Charcoal grills are a staple for home chefs because charcoal is a relatively inexpensive fuel source that gives everything from hot dogs and hamburgers to pizza and pulled pork a beautiful, smokey flavor. Charcoal grills also tend to be less expensive than gas or pellet grills so you can cook outdoors even if you’re on a budget.
Compared to gas grills, the anatomy of charcoal grills is quite simple. They're essentially containers for coal with racks and lids. That said, some models are certainly better than others. To help you choose the right one, we tested the most popular models, spending weeks cooking outside to properly test a grill's temperature control, heat retention, and post-meal cleanup. We also assessed how easy it is to set up out of the box, and if any features help or hinder your barbecue experience.
Weber Performer Deluxe Charcoal Grill
Large side area to prep and store food
Easy gas ignition system
Easy to adjust the dampers
Issues with moving grate
Weber is one of the top charcoal grill brands today and makes the splurge-worthy Performer Deluxe 22-Inch Charcoal Grill, which performed the best during our testing. This model has a wide variety of useful features that any griller would love, including things like a Touch-N-Go gas ignition system, a work table for food prep, and an enclosed storage bin to protect your charcoal.
That electronic charcoal ignition system worked each and every time we lit up the Performer Deluxe grill. Once the coals were hot, maintaining a set temperature range was simple as the dampers are easy to adjust and position correctly. We were able to keep it within a 10-degree range during an hours-long test smoking baby back ribs and didn't observe any extreme fluctuations when opening or closing the lid. That said, we found the built-in thermometer ran a little high, making it necessary to rely on our secondary thermometer.
It was also easy to add charcoal as the plated steel grate comes with a circular middle opening for just that. We did find that the opening wasn't large enough for adjusting the coals, though. Another up-to-date feature is the intuitive one-touch cleaning system, which swept all the ash into the bottom catcher, and a removable timer mounted to the prep table.
Price at time of publish: $598
Dimensions: 48 x 30 x 44.1 inches | Cooking Area: 363 square inches | Warranty: 5 years (cleaning system, plastic components), 10 years (bowl, lid); 2 years (all other parts)
Best for Smoking
PK Grills Original PK300 Grill and Smoker
Excellent heat retention and control
Portable for tailgating
Built-in side table
Learning curve with venting system
No built-in thermometer
Grilling cooks food quickly using high heat, while smoking uses indirect heat and lower temperatures to cook food slowly. If you like to switch up your cooking style once in a while, you’ll love the PK Grill & Smoker. We tested (and still recommend) the original version, and enjoyed the "new original" even more.
This grill is made from cast aluminum for superior heat conduction, plus its unique shape and four-point venting system make it ideal for both grilling and smoking foods. It has 315 square inches of cooking surface—that’s big enough for a whole turkey!—and large work shelf where you can prep food. Folding the work shelf down unlocks the grill from the base so you can take it on the road.
The improvements include extra-long handles on the vents, an opening for a probe thermometer, and the ability to adjust the rubber feet for uneven surfaces. Most importantly for smoking, the lid fits even tighter than the original, with a wide sash around the edge to help keep the flavor in. Once you get your charcoal going—which got very hot on both models—controlling those four vents may prove challenging for beginners, especially since there's no built-in thermometer. Not being able to control the heat resulted in at least one very charred steak during our tests. But, once you get the hang of it, this is one of the best grills for smoking of the ones we've tested.
Price at time of publish: $700
Dimensions: 42.75 x 16.2 x 37.35 inches | Cooking Area: 315 square inches | Warranty: 20 years (aluminum bowl, lid) 3 years (stainless steel grates); 3 years (plastic components); 2 years (all other metal parts)
Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill
Classic, compact design
Tried-and-true cooker makes amazing food
Great for beginners
Small to medium cooking space
Built-in thermometer can be inaccurate
Whether you’re replacing a well-loved grill or buying your very first one, you can’t go wrong with the Weber Original Kettle Premium 22-Inch Charcoal Grill. This thoughtfully-designed grill is quite affordable and takes less than 15 minutes to put together.
This Weber grill features a porcelain-enameled lid and bowl for optimal heat retention across the 363 square inches of space. We've tested this model twice, cooking everything from ribs to pineapple, and found that it's consistently a great choice for beginners and seasoned pros. Both will be able to get the hang of positioning the dampers for temperature control, though we do suggest removing the grate when you need to adjust the charcoal.
There’s a built-in lid thermometer, though we found its readings could be quite off from our secondary thermometer. While this worked exceptionally well for grilling and smoking, we did have issues with getting it hot enough to sear. Last of the downsides was that the lid melted the plastic lid hook, making it unusable. It does have the same intuitive one-touch cleaning system as the Weber Performer, though, and is a great value charcoal grill.
