This review looks at various charcoal smoker grills, compares their features and makes recommendations. For basic guidance on how to choose, and whether to buy gas or charcoal, see our Definitive Buyers Guide. Elsewhere on this website, we also give advice on choosing the right charcoal. And if you prefer to use wood, we review 20 different types of wood that you might like to consider.
If you are interested in venturing further afield in this learning experience, we also write about how to make a wood fire, how to light a charcoal grill, and - most important - how to clean your charcoal grill.
Here are the reviews of the ones we found to be the best, in order.
Because we know that some of you are impatient, we've decided to cut to the chase and give you our recommendations for each of the principal categories of charcoal smoker grill: High-end, Budget and Portable. We considered such issues as flavor (that only charcoal or wood can give), cost and efficiency. These are up-to-date reviews, this year. In these reviews, we aim to be concise and to give you just the facts. For last years reviews check out Best Smokers of 2017.
Our overall winner was the Weber 721001 Smokey Mountain Cooker. It ticked all the right boxes in terms of durability and aesthetics. The grates were tough and the water pan was enamel coated to prevent rust. A full batch of charcoal burnt for eight hours and we were able to leave it to get on with the job without constantly having to mollycoddle the beast! If you a smoked food addict with a critical palate, THIS is the smoker grill for you!
The key features that marked this smoker grill out for distinction was the size (nearly 500 square inches of cooking space) and taste. You could easily do a whole, large chicken, or even medium-size turkey, on one rack and a large joint of beef.
Regarding taste, you might think that it is all about preparation, ingredients, etc. However, taste can also be affected by the grill itself - and not always in a good way. One of the most common problems with cooking directly on the flame is that in addition to the good flavor of the charcoal, you sometimes get a bad metallic flavor. This is especially true when the smoker grill is new.
In the case with the Weber 721001, notwithstanding porcelain enamel coating, which keeps the metal well and truly locked in, we would recommend that you season it with a preliminary burn-in, using food scraps that you don't intend to eat. Some users even suggest two burn-ins and that a chimney of charcoal should be placed in the middle and that you should use wood as well to generate a lot of smoke.
The enamel coating on the water pan also protects against metal contamination. And the water pan is - of course - one of the most important components. It is the evaporating water that prevents the outside of the meat from drying out while the inside cooks.
This also locks-in the flavor. However, again, some users have suggested that one shouldn't use the water pan at all. Instead they suggested letting the bark form on the meat and set first. Then, they suggest, spraying the meat with water.
With a height of 41 inches and two 18.5 inch diameter grates, this smoker has plenty of capacity for large gatherings. There is also a built-in thermometer, 4 x rust-resistant aluminium air vents and a rust-resistant aluminium door. However some users have complained of the built-in thermometer being inaccurate (a common problem with most built-in thermometers. And some users also complained of the aluminium door not sealing properly.
Porcelain enamel coating
Great heat control
Enameled water pan
Rust-resistant air vents
Rust-resistant aluminum door
Thermometer somewhat inaccurate
Some leakage from for door
Requires preliminary seasoning
VERDICT: The best charcoal smoker grill overall and the one to buy if you want to cook for large gatherings.
Our choice for the best budget charcoal smoker grill is also a Weber - not surprisingly. Weber grills are known to be good and have earned their reputation over the years. The winner is the Weber 10020 Smokey Joe 14 inch portable grill. Although we would call it a semi-portable charcoal smoker grill, it is still best in the budget class.
Key features of the Smokey Joe are its durability - reflected in its 10 year warranty, it's low price and it's surprisingly large cooking surface area for a portable unit. The Smokey Joe can easily cook six large burgers in one batch, with enough space between them to avoid touching. In fact, although they call it a 14 inch grill, the internal diameter is actually 14.5 inches!
The durability comes from the triple nickel plating on the grill rack and the porcelain enamel coating on the inner and outer surfaces of the charcoal smoker as a whole.
An obvious point in favor of the Weber Smokey Joe charcoal smoker grill is the incredibly low price. For a charcoal smoker grill of this size it is THE most incredible value for money!
And in addition to the capacity, the food sits close to the charcoal, so it cooks quickly. Obviously you must watch it closely to prevent burning. In the case of flat cuts of meat this is not a problem. But with whole joints, it may involve turning, basting (with a brush or tube), squirting water or putting the coals around the side.
The fact that this relatively portable - weighing less than 10 pounds - is another point in its favor. This is one to take with you on frequent camping trips. And it will last many seasons. It also has an ash pan at the bottom and holes that can be opened to let the ash fall out into the pan.
We also liked the fact that Weber also includes a 31-page owner's guide packed with advice and many recipes for grilling. This includes from pork chops, bratwurst and Cornish hens. And, like the 721001 Smokey Mountain Cooker, it also comes with a 10 year warranty.
Incredibly low price
High capacity for its overall size
Ash holes and ash pans
Includes recipe guide
Not suitable for large gatherings
VERDICT: The best budget charcoal smoker grill, inexpensive, portable and easy to use.
For a truly portable charcoal smoker grill, we have chosen the Weber (again!) 121020 Go-Anywhere Charcoal Grill. It is conveniently shaped like a box, so it doesn't deprive other things in your car of storage space in the way that a round unit would.
