We tested out 6 charcoal grills and there were 2 clear winners

CNN —  

There’s nothing quite like the smell and taste of a charcoal grill in the summer. Charcoal grilling takes a bit more time and attention to get things just right, so when you choose to use a charcoal grill for a barbecue, everyone knows you mean business. That’s also why it’s key to purchase a charcoal grill that you can easily control the temperature on, that stays as hot as you need it to be throughout the kettle and that requires minimal cleanup once you’re finished.

We tested six kettle-style charcoal grills because when it comes to grilling, simpler is just better. After a handful of cookouts over the last few weeks, there were two clear winners.

Best overall grill

The Weber Original Premium Kettle Grill measures 22-inches wide and comes in three colors. It’s the easiest grill to control temperature on, making it our top pick.

Best budget grill

With the 18-inch Weber Original Kettle Grill, you can still get the full Weber charcoal grilling experience for under $100.

Best overall grill: Weber Original Premium Kettle Grill ($175; homedepot.com or $171, originally $195; amazon.com)

Weber Original Premium Kettle Grill
Weber Original Premium Kettle Grill

The 22-inch Weber Original Premium Kettle Grill lives up to Weber’s storied history. The Weber charcoal grill has been around for nearly 70 years and, while the design of the kettle has barely changed, it’s easy to see why.

In our testing, the Weber Premium was hands down the easiest grill to control temperature on, with the flames inside the kettle responding expertly to any tap of the vents. Temperature control is key to successful charcoal grilling. During our cooking tests on the Weber Original Premium Kettle Grill, hamburgers cooked to a medium rare temperature and our chicken ended up juicy, with a solid sear on the outside. Other grills we tested either ran hotter and overcooked the hamburgers, or they weren’t hot enough and barely seared or cooked the meat.

The premium version of the original kettle measures 22 inches wide and comes in three colors. The premium version also includes Weber’s One-Touch cleaning system, meaning that it comes with a large enclosed ash pan for easy cleanup, and it also boasts a built-in thermometer and lid hook. While we found both Weber grills to cook flawlessly, the upgrades on the premium model make the Weber Original Premium Kettle Grill our top charcoal grill of 2021.

Best budget grill: Weber Original Kettle Grill ($99; homedepot.com or $99; amazon.com)

Weber Original Kettle Grill
Rosanne Salvatore
Weber Original Kettle Grill

The true original Weber grill, the Weber Original Kettle Grill, can be purchased for under $100, making it our top pick for best budget grill. This grill measures 18 inches wide, which is a noticeable surface-area difference from the 22-inch grill. It does not include a lid hook or thermometer, and the ash catcher is not enclosed. That said, this Weber takes under 10 minutes to set up and requires no hardware. Like the Weber Original Premium grill, hamburgers tested on this grill cooked up to a perfect medium rare. The chicken we grilled took four minutes of sear time and 25 additional minutes on indirect heat to come up to a safe internal temperature. If you’re looking for the best affordable charcoal grill under $100 that will cook your meat to a perfect temperature, then this Weber is for you.

How we tested

Starting a charcoal grill is definitely not as easy as starting a gas grill, so it’s important to understand how to do it correctly. You’ll need to purchase a bag of briquettes, and either lighter fluid or a handy charcoal starter. For our tests, we used a Weber RapidFire Chimney Starter. We filled it up to the top with briquettes and then put newspaper underneath, which we lit on fire and then allowed the coals to heat up for exactly 15 minutes. Once your briquettes are fired up and ready to go, you then dump them into the base of the kettle grill. After you pop the cooking grate over the red-hot briquettes, you’re ready to start cooking.

RapidFire Chimney Starter inside a charcoal grill.
RapidFire Chimney Starter inside a charcoal grill.

There are two common methods for charcoal grilling: direct and indirect heat. Hamburgers are generally cooked directly over the flame, which creates a sear on the meat. Chicken on the bone is best cooked via the indirect method so that the poultry has time to come up to the correct, safe temperature without charring up or drying out. To cook via the indirect method, you push your briquettes to one side of the grill. Since the briquettes are red-hot when you dump them out of the chimney starter, we’d advise that you invest in a charcoal rake to help move the briquettes around the grill. As long as you have the correct equipment on hand before you start grilling with charcoal, it’s easy to use the indirect cooking method.

For our tests, we cooked hamburgers on direct heat for four minutes on each side and then compared their level of doneness. We also grilled chicken leg quarters by searing them for two minutes on each side over direct heat and then finishing them off with indirect heat until they came up to a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The two Weber grills both cooked our hamburgers to medium rare, while the Oklahoma Joe’s, Cuisinart and Char-Griller all ran slightly hotter and cooked our test hamburgers to medium. We cooked burgers on the Napoleon grill with the cooking grate at its highest level, which was pretty far away from the briquettes. Our test hamburgers only cooked to rare on the Napoleon. Each grill did a great job searing the chicken leg quarters while still leaving them juicy on the inside. The Oklahoma Joe’s Kettle Grill and Weber Original Kettle Grills gave the chicken skin the deepest sear.

