There are plenty of reasons to consider a portable gas grill, whether you’re staying home or heading out on the road. They’re perfect for households of one or two people or for those with limited outdoor space. They’re also ideal for picnics, tailgating, and camping, since they’re designed to be compact and light enough to carry. What’s more, gas grills are quicker to start than charcoal grills, and there’s no ash to dispose of when you’re done.
We bought eight models, priced from about $69 to about $300, and grilled burgers and steak and grill-roasted pork loin. We evaluated their performance and versatility; how easy they were to carry, assemble, and cook on; and whether they were difficult to clean, fold, and put away afterward. We brought them all indoors to store between cooking sessions to see whether they were actually as neat and compact as claimed, given that this type of grill is often kept inside an apartment or RV. Nobody wants to carry, pack, and store a grill that’s cumbersome, greasy, or sooty.
All the grills we tested are fueled by propane. Most of the models used widely available 1-pound cylinders, which are about the size of a 2-liter soda bottle, but one required a 20-pound propane tank, the kind used with full-size gas grills. Some of the models in our lineup can be fitted with adapters (sold separately) for big tanks. This is something worth considering if you plan to use your grill mostly at home, since the 1-pound tanks run out quickly, sometimes after just a few grilling sessions. (If you are sticking with small tanks, be sure to keep extra on hand.)
All but one of the grills in our lineup were tabletop models, with legs just a few inches long. To use these grills, you either have to place them on the ground and bend down to cook on them or find a heat-resistant table (we used a metal table). We really appreciated the one grill that came with its own table-height cart attached, which folds to become a wheeled hand truck.
Once we were set up, we had no trouble hooking up any of the tanks; the instructions were clear and connections simple. Firing up the grills was a pleasure, because all the models had automatic battery-powered ignitions—no matches or lighters needed. A turn of a knob and a push of a button and they roared to life.
Actually, “roar” might be an overstatement. Portable propane grills have a reputation for wimpy heat output and cooking food unevenly. We fashioned a test to help prove or disprove this. We mapped their heat patterns by covering fully preheated grates with slices of white sandwich bread; this also let us compare the sizes of the cooking surfaces. These grills held anywhere from five to 10 standard slices of bread, and the results of our heat mapping varied. The worst grill left all the bread partly pale and partly scorched, except for a single central slice that stayed snow white. This didn’t bode well for cooking food. Out of the eight grills, only half gave us mostly evenly browned toast.
In a more real-world test, we set out to grill 10 identical 4-inch-wide hamburger patties on each model. As we saw with toast, the grills’ capacities and cooking results varied. We could fit 10 burgers on nearly all the models; some had room for a few more, but the smallest, by Weber, could hold only seven. (By contrast, our favorite full-size gas grill can hold 20 burgers.) And despite thorough preheating, some grills never put distinct grill marks on our burgers or didn’t cook consistently across the grill surface; the worst left patties flabby and gray. We started looking for answers as to why some cooked better than others.
First we focused on the cooking grates. They were made of five different materials: enameled or regular cast iron, enameled or plain stainless steel, and nonstick ceramic–coated metal. While we appreciated the cast-iron grates’ heat retention (and the lone nonstick grate for its easy cleaning), our highest-ranking models’ grates were made of uncoated stainless steel. These made crisp grill marks; were relatively easy to scrub clean; and weighed much less than cast-iron grates, an important consideration in portability. The grates’ shapes mattered, too: Some had large areas of flat griddle-like surfaces to serve as built-in flame tamers over the burners, but these trapped fat as food cooked and made the food fry rather than grill. One grate resembled an enameled-steel broiler pan—a mostly flat sheet with small cutouts for grease to drip through. While this thick metal sheet trapped heat and cooked food well, its grill marks were less distinct, and the marks were almost nonexistent on the burgers’ second side because the patties were, by then, sitting in rendered fat.
The highly corrugated grate of our favorite grill resembled a Ruffles potato chip, with tiny holes along the bottom of the V’s to drain fat. This innovative design helped hold and spread heat, and the grill produced uniform, gorgeously browned, distinctly marked patties. The grate of our runner-up had simple thick, round steel bars (with inverted V-shaped steel flame tamers beneath the grates), and it also seared beautifully, leaving crisp markings.
