If you want to grill the old-fashioned way, complete with the intense smoky flavour in slow-roasted meats, a charcoal BBQ is the way to go.
It is a bit fiddlier to set up and maintain than a gas BBQ but most grilling enthusiasts think it’s worth it.
To get the best results from a charcoal grill – whether you are roasting some baby back ribs or sizzling some bacon and sausage – it is essential that you pick the right one.
Some charcoal grills will live you with black charred messes while others require a lot of coaxing and time to get anything well cooked.
I’ve compared popular charcoal barbecues on important areas like build quality, heat retention, grilling area and ease of cleaning. I picked five grills that impressed us most.
Before I get to the reviews, here are some tips on how to shop for a charcoal BBQ and how to use (and maintain) one.
What To Consider When Choosing a Charcoal BBQ
The first thing to decide is how big of grill you want. This will depend on how much space you have (large backyard or small balcony) and how many people you plan to feed your grilled delicacies to.
Grilling area can range from under 1,000 square cm for small portable BBQs to over 3,000 square cm for large backyard grills.
If the grill is only for you and your partner, a small BBQ will do. If you have a large family or host a lot of parties and occasions at home, go with something bigger.
Note however, that a larger grill has several advantages even for a small family. You can grill larger cuts on it and roast different types of food at the same time.
A larger grill is also better for indirect cooking, where heat comes only from one half of the grill.
b) Ease of Assembly
Your new charcoal BBQ will most likely come flat-packed, so you’ll need to set some time aside to assemble it.
Some grills are a headache to put together. Their complicated designs and poor instructions can mean spending two or more hours assembling it.
The best BBQs come with clear instructions and take 30 minutes to an hour to assemble. Before you buy, check customer reviews to get an idea of how easy (or hard) it is to assemble the grill.
c) Under-Hood Clearance
All charcoal BBQs will easily fit ribs, a thick steak or some strips of bacon. But can you fit a whole turkey or chicken under the hood?
It shouldn’t just fit but leave enough clearance for heat circulation. Otherwise, it won’t cook properly.
Again, customer reviews can give you an idea of what to expect since most manufacturers don’t specify the height of the grilling area when the hood is closed.
d) Thermometer + Adjustable Heat Control Vents
A thermometer is a must-have feature. It’s the best way to monitor the temperature under the hood, to make sure your food is cooking properly.
But it’s not enough on its own. You also need a way to adjust temperature when it gets too hot or when the heat begins to drop off.
Look for a grill with adjustable heat control vents, usually located on the lid. By adjusting the size of opening on these vents, you can control the grill temperature.
Opening the vents increases airflow, and thus, temperature. Closing them lowers the temperature.
I prefer vents that are located on the ends of the hood rather than at the centre. They give you more control over heat and smoke direction, which is useful during indirect heat grilling.
When you are slow cooking meat with indirect heat, you open the vents directly over the side of the grill with the meat. This forces heat and smoke from the other end to pass over the meat as it goes out of the vent, resulting in a deeper smoky flavour and well-cooked meat.
e) Build Quality
A well-built charcoal grill should have thick metal sides and a thick metal hood. This prevents excessive heat loss, ensuring the grill maintains a constant temperature for long.
A grill made with thin sheets of metal will not only get dented and damaged easily, it also affects cooking performance. It’ll take longer to roast your food and even then, the results won’t be so yummy.
Other build quality considerations include a sturdy base, a non-wobbly hood and a good quality metal grilling rack.
f) Ease of Cleaning
A grill with an ash bucket underneath makes cleaning much easier. All the ash and smaller bits of charcoal fall into the bucket, which you can detach from under the grill for emptying.
Other grills use an ashtray instead. It works just as well.
Definitely get a charcoal BBQ with coaster wheels. It makes it so much easier to move the heavy grill around.
The only exception is if you are buying a portable grill for camping and picnics. Since portable grills are much lighter and usually foldable, you don’t need wheels to move it.
h) Extra Features
Here are the extras to look for.
- Side tables: These provide precious extra space to place sauces and condiments. Can also be handy for preparing ingredients.
