If you’re looking for a way to cook outdoors, you might have already narrowed down your search to looking for the best charcoal grill as opposed to a, since what charcoal grills lack in complexity and high-tech, they compete when it comes to flavor, ease of use and price. They’re easier to set up than a gas grill and you won’t need much more than your favorite food and a bag of charcoal to cook up a quick meal with true smoky flavor.
Even if you have settled on this option over a propane-filled model, you’ll still have dozens of options to sort through to find the best charcoal grill. From kettle-style to cart-style, feature-filled to bare minimum, we tested eight charcoal grills with steak, chicken and ribs to find out which are the best bet for cooking and grilling at your cookout.
Weber’s $109 original kettle-style grill continues to stand the test of time. In our high-heat searing tests, Weber delivered the best balance of seared exterior and medium rare interior steak. The Weber gave us tasty chicken too, with crispy chicken skin. The Weber can also smoke low and slow at rock-steady temperatures. That translated to seriously flavorful ribs.
Simple construction means there aren’t too many parts to assemble or too many features to handle while cooking. A vent on the lid controls air flow and a well-designed ash tray beneath the grill facilitates easy cleanup.
We tested the 22-inch model in black, but Weber also offers an 18-inch version of their original kettle design. There are certainly fancier and more expensive grills to use for cooking, but for a balance of affordability and quality, you can’t go wrong with this classic. This is the best charcoal grill overall.
If you’d prefer to find the best charcoal grill for cooking that is cart-style, the $99 Nexgrill Cart-Style Charcoal Grill proved a worthy challenger to the Weber in our tests. The cart design means you’ll get a helpful side tray and a little more cooking surface area, with 390 square inches of cooking space compared to Weber’s 363 square inches.
Nexgrill definitely seared well, though the meat inside was a bit too done for our preferences. In our medium, indirect heat chicken tests, Nexgrill delivered flavorful, juicy meat as a close second to Weber. Ribs were tender, juicy and done in about 4.5 hours. That said, the Weber had superior temperature control during these low and slow smoking sessions.
Cart-style cooking and grilling isn’t for everyone. It’s bulkier with a more involved assembly and you’ll likely need more fuel to keep the larger space at a high temperature. However, our results were almost as good as the kettle-style Weber, so if you’re interested in a cart-style model this is your best bet.
At $279, the Napoleon charcoal grill is expensive. However, during our chicken tests, it held its temperature better than any other model. The resulting chicken was tasty, and the grill features really nice cast iron grates across its 365 square inches of cooking area. The lid houses a temperature gauge and a handy hinge that makes it easy to add charcoal.
Napoleon delivered excellent cooking results in our ribs test. It prepared a tender and juicy rack in just 4 hours, 30 minutes. In our chicken test it held a high temperature for longer than any other grill in the lineup. The searing test was average, but satisfactory. This grill just feels really well built. It has three heights for your grates, so you can control just how much direct heat your food gets while cooking and grilling. If you’re looking for the fanciest kettle grill out there, this one might just be it.
How we test
Testing charcoal grills means a lot of hands-on cooking experience. Depending on the season, and how your grill is set up, your experience cooking and grilling will likely be very different from ours. For example, a kettle-style grill left in the July sun all day will run a lot hotter than a grill in the cooler spring months.
First, a note about grill thermometers. None of the hood thermometers built into these grills mirrored the temperatures recorded by our own thermocouples and data software. It’s not uncommon for grill thermometers to read high, so we recommend keeping an oven thermometer or Bluetooth thermometer handy while you’re grilling, either for your meat or for the grill’s temperature itself.
High-heat searing with steak
To test high heat, we seared two steaks on each grill. Charcoal was measured in a chimney by grams, and in a ratio for that grill’s specific surface area. We lit the charcoal inside the chimney, letting it burn until the smoke dissipated and the coals began to turn grayish white, then put the charcoal into the grill. Let the grill heat up for 10 minutes, and the steaks are ready to hit the grates.
We placed two steaks on each grill near the center and seared for five minutes before flipping them over and searing five more minutes. In a good, reliable grill this will give you a steak with a seared outside and medium rare to medium center. Of course, if your taste is meat that’s more done, you can extend the cooking time or sear and finish cooking in an oven.
The best charcoal grill for steak-searing in our lineup was the Weber Classic Kettle. The steak had nice grill marks while keeping a medium doneness on the inside. The worst was our Tacklife review unit, which didn’t hold much heat and didn’t sear while cooking. The steak on that grill needed an additional 5 minutes to get to a temperature of 135, the minimum for medium rare.
Chicken and indirect, medium heat
Next, we tested each grill’s medium heat cooking capability by roasting whole chickens. The trick here is to keep the grills at a hot enough temperature to cook a chicken for upwards of two hours. Each grill got a full chimney of charcoal, and we placed one six-pound chicken on each grill, opposite the coals for indirect heat.