using a remote digital thermometer will also help to ensure your slow cooking doesn’t turn into over-cooking.

Add-on Features

The best models include a variety of optional accessories, such as half shelves or racks, which you can attach and remove as necessary. This allows you to enjoy additional cooking surfaces for larger meals as needed without sacrificing space saving.

Can you upgrade or modify your new grill with optional accessories? Adding a rotisserie or smoker box is some of the most popular options.

2-Zone Setup

Last but certainly not least, can the grill accommodate a 2-zone cooking setup? In my opinion, this is one of the most important features to look for in a charcoal grill.

The key to successful grilling is temperature control. If you are unable to easily set up a 2-zone cooking area, you are severely limiting yourself.

For more information on 2-zone grilling, check out this guide: Zone Grilling Methods for Mastering Your Grill.

Final Thoughts on Our How to Buy a Charcoal Grill Guide

As you can see, there is a lot to mull over when considering how to choose a charcoal grill.

But, with these tips in mind and a solid understanding of what to look for, shopping should be made simple.

Take the time to do your research before heading out to buy.

With so many options and variables, it would be a shame to make a rash decision on your outdoor cooking investment!

It will be worth the extra time it takes in the long run.

I hope these how-to buy a charcoal grill tips and checklists are helpful for you.

Best of luck in your search and let’s get grilling!


Pat G.

Charcoal Grill Buying Printable Checklist

[  ] Materials & Durability – What is the charcoal unit made of? Shoot for high-quality stainless steel, ceramics, cast aluminum, or powder coated 16 or 18-gauge steel.

[  ] What Size is Best – What will best fit your location space and cooking needs?

[  ] Workmanship – Is it a quality built and sturdy unit?

[  ] Grates – Are they heavy-duty, or cheaply made? Are they likely to rust after a season? Is the charcoal or grill grate height adjustable?

[  ] Lid – Does the lid have proper venting and does it seal tightly when closed?

[  ] Temperature Control – Charcoal grills need tight seals and dampers (at least 2 vents).

[  ] Ease of Cleaning – You’ll want your grill to quickly collect the ashes and waste and allow you to discard it with little hassle or mess.

[  ] 2-Zone Cooking – Can the grill be set up for indirect heat cooking? Can you easily create a 2-zone setup? This is important if you plan to cook more than just burgers and dogs.

[  ] Smoking – Can the grill also do smoking?

[  ] Thermometer – Does the grill have a lid-mounted thermometer?

[  ] Carts and Wheels – Some grills come on carts. The carts should be well-built and sturdy. Does the cart have cabinets or shelves for extra storage?  Are the wheels heavy-duty and sturdy?

[  ] Side Shelves – Are the shelves sturdy? Will they hold heavy items? Wood shelves will wear out and rot faster.

[  ] Cover – Does the grill come with a cover to protect it from the elements?

[  ] Assembly – You can check reviews for comments on ease of assembly. If people are saying it is difficult, many retailers will offer to assemble the unit for you for free.

[  ] Manual – Does the grill come with an easy-to-follow manual?

 [  ] Additional Accessories – Does the grill come with any additional optional accessories, or can it be upgraded or modified easily?

[  ] Warranty & Support – Know what kind of warranty the grill comes with and what it covers. Look for five to ten years. Does the dealer have a good reputation and are they easy to contact? Is a phone number listed on the website? Do they have a copy of the manual on their site?

[  ] Price – What is your cut-off point? Know what you are willing to spend before heading to the store.

What are your personal charcoal grill buying tips?  Let us know by commenting below!

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DisclosureAt The Grilling Life, I am committed to researching and writing thoughtful, informative and editorially independent reviews of the best products for your outdoor cooking needs.  If you like what I do, you can support me through my chosen links, which earn me a commission.  This allows me to continue sharing with you my love for all things barbecue.  Your support is truly appreciated.

Patrick Ginise

A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, grill master and I’m Living The Grilling Life!

I have a passion for cooking with live fire and smoke, no matter the weather. I’m a real person just like you, who loves outdoor cooking and BBQ. Food, fun, and time spent with family and friends are what it’s all about! It is my mission to take my passion and knowledge for outdoor cooking and all things BBQ and share this expertise in techniques and grilling equipment with you. In other words, Living The Grilling Life!

I have personally tested over 150+ Grills and Smokers and hundreds of grilling thermometers, temperature controllers, grill brushes, grilling tools, fire starters, and other BBQ products.