The 2013 AmazingRibs Top 10 Charcoal Grills Under $2,000
By Max Good
Charcoal grills are relatively inexpensive, usually have very few moving parts to break, and the best are versatile: They can sear steaks, roast turkeys, and smoke ribs. They just require a little more skill than gas because you have to control the temperature with airflow instead of a dial or touchpad. You may get your hands dirty with charcoal and you do have to clean the ash out, but we'll let you in on a secret: you're supposed to clean your gas grill too.
The first rule is to disregard the inaccurate thermometers installed on most grills. To really know the temperature of the cooking surface you absolutely need a good digital thermometer.
We love our gas grills, but the fact remains that most backyard gas grills just can't generate the direct radiant heat needed to sear steaks and burgers to an all over rich brown. On the other hand, a $20 charcoal hibachi can and the subtle flavor from coal is an added bonus. Click here to read more about the pros and cons of charcoal vs. gas.
For searing with charcoal, all you need is a charcoal tray with a cooking grate. For everything else, you need a solid firebox, dampers for air control, a snug lid, and tight construction to prevent unwanted oxygen from leaking in and overriding the dampers. The most important feature is the ability to set it up so there is a hot direct heat side and a not-so-hot convection heat side, called a 2-zone setup. For this reason the list contains none of the popular ceramic or kamado cookers, which we regard more as smokers than as grills. Some other key features are easy access to the charcoal and easy ash removal. Click here to read a checklist of things to look for when shopping for a charcoal grill.
Much has been made of the difference between popular charcoal briquets and lump charcoal. Before you spend $50 on 20 pounds of Thai lump charcoal made from coconut shells, read The Science Of Charcoal: How Charcoal Is Made And How Charcoal Works. You'll be pleased to learn that we recommend inexpensive briquets because they are easy to count and by counting, you can control temperature. Furthermore, established brands like Kingsford use strict manufacturing guidelines to produce a very consistent product.
At AmazingRibs.com we have created a huge Equipment Reviews section with a searchable database with reviews and ratings of hundreds of smokers and grills. Although it was not a criteria for our selection process, interestingly, most of the Top 10 are made in the USA.
How we select our Top 10 Lists
We rate and review as objectively as possible, measuring temperatures, slamming lids, turning dials, studying warranties, and kicking casters, but inevitably intangibles such as look and feel have to be considered. We also try to cover a wide range of design concepts and price ranges. Our searchable database has devices selling for more than $10,000, but we have decided to limit this list to "affordable", which we have arbitrarily set at less than $2,000. If we were looking for the 10 best, they might all be expensive, but we are looking for tools that will make buyers happy in a range of price categories. All the selections have won an AmazingRibs.com Best Buy Award, and we consider them the best of breed in their price category. They are listed by price. Prices listed are manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), and actual prices are often lower depending on the supplier and time of year. Please click the red links on the names of the grills to read our complete review and find links to suppliers, many of whom sell well below MSRP.
Weber's iconic black kettle grills are known throughout the world and imitated by grill manufacturers at home and abroad. Grills don't get much simpler than this, but the key to Weber's design that most imitators can't attain is solid construction, a tight lid, good oxygen control, and a superior enamel coating that preserves the kettle for decades. After many years the legs may give out (replace them), but the solid, enamel coated kettle will grill on. Jumbo Joe is the largest of Weber's Smokey Joe portable line. It grills and roasts beautifully as do all Weber Kettles, but the low profile lid limits the size of cooking selections. With 240 square inches of primary cook surface, it's big for a portable, but still easy to transport for picnics, camping, and tailgating. The Tuck and Carry Lid Holder is a bar that snaps over the lid making JJ a neat little 18 pound package with a handle. Weber is a great American company that sources some parts globally. Except for their Spirit Gas Grills, all Webers are substantially made and assembled in the USA. Made in the USA.
If you want a family sized charcoal grill for less than $200 that can cook anything and will last forever, this is it. When George Stephen, Sr. introduced the Weber Kettle in 1952 he set America's backyards on fire. Today's design is not far from the original and it is by far the most popular backyard grill in the world. One feature added in more recent years is a very useful removable ash catcher that slides under the kettle. The large arched lid is big enough to accommodate roasts and turkeys, but disregard the built in heat indicator, it can be waaaay off. Get a good digital thermometer that you can bank on. For searing, Weber Kettles put most backyard gas grills to shame. Add a Smokenator and turn your Weber into a damn good smoker for ribs, pork, brisket and fish. Made in the USA.
