There’s not a whole lot better in the world than sizzling meat, and cooking it over charcoal is the preferred method for millions of people around the world. When it comes down to it, charcoal barbecuing is one of the best ways to get extra flavor into the meat and many people greatly prefer it.
However, they’re a bit less informed about what the best charcoal grill is than their preference in meat. The right grill can make a cookout go by easier than most people thought possible, so let’s check out what you need to ensure that you end up with something that’ll make that next backyard barbecue amazing instead of just great.
How to Know if It’s Time to Upgrade the Kettle Grill
The classic Weber is one of the best known examples of a charcoal grill. They look like a little UFO, perched on a few spindly legs, this style is ubiquitous and generally referred to as a kettle grill.
They’re fine for many people’s needs. A few burgers or hot dogs and a metal frame which isn’t going to fall apart without some major abuse applied to it? That’s a solid cooking device for the most part, although they lack much in the way of features.
Extra features aren’t the only reason for the upgrade, however. Many of these basic grills don’t allow you to move the grill itself up or down and can be hard to reposition while in use. Many have subpar containers for the ash, or just a tray, which can make them dicey to use in the dry season.
We’re guessing that if the old-fashioned, time-tested design doesn’t work for you then you’re probably getting into some serious barbecuing.
Some of the reasons people make the switch:
Basically, if you’re planning on doing anything other than making burgers and hot dogs you’ll be well-served with a great charcoal grill instead of just going down the easy route.
Of course, a brand-new kettle grill is sometimes exactly what’s needed. The good ones last for decades, so it’s a solid investment.
For those who are only familiar with the old-standby we mentioned above(and they’re not a bad option if the barbecuer is living by a KISS-philosophy) the bewildering array of grills out there can seem confusing.
Even once you’ve narrowed down the choice to going charcoal, the astute customer will look for the following before making a final choice.
The type of grill is really what determines what features you’ll be looking at. There are three main styles.
Kettle grills are still common and inexpensive. They’re easy to find and tend to be simple and durable. They’re durable enough it’s almost more common to find people who’ve bought theirs second or third hand. There are plenty that are decades old and barely worn as long they’ve been protected adequately.
They’ve gotten a bit more complex these days but the essential elements have remained the same. The main reasons they remain in such heavy use is convenience, light weight, and ease of use but they’re not always the best option.
Easy to use also means less access to other features.
Barrel grills are those that have a cylinder shape and break in the middle. These have become quite common, especially for those who grill on a regular basis. They allow for better airflow control than most kettle grills since they generally have two vents.
They often have add-ons like smoke boxes which allow the savvy cook to go the extra mile when it comes time to prepare a meal.
Ceramic grills are expensive but have unmatched heat retention. People have even managed to bake pizzas in them through careful use of the air venting. They’re most often shaped similarly to kettle grills, making them a high end grill option which takes up little space.
While they’re expensive and sometimes smaller the tight air control and excellent heat retention makes them the most versatile option out of the three main types of charcoal grills on the market.
Barrel grills remain the standout for those who perform large cookouts on a regular basis, with some over-sized models even making it into smaller commercial applications. They can still slow cook and smoke the food within unlike kettle grills.
On the other hand, ceramic grills are capable of the same but also allow for baking which is something you just won’t achieve with any other style of charcoal grill, they’re just not quite as big. The efficiency of keeping heat in is the big draw.
There are a few other types, but most are either quite small for camping applications or made almost solely for commercial use.
Once you get out of the smaller variants, prices fluctuate wildly for most types of charcoal grills. Even within the same brand and rough style.
This usually has to do with the overall build. Many of the cheaper models out there, for instance, may use plastic screws in areas where they won’t melt. This can help for those who don’t want to bother with a good cover but they don’t help much when it comes to longevity otherwise.
The build-quality of the overall grill should be examined. It should be made of solid materials and all moving parts should easily move. Some rust and maintenance is inevitable, but the less problems the barbecue has initially the less it will give the owner in the future.
A sufficiently well-built barbecue in the type you prefer will always work just as well as any other, after a certain price point you’re only paying for more features. That’s not always a bad thing, however, for those who are looking to maximize their purchase.
Of course, there’s more to the barbecue than just the grill. There’s also framing, storage, and workspace to take into account.
The simplest grills might have, at best, a small place to chop things and a few hooks for various cooking instruments like tongs. They’ll usually have no closed storage spaces, which makes them lighter and cheaper.
For those who are looking to keep their marinades, sauces, and other cookware in the same place some form of cabinet storage is essential.
Of course, a lot of what people also find that a lot of what’s being paid for in a high-end grill is held in that frame being solid and the cabinets being placed well. Shoddy cabinets made from cheap tin or aluminum can readily fall apart, especially since grills tend to have people moving around them quite a bit.
However, storage space and extras come at the direct expense of both weight and portability as well.
For a barrel grill that’s destined to live out decades of existence in a small backyard that’s generally not a problem, those who like to take their grills on trips would do well to ensure that they pay attention to wheels and weight in addition to bells and whistles.
Lights are common on high-end grills, although under cabinet lighting will cost you a pretty penny. They’re handy for some, but others find it just another piece of maintenance.
Other extras include things like smoke boxes which are made to hold wettened wood chips while doing serious smoking.
Most of these are pretty minimal, many barbecuers get the vast majority of their accessories as aftermarket pieces bought seperately.
