Everything you Need to Know to Buy the Best Charcoal Grill in this Ultimate Charcoal Grill Buyers Guide
Charcoal grills are the purest form of grilling next to cooking over an open fire. It’s reminiscent of how our ancestors prepared food for thousands of years.
Cooking over an open flame is popular today for the same reason it was in your great, great grandfather’s day. It works, and it’s delicious.
Whether you’re new to grilling over charcoal or you’re ready to update your setup to something more advanced, here is everything you need to consider before buying your next charcoal grill.
What You Can Expect From This Charcoal Grill Buyers Guide
In this charcoal grill buyer guide, we’ve broken down the features of charcoal grills and the different classifications, so you’ll confidently buy the best charcoal grill for you.
You’ll also learn the advantages of charcoal grills, what features to look for in a charcoal grill, and what must-have grilling gear you need to add to your shopping list.
In this article, we’ll explore:
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Why Choose a Charcoal Grill?
Just thinking about the smell of juices dripping on the hot coals below is enough to make your mouth water. Then you take that first bite of crispy meat and breakthrough to the juicy inside. It’s the perfect combination of natural flavors and rich smokiness that you just can’t achieve with other cooking methods.
And if you’re more forward-thinking, don’t shy away from a charcoal grill. It can be used for multiple cooking styles and offers endless options for experimentation. With various sizes, shapes, features, configurations, and accessories, the right charcoal grill is out there for you.
Charcoal Grill Vs Gas Grill
Choosing between a charcoal grill and a gas grill can be difficult. Each has its advantages. So why should you go with a charcoal grill?
For starters, charcoal grills are more simply designed making them cheaper to make and buy. Essentially, a charcoal grill is made up of an insulated container that holds a rack above a pile of coals and can be closed off with a lid.
On the other hand, a gas grill has many working parts and pieces that cost more to manufacture, and unfortunately, it means more things can go wrong with it. Apart from the insulated container and grill rack, gas grills also have burners, tanks, valves, ignitions, and hoses.
There is also more risk with gas grills. If the propane tank is not tightened enough, or if for some reason it gets left on, you run the risk of explosion.
You also never have to wonder about how much fuel you have left with a charcoal grill. Just look in your bag of charcoal or at the bottom of the grill.
Propane cans are harder to measure. If it’s not a full bottle, you lift it, shake it side to side, ask your buddies, “Do you think this is enough for the party tonight?”. The propane guessing game almost always ends in half-cooked chicken and an emergency run to the nearest gas station.
Charcoal also gives you that smoky wood flavor you can’t get with gas. Of course, some people don’t like the flavor addition, but if it defines BBQ food for you, then charcoal grills are the way to go.
Charcoal grills are a great place to start as a beginner because there is more of a learning curve. Once you put in the time and effort to mastering it, however, you’ll be able to cook on any grill, including charcoal and gas, no problem.
If you want to dive in deeper on the differences between charcoal and gas grills, you can check out my comparison guide here: And the Debate Goes On: Cooking with Charcoal vs Gas Grills
The Three Main Types Of Charcoal Grills
Charcoal grills come in different styles and are made from a variety of materials; however, the most popular charcoal grill types include ceramic, barrel, and kettle grills. Each of these grill types has the capacity of grilling, barbecuing, and smoking, while each offers its unique advantage.
Kettle grills are the least expensive of the charcoal grills, and they are also the smallest. Small isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When you’re just starting to learn how to grill, a larger grill might tempt you to add more food than you can handle at a time.
Fortunately, while most kettle grills are around 22 inches in diameter, you can find others between 26 and 36 inches, so size shouldn’t become an issue. Even at its smallest size, a kettle grill can hold between 12 and 15 burgers at a time.
The small size makes it perfect for smaller gatherings and means quicker cooking time and less fuel needed.
The classic dome shape of a kettle grill helps cook food evenly. The design not only retains the heat of the coals, but it reflects it into the food. The air vents can be adjusted for smoking or trapping heat in with the food.
Maintenance is also easy with kettle grills, especially if you opt for a model that has a removable ash catcher.
