Are you a barbecue purist? Do you still yearn for the old classic, the charcoal briquette grill?
Well, you’re not alone. Many folks prefer the taste and aroma of food prepared over charcoal, and find them easier to transport over the newer portable gas grills. Some folks like the convenient cleanup of gas over charcoal, but that is a debate for another article.
The briquette barbecue is a perfect illustration of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The style lines may have changed a bit from the early days, but the simple design of the old drum grill still works as well today as it did in the 50’s.
Foodal’s Number 1 Pick
This heavy duty, made in the USA model is the best portable option, thanks to its sturdy construction and well fitted lid.
Easy to use and set up, charcoal barbecues were the original versions of the home grill. They’re still popular today for home use, and the portable versions are great for camping, road trips, traveling, tailgating, beach parties, picnicking, and other excursions. They are perfect to throw in the RV or even in the trunk, allowing you to take that nice smokey taste with you anywhere you go.
Definitely on the low-tech end of the scale, they have the least movable parts so assembly is minimal, as is the necessity of replacing parts in the future.
So, let’s look at some of the essential features in today’s charcoal grills, and then we’ll review six portable versions for your outdoor cooking enjoyment this summer – at home, out camping, or for a get together at the beach.
Charcoal Grilling – A Bit of Background
The portable charcoal grill is a no-frills approach to outdoor cooking, with the same basic features as the one-piece kettle models first produced by Weber in the early 1950s: a seamless metal drum where the briquettes are placed and lit, with a metal grate placed over the top for holding the meat and veggies while they cook, plus tripod legs and a lid. There’s not much more to it than that.
When given a bit of attention through regular cleaning and maintenance, cinder-based examples can produce years of barbecuing enjoyment via their bare-bones components.
Many barbecuing aficionados still swear by charcoal, insisting that the manner in which it imbues food with its unique, smoky flavor is the premier method to cook an outdoor meal over a flame.
Types of Fuel
Did you know:
There are two primary fuels used for a portable charcoal grill, lump coals and briquettes. Both are produced in the same manner: the wood is burned with very little oxygen, reducing it to carbon, or coal.
Lump charcoal is also known as natural hardwood charcoal, and is mostly produced from scrap lumber. It can come in coal lumps from wood known for specific flavoring, such as apple, cherry, oak, pecan, mesquite, and hickory. And, it produces less ash than briquettes and burns hotter, reduced to coal without the use of any additives in the refining process.
However, it comes in unevenly sized pieces that may not be evenly charred, which can result in uneven heat. Also, the bags they come in might be packed with an excess amount of charred dust, which doesn’t burn well and acts as a barrier to oxygen when burning.
Briquettes are made from sawdust with some additional ingredients added for improved burning and binding, such as coal, limestone, borax and cornstarch.
Insta-light briquettes have been infused with flammable lighter fluid as well, for quick, easy ignition. However, this is a petroleum additive that many claim leaves an oily aftertaste on the food.
Strange But True
We can actually thank Henry Ford for today’s briquettes, as he was responsible for their initial production and availability for use in the home market.
In the early 1920s, he partnered with E.G. Kingsford to turn the large quantities of scrap lumber from his auto plant in Upper Michigan into charcoal for home consumption. Initially called Ford Charcoal, in 1951 new owners changed the name to Kingsford, and it’s still the bestselling briquette in the US. Learn more about the origin of American Barbecue here.
Top Charcoal Features of Note
- Price – Prices for ember-heated models range from $25 up to $500 for the top of the line. Popular portable gas grill prices fall into the $130-300 range, with many higher-end models that can cost $1,500 and up.
- Heat – Charcoal will easily reach 700°F regardless of the size of the kettle, whereas many new gas models in the popular price range won’t be able to hit that temperature.
- Naturally Smoky Taste – It has a naturally smoky taste that some successful BBQ pit-masters swear is the secret ingredient.
- Easy to Assemble – Assembly time for the kettle design is substantially less than a gas model of the same size. This is because of its minimal list of parts: a drum base, 3 legs, a grate, a crank to raise and lower the grate, and a lid – you’re able to put it together and ready to cook in 30 minutes. Because of the many additional parts and fittings, a mid-range gas model can take up to 2 hours to put together.
