State of the Great: The Best Charcoal Grills
Introduction to Charcoal Grills
Charcoal is simple. Charcoal is messy. Charcoal is a hands-on art. Charcoal is time-consuming. Charcoal is completely Analog. You will manage your heat by controlling charcoal quantity and airflow. There is no ‘set it and forget it’ digital temperature control out of the box. If you want to roll up your sleeves and have complete control over your cooking experience then charcoal is absolutely the way to go and it can be an extremely rewarding and affordable way to get started with BBQ Grilling.
Worth noting is that we are specifically listing units that cover all facets of BBQ Grilling as we see them. This includes Grilling, Searing, BBQ, and Baking. We are not covering Flat Tops, Santa Maria Grills, Charcoal Smokers, or other units that are purpose-built for a specific function.
Grilling: Cooking directly over heat. Corn, Vegetables, standard fair.
Searing: To achieve the Maillard Reaction through direct exposure to extremely high heat. 500˚F+. Charring / Browning. A steakhouse quality Steak.
BBQ: Slow and low. Typically in the 200˚ to 300˚F range and often with the application of smoke. Think smoked Turkey, Brisket, Pulled Pork, and Ribs.
Baking: Typically in the 300˚ to 475˚F range. Pies, Cobblers, and Biscuits. Even higher temperatures desired for Pizza and Calzones.
Hot Coals on a Weber 22" Kettle
Nearly all charcoal grills share some similar characteristics. You place your desired quantity of coals within a firebox or on top of a charcoal grate. In some cases, you will arrange these coals to one side or another to provide for indirect and direct heat zones. The coals are ignited using lighting aids such as cubes/fire starters, a chimney starter, or a handheld device such as a Looflighter. As we haven’t mentioned it yet lighter fluid is gross and only utilized by pikers. DO NOT USE LIGHTER FLUID WITH YOUR CHARCOAL GRILL. Lastly, after the charcoal has been fully lit the temperature of the grill is controlled by the utilization of adjustable vents that regulate airflow through the unit to increase or reduce the amount of oxygen available to your coals.
Without further ado here is our overview of some of the best ‘do-it-all’ charcoal grills currently available!
Basic Charcoal Grills
Let's start with the minimalist approach. On the simple end of charcoal grilling, there are two clear favorites that also happen to be timeless classics. These are the Weber Kettle and the PK Grill. Both units are capable of producing professional results across numerous styles of outdoor cooking by utilizing both direct and indirect heat. They have extremely active online communities and a wide variety of accessories. These grills are perfectly capable of functioning as dedicated smokers so you can feel plenty smug when your results surpass your neighbor and their $1000+ unit.
On the Weber end of things expect to pay between $200 and $400 for a brand new unit within their premium line. Keep in mind that many purchase charcoal grills only to realize they don’t know what they are doing. Of course, this isn’t you but their loss is your gain as there are often stellar deals on the used market. At a minimum, you want a Weber MasterTouch. You will greatly appreciate the additional height of this unit thanks to its longer legs. This is your hobby and you want to enjoy it without spending a ridiculous amount of time hunched over. On the higher end, the Performer adds a valuable work surface and charcoal storage while the Performer Deluxe includes a unique and Weber proprietary propane-fueled ignition system which can greatly reduce your contact with charcoal and other items such as firestarters. All of these grills are compatible with the standard Weber 22" accessories and 22" accessories produced by third-parties of which there is a wide variety.
Want to go bigger? Weber offers the Kettle in a 26" version. At this $300 price point, you get more real estate and a stainless steel cooking grate. If you choose to impress your friends and go big you will appreciate the cooking versatile, however, there are no 26" Performer options so built-in work surfaces are not available.
When it comes to the PK Grills by Portable Kitchen you are perhaps joining a more exclusive club and utilizing the same equipment as the majority of SCA (Steak Cookoff Association) champions. There are certainly fewer accessories available but the look alone might be enough to convince your guests that you are hip and well educated in regard to the upper echelon of minimal BBQ hardware. You can score the original reproduction for $370 or the newly redesigned PK360 for $800. Both units are made of heavy cast aluminum and should last a lifetime. They are also both easily convertible to portable use for tailgating or similar. Either way you go with PK and you are cooking on some of the best charcoal equipment on the market and in the company of folks like Aaron Franklin when it comes to grilling a perfect steak.
For the hobbyist, the Weber Kettle is an excellent way to get started. You might find that over time it does everything you ever need it to do or you might find it was the perfect way to step into BBQ Grilling and get a feel for what it is that floats your boat. You really can't go wrong with the basic Weber products. If you are looking for something unique to own and master long term and are willing to pay the price to join an exclusive club than the PK360 would look good sitting just about anywhere!
Kamado Style Charcoal Grills
Next up are the Kamados which became mainstream in a large part due to the marketing efforts of Big Green Egg and more recently Kamado Joe. You can’t walk into an Ace Hardware these days without bumping into one of these two products. Kamado grills arguably represent the peak of versatility in the charcoal category. They also represent a significant step up in budget. Expect to pay close to $2000 for a 24" unit with stand and accessories. You can certainly pay less for a more dainty unit but we’ve never heard anyone say that that they wished they would have bought the smaller one.