Because of its low price (starting at about $50 for most basic models) and its noninvasive size, it’s perfect if you’re just starting out or plan on using your grill primarily for grilling but would like to have barbecuing and smoking as options.
If you need a little more room than what a kettle grill has to offer, a barrel grill might be the way to go. It has a larger cooking area and is more efficient at smoking and slow cooking than the kettle grill.
That’s because the barrel grill is designed specifically for its smoking ability. The halved steel drum is paired with a charcoal basket, air vents, chimney, meat hooks, and grilling racks. The charcoal sits in the bottom half of the barrel while the top half works as a lid to hold in heat.
Because most barrel grills are at least 36 inches long, they’re ideal for cooking for larger groups. However, it is also much less portable than the kettle grill and usually comes on a wheeled stand.
One unique feature of most barrel grills is the warming rack. No one wants lukewarm ribs! So, as you take the meat off the grill, you can keep it hot until the meal is entirely cooked. Hot food not only tastes better, but it’s safer to eat, and you’ll be less likely to give your guests food poisoning.
Barrel grills also cost more than kettle grills starting around $200 to $300 and up. Fortunately, even for the price, you can get a lot more out of a barrel grill. You can cook more food on it and use it for smoking and barbecuing.
Kamado Grills (Also Called Ceramic Grills)
Kamado grills are the Cadillacs of charcoal grills, and it’s reflected in the price. Most models start at about $700, so most grill enthusiasts wait until they have plenty of experience under their belts before investing in one of these bad boys. But you can find smaller models for around $300.
While other charcoal grills are steel or cast iron, kamado grills are made from superior ceramic. Ceramic is a better insulator than metal and thus offers better heat control. If you plan on using your grill through the cold winter, it’s the only way to go.
Kamado grills heat up quickly and can maintain a wide temperature range from 200 degrees Fahrenheit to 700 degrees Fahrenheit and can go even hotter. So, you can slow cook a brisket or turn up the heat and use it as a pizza oven.
Another advantage of heavy-duty ceramic is that it is incredibly durable and resistant to weather.
You can find ceramic grills in whatever size best suits your grilling lifestyle. The smallest holds around four burgers, while the largest can handle up to 40 patties at a time.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a highly portable charcoal grill, that’s the one downside of the kamado. Due to the durable nature of the ceramic, kamado grills tend to be very heavy and difficult to move, the heaviest model topping out at 200 pounds.
Charcoal Grills vs. Kamado Smokers
Technically speaking, kamados are a type of charcoal grill. However, compared to other charcoal grills, they are quite different in the construction material and their overall design.
Here are a few main differences between kamado smokers and other charcoal grills.
One of the most significant differences between charcoal grills and kamado smokers is their overall construction. Charcoal grills are made from either commercial-grade stainless steel or cheaper painted stainless steel.
Steel is an excellent option for grills since it conducts heat quickly and gets the grills to a high temperature, perfect for searing.
Another difference worth noting is the airflow in charcoal grills. Because more air is let in, it might be easier to keep your fire going, but it will also use up your fuel faster. So it’s best to stay stocked up with more charcoal than you think you’ll need just to play it safe.
Kamado grills, on the other hand, allow less airflow giving it two advantages over typical charcoal grills.
- You burn less fuel.
- Food is juicier and more tender since not as much air passes over the food drying it out.
Since kamado grills are made from ceramic rather than steel, it does take a lot longer to preheat. However, once it reaches temperature, the kamado stays hot and holds heat for much longer than other charcoal grills making it great for experimenting with indirect cooking.
You can check out a list of some of the best Kamado Grills here: Kamado Grill Examples
Choosing Your Charcoal Grill’s Configuration
You can’t choose your grill’s configuration until you know where you’re going to put it. You’ll need to decide if you need your charcoal grill to be portable or if you’d like to build it into your outdoor kitchen.
Once you know the location of your future grill, it’ll be easier to choose between the many grill configurations.
Below I added a little more info on each option.
Freestanding Charcoal Grills
Freestanding charcoal grills are either more portable and sit on a cart, or they have legs. Both styles are good options if you are planning on using your grill tailgating or if you like the option of moving it around in the backyard.
A freestanding grill works well if you only use it seasonally and plan on storing it through the colder months.
