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Portable Charcoal Grills

Published June 2011

How we tested

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.

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The Results


Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.


Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.


Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.


Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.


Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.


Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.