5 Things to Know Before You Buy a Charcoal Grill

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Jeff Roffman)

Here’s the thing about a charcoal grill: It inspires profound loyalty. Chances are that if you are #teamcharcoal, you’re #teamcharcoal all the way. Maybe it’s the fact that it requires a certain amount of patience and strategy to get that Goldilocks char and tenderness, or perhaps it’s that it feels like a true hobby you can spend a Saturday afternoon practicing and perfecting.

If you’re ready to join the legions of devoted charcoal fans, whatever your reason, there are a few things you should know before you buy.

1. They’re relatively affordable.

The good news for charcoal fans is that, for the most part, charcoal grills will not break the bank. Yes, you can find super-fancy options that will run you close to $1000, but a small charcoal grill can be yours for $20 or less. Even bigger models tend to fall into the very reasonable $100 to $150 range.

2. They come in all sizes.

If you are thinking you want a portable charcoal grill that you might take camping or use at a tailgate, there are super-small options that might be perfect for you. On the other hand, you can also find giant, professional-grade models that you might use to smoke a few racks of ribs. We’re talking the difference between 140 square inches and 700 square inches of cooking space. Before you buy, think about how you’re going to want to use it to make sure you’ll have enough space for everything you’re imagining.

3. There are three main styles.

A kettle charcoal grill is the classic concept — it’s basically a metal ball on legs, and the charcoal sits in the bottom. This is the cheapest and most portable option.

Then there are ceramic grills, most famously the Big Green Egg. This is the most versatile version of a charcoal grill, able to grill and smoke as well as bake pizzas at 500°F. (It’s also the most expensive).

Finally, there’s a barrel grill. It looks similar to a typical gas grill, rounded on the top and the bottom, with a hinged top. It’s ideal for big smoking projects.

4. They can be a beast to clean.

No matter what version you buy, you’ll have to deal with ash and buildup, so anything that makes that process a little bit easier will be welcome. Be especially wary of small grills that you have to flip over to empty out — you might find you’re using your grill as little as possible to avoid the headache.

5. You may want to invest in a few key extras.

Lighting a charcoal grill can be a bit tricky. There are charcoal grills with small propane panels at the bottom to help you get your coals to light, which might come in handy on those days when you don’t feel like making your dinner into a production and want to speed up the process.

Or you could get a charcoal chimney. It’s not expensive ($10 to $15) and is a fast, lighter fluid-free way to get your charcoals hot. You fill this hollow metal cylinder with charcoal, place it on top of your grill, and use newspaper or lighter cubes to get your charcoal hot. Then, transfer the hot coals to your grill and get cooking.

Another extra worth buying? A surface thermometer for the grill. Everything from how the charcoal is burning to the position it’s in to the wind can affect your temperature.

Our pick: Taylor Grill Surface Thermometer, $10 at Williams-Sonoma

Some Additional Notes on Charcoal Grills

  • If you rent or own a home with a wooden deck where you do most of your grilling, charcoal grills may not be permitted — or the best idea. The flying ash and extremely high heat can be a fire hazard.
  • Gas grills have replaced charcoal versions as an all-year-round staple, so if you’re planning on buying one, you’ll need to get buying! If you do want to wait and scope the sales, act fast when you see them marked down, because they won’t be stocked in the store further into summer (although you can still find them online).