A summer isn't a summer without a good grill to fire up. But you don't have to settle for good. The Wirecutter's Seamus Bellamy pinned down the cream of the charcoal crop.
You don't need an expensive, complex backyard grill to cook amazing food. You want a 22.5" Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill. It costs around $150 and will serve you well for years.
If you're the sort of person whose veins pump marinade and rub, this guide's not for you. You know how to cook and what you like to cook on. On the other hand, if you're new to grilling or have been at it for a few years and want to up your game without spending too much money, read on. Over the past few weeks, I spent hours talking to chefs, cooking nerds, award-winning barbecue cooks, and businesses that specialize in the sale of propane, charcoal, natural gas and pellet grills.
Here's what you need to know in a nutshell: Gas grills are easy. Hook up a propane tank or natural gas line, ignite the grill's burner and bring it up to temperature. Boom. Cook. Done. They burn hot, cook fast and clean up quickly. You get more consistent heat, and temperature control is a cinch, but the trade off is that gas fuel is comparatively expensive to charcoal and the flavor of your food will suffer a bit. Wood pellet grills are the new hotness of the barbecue universe. They burn pellets made of compressed sawdust. They're low maintenance, have a low pre-heat time, can grill or smoke your food and thanks to the fact that their temperature and cook times are regulated by computer, you can slap your dinner on it and let it do most of the work for you. Too bad they're wicked expensive. An entry-level pellet grill will set you back at least $1,000. Electric grills? That's not barbecuing: Just stay indoors with the windows closed and shamefully sear your chicken into submission with a brick and a frying pan.
What you want is a charcoal grill: they're relatively cheap, easy to maintain and can be used to grill or smoke your food. With a little bit of patience and technique, you'll be able to produce some of the most flavourful, mouth watering meals of your life. I asked Jeff Potter of Cooking for Geeks about what kind of grill he recommends. He told me that while gas grills are easier to use, clean up fast and are better for the environment, propane can't beat charcoal. "If you're doing real BBQ though, wood and charcoal are better, and give off that smokey characteristic that grilling just won't get." Craig 'Meathead' Goldwyn knows a lot about barbecues too. For many outdoors cooking enthusiasts, his Amazing Ribs web site is gospel. Yapping with him on the phone last week, I asked about what people should look for when they're shopping for a grill.
"If you are a big steak lover, you really want charcoal," says Goldwyn. "Charcoal gets much hotter than gas grills and it imparts a nice flavor. If you like smoking, again charcoal tends to induce the best flavor, and there's a whole lot of interesting options out there for smoking. The secret to really good outdoor grilling is temperature control, and the best way to have temperature control on a gas grill for example, is to have half the burners off. If you have half the burners off, you can move the food from the hot side to the cold side and that makes all the difference in the world."
Goldwyn explains that this same principle applies to charcoal grills as well. You want one side of the grill stacked with charcoal, and the other set up to cook with with less intense indirect heat. This can be achieved by simply pushing the majority of your charcoal to one side of your grill once it's up to temperature. "You can start the meat at a low temperature and gently bring it up to the temperature you you like, and then move the meat over to the hot side and sear it." In order to achieve this, you'll need a grill that's sized proportionate to your needs. Goldwyn suggests that barbecue cooks decide how many people they want to feed, figure out how much space will be needed on the grill to cook enough food for those people, and then multiply that number by two. Doing so will ensure you've got enough space for both direct and indirect heat cooking zones.
The Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill covers all of what Goldwyn suggests and more. Available in three different sizes-18.5", 22.5" and 26.75"–chances are you'll be able to find a Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill to meet your needs. For most people, the 22.5-inch iteration of the One-Touch Gold will be large enough. With a cooking surface that size, you'll be able to cook three or four big steaks or say maybe six average-sized burgers.
Constructed from heavy-gauge porcelain covered steel, the barbecue's kettle and lid are tough and rust resistant, but still light enough that you'll still be able to manhandle the grill around your back yard: a task made even easier by the fact that the One-Touch Gold has a pair of wheels attached to its base. The tripod stand the One-Touch Gold sits on is made of aluminum, but it feels sturdy. The barbecue's three plastic nylon handles (two on the kettle and one on the lid) are designed to stay cool enough to touch even with the fires of Hell blazing away underneath. Speaking of heat, you'll want a way to regulate how hot the the barbecue gets as you use it. As with most other charcoal grills, the Weber has a top vent that can easily be spun open to allow for more oxygen to get at your coals and vent the smoke and gases caused by burning charcoal, wood chips and your food, or closed up to varying degrees, to allow for a slower cook, a smokier taste or to snuff your coals out completely after you're done with them. There's also a secondary set of vents near the base of the kettle, to allow air to get at your coals more directly. Just like the top vent, these can be opened wide to allow for the kind of intense heat that cooks using a gas barbecue can only dream of, or levered closed in order to take the temperature down a notch. Need to pile on more charcoal to pour on the heat? No problem: Weber ships the barbecue with a hinged cooking grate that allows you access to the coal bed while you're cooking. Move your food off to one side, lift up a section of the grill and pour your fresh fuel in. Best of all, the One-Touch Gold boasts a patented One-Touch (thus the name) cleaning system that, with the flick of a lever, will whisk all the useless crud left over from your cookout into an ash catcher seated at the base of the kettle.
