Published June 1, 2011. From Cook's Country.
Can smaller, portable charcoal grills match the performance of their full-size cousins?
Whether you grill for two, take your grilling on the road, or just lack the space for a full-size grill, a portable charcoal grill offers the smoky flavors of charcoal grilling in a convenient size. Portable grills come in two styles: Some look like smaller versions of full-size kettle grills; others collapse flat for easy storage. We gathered six portable grills with prices ranging from just over $20 to $140 and tested them with burgers, flank steak, and butterflied whole chickens.
A portable grill should be just that: portable. It practically goes without saying that grills that fold flat are handy for fitting into the trunk of a car. But dismantling and reassembling greasy grates and ash-covered panels that must be folded just so turned out to be more trouble than the grills were worth. Weight also hindered portability. Most of the grills that we tested weighed less than 15 pounds, but a 32-pound cast-iron model was difficult to lift, let alone move. We came to appreciate lightweight grills that don't require assembly every time we want to cook, as well as features like clips to secure the lid for easy transport.
Cooking over an open flame is the most basic, and probably the oldest, culinary technique. So it may not be news that we were able to cook burgers and flank steak on all of the grills. But when it came to capacity and design, we found significant differences among the models. We preferred grills that fit at least six burgers and three-quarters of a chimney's worth of briquettes (enough to cook two rounds of burgers and steak back-to-back). We also saw the value of a raised lip, which kept the food from falling off; otherwise, we had to chase burgers that were dangerously close to (or partway off) the edge. You don't need a cover for basic grilling, but you do for grill-roasting. The technique, which in effect creates a small oven, is ideal for larger cuts, like a butterflied chicken. To get low, steady heat, you bank the coals on one side and use a cover to trap the warmth. Excepting one very small grill, we had no trouble building the fire this way on all the models. But only one of the two grills that had covers could actually fit the chicken under the lid.
Between enduring high heat, grease, grime, and getting banged around in the back of a car, portable grills undergo a lot of heavy-duty use. They need to be made of sturdy stuff. We downgraded a few grills for their flimsy construction; one model even buckled as we were cooking on it. To simulate the grill being knocked over while unpacking a picnic, we dropped the models from the back of an SUV onto hard pavement. All grills passed this test, although not without a few dents.
So, which portable grill should you buy? It depends on what you need it for. If you don't intend to lug it on trips, a cast-iron grill is the high-heat cooking champ. Remember, though, that it lacks a lid, so you can't grill-roast. For the best all-around portable grill, we recommend a model which offers an ample cooking surface, a cover that can be secured for travel, a convenient raised lip, and a reasonable price.