The 2014 AmazingRibs.com Top 10 Best Value Charcoal Grills
By Max Good
You can't beat the price of the iconic, Weber kettle for charcoal grilling, but each year there are more flavors to choose from. The Portable Kitchen Grill, with an indestructible aluminum body and cult following, has been around just as long as Weber. Who knew Denmark is a BBQ mecca where Dancook manufactures shiny stainless steel futuristic kettles with clever innovations? The Good-One makes a very clever heavy metal grill with a smoke box spliced on top, and they recently managed to improve quality and reduce prices while keeping their manufacturing in the US.
Most 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 most other cooking, 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.
We know a lot of readers are passionate about their pellet cookers and kamados, especially owners of Big Green Eggs who are religious in their devotion. We think they are better at smoking than grilling and searing, and because they cannot easily be set up with two heat zones, they are reviewed in the smoker category, not in the grill category. I expect your irate comments, and I know how angry Egg owners can get, but we believe fervently that 2-zone cooking is a technique essential for good grilling. We have extensive experience with a wide range of cookers and we are confident in this decision.
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 how charcoal is made and how it 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 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. Click here to see the 52 charcoal grills that won our gold medal, 7 silver medals, and 9 bronze medals.
How we select our Top 10 Best Values
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. All the selections have won an AmazingRibs.com Best Value Award, and we consider them among the best of breed in their price category. Although value is a primary concern, we have included one luxurious dream cooker in each category because value is relative to the size of your bank account. They are listed in order of manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), but actual prices are often lower depending on the store and time of year. Please click the red links to read our complete detailed review and find links to suppliers, many of whom sell well below MSRP.
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. Click here to read our complete review of the Weber One-Touch Gold 22.5" Charcoal Grill.
Another basic, elegant model that was introduced in 1952, the same year as the Weber Kettle, is the Portable Kitchen Grill. Ownership of manufacturer 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. Click here to read our complete review of the Portable Kitchen Grill (a.k.a. PK Grill).
Weber's Performer Series is the same great kettle as the One-Touch (above) mounted in 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 decide when food is done by its internal temperature with a digital thermometer, not a clock. 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. Click here to read our complete review of the Weber Performer Platinum Charcoal Grill.
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. Click here to read our complete review of the Char-Broil CB940X Charcoal Grill.
This sharp looking Flying Saucer Grill is about the same size as a Weber 22.5" kettle. Instead of Weber's single wall bowl with a charcoal grate, Dancook has a double wall. A stainless steel "liner" floats inside the gray powder coated aluminum bowl shown above. After cooking one removes the inner liner to dump ash. Dancook has been made in Denmark since the early 1990s. Danes love cooking outdoors and have embraced American BBQ with a passion. In fact Denmark is Weber's #1 export market per capita. In 2011 Char-Broil bought Dancook and placed it under the care of their Saber division. Dancook's quality construction, great performance and appealing fit and finish are a match made in heaven for Saber's premium grill line. Still Made in Denmark. Click here to read our complete review of the Dancook 1900 Charcoal Grill.
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. Click here to read our complete review of the Meadow Creek PR36.
If you're committed to charcoal, 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. Click here to read our complete review of the Napoleon Mirage PRO605CSS Charcoal Grill.
The Good-One Open Range is a charcoal grill with a smoke chamber attached. The grill sits low in front and doubles as a firebox for the smoke chamber which is spliced on above and behind so it can work 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. Made in the USA. Click here to read our complete review of The Good-One Open Range.
The first Hasty-Bakes were built in 1948 and the design remains much the same. No need to fix what ain't broken. 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 old models. Our president, Meathead, says it is his favorite grill. Period. Made in the USA. Click here to read our complete review of the Hasty-Bake Gourmet 256 Dual Finish Charcoal Grill.
Grillworks creates a wide variety of vertical lift grills for residential and commercial use. Many of the new wood fired restaurants use their commercial units. The Grillworks 36 is their most popular backyard model. Cooking grates are suspended from a crankshaft above the fire tray. Heat is controlled by moving the grates closer to, or away from the fire with a large cast aluminum wheel. Many in the USA refer to this design as a Santa Maria Grill after the namesake California town where it became popular. Grillworks uses Argentine style V-shaped grates that collect juices from meat and divert them to a removable catch pan that runs across the front. Wine, herbs and oils may be added to the catch pan to mix with these juices for basting and sauces. Although you can use charcoal with Grillworks, wood fire is recommended for unbeatable flavor and aroma. Made in the USA. Click here to read our complete review of the Grillworks 36.
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