Another advantage of a freestanding grill is that it is easier to clean than the built-in option. Most freestanding grills have ash-removing mechanisms or can be used with an ash basket that is pulled out and dumped without having to vacuum or sweep up ash from your grill.
Built-In Charcoal Grills
Including a built-in charcoal grill in your outdoor kitchen not only looks sleek but gives you a functional centerpiece. They slide into your custom space for easy installment just like a gas grill would, only with more versatility.
Most built-in charcoal grills are made from commercial-grade stainless steel, so they are beautiful and withstand weathering.
You can check out my list of the best here: The 10 Best Built In Charcoal Grills
Size And Cooking Area
Estimating the size of the cooking area you’ll need is sometimes the most challenging part of choosing a grill. We all have those “what if” questions in the back of our minds, but try your best to be realistic.
Might you someday have to cook for hundreds of people at once? Well, maybe, but how likely is it? Instead of getting swept away imagining all the possible circumstances you might need to cook for, answer the following questions.
- On any given night of the week, how many people do I generally cook for?
- If I’d have to cook for a larger group, what’s the maximum number of people I could realistically see myself cooking for?
- How often would a large event like that occur?
If you’re just starting out and only plan on cooking for close friends and family a few times a week, then a smaller grill might be the perfect fit for you. Otherwise, if you’re the guy that caters to all the big events in the lives of your friends (weddings, family reunions, graduation parties, etc.), then you might opt to go for a bigger grill.
Remember that bigger isn’t always better. If you have a small grill and occasionally cook for a larger group, it might take a little more time. However, if you buy a large grill and only use it occasionally the rest of the year, you’ll be burning much more fuel than necessary.
Below is a breakdown of your size options.
Small And Portable Charcoal Grills
Small, portable charcoal grills include any grill grates that are less than 26 inches wide. It’s the perfect size for small families, couples, or individuals. Small grills are also ideal if you plan on using it on-the-go such as at the beach, tailgating, camping, or road-tripping.
Small grills are perfect for burgers, hot dogs, steak, and even poultry. The only downside is that there isn’t a lot of space to move the coals around. That means slow cooking, smoking, and Zone Cooking are harder to achieve.
Check out Small Charcoal Grill examples here: Small Charcoal Grills
Medium Charcoal Grills
While not as portable as small grills, medium charcoal grills are an excellent option for larger families or occasional parties.
They typically measure anywhere from 27 to 33 inches across, giving you plenty of room for dual cooking zones. So you can cook your meat on one side and your sides on the other without having to adjust the overall temperature of your grill.
Check out Medium Charcoal Grill examples here: Medium Charcoal Grills
Large Charcoal Grills
If you’re generally in charge of hosting larger events, then you’ll want to opt for the large charcoal grill. With a minimum of 34 inches across its grill grates, a large charcoal grill allows you to cook up to 20 steaks at a time.
Apart from cooking more food, large charcoal grills also give you more freedom to experiment with your cooking techniques. You can sear on one side while you smoke on the other without losing any time.
Check out Large Charcoal Grill examples here: Large Charcoal Grills
Choosing Your Charcoal Grill Class
You might have already noticed that there’s a big difference in the price range between small and large grills. While the size of the grill has a lot to do with pricing, so does the quality.
Grills fall into four classifications, including Luxury, Premium, Practical, and Entry-Level.
Your lifestyle, budget, and the features important to you, will help you determine what grill class is best for you.
Below is a rundown of each option so you know what they have to offer.
Luxury Charcoal Grills
Luxury charcoal grills come with features that make using them easy and convenient such as electric charcoal starters and digital controls.
They also include a split-tier for more cooking options, and charcoal trays are even adjustable.
This class of grill is made from either cast aluminum or 304 commercial-grade stainless steel.
Because of their long-lasting materials, they can withstand years of use and harsh environments. Most companies stand behind the build and offer lifetime warranties to prove it.
Check out Luxury Charcoal Grills examples here: Luxury Charcoal Grills
Premium Charcoal Grills
Premium charcoal grills also come in either stainless steel or cast aluminum and often come with lifetime warranties as well.
