The heat of roaring coals, the smell of flavorful smoke, and maybe even a hint of nostalgia for your dad’s old kettle grill. Charcoal grills are as immersive as they are simple, which is partially thanks to the basic thermal properties of charcoal that let you easily harness a few different cooking styles. Finding your ideal charcoal pit, though? That might not seem so simple.
While modern models are still straightforward in terms of operation, they’ve come a long way since the original kettles your neighbor still swears by. Today’s selection includes a variety of shapes, sizes, configurations, features, and accessories that gives charcoal grillers more options than ever before. Luckily for you, we’ve been cooking on every kind of charcoal smoker and grill for more than 20 years (that’s a lot of burgers and steaks). With our expertise serving as your guide through just 4 easy steps, sorting through our selection of charcoal cookers won’t be so difficult. If you’ve got the mettle, we’ve got the kettle — or whatever else your dream charcoal grill looks like.
Choose Your Charcoal Grill’s Configuration
Location, location, location. No, we’re not talking about real estate — well, we sort of are — we’re talking about your backyard, and more specifically, the charcoal smoker or grill that’ll soon be in it. You need to consider location, along with mobility, when deciding which configuration best fits your needs. Let’s take a look at what each has to offer.
Freestanding Charcoal Grills
These models come as either a grill head on a cart, like freestanding gas grills, or a grill on legs. Mobility around the backyard (or to a tailgate) is the obvious benefit, but don’t overlook how much easier it is to clean a freestanding model than a built-in one. This is especially crucial for charcoal, which leaves behind ash inside the grill. To make cleaning even easier, many freestanding charcoal units have ash-removal mechanisms, like the ash basket on Weber Summit charcoal grills. This category includes portable charcoal pits for hunting, fishing, or camping trips where you need a light grill that can still deliver big flavor.
Built-In Charcoal Grills
We told you these grills have come a long way. Luxury and Premium grill brands like Twin Eagles, Blaze, and Coyote have popularized built-in charcoal pits, which look like their gas counterparts and are installed the same way: by sliding the grill head into a BBQ island cutout. These grills are a natural outdoor kitchen centerpiece for charcoal purists and can add versatility alongside a gas grill, not to mention that they’re built from commercial-grade stainless steel for a stunning aesthetic. That last point also applies to the Fire Magic Legacy post-mounted charcoal grill, a classic piece of Americana fit for any backyard.
Charcoal Grills vs. Kamado Smokers
Kamados, which are essentially ceramic charcoal smokers and grills, are a notable subset of this product category. They’re distinct in both shape (these are your egg-shaped charcoal pits) and cooking properties, the latter of which is a result of both ceramic construction and airflow. While charcoal grills exchange plenty of air during operation, kamados permit very little airflow when cooking. Our Kamado Grill Buying Guide explains these specialized cookers in far more detail, but we thought we should outline at least a few of the differences between kamados and standard charcoal models here.
As stated above, airflow is one of the biggest differences between these two types of grills. For normal charcoal pits, the faster rate of air exchange means they’ll use more fuel per cook (so stay stocked!). Construction is another key contrast, and these models are normally made of steel ranging from commercial-grade stainless to inexpensive, painted metal. Steel is a great conductor of heat, making it easy for charcoal grills to get searing-hot for burgers and steaks.
Less airflow equals more than just greater fuel efficiency — without dry air passing over food, it retains more moisture for juicy and tender results. That’s one of the biggest draws of kamados, which also wield the excellent insulative properties of ceramic. Unlike steel, ceramic takes much longer to get hot, but it also holds and radiates heat toward food for extended stretches. Kamados are best for experimental grillers who want to try different, indirect cooking styles.
Special Note: Still on the fence? Spend a little time with our article explaining how charcoal grills stack up against kamado grills, then be sure to come back and finish up here. Reading the whole thing will make our copywriters very happy.
What Size Charcoal Grill do You Need?
Seems like a simple question, right? Actually, we don’t think you can properly answer it until you’ve considered 3 other questions:
How many people will you grill for on a normal basis?
What’s the maximum number of people you’d need to grill for at once?
How often will you grill for that maximum number of people?
Once you’ve estimated those totals, you’ll have a much better idea of just how big your charcoal smoker or grill really needs to be. Keep in mind that size is about more than how many burgers you can fit at one time — with charcoal cookers, having a wider grilling surface means you can create dual-zone grilling setups and enjoy the versatility of indirect cooking. If you plan on trying two-zone grilling (why wouldn’t you?), you’ll need a grill large enough for you to bank charcoal to one side of the charcoal basin. But before we go too far down that path, let’s first figure out which grill size best fits your needs.
Small Charcoal Grills
No more than 26 inches wide at the farthest points of the cooking grates, small charcoal grills are perfect for couples and smaller families that love BBQ. They’re also great on-the-go cookers at tailgates and camping trips with a few close friends. You’ll have no problem grilling some burgers, a pack of hot dogs, and maybe even a side or two, but these grills generally limit you to the use of direct heat only.