- Low Maintenance – Maintenance is much simpler, as the only part likely to wear is the grate. This may need to be replaced every few years, depending on its construction material, amount of use, frequency of cleaning and winter storage.
- It’s a Smokehouse – A grill full of burning embers will easily double as a smoker (although they are NOT generally capable of achieving a multi-hour cold smoke). After a couple of barbecues, you’ll figure out the temperatures and times needed to enjoy that smokehouse flavor.
- Lightweight – For camping, a picnic or a clambake where you need to bring your grill along with you, charcoal’s the way to go. Not only is the cooker itself usually lighter because it’s made with fewer parts, carrying a bag of coal is much lighter than 20 pounds of propane will be.
The major drawback of using charcoal rather than gas is the time factor involved in setting the coals, lighting them, and burning the briquettes until they’re sufficiently hot for grilling. It’s a bit of a production and can take 20-30 minutes before the coals are red hot. So, this is not the best technology if you just want to quickly barbecue a chicken breast while you toss a salad after a long day at work.
On the other hand, there are those who enjoy the hands-on process of charcoal – much like the reverence for a traditional tea pouring ceremony, the true blue charcoal user sees the act as an homage to the grilling gods.
Still others will use the 20 minutes or so spent waiting for the grill to heat up as a timer for prepping the meal, so everything’s ready to go on the grate when the coals are at their prime.
The next objection is the disposal of the ashes afterwards. It’s another step in the cleanup and it can be a messy job, particularly if it’s windy outside. So, try to stay upwind!
Finally, the cost is always a factor. In the end, gas is more economical.
Lump charcoal from sustainably grown sources will cost around $1.75 per BBQ, while briquettes will run to $3.50 per Q (based on 6 quarts of each to light up the grill). In contract, a 20-pound tank of gas costs up to $20.00 to fill, but you’ll get about one hour of burn per pound of fuel, which comes in at about $1 or less per use.
These are the main points for and against the use of coal briquettes for barbecuing. Now, if you’re thinking of purchasing a new model, there are some specifics to consider before making a decision.
Features to Look For in Portable Charcoal Grills
- Ash catcher. An ash catcher is basically a pot or bowl-shaped container that latches onto the bottom of the kettle. Ash residue can be channeled into it from a lever in the base of the drum, which also acts as a bottom vent.
- Hinged grate. A model with a hinged grate is a nice extra feature. It allows for easy access to the ember bed, without having to remove the grate.
- Electronic gas ignition. Some larger new models will have an electronic ignition, which is powered by a small propane tank to fire up the briquettes in just a few minutes.
- Chimney starter. If you don’t like using lighter fluid or prefer not to have an electronic ignition, look for models that have a chimney starter to get the coals burning fast.
- Seamless kettle construction. Whatever the shape of the firebox, you want it to feature seamless construction to prevent corrosion from occurring.
- Tight-fitting lid with lock. A tight-fitting lid is a good feature on all models, but if you plan to use it as a smoker, a good seal is mandatory. And a lid that latches is needed for transportation purposes.
- Cooking area. Pre-determine your cooking requirements before deciding on the surface area of your grate. Cooking more food means you’ll need a bigger size.
- Grate construction. As with other grills, grates come in a variety of materials including nickel or chrome plated wire, stainless steel, cast iron and enameled steel or cast iron.
- Adjustable grates. In larger models, the cinders will sit on a grate that can be raised or lowered with a crank to adjust cooking temperatures. In smaller models, look for a unit in which the cooking grate can be adjusted to create different temperature zones.
- Construction material. Materials used in construction range from cold rolled steel and porcelain coated steel to cast aluminum and cast iron.
- Dampers. For efficient fuel burning, these models require dampers to regulate air flow. Look for units that have dual dampers, one for intake and one for exhaust.
- Base, stand or legs. Look for units that have a sturdy base, stand or legs – you don’t want to be tipping over a grill full of hot embers in a dry forest!
The Weber Go-Anywhere model has a couple of features that make it a great choice for camping, tailgating or hosting a cookout at any location away from home.
The sturdy legs pivot over the top of the lid, snapping securely in place for transport, and its compact rectangular shape fits into small, tight spaces. The porcelain enameled steel is rust resistant, it comes with a triple plated nickel grate that gives 160 sq. in. of cooking surface, and the lid and bottom have dual dampers for adjustable air flow.