You’ll have plenty of control over your cook with adjustable-height charcoal trays.
Some of their additional features include charcoal chamber doors, hidden rotisseries, and ignition at the push of a button.
Check out Premium Charcoal Grills examples here: Premium Charcoal Grills
Practical Charcoal Grills
Practical class grills can come in a variety of mixed materials and contain features such as charcoal access doors, adjustable charcoal trays, and electric ignition.
While they won’t have a lifetime warranty, most charcoal grills come with a ten-year warranty and will last that long if they are properly cared for.
Check out Practical Charcoal Grills examples here: Practical Charcoal Grills
Economy Charcoal Grills
Economy charcoal grills are the most affordable upfront but need to be replaced sooner than high-class grills.
This class of grills are usually kettle grills and could be made from ceramic, cast iron, painted steel, or porcelain-coated steel.
Because they are smaller, you often have less versatility and capacity when cooking. However, economy grills are a great option if you don’t grill often or if you’re just starting out and aren’t sure if you’re ready to invest in something more substantial.
Most economy charcoal grills won’t offer a long-term warranty and don’t usually last longer than ten years.
Check out Economy Charcoal Grills examples here: Economy Charcoal Grills
Build Quality And Durability
If you only grill occasionally, a mid-range to economy grill might be a good investment for you since the less expensive building materials won’t be under extreme use.
But, if you grill pretty regularly, you’ll want to opt for tougher materials such as cast iron and heavy-gauge steel so you won’t have to worry about pieces breaking down or needing replacements. 304-grade stainless steel is your best option, but you will pay more for it.
Charcoal Grill Grates
When shopping for a charcoal grill, make sure you take time to investigate the grill grates and their materials. They are most likely made from steel, porcelain, or cast iron.
Steel or stainless-steel grates will likely be on the most affordable grills as they are the least expensive to manufacture. Unfortunately, they are also the least durable and tend to chip.
If you opt for steel, make sure you get stainless steel as it will last longer, and food will be less likely to stick to it than plain steel.
Mid-range grills often come with porcelain, coated grates. They are great non-stick-wise but also tend to chip. You need to be especially careful not to clean these grates with metal scrapers.
The most durable grates you’ll find on a charcoal grill are made of cast iron. They are super-efficient at retaining and distributing heat, so they cook faster. Unfortunately, they also cost more and require careful maintenance.
Setting and maintaining your temperature is much harder on charcoal grills than it is on a gas grill. It takes practice and dedication to master.
Controlling the temperature of your charcoal grill means controlling the fire. You have to do this by adding more coals and by adjusting the airflow. Combining the two actions helps you create a larger fire for higher heat or dampen the fire for low heat.
Airflow is controlled by the intake and exhaust dampers on your grill. Using these vents correctly allows you to adjust how much oxygen is let in to feed the fire. Dampers should fit snugly for the most accurate control.
Your lid will also affect how well the temperature is maintained. Make sure your lid fits tightly to hold in heat and take into consideration how often you’re opening and closing it to check the food.
Some charcoal grills come with adjustable charcoal baskets. Moving the charcoal closer or further away from the food will change how quickly it cooks.
For a hands-free approach, it’s worth looking into a temperature controller such as a Pitmaster IQ regulator. It conveniently manages airflow to help keep your grill at the right temperature.
You can learn more about temperature management by reading my guide here: Using Grill Vents Correctly – Controlling Temperature With Vents
2-Zone Cooking Capability
When your charcoal grill is big enough for 2-zone cooking, you can sear a steak on one side of the grill while slowly roasting another cut on the other side.
2-zone cooking involves moving hot coals to one side of the grill, so the other side is cooler and only using convection and indirect heat.
A smaller charcoal grill definitely leaves you at a disadvantage since you can’t utilize two zones as easily.
You can learn more about zone cooking by reading my guide here: Zone Grilling Methods – The Most Essential Skill To Master Your Grill
Easy Access To Your Coals While Cooking
You want to make sure you can easily access the charcoal on your grill so you can move it around as you adjust the temperature.
When shopping for a charcoal grill, consider looking for one that has a door that opens directly to the coal so you can add to it and adjust it accordingly. Another option is a grill that has hinged grill grates that can be opened to easily add additional charcoal.
