How we tested
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.
The good news was that most of the grills did a decent job grilling, and several models also fared well with barbecued ribs. The problem was that even when a grill was capable of both grilling and slow-cooking food, some models had design flaws that limited how easy they were to use. Grilling requires, for example, regularly flipping and rearranging multiple pieces of food, so it’s crucial that the food be within easy reach—a glaring issue with one grill we tested. This long, horizontal tube, which is billed as both an all-purpose grill and a smoker, features a lid that only partially uncovers its generous cooking surface. As a result, the cook must reach underneath the covered area to access food—not a big deal when you’re infrequently reaching for a smoked pork shoulder but a pain when checking several burgers or fish fillets every few minutes. Worse, since pulling up the lid doesn’t uncover the grill completely and the opening is angled toward the cook, smoke blows directly in your face. This flaw made grilling with the lid open particularly unpleasant.
Grill roasting, meanwhile, was a challenge for two grill models, both of which skimp on the space beneath their cooking grates. When we dumped a standard 6-quart chimney of coals into these cookers, the hot briquettes piled up to the grates, wall-to-wall, creating a fierce fire with no cooler zones for indirect cooking. Even a single-level fire was tricky to control: If we didn’t watch carefully, food scorched in minutes. Only one grill we tested had a crank that let us raise and lower the bed of charcoal to adjust the heat—a useful function that we wish other models offered. On the flip side, some grills lacked ample space between their grates and lids. A good 3 inches or more of headroom above food is ideal for proper air circulation (and, therefore, even cooking), but on these units we could just barely pull the lids over a 14-pound turkey.
Barbecuing depends on maintaining low, steady heat for several hours, so we tracked how easy it was to add fresh coals to the fire. Hinged or removable grates are most manufacturers’ answer to dropping in new coals without disturbing the cooking food, but these innovations often walk a fine line between helpful and cumbersome. Tired of dropping a few coals at a time through the Weber’s too-narrow grate openings along both sides of the grill, we were pleased to see that one manufacturer improved on this idea with grate openings that are a bit wider. We thought another maker had done the same until we discovered that only one half of their vessel’s rectangular grate opens—and it wasn’t the side where we’d piled the coals. Still, we found hinged grates more user-friendly than the removable grates that come with other grills; lifting a section of the cooking surface often forced us to relocate food and, more annoyingly, the searing-hot grate to the ground. As for the grates themselves, we preferred thick cast-iron bars for the vivid grill marks and crisp crusts they produced but cared even more about how deep the grate sat in the grill. Some grills' grates were were flush with the cooker’s top edge—consequently, a few burgers slipped off. Barbecuing also depends on how well the grill retains heat, so we added 7 quarts of hot coals to each grill, wired them up with thermocouples, and tracked temperatures just above the grates for 2 hours without opening lids. Predictably, the bigger cookers had more trouble retaining heat. After 2 hours, their temperatures had dropped most steeply; the worst drop was almost twice that of the far more stable smaller cookers. Flimsy construction was also to blame for one of the larger grills: Its thin metal walls and gaps around the lid let heat escape, and ribs weren’t fully cooked after 4 hours.
The Air in There
Digging deeper into heat control, we also evaluated each model’s venting system: the openings on the vessel’s base and lid that draw in (or shut out) and direct air inside the grill, making it possible to cook a larger variety of foods with greater precision. Smartly designed lids wear their top vents off-center, which encourages heat and smoke to be pulled from the coals across the cooking surface and around the indirectly cooking food. If this seems like a fussy point, consider that on certain grills with upper vents cut dead center into their lids, heat and smoke gets sucked straight up and out of the vessels instead of over to the cooking meat.
Bottom vents, meanwhile, draw air into the coals. Fully open, they make the fire burn hotter and faster; partially closed, they cool the temperature and slow coal consumption; fully closed, they put out the fire. You’d think a feature this critical would demand careful design attention, but we struggled to adjust the vents on some cookers, and one model's vents never fully aligned to shut off airflow. That was minor compared to another cooker we tested which featured oversize vents that slid open directly under hot coals and ash, inviting burns and dropping soot on the shelf below—unfortunate if you’re storing food there. Making matters even more difficult, one model sits very low on its cart, which means you’ll be fumbling blindly with tongs to adjust the bottom apertures. The dial-shaped side vents used by some manufacturers were easier to see and adjust, and long exterior levers on two kettle models kept our hands far from the coals.
While we’re sticklers for flawless cooking performance, we’re also the first to acknowledge that convenience can make or break your charcoal grilling experience. For example, a sturdy ashcatcher bucket is a must for cleanup, but we didn’t fully appreciate this feature on the grills we tested until we found ourselves shoveling spent coals and soot out of grills which lack them. (One model we tested was equipped with an ash bucket, but it was flimsy and regularly threatened to fall off; another featured an unwieldy ash drawer, but it was better than nothing.) Simple assembly is another powerful plus, so we timed a pair of testers to see how long it took them to take each grill from box to upright. The Weber snapped together in 21 minutes—a breeze compared with the near-2-hour job they put into piecing together another maker's grill. Moving and storage are also factors: One grill rolled smoothly but rattled as if it might fall apart. Another was large and cumbersome, and many of us wondered where we’d store its 6-foot frame.
Good built-in accessories like roomy carts and shelves are also more than just frivolous perks; they held serving platters and tools while we cooked. Lids that were hinged or sat in holders spared us from grasping the hot covers or setting them on the ground. Tool hooks, built-in thermometers, and charcoal-holding baskets also eased the way. Best of all was the gas ignition button featured on one model, a convenience that makes a chimney starter unnecessary.
In fact, that model came with all the aforementioned bells and whistles, essentially combining all the conveniences of gas grilling with the flavor advantage of charcoal. Once we’d been so pampered, we couldn’t resist its conveniences and declared this model our new winner—even though it’ll cost you more than twice the price of our old favorite. That said, the more basic, budget-minded version of our winner still offers all the cooking functions we want, plus the simplest assembly and cleanup, and is our Best Buy.
We tested seven charcoal grills priced at $400 or less. Grills were purchased online for the prices cited. They are listed in order of preference.
Grilling: We grilled hamburgers, fish fillets, and beef satay skewers, rating grills on their performance during quick, hot cooking. Grills that provided a thick sear rated highest.
BBQ/Heat Retention: We barbecued baby back ribs for 4 hours, turning them every 30 minutes and adding coals after 2 hours. We also monitored the temperatures of the grills for 2 hours with identical volumes of hot coals and half-open vents, without opening lids. The best grills maintained steady heat with the least temperature drop.
Design: We considered how easy it was to add coals, as well as grill layout, air vent position and control, lid, wheels, handles, and other features that contributed to the grills’ performance, ease of use, and versatility.
Assembly: We timed a pair of testers with no special training as they assembled each grill, noting the quality of the instructions. Faster assembly times earned high marks.
Cleanup: Grills that made it easier to remove ashes rated higher.
Capacity: We tested the fit of 14-pound turkeys under the lid of each grill and whether eight 4-inch hamburgers could be grilled at once.
Construction Quality: We observed the sturdiness of each grill and its condition by the end of testing.
Grate: We preferred cast-iron bars and roomy cooking surfaces.
Favorite Features: We noted parts of the grill that helped it perform better or made it easier to use.