What you are getting is an extremely well-insulated ceramic (typically) vessel with a quality gasket capable of reaching ridiculous temperatures in the 750˚F+ range as published by manufacturers but in practice, most will handily exceed this. Anything that can put hot coals near meat can do an admirable job at searing, however, the Kamados excel at high ambient temperature applications such as pizza. Typically they will include or offer as an accessory a heat deflector or ‘plate setter’. This ceramic disk is installed into the unit to convert from direct heat to indirect heat allowing the Kamado to reach high baking temperatures without exposing the bottom of your food to direct coals or fire. Lastly, these units are extremely efficient. Due to the insulation and tight seals they will run an extremely long time on a single load of lump charcoal and will allow unused charcoal to be reused as what is left is fully extinguished when the vents are shut down. If you can only have one grill and can afford the upgrade the Kamado is very likely your answer.
Downsides? Ceramic is heavy. Ceramic can break easily if either the grill is mishandled or an item such as the heat deflector is dropped. You must ensure the band around the lid is kept tight to prevent an accident as there is no direct attachment through the ceramic wall. Ceramic fireboxes can wear out and crack, however, most are covered under warranty. The glazed finish can develop a reaction called crazing that although normal no longer presents a showroom quality shine. Lastly, because of their fantastic insulating qualities and heat retention ceramic cookers are known to be difficult to bring back to temperature once a target has been overshot. We do not believe these negatives outweigh the positives but you should know they exist.
There are quite a few manufacturers of Kamado style grills. If you absolutely desire a statement piece it would be a shame not to mention the Komodo Kamado as they are without rival visually if you are ready to plunk down $4000 and up for one of practical size. For a more practical solution, we will focus on the big three consisting of Big Green Egg, Kamado Joe, and Primo. All of these cookers have strong users communities, customer support, and warranties while approaching the $2000 range for a 24" equivalent and the accessories you are going to want out of the gate.
A lot of folks consider Big Green Egg to be synonymous with Kamado grills. They have certainly done the marketing and they have the largest following in the forums and on Facebook. They have the most accessories. The downsides are that purchasing a Big Green Egg is very much an a la carte endeavor. They do not come standard with stands and accessories and these costs can add up quickly. It can also be argued that as of the writing they have fallen behind in regard to the innovations being offered by other manufacturers. This is a solid product that you will be proud to own, however, it is recommended not to purchase one blindly without taking a look at the competition.
Kamado Joe has a lot of buzz currently as they have a number of innovative features that have nudged them ahead of Big Green Egg from a standpoint of functionality. The new Kamado Joe firebox consists of four separate pieces of ceramic that are assembled together to form a single unit. The advantage here is that these pieces can expand and contract with heat individually with the goal of eliminating the issues of cracked fireboxes. Their gaskets are made of woven stainless steel which should prove to be more durable than the felt gaskets of other brands. They come standard with a slide-out ash drawer for easier cleaning and offer what they dub the ‘divide-and-conquer’ multi-level and multi-zone cooking system. All of the common accessories including the stand and heat deflector come standard with the kit. Lastly, they offer a couple of really cool accessories such as the Jotisserie for rotisserie grilling and the soon to be released DoeJoe which converts this Kamado into a pizza oven with slide-in access. You get a lot for your money here.
If you are looking for a top-rated Kamado that is Made in America then Primo is your answer. While not quite as feature rich as the Kamado Joe they offer an ‘All-in-One’ package which provides you with everything you need to get going out of the box aside from their heat deflector plates. Primo’s approach is to offer an oval-shaped Kamado and an optional Firebox Divider. Their pitch as that this oval shape allows the cooker to be set up in a true multi-zone configuration with one side offering direct heat and the other offering indirect. Primo has many passionate customers and this is another offering that you can’t really go wrong with.
Three great Kamados from three great brands. The decision is very subjective and could be as simple as where they were manufactured or which dealer has stronger support in your local area. You probably didn’t come here for a vague opinion so we will cut to the chase. If it was our money and ceramic was our choice then we would put a Kamado Joe on the deck.
The Kinda-Kamado Charcoal Grill
Weber-Stephens introduced the Weber Summit Charcoal Grill in the Spring of 2016 as what is perceived as their answer to the popularity of the ceramic Kamados. Rather than utilizing ceramic, they have used double wall steel for both their grill body and their heat deflector plate allowing for air to act as the insulator thus eliminating many of the downsides of the ceramic units. There is no ceramic firebox to crack, no glazed finish subject to crazing, and no need to keep things tight as everything is built using stainless bolts directly through the steel body of the grill. If you hit it with a hammer it will dent not shatter. It has integrated storage with a place for everything and Weber’s simplified ash clean out system adopted from the premium Kettles. It has Weber's proprietary propane assisted charcoal ignition. It has a lot.