Another basic, elegant model that was introduced in 1952, the same year as the Weber Kettle, is the Portable Kitchen Grill. Ownership of Portable Kitchen changed over the years but design and construction did not. They still have the original, thick cast aluminum body which retains and radiates heat efficiently. PKs never rust and older models often show up at garage sales or get passed along from one generation to the next. The flat bottom, rectangular shape, and unique damper placement of two on the lid and two in corresponding locations under the coal make PK particularly well suited for 2-zone cooking. PKs never achieved Weber's popularity, but they're still around today and continue to win over fans who love the durability, versatility and shiny retro-cool appearance. They can be lifted out of the cart for cleaning, camping, or tailgating. Made in the USA.
OK this is the last Weber on this list, but they deserve our love. Weber's Performer Series plants that same great kettle as the On-Touch (above) into a cart. Platinum is the biggest and most sophisticated Performer with a large cart that provides a good sized work surface, lower shelf and a removable LCD timer. The timer's a nice touch, but we cook by temperature not time. A small propane burner under the charcoal grate makes firing up the Platinum almost as easy as starting a gas grill. Made in the USA.
This is the one model in our Top Ten that sticks out like a sore thumb. Construction isn't the greatest, it has uncoated cast iron grates that rust and require additional maintenance and one of the weakest warranties you'll find. But if you just need a large capacity charcoal grill (26 burger capacity) that will last a few years, the CB940X deserves your attention. It's has a couple of nice features we like: An adjustable charcoal tray brings the coal right up under the cook surface for fast searing and drops it down to the bottom for slow roasting. Bank the coals to one side for 2-zone cooking and drop it down for smoking. A large front door gives easy access to replenish coal, remove ash with a slide-out tray, and two big wooden side shelves provide ample work space. Don't pay list price! The link above takes you to our review. Scroll down to the "Where to Buy" section and you can find it for as little as $299.
With superb construction and excellent design, Meadow Creek Grills and Smokers have been hand-made in New Holland, PA, by Amish craftsmen since 1980. These babies are built solidly with heavy gauge steel to last a lifetime. Meadow Creek is a favorite among BBQ competition teams for high quality and reasonable price. They make a variety of big trailer mounted smokers and some features from the pro models are present on this backyard cooker. You'll be grilling in no time flat with Meadow Creek and if you start to feel adventurous, the PR36 can be a great smoker as well if you bank the coals to one side. The 525 square inch stainless steel grate provides plenty of cooking surface and it comes with a second grate that can be placed above the main one, doubling capacity. It can even handle a small whole hog. Made in the USA.
If you're committed to coal, but envious of your neighbor's shiny gasser, Mirage may be the answer. Only a few premium and luxury brands offer stainless steel charcoal grills. Mirage is one of the more beautiful models we've seen in this price range. Canadian manufacturer, Napoleon, produces high quality BBQ equipment that often has unique features like the rear charcoal rotisserie burner found on this model. The adjustable charcoal grate makes it easy to drop the fire low for smoking and roasting, or lift it right below the grates for a screaming hot sear on steaks. This is a good size grill that can handle 29 burgers at a pop, or be set up for 2-zone cooking with ample capacity for ribs or roasts on the indirect side.
Still made in Tulsa, OK, where they started in 1948, Hasty-Bake introduced their unique charcoal grill with a ventless hood four years before Weber Kettles came on the scene. Not to be confused with Easy-Bake toy ovens, Hasty-Bake has a brilliant design that is versatile, easy to use and works beautifully. In fact, they are our favorite charcoal grills, which is why two Hasty-Bake models made it to our Top 10. The 83 Dual Finish is one of their smaller, compact models. The entire setup is different from other grills with air flow, heat deflection and grease management being key elements in HB's superior performance. A friend calls them the Swiss Army knife of grills. There is nothing you can't do with a Hasty Bake from low and slow smoking to hot and fast searing. Made in the USA.
The Good-One Open Range is a charcoal grill with a smoke chamber spliced on top. The grill sits low in front and doubles as a firebox for the smoke chamber which is attached at the back. You can cook in either space. This design works like a horizontal offset smoker only better. By placing the heat source under the smokebox instead of off to the side, Open Range produces even temperature from left to right, something almost impossible to achieve with a standard barrel offset. The Open Range has 360 square inches of primary cooking surface in the lower chamber and another 360 square inches in the rear chamber, which makes it a great grill and a great smoker all in one. Made in the USA.
The adjustable coal tray moves up and down with a crank on the left side. A large door on the right side gives complete access to the charcoal tray to easily add coal and move it around for 2-zone cooking. There is a removable heat deflector above the coal grate to improve indirect cooking. In addition to the 522 square inches of main cooking surface, it has an upper rack and a glass window to keep an eye on the food inside. Hasty-Bakes are made to last and many families hold onto them for generations. The company even offers restoration on all models including the very first ones from 1948. Our president, Meathead, says it is his favorite grill. Period. Made in the USA.
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