Price at time of publish: $233
Dimensions: 27 x 22 x 39.5 inches | Cooking Area: 363 square inches | Warranty: 10 years (bowl and lid); 5 years (cleaning system and plastic components); 2 years (everything else)
Char-Griller E16620 Akorn Kamado Charcoal Grill
Great heat retention
Budget-friendly compared to competitors
Easy to clean
Hard to cool down
Grate needs initial seasoning
Kamado-style grills originated in Asia more than 3,000 years ago, and these oval-shaped cooking vessels have become increasingly popular in the U.S. thanks to their superior versatility. Kamado grills, like the Char-Griller AKORN Kamado Charcoal Grill, are used for smoking and baking. They heat up quickly and impart more flavor to food.
This particular kamado grill has triple-walled steel construction and features 314 square inches of cast-iron grill space, as well as a removable warming rack. It includes a built-in thermometer and can be used to cook at temperatures ranging from 200 to 700 degrees. The grill has two convenient folding side shelves and utensil hooks.
We used this to cook up barbecue classics like chicken wings and ribs and were highly pleased with its performance. Once we learned how to get the grill to the right temperature, the temperature inside the grill remained constant no matter what was happening outside. It is important to get the initial temperature right since this takes a while to cool down. Other aspects we liked were that the grates became more nonstick as the testing went on and the warming rack proved itself to be the perfect bun warmer.
Price at time of publish: $375
Dimensions: 45 x 31 x 47 inches | Cooking Area: 447 square inches | Warranty: 1 year
Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker with Cart
Great for beginners
Precise temperature control
Time-consuming to put together
Probably the most difficult part of charcoal grilling is stoking and feeding the fire to maintain a consistent temperature. Masterbuilt’s portable grill solves that problem with a simple dial to select a temperature—and it actually works! It’s set up a bit differently than most charcoal grills, with a hopper for fuel at one side and a built-in fan (it can use AA batteries or plug into an outlet) to control the temperature by blowing at different speeds. The dial can be set to anywhere from 250 to 500 degrees, and the grill stayed within 10 degrees of the setting for our entire series of tests. At the top temperature, it was able to add a nice char to both burgers and corn.
And that’s not to mention how, well, portable this portable grill is: The cart folds down with the flip of a clip and even has an extendable handle to roll around nimbly, like a wheeled suitcase if it had heavy-duty tires. It is pretty heavy, so it’s better for car transport than carrying in a backpack. The grill comes disassembled, and we didn’t find it difficult to put together, but the process was time-consuming—think IKEA furniture.
All in all, the Masterbuilt Portable would be a great introduction to charcoal for a beginner, as it makes managing the fire very easy. Though it’s easy to move around, it’s also big enough that a small family could use it as a main grill, too. It’s priced on the higher end for a portable grill, though it’s more in the middle for charcoal grills in general.
Price at time of publish: $330
Dimensions: 45 x 19 x 36 inches | Weight: 52 pounds | Cooking Area: 200 square inches | Warranty: 1 year
Char-Griller Classic Charcoal Grill
Great performance as a grill and smoker
Large cooking area
Great heat retention
Front vent could be smaller
Has a learning curve
Cart-style charcoal grills allow you to have a larger cooking surface than kettle grills, but they usually take more skill to control since the vents are harder to adjust. Not so with this Char-Griller model. We were able to easily position the vents into place, and, unlike some of our kettle grills, we could leave them alone during most of our testing.
Whether we were smoking or grilling, this grill performed wonderfully. We achieved good char on our steaks, and it kept a consistent temperature while smoking ribs. A tight seal on the lid helped keep the smoke and heat inside the grill, which didn't fluctuate too wildly when we opened or closed the lid. And while we did have to remove two grates in order to add charcoal, you can also use the front-access door for any adjustments.
We did think the front vent would benefit from being slightly smaller so that it forces more oxygen directly into the flames. That said, this is well-constructed and even a beginner could overcome its learning curve,
Price at time of publish: $349
Dimensions: 57.35 x 27 x 51.7 inches | Cooking Area: 820 square inches | Warranty: 1 year (grate); 5 years (all other parts)
Char-Broil TRU-Infrared Kettleman Charcoal Grill
Easy to control temperature once over the learning curve
Adjustable charcoal grate
Easy to clean
Hard to add charcoals once lit
Bit of a learning curve
Infrared grills give you a lot of advantages in grilling. They're more efficient with fuel, they distribute heat evenly, and perhaps best of all, they get hot enough for a picturesque sear. The Char-Broil TRU-Infrared Kettleman grill does all of these, and at a great price.
We were able to quickly get it to high heat for that amazing sear on steak, chicken legs, and pork chops, with minimal flare-ups. The 360-square-inch cooking space heated evenly during all of our tests, and the large lid vent adjusted smoothly to help regulate the ambient temperature. Other features we like are the adjustable charcoal grate, which allows for a lot of versatility in cooking, and the accurate built-in lid thermometer.