So Weber has created this great do-it-all grilling solution without many of the downsides of ceramics. It is also perceived as being extremely expensive for an all-steel unit with street prices at $2000 for the grilling center with work table and $1500 for the standalone model. It has the same cheap plastic wheels found on their lower end charcoal kettles. It does not, in our view, project the same degree of quality and command the same presence as a ceramic.
The Weber Summit Charcoal will turn out food equally as good as any other grill out there. It is not a purist’s Kamado but it isn’t a Kettle either. It will appeal to those who want an extremely durable full range BBQ solution in a concise package with minimal maintenance and versatile storage. If you can only have one you might have found it.
Heavy Metal Charcoal Grills
To call them charcoal ovens would be misleading, however, Hasty Bake virtually created this category with what they originally dubbed the Hasty-Bake Charcoal Oven. There are now some additional players in this space and we are going to focus on two — the Hasty-Bake Legacy and M Grills M1. Both of these units are in the $2000 price range although the Hasty-Bake can be had closer to $1000 with a Powder Coated finish in lieu of stainless. Both of these are made completely of steel in the USA.
The M Grills American Made M1
The Hasty-Bake Legacy is made primarily of 18 gauge steel and is at first glance a relatively standard looking rectangular grill. What sets this unit apart from the Kettles, PKs, and Kamado is that the firebox which contains the charcoal can be lowered up and down to provide for direct searing when placed right below the food and indirect heat when placed in the lower position with the included heat deflector. This motion is controlled by a crank on the front of the unit and offers 14 inches of travel and the ability to place the charcoal as close as 2 inches from the cooking grate for high-intensity searing. Unique to the Hasty-Bake is its ventless hood that can remain closed throughout the cooking process. The firebox and vent systems can be accessed from the sides of the unit for refueling and temperature control. Although not as popular as some other units the Hasty-Bake has a cult-like following and a strong online community with a Facebook group of nearly 3000 individuals.
M Grills offers a similar unit in the form of the M1. The M1 offers a lot of what is great about the Hasty-Bake but adds some interesting twists of its own. This unit is built like a tank out of heavy 10 gauge steel as reflected by its 350lb weight. Like the Hasty-Bake the M1 also has a heavy duty coal grate that can be lowered up and down via a crank mechanism on the front of the unit. From here things get more interesting. Rather than utilizing a heat deflector along with the adjustable coal grate, the M1 has a permanent heat deflector welded in below the coal grate and a second high capacity firebox underneath. This allows you to heat the grill indirectly utilizing either charcoal or actual sticks (logs) to bake or smoke independently, or in conjunction with, the adjustable coal grate. Want to reverse sear a tomahawk over real wood and with the final sear directly over charcoal? You can reconfigure the unit to accomplish this mid-cook rather than pausing everything to change configurations as you might with other units. Want to increase smoking capacity? Place your meat on two levels utilizing the adjustable charcoal grate along with the standard cooking surface and fire this unit from beneath with charcoal and wood. There are a lot of options here for the hobbyist or professional looking to explore everything BBQ grilling has to offer.
So within the ‘heavy metal’ category for half the cost of an M Grills M1 you can have yourself a powder coated Hasty-Bake and turn out some excellent food with charcoal. For our money, we would opt for the M1 as it truly represents a single unit BBQ grilling playground allowing you to experiment with countless cooking techniques and combustibles. The M1 would be a lot of fun.
Charcoal Grills Conclusion
Well, we sure covered a lot of charcoal cooking hardware. Our goal has been to develop an article that covers quality products. Unlike some publications that are simply a list of seemingly random selections, there is nothing featured here that we would not be proud to own ourselves. It is important to purchase the grill that speaks to you and your aspirations in regard to the hobby of BBQ Grilling and everything we have listed has its own unique character. There are no bad picks here.
Ignition of a Weber Summit Charcoal
So generally speaking if you are on a budget but want to fully explore BBQ grilling, by all means, go ahead and buy a Weber Kettle and basic accessories. Take advantage of the used market or Fall sales and find yourself a deal. You can do absolutely anything you want on a Kettle with great results while beginning to develop a sense of what your long term aspirations are. The customer support is excellent and there are extremely strong online communities and third-party accessories.
If you want to buy once, cry once, and join an extremely knowledgeable and supportive group of peers get yourself a Kamado. They are arguably the most versatile charcoal units out there and have large online communities and third-party accessory manufacturers for continued support and inspiration. For absolute bang for your buck and maximum features, we would opt for a Kamado Joe. However, there are extremely compelling reasons to look at Primo, Big Green Egg, and the Weber Summit Charcoal ‘Kinda Kamado’.
Lastly, if you are looking to probe the bottom of the rabbit hole that is BBQ Grilling the M Grills M1 will punch your ticket. There is no other piece of hardware on this list that allows you the versatility of a full function charcoal grill while also offering the option to run as a true stick burning smoker — or better yet — run both at once. Had we gone through this exercise sooner we might have a different piece of hardware on our own deck!
Did you like this article? Check out other articles in our State of the Great series!
EDITORS NOTE: This is a continually expanding piece which will feature additional items as we identify them.