Tons of people love this grill. Gizmodo editor-in-chief Joe Brown used to be a chef before he got all geeky. When I was talking grills with him last week, he told me "…the best grill in the world is the Weber Kettle-style Grill." "They are indestructible, made of high-quality steel, super versatile, and they cost $100. You see them everywhere from backyards to the competition circuit. You can grill on them and you can smoke on them. You can cook a lot, or you can cook a little."
The editors at Cheapism.com praised the One-Gold's durability, saying "Weber grills come with a 10-year limited warranty for the bowl, lid, and nylon handles and a two-year limited warranty for the grates and other parts. That right there tells us these cheap BBQ grills are built to last." Derrick Riches, who does reviews for BBQ.com, knows his barbecues. He awarded the 26.75" version of the One-Touch Gold five stars, stating "All in all if you have the money and you want a seriously big charcoal grill, then this is the unit for you. Fantastic cooking abilities like any Weber kettle, with great construction of durable parts and the space to cook for the largest parties make this a great grill." Craig 'Meathead' Goldwyn has also used one and liked it enough to give it his site's Best Value Gold award. Even the devout barbecue fanboys at the Smoking Meat Forums love what the Weber One-Touch Gold and the company's other kettle style grills have going-and they're a pack of picky backyard gourmets to say the least.
As cool as they are, The Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal grills aren't perfect: The 18.5" model is great for anyone who doesn't plan on cooking a lot of food at once, but its smaller, rounded bottom tends to lump all of your charcoal together, and it's not large enough to easily section off for direct and indirect cooking. There's no out-of-the-box method for raising coals closer to your cooking surface in order to increase direct cooking temperatures required to quickly sear meat, and unlike many of its competitors, the One-Touch Gold doesn't offer a side table to set your grilling tools, plate or condiments on while you're cooking.
If you like the look and build quality associated with Weber, you could always go with one of the charcoal grills from their Weber Performer Charcoal Grill. They feature the same great kettle design found in the One-Touch Gold, but they're built into a four-wheeled cart that features ample shelf space, a bin for unused charcoal and an ash catcher. Amazon's selling the 28.5-inch version of the Performer for $329. While those features might sound appealing, you don't really need them. What's more, the Performer weighs close to 100 pounds without any charcoal in the kettle or its bin. It might be fine sitting on a deck, but if you need to haul it across your lawn, be prepared to sweat. If you're cooking for one or live in an apartment with a small balcony, consider picking up a Weber 14.5" Smokey Joe Portable Grill. You can find it for under $40! I own one, and it's never failed to cook my steak, chops, fish, and burgers to perfection at home or when I'm camping. That said, it's really small. I'll be buying a Weber One-Touch Gold before the end of the summer.
Maybe you'd prefer the fast prep time and easy clean up that comes with owning a gas grill. The Brinkmann 810-2545-W will set you back $238, and can be found at Walmart online and in-stores from coast-to-coast. It's got five independently controlled burners, an external side-burner, 455-square inches of cooking surface and an easy to use rotary igniter. Consumer Reports rated it a 78 out of 100.
You could also opt to forgo low-end grills altogether and throw your money at a high-end cooking solution. Many people consider the Big Green Egg to be the pinnacle of grilling technology. It's a Japanese Kamado-style charcoal and wood grill that performs well at high and low temperatures. Its ceramic shell holds consistent heat, which makes it great for maintaining a constant temperature, and like the Weber, a Big Green Egg is designed to last for ages. Unlike the Weber One-Touch, a Big Green Egg isn't cheap-they start at $700 and are priced higher, depending on size. Remember we talked about pellet grills? One like the Mac Grills 2 Star General will electronically maintain its own temperature, combustion, and the amount of pellets it consumes. It comes equipped with an insanely accurate digital thermometer, gives off even heat and even comes with a meat probe so that you can check on the internal temperature of what you're cooking. Sounds amazing right? Priced at $2,299, it'd better be.
But let's be honest: do you want to spend more on a grill than many families are likely to spent on half a year's worth of groceries? For most people reading this, the answer will be no. Trust me, buy a Weber One-Touch Gold Charcoal Grill. It'll provide you with years of excellent service, beautiful food and no matter what size you pick, it'll do it for under $300.
What to Look Forward to
There's no denying that electronically controlled pellet grills are both efficient and cool. As more companies begin to offer them, the prices associated with them are bound to drop. I'll let you know when it happens.
Last Year's Model
Weber's been selling kettle-style barbecues since the mid 1950s. Their design hasn't changed very much since then. If you're looking to go cheaper than the One-Touch Gold, the company also offers their One-Touch Silver Kettle Grill in a number of sizes. The 22.5 inch model will cost you $99. Me? I'd spend the extra $50 and spring for a One-Touch Gold. It comes equipped with the One-Touch cleaning and venting system. The silver doesn't.