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Best Charcoal Grills

By: Kelly Burgess on April 26, 2017

Charcoal grills are for the true enthusiast

While gas grills, which we cover in a separate section of this report, are very convenient, many grilling enthusiasts say that you simply can't duplicate the flavors and mouthfeel you get when you cook on a charcoal grill. As with gas grills, the top manufacturer in this category is Weber. In 2015, Weber changed the name of its kettle grills back to the name Weber Original; for a couple of years they were designated by the colors silver, for basic, and gold for premium. The designs were not changed, which is good because Weber's iconic kettle grills have been around for more than 50 years and this brand appears at or near the top of almost every reviewer's list.

Among this company's most popular charcoal grills is the Weber Original Kettle Premium (Est. $150), which is the first upgrade to the Weber Original 22-inch Kettle (Est. $100). The Premium version draws praise for its reliable performance and solid construction. The most useful feature the $50 upgrade gives you is a closed ash catcher that reviewers say solves the flying ash problem sometimes encountered on the cheaper version. You also get an additional handle on the kettle and a hinged cooking grate (which is helpful for adding charcoal). There's also a thermometer built in to the lid, but experts say it doesn't work very well. They recommend a dedicated meat thermometer instead (and we recommend the best of those in our separate report on meat thermometers). The Premium Kettle has a 22-inch cooking area, but a larger version is available -- the Weber Premium 26-inch Kettle Grill (Est. $300), with a stainless steel (not plated steel) cooking grate.

All of the grills in Weber's Original Kettle series have a bowl and lid with a porcelain-enameled finish, a plated-steel cooking grate (except, as noted above, the 26-inch Premium Kettle), a "one touch" cleaning system that funnels ash toward the bin, and glass-reinforced nylon handles.

Owners love having such a versatile grill, saying it excels in cooking every kind of meat imaginable. Quite a few note that the domed lid makes the grill roomy enough even to grill a Beer Can Chicken (a recipe wherein a chicken is cooked standing upright on an open can of beer). They say the grill imparts great flavor to food and that it's very easy to use and clean -- many say it's definitely worth the upgrade to keep the ash from flying around when emptying it -- an issue with the basic Original. Experts agree, saying it is built to last, has superior cooking capability, and is super easy to use.

If you want to fancy up your Weber Kettle even more, the Weber Performer 22 (Est. $250) is also a top pick by reviewers, who rave about its convenience features. The Weber Performer is basically the Weber Original grill, but all the features of the Premium and tucked into a holder that includes a fold down side table and a wire shelf. Owners say it offers the best of both worlds -- the excellent performance of a Weber charcoal grill with the handy storage and workspace features of a gas grill.

A smoker offers the ultimate grilling experience

When you think of grilling, a sizzling steak may be the first thing that comes to mind, but true grill aficionados say "low and slow" cooking is the true definition of barbecue. For that, they say, you need a smoker. A smoker grill provides low, even, consistent heat across the entire cooking area and can do so for many hours with a minimum of tending. Charcoal grills, which we discuss elsewhere in this report, can often double as smokers, but they usually need quite a bit of fiddling to maintain the temperature over the length of time needed to smoke some foods.

One smoker that's at or near the top of just about everyone's "best of" list is the Big Green Egg (Est. $850 for large), which earns top scores in professional reviews and a seemingly cult-like devotion from hundreds of users. The Big Green Egg (named for its distinctive shape) is a kamado-style grill; its design is based on a traditional Japanese cooking vessel whose oblong shape offers excellent temperature control. You can cook at very low or very high temperatures and the settings are accurate enough that it's practically "set and forget" cooking. Its large, 262 square inch cooking grate is completely sealed by the grill's ceramic exterior, so it can cook for hours on only a few coals. The exterior surface remains cool to the touch, even as the grill reaches high cooking temperatures. It is sold in seven sizes, from mini to XX-Large, all of which carry a lifetime warranty.

There's a bit of a learning curve with using the Big Green Egg, but most say they master it fairly quickly, and once they do many say they tend to grill more than they ever did with a traditional charcoal grill. And this versatile grill allows you do that -- reviewers say it works equally well for baking, grilling and smoking -- imparting a flavor that's unmatched. It's said to be very easy to clean as well. The downside is that it's expensive, and necessary accessories like a table will add to the base price, but it will last forever and you won't need any other type of grill. The Big Green Egg is sold only at brick and mortar stores and the only way to find out what an Egg will cost you is to visit one. The Big Green Egg website has a dealer locator that will help you find a local retailer.