Ash Removal And Ease Of Cleaning
One of the biggest downsides to charcoal grills is the amount of ash it makes. Because of this, cleanup is much more involved than a gas grill. If you don’t remove the ash regularly, it will work as an insulator and absorb the heat from the coals before it reaches your food.
Additionally, if ash gets wet, its high alkalinity can eat away at the steel in your grill. When food drippings mix with ash, it becomes sticky and even flammable.
Residual ash is no joke. If you want your grill to work at peak performance and last a long time, you need to clean out the ash after every use.
Sweeping, vacuuming, or dumping out ash is cumbersome and not always effective. If ash is still hot, those methods of cleaning can also be dangerous.
Instead, look for a grill that has an easy-clean mechanism. Many come with ash baskets or drawers that can be pulled out directly from the grill and then emptied.
If the grill doesn’t already come with those features, look for ash baskets sold separately to fit your grill. They’re well worth the investment.
Overall Ease Of Use
The overall design of your charcoal grill will make all the difference in how long you enjoy cooking with it.
The grill vents should be easy to open, the racks shouldn’t wobble, and the hood should hang on the side out of the way.
If any of these or other design points are off, it can lead to frustration and even injury.
Availability Of Accessories And Additional Features
Charcoal grills are more versatile and customizable than other grill models. There are several accessories and optional features that make your charcoal grill especially perfect for your grilling style.
Some brands come with advanced plug-and-play accessories that make grilling a breeze.
Regardless of the brand or size of your grill, however, some grilling accessories are an absolute must, including:
- An ash tool for cleanup and stoking
- A charcoal chimney
- An electric charcoal starter
- An ash basket or catcher
- A quality grill cover
These accessories will make grilling enjoyable and sustainable and will even protect your equipment, so it lasts for years to come.
Other common features important to your grilling experience include dampers, vents, side tables, temperature probe holes, and charcoal draws.
Additional Things To Consider When Buying A Charcoal Grill
You can’t always think of everything before choosing a grill, but regardless of what size and model you’re considering, make sure to consider the following points.
Current Owners Opinions
You won’t find a more honest description of what a grill is really like than from actual customers. They don’t hold back from giving the good, the bad, and the ugly on products, and grills are no different.
If you’re going back and forth between a few similar models, take time to read through customer reviews carefully.
They might point out a feature that changed up their grilling game. Or there might be a common complaint among customers over a particular aspect of the grill that you’ll want to avoid.
Besides helping you make the right purchase, connecting with fellow grillers online is a great way to share experiences, tips, and recipes.
Good Customer Support Matters
Considering the ratings and reviews on the grill itself is important, but feedback about customer support is equally necessary.
Imagine you’re already frustrated that something isn’t working right on your new grill or something already broke. Now you’re on hold with customer support for hours. You get transferred from person to person until the call drops, and you’re back a square one.
Read about the company ahead of time and if it generally lacks good customer support reviews, skip it. If a company isn’t willing to work with you when there’s a problem or back their products, then it’s not worth your time or money.
Additionally, if a customer support contact method is hard to find, or limited to only one way to get a hold of them, think twice before making that purchase.
Get To Know Your Warranty Options Before You Buy
Warranties say a lot about a product. The better it’s built, the longer amount of time the warranty will cover.
For example, if your grill only has a one-year warranty, that’s a good sign that it’s not built well enough to last past that first year.
Look for grills with at least a 10-year warranty covering heavy use and providing a seamless replacement to broken parts.
Most grill manufactures will set different coverage durations for different parts of the grill as well so the length of the warranty for each component may differ. Read carefully to understand your coverage.
You can find a grill out there that fits any budget. Generally, charcoal grills range from $50 to $2000 and more.
The important thing is to set your budget before you start shopping. It will help you narrow down what grill to buy and keep you from constantly upgrading to the next best one.
The grill’s size, durability, and special features will affect the price, so have in mind what’s most important to you in a charcoal grill, then stick to your budget.
Charcoal Grilling Tools And Accessory Must Haves
We’ve touched briefly on what tools and accessories are best for charcoal grills, but here is a full breakdown of our favorite gear.
