We've updated this guide with a new pick for Best Overall: the Napoleon NK22L-LEG-2.
If you’re shopping for a new backyard grill, you’re probably asking yourself an age-old question: gas or charcoal? Gas grills are convenient, boasting instant, even heat, and precise temperature control, but you can’t beat a charcoal grill when it comes to taste. The briquettes that fuel a charcoal grill infuse each bite with a smoky flavor, and their high heat achieves a better sear on foods like steak and burgers.
That might be a simplified answer to the gas versus charcoal debate, but things get more complicated when it comes to choosing a specific charcoal grill. Other than the obvious choice of design style (the classic kettle-style grill like our favorite Napoleon NK22L-LEG-2 Charcoal Kettle Grill(available at Amazon for $258.77) or barrel-style options), you may wonder what really sets one charcoal grill apart from another. After all, by arranging the briquettes into a mound, ring, two-zone or three-zone fire, you’re in full control of the amount of heat applied to your food.
To find out, we took a close look at eight top-rated charcoal grills, putting each one through a grueling set of grilling tests. While every grill was successful at producing smoke-infused, delicious tasting burgers and chicken (over both direct and indirect heat), the design and layout of each grill were huge factors in our ratings.
Here are the best charcoal grills we tested ranked, in order.
Napoleon NK22L-LEG-2 Charcoal Kettle Grill
Big Green Egg Large Egg Kamado Cooker
RiverGrille Stampede Charcoal Grill
Weber Original Kettle Grill
Dyna-Glo Heavy-Duty Charcoal Grill
PK Grills Original Outdoor Charcoal Grill & Smoker
Char-Griller Patio Pro Charcoal Grill
Char-Broil TRU-Infrared Kettleman Charcoal Grill
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Recently, our former pick for a great charcoal grill, the Napoleon NK22CK-L, was discontinued and replaced with a newer model, the Napoleon NK22L-LEG-2. We were excited to get our hands on the replacement to see if it impressed us as much as its predecessor did. It didn’t disappoint, acing our cooking tests and its design features set it apart from the competition.
The Napoleon NK22L-LEG-2 sits on four legs instead of the standard three that most kettle grills come with, making it both sturdy and stable. Its ash bucket is larger than those featured on most grills. It has a wide-grip handle that keeps your hands nice and clean as you remove the ashes and, thanks to a minor redesign, it’s easier to slide back into place on the grill once you’re finished emptying it. Finally, the grill’s wide, convex dome that rests in the middle of the coal bed while you’re cooking. Initially, we thought this rim was designed to keep the briquettes out of the center of the grill. However, we quickly realized that the rim’s metal heated up along with the coals, distributing the heat evenly throughout the grill.
When it came to cooking on the Napoleon, we had no complaints. It proved capable of holding 12 to 13 burgers at a time and created a gorgeous overall char when we cooked over direct heat. Raking the coals for indirect cooking was nearly effortless; its wire cooking grate had hinges on each side that allowed us access to the briquettes underneath. Additionally, Napoleon’s vent system is easy to use and allows precise airflow control on both the top and bottom vents. Being able to control the airflow is important when cooking over charcoal; the bottom vents control the heat of the fire, while the top exhausts hot air and smoke out of the grill. The bottom vent system was updated on the new Napoleon featuring a series of notches to allow more precise amounts of air into the grill. All of this worked together to create an ideal heat distribution for indirect cooking, and we were able to cook at hotter indirect heats with the new model.
As if we needed any more good news, at the time of this publication, the new model was less expensive than its predecessor, putting its pricing on-par with most of the charcoal grills on this list. When you consider that the NK22L-LEG-2 has it all—performance, sturdy construction, and solid design features—its easy to see why this grill is our new pick for Best Overall.
If you’re looking for a charcoal grill that can do it all—grill burgers and steaks, smoke ribs and pork shoulders, or bake bread and pizza—and budget isn’t a concern, you might want to consider the Big Green Egg. Kamado-style grills like the Egg use charcoal as their fuel, but they have thick, ceramic sides which store a ton of heat. Since most charcoal grills aren’t made from ceramic, this feature makes kamado grills stand out because they can radiate heat around the food as you cook. The ceramic sides also create an added efficiency with the coals themselves; after we finished our tests, the Egg had more charcoal left than any of the other grills, ready to relight the next time we wanted to use it.