It measures 15 x 12 x 21” and weighs 14 pounds, is engineered with no nuts or bolts, has built-in lid hangers for draft protection, there’s no assembly required, and it has two side carrying handles.
What Others Are Saying
Fans of the Go-Anywhere love its lightweight portability for camping, its easy clean up, the solid construction and durability, and sturdy, locking legs.
A couple of gripes about the nylon handles get hot and needing to use an oven mitt, and that the grate height is non-adjustable. Check out customer reviews on Amazon now.
Lodge offers us the Sportsman’s Charcoal Grill, a rugged hibachi-style model made of durable cast iron that comes pre-seasoned. It has adjustable heights for the cast iron grates, a draft door for air flow, and a flip down door to access the coals.
With the typical Lodge standard for durability, this model weighs 23 pounds, measures 19 x 10 x 8”, and is made in made in the US.
What Others Are Saying
Being a Lodge, it’s built to last a lifetime. Clean up is easy with the coal tray sliding out for ash disposal, it creates even heat for cooking and it holds the heat well, it features adjustable grates, and the food tastes great. Users recommend spraying with a cooking spray to keep it seasoned and any rust at bay.
A few complaints about the cast iron cracking, but they were happy with Lodge customer service for replacing the model. A couple more reviewers weren’t happy about rust forming on the grate, but it’s cast iron – that’s the nature of the beast. See it on Amazon today.
Weber Smokey Joe Silver/Gold
This classic kettle design features dual aluminum dampers in both the lid and bowl for efficient air flow and even burning. The 14 ½” diameter grate is triple nickel plated, and the porcelain enameled steel on the lid and drum is rust resistant, delivering an even heat.
The lid handle is glass reinforced nylon for easy lifting, while the dome-style lid produces an ideal shape to circulate the air for smoking.
This unit also has an ash catcher tray and comes with a 31-page guide full of barbecue recipes. It measures 17” to the top of the handle with an outside diameter of 15”, weighs approximately 6 pounds, and is made in the US.
What’s the major difference between the Weber 40020 Smokey Joe Gold model and its near identical twin, the Weber 10020 Smokey Joe Silver? The Gold has air vents on the sides rather than the bottom, allowing for multiple uses of the device before your need to empty the ashes.
The Silver’s bottom venting system also has drawbacks, like when you are cooking for long periods and dead ashes fall into the vent holes, clogging them up. In my mind, it is worth it to pay a little extra for the Smokey Joe Gold model – neither one of these great little cookers will break the bank, and they are comparable in price.
What Others Are Saying
The Weber Smokey Joe is the No. 1 portable outdoor grill on Amazon , and with good reason. Satisfied customers like the thicker gauge coated steel in the firebox, sturdy construction, and its convenient, compact size that’s just right for a tight balcony or patio, or cooking for only one or two people. They also say the dome lid does a nice job for smoking.
On the downside, it doesn’t latch or otherwise secure for travelling and the aluminum legs are a bit on the flimsy side, twisting and bending fairly easily.
Cuisinart Grate Lifter
The Cuisinart Grate Lifter features a grate that can be set to lift when the lid opens, offering easy access to the coal bed without having to touch the grate. It also has a steel firebox with a porcelain enamel lid, dual venting for precision air flow and accurate temperatures, and a lid-mounted temperature gauge.
It comes with a porcelain coated grate with a 240 sq. in. cooking surface, a large ash collection bin, and a sturdy base that offers stability when grilling.
The lid has a heat resistant stainless steel handle, with two side carrying handles and a sturdy one-piece welded base. It measures 15 x 18 x 19”, and weighs in at 23 pounds.
What Others Are Saying
Happy reviewers like the sturdy, well-built stand, the generous cooking area, and the grill lifter feature for stirring the coals. And assembly is easy – it’s basically just screwing the top to the stand.
There are a couple of complaints about the enamel coating chipping, the grate lifter mechanism being a bit flimsy, and the holes not lining up properly when attaching the base. See what customers are saying on Amazon.
Masterbuilt 14” Table Top Kettle
The Masterbuilt Table Top has the distinctive kettle design, a porcelain coated lid and bowl, a porcelain coated wire rack and a removable ash can.
The thick legs are extra sturdy, it has an adjustable damper on the side and top, and provides 139 sq. in. of cooking surface. Measuring 15 x 15 x 16”, the Table Top weighs only 5 pounds. Made in China.