When we grilled steak, we learned more about how each grill’s design affects cooking. We aimed for medium-rare doneness, with distinct, flavorful grill marks; evenly browned crusts; and pink, juicy interiors. While most models did an acceptable job, a few of the less successful grills produced meat that was slightly dried out, causing it to shrink and bend. The worst, by Megamaster, which had ruined plain toast with its extremely uneven heat zones and produced flabby, gray burgers, here again seemed to bake rather than sear the steak, even though the cooking grates had been fully preheated. We noticed large vertical vents at the back of this grill; these let heat rise up and away from the food and escape too readily. The grate was composed of very thin enameled-steel bars that couldn’t retain much heat, and we had to give it a fresh propane tank sooner than with most of the other grills; it had burned through fuel trying to stay hot. Another grill, by Coleman, shared those large vertical vents in the back, and while its cast-iron grates helped with heat retention, it also ran through fuel quicker than other models. Better-performing grills had low, narrow, horizontal vents that held heat under the lid closer to the food, letting it escape at a much slower rate. As a result, they were more efficient with both cooking and fuel.
We’d used direct heat for burgers and steaks, cooking them right over the flames. But larger cuts of meat and delicate foods often call for grill roasting, an indirect, slower cooking technique that establishes hotter and cooler cooking zones and uses the grill’s lid to trap heat. (Lids are also essential if the weather is cold or windy.)
One grill had no lid. Others were a bit too shallow: When we put a whole 4-pound chicken on the grates, some lids touched the bird, and a few others poked it with the stems of thermometers built into the lids unless we placed the chicken off-center. Luckily, the lids of the remaining grills sat higher above the food and provided good air circulation. (As for those lid thermometers, five grills had them, but their lack is not a deal breaker. We prefer putting a probe thermometer in the food for more accurate cooking results.)
Aside from liking grills with roomy lids, we looked for grills with multiple burners to help create those hotter and cooler cooking zones. Only three models had more than one burner. The other five were single-burner grills, so we tweaked our usual technique. After preheating the grill, normally we’d shut off one burner under the meat and leave the adjacent burner lit (sometimes topped with a packet of wood chips) to create indirect heat and generate smoke. Instead, we preheated the grill and then turned down the single burner to very low heat and put our pork loin and wood-chip packet side by side. We were pleased to find that this setup mostly worked, especially when the grills’ vents were small and low, helping retain heat and smoke. (On the lidless grill, we used a sheet of heavy-duty foil, which wasn’t ideal but gave us acceptable results.)
Cooking aside, being able to get portable grills really clean is essential. Especially after grilling something messy, such as burgers, we worried about splattering our clothes, cars, and homes with grease. One grill we’d loved had tiny, unsecured grease trays and an interior full of residue-trapping nooks and crannies—a horror show when we folded it for transport, followed by endless detailing before we could put it away. Others were almost as bad. The best had very simple interiors and large grease-catching trays. We liked being able to remove and scrub the cooking grates and trays in the kitchen sink and swipe away the interior food residue in short order.
We also found that only some of the grills had been thoughtfully designed to be lifted and carried. The smallest, by nomadiQ, had smooth, rounded sides and a padded shoulder strap like a large purse, making it very easy to tote. The Coleman grill folded into its cart, with wheels at one end, but it never felt balanced or easy to roll (and its weak lid latch often let go and dumped grates when we did). The others all had handles, and their placement, along with the shapes of the grills once lifted, made some feel comfortable and balanced and others awkward and poky.
After the smoke cleared, we had a favorite: the Char-Broil X200 TRU-Infrared Portable Gas Grill. Sturdily built but comparatively lightweight, with big handles, it’s easy to carry and offers a roomy cooking surface, uniform heat distribution, and plenty of power. Its thick cast-aluminum body; high lid; corrugated steel grates; and low, narrow vent work together to retain and spread heat for excellent cooking results, and its interior is simple to clean.
If you are not planning to travel with your grill and really just want a compact model that performs comparably to a full-size grill, we also loved the Cuisinart Chef’s Style Stainless Tabletop Grill. With a high-arching lid and two burners for creating hotter and cooler cooking zones, it is a powerful, sturdy grill that put a beautiful sear on our burgers and steak. Its interior was easy to clean, too. However, it’s awkwardly balanced, so it’s uncomfortable to carry. It also requires a full-size 20-pound propane tank, which also makes it a bit cumbersome to transport. But at 21 by 17 by 13 inches overall, compared with 52 by 24 by 45.5 inches for our winning full-size gas grill, it’s a great choice for small yards and balconies.
For a more budget-friendly option that was by far the easiest to handle and carry, we loved the extremely compact design and feather-like weight of the Weber Go-Anywhere Gas Grill. A basic box of enameled steel with steel legs that swing up to latch it closed, it couldn’t be simpler to set up or clean. Its almost griddle-like cooking surface, aided by narrow vents, retains heat well for solid cooking results.