The Large Egg we tested had an 18-inch grill space that could fit about a dozen burgers. It excelled at both high- and low-temperature tests, cooking up burgers with perfect grill marks and golden brown, crispy-skinned chicken drumsticks. The bonus with the Egg is you can also use it as an induction oven to cook bread or turned into a smoker with the purchase of the ConvEGGtor, a ceramic plate that facilitates indirect heat cooking.
Overall, we loved cooking on the Egg, and its vent system had the best temperature control of any charcoal grill we tested. It is large and heavy, but the wheels make it easy to move around and it locks firmly in place. Unfortunately, we weren’t stoked about the lack of an ash bucket. Cleaning out the spent ashes from the bottom of the grill was a bit of a chore and required a proprietary tool. It also took significantly longer to cool down than the rest of grills and the body of the grill stayed super hot to the touch, something you’d want to keep in mind as you’re planning your grilling sessions.
Unlike the other grills on this list, the Big Green Egg isn’t available at national chain stores. It’s available at most Ace Hardware stores, but they’re usually sold through individual dealers. The prices tend to vary by dealer as the Egg is often sold as part of a package deal or a special. Find a dealer near you to get the price of the Large (it was available at my local store for $850).
How We Tested
Hi, I’m Lindsay Mattison, a trained professional chef, and outdoor enthusiast. During the summertime, you’ll find me outside grilling burgers on the patio, cooking a pork shoulder on the smoker, or building a yakitori grill on my fire pit. If I can cook it outside, I will!
One thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of having a reliable grill; it’s absolutely key to building confidence in your grilling game. I’d love to help you find the right one for you!
Using my training and years of grilling experience as a starting point, I spent hours researching the latest, greatest and most popular charcoal grills available online and in stores. Using price, quality and brand reputation to narrow the field, I chose seven highly-rated gas grills available from popular shopping outlets like Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowes to call in for testing. After receiving the test candidates, I set about building each one.
After putting together each of the grills (and seeing if each was easy to assemble), my goal was to find out if factors, such as whether it had a kettle or barrel design, the location of its vents and what material its cooking grate was made from, affected the grill’s overall performance. I started off by testing the grills at the hottest possible heat level. Then, I arranged the briquettes into an indirect heat pattern and continued testing.
For our high-temperature cooking tests, I poured the coals out across the entire grilling area and covered the grill with the lid to let it build up to a temperature of over 600°F. Most of the grills topped out close to 700°F! Then, I grilled burgers on the uncovered grill, spaced 2-inches apart, cooking them for 5 minutes a side. When the timer expired, I measure the internal temperature of each burger in hopes that they were all within 5 to 10 degrees of each other. I assessed the char pattern and grill marks of each burger to assess how the grill grate’s material contributed to the test. To round out the high-heat test, I also tossed thin-stemmed asparagus onto the grates to see if they fell through.
Next up, I rearranged the coals into an indirect heat pattern, moving all the briquettes to one side of the grill. This cooking style is perfect for grilling items that take longer than 30 minutes to finish–like chicken, a rack of ribs, or a pork shoulder–cooking them through without burning the exterior. Chicken drumsticks were the perfect option for this test, and the best grills created perfectly even, golden brown skin and cooked-through chicken in about 30 minutes.
I finished our assessment by looking at each grill’s aesthetics and build quality. Do the grills rattle and shake when you roll them around? Do they have side tables, and are they sturdy enough to hold heavy food items? Was there a place to hang the lid while you’re cooking on an open grill, and do the handles get too hot to touch? Was the ash pan accessible (and, more importantly, easy to clean out)? After compiling the scores, some of these design choices made a huge difference in the grill’s overall ranking.