We measured the temperature of the grill surface, as well as the internal temperature of the chicken, with an external thermometer to ensure that any built-in temperate gauges were accurate. For the most part, the built-in thermometers were accurate, with the exception of the Cuisinart gauge, which barely registered any temperature throughout our testing process.

We also took notes on assembly for each grill. Though you only have to endure setup one time, build time is definitely relevant if you’re picking up a charcoal grill for a last-minute barbecue. The Weber Original Premium Grill took 15 minutes to assemble, while the Weber Original Grill took only 10 minutes. The Weber grills were the only grills that didn’t come with a hardware pack. You can easily set up either Weber grill by yourself and it only requires you to use a hammer or screwdriver for attaching the handle and wheels. The rest ranged in setup time from 27 minutes to over an hour, with varying levels of difficulty and number of persons needed to complete the task. The Cuisinart Kettle Grill boasts on its box that it only takes 15 minutes to set up; it actually took us 27 minutes to complete the task. Both the Char-Griller Kettle and the Oklahoma Joe’s Kettle Grill took us 45 minutes to set up.

Chicken leg searing on charcoal grill.
Chicken leg searing on charcoal grill.

The Napoleon Freestanding Charcoal Kettle Grill took the longest to set up, clocking in at an hour and five minutes of build time. While this grill does come with an included cart, which added to setup time, we also found the instructions hard to follow, and the amount of hardware included felt a bit overwhelming. If you’re going to purchase this grill, then we’d advise looking into having your local hardware store build and deliver it to you.

Other grills we tested

A variety of charcoal grills from Weber, Napoleon, Cuisinart, Char Griller and Oklahoma Joe's.
A variety of charcoal grills from Weber, Napoleon, Cuisinart, Char Griller and Oklahoma Joe’s.

Oklahoma Joe’s Blackjack Charcoal Kettle Grill ($279.99; homedepot.com)

The Oklahoma Joe’s Blackjack Charcoal Kettle Grill gets top marks for its design, which includes an attached hinged lid for easy opening and closing, an enclosed ash pan and a convenient removable side shelf. The lid sets this grill apart from a traditional Weber kettle, which features an unattached kettle top. We enjoyed the ease of being able to hinge open the lid on the Blackjack for a quick flip of our meat during our tests.

The Blackjack Kettle Grill also features two air vents, and it was easy to control the grill temperature with them. The bottom vent functions like most kettle grills, but the top vent is styled more like a traditional smoker vent. You mainly control the temperature on this grill from the bottom vent. We also found the built-in temperature gauge to be accurate. This grill gave both our burgers and chicken a really nice sear. During our testing, hamburgers cooked to medium, while it took the chicken about 32 minutes to come up to temperature.

One downside to this grill is the ash pan, which can only be emptied by reaching into the grill and lifting it up and out of the kettle. The pan is not as deep as the Weber Premium’s pan, so it requires more frequent cleaning, which can only be done when the grill is entirely cooled off. It also took us 45 minutes to set this grill up. But if you like the unusual venting system, you aren’t put off by more frequent cleaning and you want a charcoal grill with a few more bells and whistles than a Weber, then this may be the grill for you.

Napoleon Pro 22-Inch Freestanding Charcoal Kettle Grill ($499; BBQguys.com)

We were underwhelmed with the performance of the Napoleon 22-inch grill, which is most likely a result of the grill needing more briquettes to really work well. The kettle on this model is pretty deep and you can adjust the cooking grate to two different levels. We wouldn’t advise cooking with the grate at the highest level if you’re looking for a nice sear since it’s too far off the heat. The grill grate on a Napoleon is made of a thicker and flatter cast iron, which is an upgrade from the usual lightweight, stainless steel grates you see on most charcoal grills. However, it takes longer to heat up and is a different cooking experience from traditional charcoal grills. During our tests, we were only able to get our hamburgers to cook to rare, and our chicken did not sear and crisp up as well as it did on all the other grills. Because of this, the Napoleon is definitely not a grill for charcoal beginners.

Char-Griller Premium Red Kettle Charcoal Grill ($177.62; amazon.com)

This grill ran red-hot and was nearly impossible to slow down the temperature on no matter what we did to make airflow adjustments. The Char-Griller has a noticeably deeper kettle — the deepest of the entire pool we tested. Despite the distance from the heat, meat still seared well on this grill because it ran so hot. It took over an hour to get this grill from 400 degrees Fahrenheit to the 300-degree range.

Cuisinart 18-Inch Kettle Charcoal Grill ($84.14, originally $93.49; homedepot.com)

The Cuisinart Black Kettle Grill is one of the smallest we tested with its 18-inch kettle. It’s similar in size to the Weber Original Kettle Charcoal Grill, though unlike that grill, it comes with an ash pan and a thermometer. However, a major downside to this grill was that the built-in thermometer barely worked. If it wasn’t positioned directly over the briquettes, then it would not register any temperature, and it generally was showing temperature much lower than the grill was actually at, according to the external grill thermometer we used. The Cuisinart was also the only grill with which we experienced grease flare-ups when cooking.

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