There is a bit of a learning curve with this grill, though. You'll need to learn how to properly place the charcoals for long smokes since it's very difficult to add them while cooking. Additionally, you can't adjust the bottom vent as it has to stay open. We suggest taking the time to really learn this grill's infrared quirks before your big backyard get-together.
Price at time of publish: $239
Dimensions: 26 x 26 x 39 inches | Cooking Area: 360 square inches | Fuel Type: Charcoal | Warranty: 10 years (lid and firebox); 2 years (everything else)
If you're looking for an all-around great charcoal grill with a few extra perks, the Weber Performer Deluxe 22-Inch Charcoal Grill should be your go-to choice. Looking for a bit more room with a cart-style grill? The Char-Griller Classic Charcoal Grill performed well in all of our tests.
How We Tested
We test grills year-round at our Lab in Birmingham, Alabama, with the winners undergoing further testing at the homes of our experts. In our latest round of testing, we tested more than 30 charcoal grills side-by-side to determine what the current top models are. We thoroughly analyzed every aspect from assembly to cleanup, in addition to each grill's overall performance. Each was rated on various attributes including heat control and retention, size, features, performance, ease of cleaning, and overall value.
We also sent popular grills to our expert home testers, who tried each out for longer periods of time to further assess durability and performance. Our testers then offered additional insights on each grill's strengths and weaknesses. The tests included:
- Timed assembly
- Searing steaks
- Smoking baby back ribs low and slow
- Grilling corn on the cob, hamburgers, brats
- Disassembling and moving (applicable portable models)
We Tested the Best Charcoal Grills
What to Look for When Buying a Charcoal Grill
"Freestanding charcoal grills come in both round and rectangular shapes," says Christie Vanover, the publisher of Girls Can Grill. "A grate that’s 22 inches in diameter will generally accommodate up to 12 burgers, six steaks, a 16-pound brisket or two pork butts. With the addition of heat deflectors, ceramic grills offer the ability to cook over indirect heat without losing any space.
"There are also rectangular-shaped charcoal grills," she says. "Some are smaller and more portable while others are large enough to cook several briskets. Bottom line when picking out the right size charcoal grill is to think about how much food you’ll need to cook at one time."
From enameled steel to stainless steel to ceramic, grills are made from a wide variety of materials, and each has its pros and cons. But that’s not all—grill grates can be made from cast iron, stainless steel, or another material. No choice is wrong; it just depends on how you prefer to cook.
Some grills are equipped with a variety of special features. Certain models double as smokers or have integrated thermometers. Others have side tables or are designed to be especially easy to clean. It’s your grill and your food, so decide what’s most important to you.
How do you start a charcoal grill?
There are several ways to light a charcoal grill, but the best option is to use a chimney starter. All you do is place crumpled newspaper in the bottom of the tool with charcoal on top, and after you light the bottom, your charcoal will be ready to add to the grill in around 10 minutes.
Another option is to use an electric charcoal lighter, which you put on the grill along with charcoal to bring the coals up to temperature.
How do you use a charcoal grill?
Cooking on a charcoal grill is a bit more complicated than using a gas-powered model. First, you'll need to measure out an appropriate amount of charcoal briquettes—this will depend on the size of your grill, what you're cooking, and how hot you want the grill to get. Next, you have to light the charcoal using a chimney starter or other tool.
"Although charcoal does add flavor to food, wait until it burns clean or clear smoke before you start cooking," says Paul Sidoriak of Grilling Montana. "If you can see black smoke, your food will taste like black smoke. Wait a few minutes until the smoke clears for best results."
From here, you'll want to clean and oil your cooking grates and preheat them for several minutes before placing food on the grill. As you cook your food, control the grill's temperature by using the upper and lower vents. For the hottest fire possible, you'll want to open both vents all the way, or for a lower temperature, close the upper vent to a half or quarter.
How do you put out a charcoal grill?
After cooking, the best way to put out hot coals is to close the lid and shut both the upper and lower vents to cut off the oxygen supply. Closing the lid and vents will extinguish the coals, but it may take a while for the coals to cool down.
How do you clean a charcoal grill?
Upon extinguishing the coal and allowing the grill to cool down, you can clean the grates using a scraper or wire grill brush. If needed, you can take the grates off and soak them in soapy water for a few hours to loosen up burnt-on food and grease. Once they're clean, make sure to oil them using a rag or paper towel to prevent rust.
You'll also want to wipe down the inside of the lid and bowl using a mild soap. Finally, empty your grill's ash catcher.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
The Spruce Eats Editor Siobhan Wallace compiled testing data from our official Lab as well as insights from our home testers' full product reviews to compile this roundup. Jason Horn, The Spruce Eats commerce writer, also contributed to this roundup. Raised in Chicago, he knows that hot dogs should never be topped with ketchup.
This roundup was originally written by Camryn Rabideau, product tester and grill expert for The Spruce Eats. She's done firsthand testing of the Weber Q2200, Masterbuilt Bluetooth Digital Electric Smoker, and more.