How Charcoal Grills Work
While gas grills have a BTU—British Thermal Units—rating to measure the amount of heat each grill can produce, you get full control of how much heat your charcoal grill produces. It takes a little practice to get the hang of it, but it’s all about controlling the airflow, the coal patterns, and the food’s proximity to the hot coals. You’ll learn to allow oxygen in by opening up the bottom vents, fueling the coals and creating intense heat. Close ‘em up to choke off the oxygen and lower the temps. The top vents give you some control of the heat, too, but they also change the flavor of the food by venting the hot exhaust or keeping the smoke inside the dome. You can also control heat by managing your coal bed and rearranging their placement inside the grill. Some grills allow you to raise and lower the coal bed itself, but most grills have a set location that determines how close the grates are to the coals. It’s important to learn how to make a two-zone fire, which moves the food off the flames to a cooler area for indirect cooking.
The other thing you’ll notice about charcoal grills is that most of them have flimsy wire grates as opposed to gas grill’s heavy cast iron grates. Before you bemoan the loss of grill marks, know that they’re entirely overrated. Sure, they look great, but wire grates give your food better overall browning, crusting your burgers and steaks with extra caramelized flavor. Plus, the wire grates are lightweight and easy to move around when you want to rearrange the coals underneath.
How to Start a Charcoal Grill
There are several ways to start a charcoal fire, but using lighter fluid should be last on the list. I don’t know about you, but I can totally taste the lighter fluid in the finished product. No, thank you! You can stack your coals in a pyramid, but it’s easier to use a chimney starter, like the Weber 7429. Simply place some wadded up newspaper underneath the chimney, add your coals, and light the newspaper on fire. They’ll be ready to dump into the grill base about 15 to 20 minutes later when the coals in the middle glow bright red and the ones on top become white and ashy. Using a chimney is also a good way to know how many briquettes you need: a full chimney will produce temperatures in excess of 550°F. For cooler grilling temps, fire a half chimney (about 400°F) or a quarter chimney (about 300°F).
Kettle or Barrel: Know Your Charcoal Grill Shapes
When it comes to the best charcoal grills, there are two iconic shapes: round or oval kettle-style grills and barrel-shaped grills. The former was invented by Weber back in the 1950s when Weber’s founder, George Stephen, cut a buoy in half. It created a grill with a half circle on the bottom to hold the coals and a circular, removable lid to seal in the barbecue flavor and protect the food from the elements. Today, you’ll find round- and oval-shaped kettle grills made from enameled steel or heavy ceramic. These types of grills are generally lightweight and easy to transport, but they have a smaller grilling area than barrel grills. The original barrel grill, on the other hand, began as old oil drums which were cut in half and welded together to create long, hinged-lid grills. These grills are usually heavy and difficult to transport, but they have a larger grilling surface area, making them ideal for cooking for a crowd. Many barrel grills also have add-on features, like adjustable coal beds or side-mounted charcoal boxes.
Gas or Charcoal—How Do You Choose?
In the eternal debate over whether a gas grill or a charcoal grill is better for outdoor cooking, there is no wrong answer. If you’re cooking your food on the grill instead of inside the house, it will capture that beautiful charred essence and smoky flavor from cooking over open flames. You likely already have strong opinions on the topic of gas versus charcoal and we’re not here to change your mind. If you’re still on the fence on the subject, however, here are the pros and cons of using each type of grill to help you choose the right one for you. Let’s talk gas grills, first.
Gas grills are more convenient than even the best charcoal grills. That they don’t use charcoal as fuel not only makes a gas grill easier to clean (no ash!), but it also cuts down its initial heating time. That gas grills come equipped with electric starters or a spark wheel to ignite its gas burner helps to get you cooking faster than charcoal users can manage, as well. It’s easy to easier to control the heat while you’re grilling with gas than it is when using charcoal; to adjust the heat up and down, simply twist a knob instead of fiddling around with hot coals. It is a bummer when you run out of propane, though, so we love these newer grills that have a handy meter right on the side of the grill.
Charcoal grills, on the other hand, are significantly less expensive than their gas counterparts. Many people prefer the flavor of cooking over a charcoal grill, as the briquettes they use for fuel infuse smoky elements into the food. The coals created by burning those briquettes can burn hotter than propane or natural gas, which can be a pro or a con: you’ll get a serious sear on your food if that’s what you’re going for, but it’s also easy to burn your food over 700° F temperatures.
What About Pellet Grills?