Medium Charcoal Grills
Consistently feeding a large family is easy with medium charcoal cookers, which have grates that measure between 27 and 33 inches in width. With room for both main dishes and sides, these grills are also reliable workhorses that can crank out a few batches of food during parties. Though grills of this size don’t offer much mobility, they give you enough space to arrange dual cooking zones for greater versatility.
Large Charcoal Grills
Is your backyard the place to be for gamedays, the setting for extended-family get-togethers? Yeah, you’ll need a large charcoal cooker. Their cooking surfaces are at least 34 inches from end to end, allowing you to use virtually any setup or cooking technique you can dream of. Sear 20 steaks over direct heat at once, use indirect heat to simultaneously smoke 6 Boston butts, or put both to work at the same time.
Choose Your Charcoal Grill Class
Already got a model in mind? Before you go picking out that charcoal pit, take a moment to see if it belongs to the grill class that best fits your lifestyle. A charcoal grill falls into 1 of 4 classifications (Luxury, Premium, Practical, and Economy) based on its quality, performance, and features. We’ve given you a brief rundown of each class below so you can have a better idea of what they offer.
Luxury Charcoal Grills
Built entirely from cast aluminum or 304, commercial-grade stainless steel for longevity
Come with lifetime warranties from great brands and can withstand harsh settings
Only class with split-tier, adjustable charcoal trays for extremely versatile cooking
Packed with highly convenient features like electric charcoal starters and digital controls
Premium Charcoal Grills
Most models constructed with all stainless steel or cast aluminum
Lifetime warranties from trustworthy brands reflect longevity outdoors
Adjustable-height charcoal trays are a standard feature for more controlled cooking
Charcoal chamber doors, hidden rotisseries, & push-button ignitions for a premium experience
Practical Charcoal Grills
Mixed materials in construction are backed by decent warranties of up to 10 years
Won’t last as long as Luxury or Premium models, but can last a decade with proper care
Unique cooking systems like Argentinian gaucho grills are immersive and fun to use
Select grills have fun features like charcoal access doors, adjustable charcoal trays, and electric ignitions
Economy Charcoal Grills
Materials range from ceramic and cast iron to painted and porcelain-coated steel
Lower quality of materials means these models need to be replaced sooner than higher-class grills
Napoleon, Weber, and Everdure offer 10-year warranties, though others are far slimmer
Most grills in this class are kettle cookers with small capacities that limit versatility
Final Considerations When Buying a Charcoal Grill
Charcoal smokers and grills: pretty simple, right? We hope you’ve got a better handle on them than when you started reading, but we can’t consider our job fully done until we review a few more key points that should factor into your decision. Things like temperature management and cleaning can be tricky with charcoal, so be sure to carefully review our pointers before you make your big purchase.
Though temperature control can be difficult to master on charcoal grills, it’s absolutely essential. There are 2 main ways of managing temperature inside a standard charcoal cooker: by controlling the fire through stoking the coals or adding more fuel, and by adjusting airflow with control mechanisms (usually steel air dampers). Both methods ultimately manipulate the combustion of your charcoal fire, with a bigger fire creating higher temperatures, and vice versa.
A temperature controller — like any Pitmaster IQ regulator — is a really convenient way to manage airflow, and therefore temperature. However you do it, we highly recommend a good wireless or remote BBQ thermometer, preferably one with enough probes to keep an eye on the internal temperature of both your food and your grill.
Availability of Accessories
Charcoal models are known for their versatility, but that’s often a function of the grill’s available accessories. The Weber Mastertouch, for instance, greatly expands cooking potential through a variety of plug-and-play accessories integrated into its Gourmet BBQ System. A few must-have charcoal grilling accessories regardless of brand: an ash tool for cleanup and stoking the coals, a charcoal chimney for easy ignition without the chemical taste of lighter fluid, and an electric charcoal starter like the Looftlighter for all the gadget guys out there. And don’t forget to invest in a good grill cover, which will protect your pit from the elements and extend its lifespan.
Ease of Cleaning
Speaking of your grill’s lifespan, proper cleaning is the key to any charcoal pit’s longevity. Charcoal ash left in the bottom of your grill will wreak havoc, especially if the ash is wet — at that point, it becomes high in alkalinity and literally eats away at the steel. Additionally, ash can mix with food drippings to create a sticky, flammable mess just waiting to ignite.
To make cleaning easier, look for grills that have an easy-clean mechanism, such as an ash basket or drawer that can be pulled out or removed from the grill. Many charcoal pit manufacturers provide ash tool accessories or slide-out ash pans to assist in cleanup. Trust us when we say this — if you have to break out a Shop-Vac or turn the grill over to remove ash, you won’t enjoy using that grill for very long.
No matter what your cleanup system is, be sure to never dump ashes in your yard or garden because wet ash takes on the caustic properties of lye and can burn your pets’ paws. You shouldn’t have to choose between Fido or Whiskers and lighting up the pit on Saturday afternoons.
That’s it for charcoal pits! If you’ve got more questions, our charcoal grilling experts will be more than happy to help. Just give them a call at 1-877-743-2269 and say the magic word “charcoal” (we’re just kidding — or are we?) While you’re hanging out with our extremely knowledgeable BBQGuys associates, be sure to say hello to the fine folks at our Free Outdoor Living Design Service. We had you at “free,” didn’t we?