- Utensil hooks: Perfect for hanging tongs and other utensils that you’ll use when grilling.
- Warming rack: Useful for keeping food warm before serving.
- Adjustable charcoal rack: This gives you further temperature and cooking control. You can move the hot coals closer or further away from the food.
- Easy charcoal rack access: You should be able to access the charcoal rack or box, either to adjust the coals or add more, without having to take the food off the grid. Some grills have hinged grids, allowing to raise one half of the grilling grid out of the way. Other provide access at the back of the grill.
- Gas ignition: This is not a very common feature. You’ll find it mostly in Weber grills. But it’s very handy. Gas ignition consists of a gas line that feeds a small burner under the charcoal rack. You attach a gas bottle underneath the grill and then ignite the burner. The flame starts the charcoal burning. You usually only need to run the flame for five minutes to light the coals.
How to Use a Charcoal BBQ
Choose the right briquettes. Some briquettes burn slow but less hot; others like lump charcoal burn blazingly hot and fast. The best type of briquettes depends on your grilling needs.
- Get your charcoal ready and light them up. The easiest way to get the charcoal burning is using a charcoal chimney. You can also use a piece of newspaper to start a flame under the charcoal. If your grill has gas ignition, lucky you; you don’t have to bother with newspapers, chimneys or lighter fluid.
- Once your charcoal is ready, spread it across the charcoal rack. Put the grilling grid on and brush it with vegetable oil to prevent foods from sticking to it.
- In most cooking situations, you want to have two heat zones: very hot and normal hot. Stack more hot coals on the ‘very hot’ side. This is where you’ll sear meats, onions, vegetables and burgers. Then move them to the ‘normal hot’ side for slower cooking. The normal/medium heat side is also great for cooking chicken breasts, pork chops and delicate veggies.
- If you are slow-roasting thick steaks with indirect heat, stack hot coals only on one side and lay the meat on the other half.
- Once you’ve laid your food on the grill, close the hood and make sure the vents are open or partially open depending on how hot you want the grill to be (use the hood thermometer to monitor temperature).
- Finally, keep an eye on the ashtray or bucket. Some briquettes produce a lot of ash, which you’ll need to empty often.
- After you are done cooking, use a stiff wire brush to clean bits of food off the grid while it is still hot.
Top Rated Charcoal Barbecue Reviews
1. CosmoGrill™ Outdoor Smoker Barbecue
The CosmoGrill™ Outdoor Smoker is our top recommendation for most families. It is not that expensive, it’s holds enough food to feed several people and it’s easy to set up and use.
The grilling area measures 57 by 42cm (2,394 square cm), which is plenty of space to spread out pork ribs, some vegetables and several other foods.
The curved hood is high enough that you can fit a whole chicken with enough space left for heat to circulate.
The CosmoGrill comes with two adjustable side vents that you can use to increase or reduce airflow, and thus temperature. You can monitor the temperature on the hood thermometer.
If you need to add more charcoal or adjust the ones already in the grill, there’s a door on the side that gives you access to the charcoal rack.
When food is ready, place it on the warming rack to keep it nice and warm.
Cleaning the grill is easy. Ash falls on a tray underneath the charcoal box. The tray slides out easily when you need to empty it.
Other features I love include the handy side tables, the wheels for easy portability and the height-adjustable charcoal rack.
What I like about it:
- Easy to use and clean.
- Adjustable heat control vents.
- Side tables provide extra storage space.
- Excellent build quality – the grill is made with a sturdy metal frame.
2. George Foreman GFKTBBQ Charcoal BBQ
The George Foreman GFKTBBQ Charcoal BBQ is a great choice if you are looking for something smaller that can easily fit your small garden or balcony.
It has a circular grill with a cooking area of about 1,600 square cm. That’s still plenty of space to grill enough food for an average size family.
The George Foreman grill is easy and quick to assemble. Unlike other grills that take hours to set up, this one will take you about 20-30 minutes.
Once you get the charcoal going, place your food on the chrome-plated grill. A built-in drip tray collects all the grease and the ash falls into a dedicated ash bucket underneath the grill. This makes cleanup easy.
