There’s a lot to be said for the basic Weber kettle. The company’s 22.5-inch One-Touch Gold model, the test kitchen’s longtime favorite charcoal grill, accommodates a full 6-quart chimney’s worth of charcoal and features a large enough cooking surface to grill burgers for a crowd. It also has a domed lid tall enough to house a whole turkey, and its well-designed venting system allows barbecue buffs to jury-rig the unit into a competent smoker. The sturdy ash catcher keeps cleanup to a minimum. Moving and storing the kettle’s small frame is easy, and the price tag is nice.
And yet it’s never been a perfect package. This model’s tripod base is notoriously wobbly and prone to lose a limb, and when we’re adding food to or removing it from the fire, we wish there was a place to set down a platter. Drawbacks like these led our eyes to wander back over the charcoal grill marketplace, where we discovered a vast array of competitors across an even more vast price scale—everything from simple, comparably priced designs to beefed up, luxe models fetching significantly more than $2,000. The Rolls-Royce of charcoal grills wasn’t our target, though. We wanted a well-engineered, user-friendly model that’s up to any outdoor cooking task—ribs, pork loin, fish, burgers, chicken—without having to take out a second mortgage. So we set an upper price limit of $400 and lined up seven promising grills, including our trusty Weber kettle. Our battery of cooking tests included both grilling and low, slow tasks: big batches of burgers, skewers of sticky glazed beef satay, and thick salmon fillets, as well as barbecued ribs. We ran a height check by shutting—or, in some cases, cramming—each grill’s lid over a whole turkey; we threaded thermocouple wires under the lids to monitor temperature retention; and we kept track of how easy the grills were to set up when new and to clean up after cooking.