While specialized racks like v-racks can be bought after the fact, they’re a good thing to include initially for those who need them. These racks can be used to hold ribs upright to fit more on the grill at a time, or flipped over to cook chicken and other smaller animals in an easy-to-remove rack.
The material also matters: cast iron cooking grids may be heavy but they’re also extremely durable, easy to clean, and hold in heat for longer.
Depending on where someone stores their grill and how often they plan on using it portability can be a major factor. For the most part small kettle grills are easiest to move, they just need to sit until they’re cool to be moved once started.
Bigger wheels and a wider frame will make a large grill much easier to move.
Ceramic grills are often in excess of 200lbs and lack wheels. For the average person they should be considered mostly immobile.
If portability isn’t a concern but you want to build in a grill on a back patio then you should look for square-bottomed barrel grills.
There are also tiny kettle grills made with small surfaces. These can be carried pretty much anywhere with no need to use wheels or any assistance.
Before you settle on a final decision, the following questions will give you the best end results.
Those five simple questions, combined with the information above, will give you an answer that will meet your needs.
When you break down your cooking… needs are the main thing. You want to be able to feed everyone in a timely fashion after all. Many people use their grills for… well, simple grilling where the meat is just heated to a safe temperature.
That’s as simple as it gets, but others want to make fall-off-the-bone ribs reliably or
The largest grills are barrel grills, and they’re quite versatile for smoking and slow cooking. The smaller ones are portable enough to make a good camping companion as well.
For those just looking for the most versatile cooking surface, ceramics take the cake. The argument can go back and forth but the simple fact of the matter is that used by someone who knows what they’re doing ceramic has higher potential temperatures and better heat retention.
And there’s nothing wrong with a simple kettle grill for the occasional tri-tip and burgers or other simpler meal. Many people will be well served by them, especially if they’re wise about accessory choices.
Kettle grills are primarily designed for charcoal briquettes. That makes them ideal for those who don’t want to bother with more complex, and more expensive, wood chips.
The area contained within is too small to get anything but a fraction of the wood flavor most people are looking for into the meat. With no way to raise or lower the cooking grid the options boil down to much longer cooking times or less flavor imparted.
Briquettes are really good for maintaining consistent heat, however. While the majority of people prefer the wooden flavor, a good kettle grill with a high-quality briquette can make cooking over the surface for an extended period easy.
Of course, wood chips impart more flavor. These charcoal chips are best kept for larger grills, however, and using a slower cooking time. For the best effect, of course, a smoker box is needed.
It mostly boils down to convenience versus flavor, but kettle grills are perfectly designed to use the unique properties of a briquette.
Budget is always a big factor. Before you even begin to look at grill prices, however, you should take a look at what you have around the house.
For someone with no implements or specialized cookware at all expect to set aside at least $50 for a medium quality setup and double that if you want the good stuff. Like any cooking equipment these can run up to pretty absurd prices but the above guideline should serve you well enough.
A good kettle grill will run from $75-$150 when you’re buying new. Some of the big names sell exclusive kettle grills for more but even the best have appropriately sized grills in that price range.
Barrel grills worthy of the name start at about $175 and run up to $300. More can be spent if you need something especially large or with some kind of exceptional qualities like being made of stainless steel but the core functions top off about there.
Those in the higher price range will generally have more convenience features, there’s only so much you can improve on the core design of the grill itself.
Expect ceramic grills to start at around $350 for a passable model. Name brand models regularly run over $1,000. Those who love them swear by them but it’s a large price jump for a weekend warrior to stomach.
One last thing to get over with, however, is the cover. For all grills they’re necessary and a good cover will run from $30-70 for most average sized grills. Brand name covers will be more expensive but unless you’re carefully vetting each cover individually, the other options can be subpar in quality.
Q: Is there any way to raise and lower the cooking grid in a charcoal grill?
A: Some really high-end kettle grills come with a way to raise and lower the grate. Most people will end up purchasing an aftermarket riser rack if they really feel they need the capabilities.
Q: How often should I clean the racks on my grill?
A: Every time you use your grill you should be taking a wire brush to them. Stainless models tend to work best but can scratch really cheap cooking grids. Otherwise it’s up to you, with weekly use and regular maintenance most people should do a dedicated scrubbing at least once a year. Many people use an oven cleaner to do so, but be sure that it’s thoroughly rinsed afterward and that you use proper protective equipment when doing so. Even a bit of Easy-Off getting under a glove can ruin your day.
Q: Should I clean the inside of my charcoal grill?
A: Scoop out the ash and give everything a good scrubbing with a brush and dish soap at least once a year. If you’re an every weekend griller then you may need to do so more often but most people won’t need to do it much more than twice per season. For those who only grill for part of the year it’s a good idea to clean it before putting it back in storage.
Q: Are there set-in charcoal grills?
A: There are and they usually come in a barrel configuration. Some people love them but charcoal grills require a bit more maintenance than propane so they’re not as common of an option. Many barrel grills can be found with a flat bottom that will function well as set-ins if that’s your taste.
Q: Why use a charcoal grill instead of a modern propane one?
A: It’s largely a matter of personal preference but many people just prefer to use wood. Propane is generally cheaper and lower maintenance but more complex to set up and use. They’re also more expensive for the equivalent amount of cooking room.