We eliminated pellet grills from our testing group because they’re more akin to smokers than grills. They cook over indirect heat instead of exposing your food directly to the flames. Those types of grills are in a category of their own, so we saved them for another roundup.
Other Charcoal Grills We Tested
When it comes to cooking area and price, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the RiverGrille Stampede Charcoal Grill. Its massive 700 square inch cooking area can fit 24 burgers and its domed lid is tall enough to fit a beer can chicken underneath of, when closed. The grill also has a very wide, removable warming rack, which adds an additional 300 square inches to the cooking area.
The heavy-gauge steel construction is solid; this thing doesn’t even wobble a little. Not only that, but we loved the addition of a side and front table, and it was the only grill we tested that had a grease catcher. The coal bed was pretty heavy to move around (especially when it’s filled with hot coals), but you could set it to three different height settings to move the coals closer or further from the grates. While the grates didn’t have any hinges, there were two of them and it was easy enough to lift one up to access the coal bed below.
If we had a complaint, it was that the grates didn’t have sufficient crossbars to keep thin asparagus from falling through, but it was easy enough to turn them perpendicular since the grill has so much cooking area! We also weren’t stoked that the coal bed doubled as an ash bucket; its long shape made it cumbersome to dump out the old ashes. But, overall, we were pretty happy with this grill, especially if you’re cooking for a large crowd.
If you’re looking for a large barrel-style grill, the Dyna-Glo Heavy-Duty Charcoal Grill is a well-built, sturdy option with a few nice add-ons. You can move the coal bed closer or further from the grill grate using a crank handle located on the front of the grill, a nice way to manage the heat inside this almost 500 square inch grill. Plus, you get an extra 200 square inches of cooking area on its warming rack.
Unfortunately, the coal rack has a grate with bars that run both vertically and horizontally. That may not sound like a drawback, but it made it challenging to move the coals to one side to create indirect heat. We also disliked the grate design. They slid back and forth to allow access to the coal bed below, but one grate sat at a higher level than the other two. It made it hard to cascade burgers across the entire grilling area, and the highest grate was perfectly aligned with a space in the hinged lid. We almost slid a burger through the space, and our asparagus definitely rolled right through and fell to the ground.
The PK Grills Original Outdoor Charcoal Grill & Smoker is great for anyone with smaller spaces. The grill folds down, making it easy to store and wheel to tailgating events. It didn’t feel like a portable grill, though; it was sturdy with 300 square inches of rectangular cooking area that could fit about 10 burger patties at a time. The grill’s four vents promoted air flow suitable for direct or indirect heat cooking methods, and the grill grate hinged in half to allow plenty of access to the coals underneath.
On the flip side, we didn’t love the lid, which was heavy and felt like it was going to fall off if we didn’t open it carefully enough. The bottom vents were also really hard to access and hot coals fell out if you opened them during the cooking process. The grill also lacks an ash bucket; it does have two ash catches, but they were impossible to clean out without making a mess on my driveway.
The value-priced Char-Griller Patio Pro Charcoal Grill certainly gets the job done, but at a cost. The 250 square inch cooking area maxed out at six burgers, and the hinged-lid barrel design made it harder than it should to get in and flip your food. Worse yet, since the lid only opens halfway up the barrel, the smoke from grilling burgers funneled straight into my face when I cooked with the lid open. The side door access to the coals is a great idea in theory, but the door got too hot and stuck badly when I tried to rearrange the coals for indirect heat. All in all, I’d rather spend a few extra bucks for a more pleasant grilling experience.
The Char-Broil TRU-Infrared Kettleman Charcoal Grill had a few features we liked, including a hinged lid and a grill grate (which Char-Broil calls TRU-Infrared) that created a beautiful sear and grill marks on our burgers. Unfortunately, the grill’s performance was trumped by a few design features that dropped it down in our rankings. The grates had no hinges or easy access to the coal bed, putting our hands in a dangerously hot situation when we wanted to rearrange or add additional coals. And the v-shaped grill grate might have seared nicely, but it was fantastically difficult to clean; burnt bits of burger and chicken grease wedged their way into the crevices. To top it off, the grill was wobbly and more unstable than the competition, and we hated getting our hands dirty to grip an ash bucket that didn’t have a handle. For the price, there are certainly better grills out there.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.