Everything You Need to Know About Charcoal Grills — All in One Place

published May 21, 2020
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The name says it all: A charcoal grill is an outdoor cooker (a grill!) that uses charcoal as a fuel source. It requires a lot more effort than a gas grill to start the cooking process, control the heat, and clean up afterwards. But it rewards you with food that’s got an incomparable smoky flavor that you can’t get from cooking over gas. A charcoal grill is for someone who loves the entire grilling process, not just the eating part. If you’re the type of person who wants to nerd out a little bit or pick up a new skill in order to get a big payback when it comes to flavor, you just might be a charcoal grill person. Let’s take a look at everything you could possibly need to know about charcoal grills. 

RelatedWhat’s the Difference Between a Gas and Charcoal Grill?

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The Types of Charcoal Grills

When it comes to charcoal grills, there are three main different types (four, if you count gas grills that can be converted to charcoal ones, but we’re leaving those out for now). Here’s a list — and the general gist — of each type.

1. Kettle

This is usually the least obtrusive and the most iconic — the one you likely picture in your mind when you think of a charcoal grill. Kettle grills have a tapered shape so you can build a deep bed of briquets to hold in heat. Kettle grills are good for searing, as well as for longer-cooking items — like chicken or roasts — that you don’t want to burn before they cook through. Kettle grills are the best all-purpose choice.

Our pick: 22-Inch Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill, $165 at Home Depot

2. Barrel

These grills are wide but shallow — kind of like a barrel on its side. They require a lot of briquets and can cook a ton of food at once across their broad surfaces. But they tend to burn out sooner, so they’re better for basic barbecues when you’re serving a whole bunch of hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks rather than more sophisticated outdoor dinners. However, most barrels do make it easy to add more charcoal if you want to extend the cooking time. 

Our pick: Char-Griller Smokin’ Champ Charcoal Grill Horizontal Smoker, $199 at Home Depot

3. Ceramic or Kamado

You’ve probably heard of the Big Green Egg? That’s the most popular version of a kamado grill. These babies are pricey, but really hold in the heat, giving you ultimate control over cooking. They allow you to expand your repertoire to all types of grilling including briskets, pork butts, and turkeys. But they’re heavy, use a lot of briquets, and don’t usually have a very big cooking surface. Meaning? This isn’t the grill you want for slinging burgers and dogs at a backyard birthday bash. 

Our pick: Large EGG in an intEGGrated Nest+Handler Package, $1,299

What Should You Look for When Buying a Charcoal Grill?

You may have noticed that there’s no shortage of charcoal grill options out there. (And we’re not even counting those cute little tabletop ones; we’re only talking about the ones that you can comfortably set up on a patio.) We’ve included our absolute top pick below, but first, here are some shopping pointers, in case you want to do your own comparison shopping. Here’s what to look for when buying a charcoal grill.

  • Solid construction: A grill that’s made of thick metal or stainless steel isn’t going to rust. A thicker material will also hold in heat better. Give the grill a shake; make sure it sits firmly on the ground so there’s minimal chance that it will be able to be knocked or blown over. 
  • Wheels: At least two wheels on a grill make it easy to move it from place to place. 
  • A good lid: Check that the lid is tight-fitting to keep heat in. 
  • Vents: There should be both top and bottom vents to give you control over air flow (and thus cooking temperature). 
  • An ash catcher: Under the grill you want either a bin or a tray to collect the ashes. It should be easy to remove to (safely) dispose of the ashes after cooking. 
  • A way to add more coals: Either a dedicated door or a hinged grate makes it easy for you to sneak in more coals or rearrange them during a grilling session. 
Credit: Kristin Teig

What Is the Best Charcoal Grill to Buy?

Based on just about every reviewer and Kitchn’s experience, the best charcoal grill is the 22-Inch Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill. It’s a classic, and rightly so. The Weber checks all the boxes. Solidly built, it will last you many summers. The 22-inch diameter surface gives you plenty of room for loads of burgers. The vents in the bottom and the lid allow for adjusting the air flow to speed up or slow down cooking.

Read more: The Best Charcoal Grills, According to the Best Experts

A Weber turns out rib-eyes with a deep, crusty exterior and a nice, rosy interior. Chicken pieces cooked on a Weber come out with crispy, golden-brown skin and tender, juicy meat. The grate is hinged on both sides, which makes it easy to add more briquets when you’re cooking racks of baby-back ribs low and slow, or if you’re cranking out brats throughout the evening.

There’s a long handle for opening and closing the bottom vent to keep your hand away from the heat, but you will need to be careful handling the one in the lid. In the lid, there’s a dial thermometer. While it’s not spot-on (lid thermometers never are), it will give you a general idea what the temperature is under the hood. This is particularly helpful when you’re cooking something like a pork shoulder in an oven-like environment. 

The grip on the lid is plastic and there’s a heat shield underneath it to make it easy to lift the cover without burning yourself. When removing the lid, rest it on the side of the grill. You’ll find hooks on the side handle for hanging tongs and a grill brush. One of the best features on the Premium model is the ash catcher, a big bucket that sits below the grill. After grilling, it’s easy to remove and then empty it without spilling any ashes along the way. 

