Charcoal grills and wood burning grills are less expensive than gas, produce more smoke and therefore better flavor, and, with the exception of gas grills with small sear burners, charcoal and wood burn hotter, so they are better for searing steaks.
Here are some of the things to look for when considering a charcoal grill and links to related articles that will inform your decision to help you make a choice that will suit your cooking needs and budget. At the bottom of the page is a link that will take you to all the all the charcoal grills and wood burning grills currently in our database.
Important features on charcoal grills
Start your shopping by doing some reading. How to Buy a Grill is a detailed checklist of things to look for and things to look out for on all grills. Then read my article pitting the pros and cons of charcoal grills vs. gas grills will help you decide which is best for you. Even if you think your mind is made up, this article exposes the strengths and weaknesses of both systems.
My article on the thermodynamics of cooking will explain the different types of heat and how they impact food and what is important to know about heat before you make a choice. It will also explain how charcoal grills cook.
You should also check out charcoal smokers because many of them are also good at grilling.
Temperature control. You cannot be a good cook unless you know your oven temp and can control it. Indoors, your oven can be set for a temp and it will stay pretty close to it. Outdoors? Good luck! Temperature control on charcoal grills depends on: A lid, dampers, the ability to adjust the distance between the coals and the food, thermometers, and practice.
Lid. You must have a lid to capture heat, and the tighter it fits, the better. Click here for an article about when to cook with the lid on or the lid off.
Dampers. Charcoal grills need at least two dampers, an intake and an exhaust. You control the temperature primarily with the intake damper. That's how the oxygen gets in to feed or choke the fire. Make sure the damper fits tightly so you can accurately choke off oxygen when you want to lower the temp. Most of the time you will leave the exhaust damper wide open so smoke and gases can exhaust. Click here to read my article on using the dampers.
Adjustable. Another way to control temp is by raising and lowering the charcoal. Temperature drops off as the coals drop down. I love to start cooking burgers and many other meats on a low temperature and then at the end, raise the coals and sear the surface to create the deep complex flavors that occur with the Maillard reaction and caramelization. Click here to read my article on cooking temperatures.
Thermometers. Cooking without good digital thermometers is like driving at night without headlights. Dial thermometers are technology from the 1800s. Without good digital thermometers there's a good chance you'll be making lame excuses for overcooked meat, undercooked meat, or, worst of all, apologies in the hospital as your guests recover from food-borne illness. Thermometers pay for themselves in a hurry. Here's what you need to know about thermometers for grills and smokers as well as food thermometers.
2-zone cooking capability. One of the most important techniques an outdoor cook must learn is how to create a 2-zone setup. This allows you to move the food off the flame into a cooler area where it roasts from convection and indirect heat. To do this you need to be able to push the coals to one side. So a good grill must have space to move the coals to one side. If your grill doesn't allow 2-zone cooking, you will be handicapped. First read my article on 2-zone setup and then read my article on how to set up a charcoal grill for 2-zone cooking.
Access to charcoal. It is important to be able to easily add more charcoal or move the charcoal around. Some grills have a door that allows you to add charcoal or move it around. This is a very nice idea for helping you keep temp under control.
Ash removal. It is nice to have a good ash removal system. Ash is an excellent insulator, so if you don't remove it, it will absorb heat and reduce performance.
Grates. You want a good cooking surface, and often the cheap wire grills are the best choice. Cast iron? A pain to maintain, and they mistreat the surface of meat. Yes, I know you've been told just the opposite and you really don't want to have me bust the cast iron mystique, but they are rarely a good choice. You want something that doesn't block radiant heat and airflow and doesn't darken just parts of the meat. Grill marks are overrated. You want an all over even color. Click here to read my guide to grill grates. Click here to read my discussion of how to clean them.