I remember it like it was yesterday: My fiancé (then boyfriend) and I went to the Poconos with some friends a few years ago. Since our rental house had a charcoal grill, someone started to barbecue some steaks—and they were delicious. Charred on the outside, but juicy inside? Yes, please. “Charcoal grills make everything better,” my fiancé said as the group scrounged for seconds. Turns out, he’s not the only one who recognizes the power of the charcoal grill; this option is a must-have among grilling enthusiasts and pitmasters alike.
If you aren’t a grill master, the mere thought of a charcoal setup might seem a little intimidating. After all, you can’t regulate the heat as quickly as with a gas grill. “People cite convenience as the reason to use a gas grill,” says Andrea Chesman, author of The Vegetarian Grill. “But once I learned how to dependably light charcoal using cardboard egg cartons for kindling and a chimney, I knew I could have a hot fire in 30 minutes, which is generally the time needed to prep all the ingredients.”
Charcoal might reign superior for many chefs, but how do you know which one deserves a spot in your backyard? That’s exactly what I was wondering, so I grilled a few pros on their go-to models. With beloved recs from professional chefs, home cooks, and pitmasters, these charcoal grills are, well, fire.
1. Weber Original Kettle 18 Inch Charcoal Grill,
Anyone who is using a charcoal grill for the very first time might want to pick up a tried-and-true classic, like Weber’s Original Kettle Charcoal Grill. “Weber is a household name in grilling for a reason and my weeknight go-to for everything from steaks to carnitas,” explains Kita Roberts of GirlCarnivore. “Their classic kettle grill is iconic in backyard barbecue, with a quality build, easily adjustable vents to manage airflow, and an ingenious folding grill grate to add fuel if needed.”
2. Weber Summit Kamado S6 Charcoal Grill Center, $2,149
Justin Sutherland wears a lot of chef hats: Author, Weber ambassador, star of Fast Foodies, and owner of restaurants like Handsome Hog are just a few of his accolades. But when Sutherland switches gears into “grill mode,” he turns to Weber’s Summit Kamado S6 Charcoal Grill Center. “It’s extremely durable and meant to be left outside in the elements and last a lifetime, which, living in Minnesota, will mean all of the elements,” Sutherland explains. “To me, cooking with charcoal is preferable over gas. With this grill, because of its size and design, you’re able to control two cooking zones or cooking surfaces at one time from the same charcoal.”
3. PK Grills PK300 Aaron Franklin Portable Charcoal Grill,
Don’t let its cheery teal exterior fool you: PK Grills’ 300 model is designed to deliver. “You can set it up for direct-heat cooking for several steaks or indirect cooking to smoke up to an 8-pound brisket,” explains Christie Vanover, the pitmaster who founded Girls Can Grill. “It’s made of cast aluminum, so it retains heat extremely well. The grate has a hinge feature, so you can easily add more coals, if needed. I also like all of the shelf space, both on the sides and under the grill.” Plus, this specific option was made in collaboration with Chef Aaron Franklin, giving it some extra kudos.
4. Kamado Joe KJ15041021 Big Joe III 24-inch Charcoal Grill,
When it comes to charcoal grills, Grill Momma blogger Melissa Reome is partial to Kamado styles, which feature lump coal and ceramic interiors to maintain consistent temperatures. Case in point: Kamado Joe’s Big Joe grill series. “They perform perfectly year-round, whether it’s below zero or in the summer heat,” Reome says. “Honestly, if you can cook it indoors, you can cook it outdoors on these grills as well. You can do high-temperature grilling, low-and-slow smoking, roasting, baking, or use it as an outdoor oven.”
5. Hasty Bake Legacy 131 Grill, $1,299
The brand might have a cheeky name, but Scott Thomas insists that the Hasty Bake Legacy 131 is “an absolute beast of a cooker.” “It has no vents in the lid, which forces the smoke that rises up through the chamber (and past that protein) to go back down (again, past the protein) before exiting the vents below the grill grates,” the Grillin Fools blogger explains. “Not only is it a fantastic design on a number of levels beyond the venting system, but it is also built to last.” Another thing to love? Thomas says it can be used low and slow as a smoker or hot and fast for burgers and brats.
On the hunt for a charcoal grill that’s as convenient as its gas counterpart? The Spark Grill is a no-brainer. “Traditionally, the benefits of gas versus charcoal are simple: Gas is easy to light and easy to control the temperature, and you don’t have to refill the fuel as often,” says Elizabeth Karmel, grill expert and coauthor of a popular newsletter called “What’s 4 Dinner?”. The Spark charcoal grill takes the best elements of gas and charcoal grills—an electric ignition gets the flame started and a convection fan controls the heat while compressed charcoal bricks create that deep smoky flavor and char. Between the flareup-free construction and corresponding app, this is just as user-friendly as a gas grill, too.
How Do I Use a Charcoal Grill?
Though charcoal grills get a bad rap for being difficult to use, Roberts says that’s not always the case. “It’s really making sure you know how to set up your grill for success,” she explains. To start, she recommends picking up an inexpensive charcoal chimney, which lets you light the charcoal using all-natural fire starters or even leftover paper. From there, pour your charcoal into the chimney and set it over the lit fire starters. Ten to 15 minutes later, your charcoal will come to temperature so you can get your grill on.
Ready to grill like a pro? Give your grill a two-zone approach. “Carefully arrange the coals to one side of the grill,” she explains. “This method allows you room on the grill grate to cook directly over the coals (direct heat) or move things to a cooler side (indirect-heat) without flare-ups.”
But, before you get started, you need to know about the common pitfalls rookies make with your charcoal grill. In addition to cleaning your grates before you grill, Roberts says it’s important to make sure your charcoals are hot enough. “It’s when the coals are ashed over and glowing like embers that they are perfect for grilling over,” she explains. Another thing to keep an eye out for is bad smoke. “Great charcoal smoke isn’t dark, but the initial burn is,” Roberts adds. “This smoke will leave an acrid taste on your food that isn’t enjoyable.” Fortunately, bad smoke can be kept to a minimum with the help of a charcoal chimney.
What Kind of Charcoal Do I Use?
Believe it or not, all charcoal is not created equal. According to Roberts, grillers typically choose between lump charcoal and charcoal briquets. “All-natural lump charcoal burns hotter and faster than briquets but both work great on charcoal grills, for hot and fast cooks or low and slow,” she explains. For best results, Roberts recommends choosing an all-natural charcoal that’s free of fillers and additives. “Charcoal should simply be wood that has gone through a carbonization process with natural binders,” she says. “Add more barbecue flavor to your cookout by trying out charcoal with added smoking wood, like hickory or mesquite for authentic BBQ flavor.”