And if you want to add a little color to your outdoor space, you can have your Weber kettle in red, green, or copper.  

Taking Care of a Charcoal Grill

We’ve got the steps to walk you through cleaning a charcoal grill, but here are the most important rules to live by.

  • Clean the grate after every use. This is easier if you do it while the grill is still a little warm, before the gunk cools and hardens. Use a stiff brush or even a crumpled ball of aluminum foil. And if you forget, just give it a scrubbing the next time you go to use it — after you’ve lit the coals and the grate has warmed up a bit. 
  • Dump the ashes after every use, making sure they’re cool before disposing of them. If you leave them in the bottom of the grill, they can cause corrosion. (Wrap the cold ashes in heavy-duty aluminum foil and place the bundle in a metal garbage can.)
  • Get a grill cover. They’re not that much of an investment and the right one will protect your grill from the elements. One exception to this rule: If you live or vacation near the shore where it’s always damp, as the cover can hold in moisture and speed up rusting. 
  • At the end of the summer, or once or twice a year if you’re an all-seasons griller, give the entire grill a good cleaning. Scrub the inside with a brush to get rid of any gunk and wash the lid and the exterior with soapy water. 
  • When your grate gets to the point where you just can’t stand to put food on it, use Carbona 2-In-1 Oven Rack & Grill Cleaner. It will get the grates looking brand new with minimal effort on your part.  
Credit: Mia Yakel/Kitchn

6 Must-Have Tools for Anyone with a Charcoal Grill

First, do not fall for any of those grilling kits. (They come with too many unnecessary things and the one thing you do need — tongs— we don’t even usually like.) What should you get? We’ve got a short, curated list!

1. Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter

We strongly believe that you don’t need lighter fluid to start a charcoal grill — you just need a good chimney starter (don’t worry, we can walk you through using one). The Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter has a great grip and a shield to protect your hand from the heat. 

Buy: Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter, $23

2. Outset Leather Grill Gloves

As great as that chimney starter is, you’re still going to want a pair of gloves to protect your hands when you go to turn it over. These are sure to get the job done, and they’re inexpensive and better-looking than a lot of the other options out there.

Buy: Outset Leather Grill Gloves, $13

3. Winco Stainless Steel Utility Tongs

You really only need one utensil: a good pair of tongs that you can use for rearranging, flipping, and rubbing crinkled aluminum foil over the grate during cleanup. We prefer these, which do not lock (we find that locking ones often lock when you don’t want them to!) and are more nimble than the oversized ones that come in grill tooling sets. 

Buy: Winco Stainless Steel Utility Tongs, $5

4. Thermapen Mk4

If you have a grill with a built-in thermometer in the lid, know that it’s not enough. For starters, that’s the temperature up at the top, not down by the fire. And it’s not the internal temperature of what you’re grilling. This is the thermometer that everyone at Kitchn swears by and we all use it outside at the grill, too.

Buy: Thermapen Mk4, $99 at ThermoWorks

5. Grillaholics Grill Basket

Grilling small pieces of food (like asparagus and zucchini disks) is not an easy task — unless you have a grill basket. This one is a favorite among grillers because it’s heavy-duty (so it won’t warp over time), has plenty of holes (to allow your food to still get those coveted grill marks), and is relatively large (so it holds a lot of food).

Buy: Grillaholics Grill Basket, $22

6. Best BBQ Cleaning Brush

A good scrubbing brush is never a bad idea. This one has three rows of thick-gauge wire bristles that stand up over time, and it also happens to be Wirecutter’s top pick for the best grill brush. If you don’t like the idea of a brush with wires (the CDC has reported issues of wires getting stuck in the grates and ending up in food), we really like this wooden scraper, which conforms to your grates, the more you use it. And again, a ball of foil works well for regular maintenance, too.

Buy: Best BBQ Cleaning Brush, $21 at Wayfair

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Our Best Tips for Using a Charcoal Grill

We know that grilling with charcoal is more intimidating than grilling with gas, but we promise it’s not that hard — especially once you’re armed with our great tips. Here are some highlights.

  • Forget about lighter fluid. The quickest, easiest, and safest way to get your fire going is with a chimney starter (read: An Absolute Newbie’s Guide to Lighting a Charcoal Grill). You simply put crumpled newspaper or lighter cubes at the bottom, fill it with briquets, and light the paper. Within 10 to 15 minutes, your charcoal is ready to be dumped in the grill so you can get cooking.
  • Master the art of indirect cooking and you’ll never find yourself with charred chicken that’s still raw inside. Spread coals to one side or on either side and place your food over the portion of the grate that is not above the coals. When you cook with indirect heat, keep the lid closed and use the vents to regulate the heat. Guesstimate how hot your fire is by placing your palm about 5 inches above the grate. If you need to pull your hand away after 2 to 4 seconds, the heat is high; 5 to 7 seconds, the heat is medium; 8 to 10 seconds, low.
Credit: Shelly Westerhausen

Our Best Recipes for a Charcoal Grill

Got it? Now grill something! We have loads of recipes for the grill, any grill, but these will really shine on a charcoal one.

Wondering about anything else? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll try to get you some answers!