What Others Are Saying
Purchasers report that it’s a nice little unit, lightweight and easy to use, with a handy quick start chimney feature and offering good value for the price. The are a few concerns from various customers on Amazon including opinions that the grate is cheap and flimsy, and complaints of handles breaking.
Son of Hibachi with Snuff Out Combo
The Son of Hibachi has a built in “chimney” feature for fast starting coals that are ready to cook in 10 minutes, and a self-cleaning process that saves charcoal and mess. 2 cast iron grates have 4 adjustable height positions and a 170 sq. in. cooking surface.
It also displays folding legs, a steel frame, and it measures 14 x 25 x 4”, weighing 18 pounds. It comes with a manual, a carrying bag and a storage bag. You can use the heavy duty snuff out pouch with fire-retardant lining for packing up the grill while coals are still hot. Made in the US.
What Others Are Saying
Its advocates praise the clever design, which is compact for travelling, the large cooking area and its overall efficiency. See more reviews on Amazon today.
But, some have found the chimney feature difficult to light, and there are a number of complaints about zippers breaking with seams coming apart on the carrying and storage bags. There were also a few remarks about it not being self-cleaning and that the legs are flimsy.
Char-Broil Table Top
Char-Broil offers this heavy-duty table top unit with a large 240 sq. in. cooking surface on a pre-seasoned cast iron grate, set in a tempered steel firebox.
It also comes with an adjustable steel fire grate with easy access to the fire bed through the hinged front charcoal door, a built in temperature gauge, a removable ash-catcher tray and two dampers to control the air flow. It measures 16 x 24 x 16”, weighs 40 pounds and is made in China.
What Others Are Saying
Satisfied customers like this sturdy, well-built model, noting that it is light enough to be portable, but strong enough to last, and easy to assemble. Other favorable features are the ease of re-stoking the charcoal, easy clean up and the seasoned cast iron grate.
A couple of complaints are about the plastic caps on the top of the legs melting, and the holes in the lid where a rotisserie fits letting air out – but this seems to be solved easily with some crumpled aluminum foil. Read more on Amazon.
Folding Stainless Steel Quick Grill
This compact little unit is made of food grade stainless steel, and completely folds down for lightweight transportation.
Ideal for backpacking and day trips, it has an adjustable 49 sq. in. cooking surface, weighs only 3 pounds, will hold a fire for 1 ½-2 hours. It measures 7 x 8 x 7” and comes with a carrying case.
What Others Are Saying
Happy customers like the portability of this little gadget, the quality materials used in construction and its efficiency for one or two people. On the negative side, since it no lid cooking times are slow, but a windbreak of tin foil seems to help. Read more user comments on Amazon now.
Cuisinart Portable 14 Inch Model
This 14” portable model from Cuisinart has a 14” chrome plated grate with a 150 sq. in. cooking surface, dual venting for charcoal management and temperature control, and an enamel coated firebox.
It also features a lid with three locks for safe and easy transportation, a mess-free ash catcher and sturdy tripod legs. Measuring 15 x 15 x 15”, this unit is ultra-lightweight at only 2 pounds. Made in China.
What Others Are Saying
Those who like this little unit think it’s a great value for the money, good for cooking small amounts of food at picnics or camping, and its size is good for small spaces. The naysayers point out its flimsy construction materials, sharp edges, and feel its light weight makes it unstable. This model is available in both red on black and black on black.
Flamen 14 Inch Portable Model
This portable unit from Flamen has a 14” easy to clean chrome-plated grate, a zinc-coated charcoal grid that distributes even heat and an enamel-coated rust resistant body.
It features dual venting for temperature control, a dome shaped lid for rolling air circulation and an ash catcher tray. It measures 14 x 14 x 15”, weighs a touch over 3 pounds and is made in China.
What Others Are Saying
The favorable reviews report it’s perfect for picnics and tailgating, easy to assemble, cleans up well and is priced right for families. On the flip side there are comments about materials being too lightweight, and flimsy construction.
And that concludes our post on some of the best portable charcoal models on the market today. There’s a fair bit of variety to suit pretty well all cooking styles, so make your pick and get grilling!
First published May 14th, 2015. Updated and revised February 18th, 2017
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.