These items will make your grilling experience easier, more fun, safer, and cleaner.
A Charcoal Chimney Starter
It’s not uncommon when first starting out to rely entirely on lighter fluid to get the coals burning hot, but that can leave a nasty taste in your food.
As an alternative, some high-end charcoal grills come with a push-button starter, but if that’s not an option for you, a charcoal chimney starter might be the next best thing.
A charcoal chimney starter only requires you to crumple up some newspaper or use a Firestarter cube under the chimney of coal and light it.
It only takes about 15 minutes for your coals to get red hot and ready to go into the grill for cooking.
You check out my recommended Charcoal Chimney Starters here: 10 Best Charcoal Chimney Starters
You handle more heat hands-on with a charcoal grill than with a gas grill. Whether it’s moving the chimney of hot coals as you get started, adjusting the grates, or pushing around the charcoal to change your heating zones, your hand gets really close to the heat.
There’s also the danger of burns when lifting the fire changer or when adding, flipping, and removing food. If you’ve ever had the hairs on the back of your hand scorched from an unexpected flare-up, then you know how easy it is to bet burnt while grilling.
The easiest way to prevent injuries and still have precise control on your charcoal grill is to get a pair of heat-resistant grilling gloves. You’ll be able to grill more confidently and avoid unexpected trips to the emergency room when you wear them.
You check out my recommended Heat-Resistant Glove here: Best Heat Resistant Gloves For Grilling
While grilling gloves are handy at preventing injuries, there are some things they’re not great for, including adding food, rotating it, and removing it from the grates. At the very least, you’ll want a sturdy spatula and some long tongs.
You may invest in them over time, or if you want to get started right away, then a grilling toolset is a great option. That way, you’ll have everything you’ll need from the first time you fire up your new grill and onward.
Here are some great Grilling Toolset options: Grilling Toolsets
The only way to cook your food to perfection is to use a trusty thermometer. The most accurate is the instant read thermometers.
Not only will a good thermometer help you keep track of the doneness of your food, but it will help you keep track of the temperature of your grill so you can adjust it accordingly.
Some grills come with built-in thermometers in the lid, but they are not always accurate. Your best bet is a digital, dual-probe smoker and grill thermometer. It will let you monitor the temperature of your grill and the temperature of your food simultaneously.
Check out my recommended Instant Read Thermometers here: 10 Best Instant Read Thermometers
Check out my recommended Digital, Dual-Probe Smoker And Grill Thermometers here: 10 Best Digital Meat Thermometers
A Good Grill Brush
Whether you spend $50 or $2000 on a new charcoal grill, you’ll want to be sure to clean the grates thoroughly after every use. The easiest way to do it is with a quality grill brush.
Wire brushes are infamous for leaving wire bristles in food and can scratch up certain grate types.
Instead, opt for a bristle-free version to get your grates squeaky clean without feeding your family bits of metal.
You can see my recommended Grill Brush’s here: 10 Best Bristle Free Grill Brushes
A Charcoal Grill Cover
Covering your grill when it’s not in use will help keep it clean and protected from things like snow, dust, dirt, pollen, tree sap, water spots, and other natural messes. You can even show your team spirit by getting a Grill Cover With Your Favorite Sports Teams Logo On It!
A Charcoal Grill Grilling Guide
Whether you’re new to charcoal grilling, or you’re just ready to upgrade your grill, you’ll no doubt want to improve your skills. As mentioned, joining online communities is a great way to learn tips for charcoal grilling and swap recipes.
Another great resource for charcoal grill enthusiasts of all skill sets is the book The Science of Great Barbeque and Grilling written by non-other than Meathead Goldwyn, the founder of amazingribs.com.
You’ll learn tips and myths about cooking over charcoal and the science behind it. Goldwyn also shares a variety of recipes, so you’ll never run out of new techniques to try on the grill.
Final Thoughts On Our Charcoal Grill Buyers Guide
Cooking over the open flame is a technique that will stand the test of time. Charcoal grills allow you to grill, barbeque, and smoke all with the same piece of equipment.
Regardless of your budget, experience level, or grilling goals, the right charcoal grill is out there for you.
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