Smokey charcoal grills still make the best barbecues. Start up times are longer than electric grills and propane grills, but innovations such as ash catchers make clean-up almost as easy.
Table of Contents
How to Select the Most Appropriate Charcoal Grill
If you want to buy a charcoal barbecue, the process is a little more straightforward. Look for models with tall, snug-fitting lids for indirect grilling, as well as adjustable vents on both the top and bottom for temperature control.
Charcoal grills with a movable grate or door in the front that allows for the addition of fresh charcoal and wood chips are also excellent. Finally, for easier cleanup, ensure sure the barbecue includes an ash catcher.
Airflow is used to adjust the heat on charcoal grills. More air traveling over the coals allows the fire to burn hotter, while controlling the flow maintains the coals slightly lit, allowing for low-and-slow cooking.
Choose a type with a snug-fitting cover and strong dampers or vents.
Coal Bed Accessible
When cooking for an extended amount of time, you will need to add coals. Our tests reveal that the temperature of charcoal reaches a high within 20 minutes of being lit.
Look for a charcoal grill that has a dedicated door for adding coals to your fire or one that has hinged grates that allow you to sneak in more coals or rearrange them while cooking.
Grill Dimensions and Shape
Because all charcoal briquettes burn at approximately the same temperature, the size and form of your grill will determine how heat is concentrated or spread. Wider types, such as most barrel barbecues, can cook more meals at once but over a thinner coal bed, making them ideal for a burger and bratwurst barbeque.
Kettle and kamado grills have deeper and narrower coal beds, which can concentrate heat for searing or, if the dampers are closed, slow the rate at which the coals burn for lengthy, slow cooking.
Cooking Grates or Adjustable Coals
Foods near the embers sear faster but are prone to burning before they finish cooking. Look for a grill with a coal bed or grilling grates that can be raised or lowered with a crank—this will give you another way to manage the heat and tame the flames.
Other grills do not provide the same risks as charcoal grills. That’s because, unlike a gas or pellet grill, where heat and flames are controlled by controls, you build and control the fire on a charcoal barbecue.
Most grills have a maximum amount of charcoal that can be added to prevent damage to the grill or fire from spreading out of control. Because the flames can be higher and more difficult to control, you should only use long-handled grilling utensils, such as tongs and spatulas.
Wear a short-sleeved or tight-fitting shirt to avoid cloth drooping over the flames.
When grilling over charcoal, always keep a combination fire extinguisher nearby. (Look for the designation “Class ABC,” which indicates that the extinguisher is suited for wood, electrical, and grease fires.)
A garden hose is not a safe alternative because, while water will extinguish burning coals, a grease fire, like those caused by any fatty meal igniting, would spread if doused with water.
Hibachi Charcoal Grills
Hibachis are small table-top grills, typically one foot long. They can grill 2 or 3 steaks at a time. Their small size makes them portable and suitable for RVing and tailgating as well as home backyard use.
Simple sheet-metal hibachis are available for a few dollars. This rust easily and doesn’t last long.
The best hibachis are made out of thick cast iron and have a cast iron cooking grate as well. They cost about a hundred dollars. These will retain heat better and last for years.
The small size of the grill keeps the weight of the hibachi manageable despite the thick walls.
Most hibachis don’t have covers. One popular trick is to place the hibachi inside an old kettle grill. This raises the hibachi to waist level and provides a cover while making use of the heat-retention properties of the cast iron hibachi.
Kettle Charcoal Grills
Round kettle grills are the classic backyard grill.
Diameters of 18, 22, and 26 inches are popular, giving cooking surfaces 250, 400, and 530 square inches, respectively. Though the diameter is only 4 inches longer, a 22-inch grill has 50 percent more area than an 18-inch grill.
Rotisserie attachments are usually available only for the larger models.
Like hibachis, cheap and simple sheet steel models are available. They rust easily and don’t last long. Even stainless steel rusts quickly when exposed to a charcoal fire.
Their larger size makes the use of cast iron impractical (too heavy), so high-end kettle grills use enameled steel (porcelain-coated) to prevent rust. Premium brands can last more than 10 years. They cost over one or two hundred dollars.
Some older models use cast iron cooking grates, but this is becoming less common in new models. Enamelled steel grates are now popular.
A hinged grate allows charcoal to be easily added to the fire, even in the middle of cooking.
Premium models have a removable ash catcher at the bottom and closable air vents to control the fire.
Quality models have a close-fitting cover that is air-tight enough to extinguish the coals (with the air vents closed) and to control flare-ups. Together with the ash catcher, this allows any unburnt charcoal to be easily reused the next time.
There are hybrid propane-charcoal grills. The propane burner is used for 10 to 20 minutes to start the charcoal fire and is then switched off.
This combines the easy-start operation of a propane grill with the heat and smokey taste of charcoal.
Barrel Charcoal Grills
These are similar to kettle grills (and cost about the same), with a few differences.
- The maximum size is larger than a kettle grill, over 800 square inches.
- A hinged revolving lid is conveniently fixed to the grill.
- A slide-out charcoal drawer is available on some models for easy refilling of charcoal in the middle of cooking.
- The entire grill is typically not as air-tight as the best kettle grills, making it impractical to snuff out the coals by cutting off the air.
The Best Charcoal Grill
For the average backyard, a kettle grill is a good choice. It doesn’t take up much space and is big enough to cook for a family or a small party.
Whatever the choice, it is difficult to go wrong. Real grillers use charcoal.