While the Big Green Egg is one of the most versatile smokers you can buy, some people prefer a dedicated smoker. If that's you, there's none better than the Weber Smokey Mountain 18-inch Charcoal Smoker (Est. $300). It's larger than the Big Green Egg with a 481 square inch cooking surface, and it also comes in 14 and 22 inch sizes if you need less or more cooking space.

Like the Big Green Egg, the Weber is on pretty much every smoker "best of" list we saw. Experts and owners say it's easy to use and is a great performer, maintaining its heat for hours. They also say it's extremely durable and well-built. Even those who describe themselves as "not grill masters" say they mastered this smoker very quickly and are eagerly broadening their smoker horizons. The Weber Smokey Mountain also grills, but experts and users say that's awkward to do as you have to kneel down on the ground to reach the direct cooking grill.

Electric smokers are convenient and easy to use

Like the gas versus charcoal grill debate, we see a lot of comments from grill snobs that electric smokers aren't "real" smokers and don't work as well as charcoal-based smokers. However, thousands of happy electric smoker owners would beg to differ. The great thing about electric smokers is that they are extremely easy to use: you just flip a switch and load and re-load wood chips. They're also very easy to clean and are highly affordable.

Masterbuilt is a respected name in grills and smokers (and turkey fryers, which we cover in our separate report on deep fryers), and the Masterbuilt 30-Inch Electric Digital Smoker (Est. $285) gets raves from reviewers as a top choice for an electric smoker. It's extremely easy to use, and even those who have used traditional, charcoal-fueled smokers say this electric smoker produces excellent results. The digital temperature control is very popular, as that makes it even easier to use since you can monitor temperature at a glance. It also has a timer that will shut this electric smoker off when the preset cooking time expires. The one issue we saw was with durability; some say they've had it for years, but we saw complaints of the smoker not heating or shutting off too soon after just a few uses.

Pellet smokers/grills are a hot item

Pellet grills, more often called pellet smokers, and really not either a grill or a smoker; rather, as Max Good of AmazingRibs.com explains in this informative article, they are " indirect heat convection smokers." Regardless of what you call them, pellet cookers offer convenience, impart great flavor to meat, and are a terrific choice for low, slow cooking. However, before we continue, a couple of caveats: Pellet grills are a fairly new technology (and, because of that, there are relatively few reviews), they're quite expensive, and you need access to electricity, so they can't be a backup cooking source during a power outage.

Having said that, there are definite advantages to pellet grills. Pellets are an all-natural fuel source made from the byproduct of wood -- basically compressed sawdust, which is a more environmentally-friendly fuel source than charcoal. Some are even flavored to further infuse flavor into the meat. Pellets heat up more quickly than charcoal and it's easier to clean up afterwards because pellets leave very little ash. However, pellets aren't as readily available as charcoal, cost more, and you need to be sure you get food-grade pellets. The pellets used in pellet stoves, which we cover in a separate report, are not suitable to use in pellet grills.

Moving into our top spot this year is the Camp Chef PG24 Deluxe Pellet Grill and Smoker (Est. $600). Experts and owners both praise its ingenious "trap door" design that makes it easy to remove the ash, a hassle in most pellet smokers. It also gets kudos for its easy, set-and-forget convenience, with a high end controller that gives the user plenty of control over the smoke options.

In testing at AmazingRibs.com, which awards the Camp Chef PG24 a "Best Value Gold Award, it maintains even temperatures at various settings. The included meat probe is also very popular with reviewers. And, although most pellet cookers function best as a smoker, the PG24 has an optional sear burner that can be added that is an excellent performer in searing -- making this a very versatile pellet cooker at a price that can't be beat.

Two issues we saw regarding the Camp Chef PG24 that are interrelated: there were a some of comments from owners that their grill had arrived either with pieces missing, or that the probe had failed right out of the box. Unfortunate because the other issue we saw is that customer service is difficult to contact and is not very helpful. However, there are few enough of these complaints that the chances of that happening are fairly low.

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