The fire bowl and lid are porcelain enamel. Though not as durable as stainless steel grills, the bowl and lid retain heat very well.
To control temperature and smoke flow, the lid has adjustable vents as well as a thermometer.
Portability is not a problem. You can push the BBQ along on the two wheels or even lift it up. It weighs only 7kg.
What I like about it:
- Perfect for small spaces.
- Excellent heat retention by the thick bowl and lid.
- Ash bucket makes cleanup easy.
3. CosmoGrill Outdoor XXL Smoker Barbecue
The CosmoGrill Outdoor XXL Smoker is our top pick for those who need an extra-large charcoal BBQ. It’s perfect for large families as well as parties and events.
The grilling area measures 72 by 42cm (3,024 square cm), large enough to hold enough food for a sizable horde.
The design is much like the smaller CosmoGrill smoker we’ve reviewed above.
There’s a thick charcoal box as well as a thick lid with a stainless steel handle. These keep most of the heat inside the grill.
You can control how hot the grill gets by adjusting the heat vents. Use the hood thermometer to keep track of temperature.
A side access door allows you to refill the charcoal bed or adjust the hot coals without disturbing the cooking food.
There are two side tables that you can fold down when not in use. One of the tables has hooks at the end where you can hang mittens and utensils.
Because of its size and weight, the CosmoGrill XXL smoker takes time to assemble – about 1.5-3 hours. I highly recommend having someone help you put it together.
But the instructions are clear and we’ve not seen any reports of missing parts.
Once you’ve assembled the grill, you can move it around using the front wheels.
What I like about it:
- Extra-large grilling area – perfect for large families and home events.
- Height-adjustable rack.
- Adjustable heat vents.
- Warming rack.
4. Landmann Stainless Steel Pedestal Charcoal Barbecue
The unique-looking Landmann pedestal BBQ is our top budget pick. It’s much smaller than most charcoal BBQs (perfect for small spaces) but the cooking area is large enough to cook food for 4-6 people.
The pedestal design allows you to squeeze the grill into a corner or any other small space. Don’t worry about it falling over. It’s not top-heavy. As long as you place it on flat ground, it’ll stay upright.
The charcoal bowl is at the top with a cooking grid on top of it. The grid has wooden handles that make it easy to move around.
Around half the bowl is a ring that rises above the edge of the bowl. This is for keeping wind at bay, which prevents the coals from burning too hot and burning out quickly. Just turn the grill such that the ring faces the direction wind is coming from.
At the bottom of the pedestal is a disc that opens and closes ventilation holes. By adjusting the position of the disc, you can control how much oxygen is getting into the grill, and thus, the temperature.
Unfortunately, the Landmann BBQ doesn’t come with a thermometer. So you either use an external thermometer or guess how hot the grill is.
Something else missing is a hood, making the Landman grill less than ideal for slow-roasted meats.
The entire pedestal is made from stainless steel, which gives it rust-protection. Weirdly, the nuts and bolts are not stainless steel.
As many customers have pointed out, you’ll want to replace these immediately. Otherwise, they’ll rust in no time.
What I like about it:
- It’s a budget buy.
- Wind protection.
- Large enough for small groups and families.
- Adjustable heat control vents.
5. Ferraboli Suitcase Barbecue
All our other picks are ideal for backyards. If you need a portable charcoal grill you can take with you on camping trips and picnics, I recommend the Ferraboli Suitcase Barbecue.
It is a portable suitcase that opens up into a surprisingly practical barbecue.
Legs underneath the suitcase unfold to raise the grill to a more comfortable height. But you may still need to place it on the table to get it high enough.
Everything you need to grill food in the wild is included: a grilling rack, a grid to place the charcoal on (ensures good airflow) and even a windshield to tame the flames.
The suitcase BBQ is made from steel so it’s very sturdy.
The only complaint from customers is that sometimes the paint comes off, which exposes the metal underneath to rust.
But with good care (protect it from scuffs when transporting it and don’t leave it out in the rain), it should hold up well for years.
What I like about it:
- Highly portable.
- Easy to set up and pack.
- Sturdy steel construction.