The handles are glass-reinforced nylon. They have good heat insulation. And this is true of the handles on the side of the unit, as well as those on the lid. The whole unit is coated in porcelain enamel to prevent rusting. It has steel-plated legs that fold up to minimize storage space and fold down for rapid deployment.
At the time of writing, in terms of price, this unit comes in at 60% more than the Smokey Joe. But it is still offered at a budget price. The cooking surface is very slightly less than the Smokey Joe (160 square inches compared to 165), but in a rectangular format, which may be more convenient, depending on what you are cooking.
The Weber Go Anywhere has two adjustable dampers regulate the flow of air, each with three vent holes. This gives you very good heat control. Like the legs, the grill rack is triple-nickel-plated steel. This makes it easy to keep clean and easy to see when it isn't.
It has a lower rack to support the charcoal and allow the ash to drop away. However, there are no ash extraction holes or removable ash pan. This may be because it is meant to be used "out in he wild" and the makers were worried that users might dump the ash while it is still hot, if they are in a hurry to leave.
Another point in favor of this wonderful portable charcoal smoker grill is that it arrives pre-assembled. You don't have to do any assembly whatsoever. Just unpack it and you're ready to go! This is a boon to those who enjoy cooking but lack confidence in DIY. There are also no nuts or bolts, so it there is nothing to work its way loose.
Also, although the lid is not hinged (and is thus fully-removable) the unit includes a lid-hanger that enables you to attach the lid in such a way that it forms a wall in one direction. This is very important if you are cooking in a windy area.
Durable (if used right)
No ash extraction holes or catcher
Not suitable for cookinglarge joints
VERDICT: The best TRUE portable charcoal smoker grill. Very easy to set up and use, marred only by the lack of easy ash extraction.
The Char-Broil American Gourmet offset smoker, like offset smokers in general, is a highly versatile product. For smoking, you make the fire in the firebox chamber - i.e. the side chamber on the left. But you can also make the fire in the lower part of the main chamber and use it as a conventional barbecue. Or you leave the lid open and use it as a charcoal grill. You can even make a small fire in the bottom of the firebox chamber and cook with the lid open - using the firebox chamber as a small grill.
It depends entirely on what you are cooking and how much time you have. For burgers, skewers or steaks (beef, lamb or chicken) you can use one of the chambers as an open grill. You can also grill chicken's wings, drumsticks or individual thigh pieces (even on the bone).
On the other hand if you want to roast three or four chickens, two large chickens, a leg of lamb or a large beef joint you close it and use it as a barbecue. It doesn't have a rotisserie, so you may have to turn the meat a a few times. Or you can inject-baste the lower part of the meat to stop it drying out while the top cooks.
To use it a smoker, you make the fire in the firebox on the left put the food to be smoked in the main chamber. You could rub or marinate the meat. You can also brush baste and/or inject baste it. The possibilities are endless and the only limit is your imagination.
Some of its features include a 290 square inch main cooking area and 140 inch extra cooking area in the offset firebox section. Some reviewers refer to this section as the "warming rack". But it is NOT a true warming rack. A warming rack is a hinged rack attached to the inside of the lid. This can be used for keeping cooked food warm, while other food is cooking. Neither the main section, nor the firebox, has such a warming rack. This is perhaps one of the negatives about this excellent product.
Other features include heat-protection coils around the handles, porcelain coating on the grates, wheels, a wire shelf at the bottom for storage of ingredients, adjustable height for the grates, ash clean out door and a built-in thermometer.
You shouldn't think that the wheels make this a portable unit. But you can store it indoors or in a shed and wheel it out into the back yard or garden when you need it.
Versatile (grill, BBQ and smoke)
Large cooking area
Auxiliary cooking area
Adjustable height rack
Ash removal door
No warming rack
Flimsy construction (including screws coming loose)
Some users have reported paint peeling
Built-in thermometer only moderately accurate
VERDICT: A very versatile charcoal smoker, BBQ grill, but lacking the durability and robustness of the Weber models.
The Dyna-Glo DGO1176BDC-D Charcoal Offset Smoker is a dedicated smoker. It makes no pretense that it can double as a barbecue, let alone a grill. It also has a very unusual shape. It looks like a professional smoker for a restaurant. But when you look at the price, you can see that it is actually quite affordable. In fact, at the time of writing, you'd pay less for this than the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker!
It features a heavy gauge porcelain enameled steel wood chip box, a removable ash pan and a cast-iron body that has been high-temperature coated in powder paint. It has a 1176 square inches of food surface area, spread over six grates. each grate supports up to 25 lbs, but the makers recommend a maximum food capacity of 100 lbs in one batch!
The Dyna-Glo minimizes heat loss through the door by having separate doors for the food and firebox. Ignition is quick and reliable, using an electronic pulse system. The burner is capable of generating 15,000 BTUs.
Although this is specifically a smoker, you can be versatile in how you use it. For example, you can take out the shelves and hand ribs or fish vertically from large hooks (not supplied).
For barely 1/3 more of the price, there is a wide model (Dyna-Glo DGO1890BDC-D Wide Body Vertical Offset Smoker) that boasts a staggering 1890 square inches of food space spread over six racks.
In both units, the shelf heights are adjustable. There is a built-in thermometer. But as we have said in the past, built-in thermometers tend to be unreliable - even for the most expensive units. One user even recommended repainting the firebox.
While we're on the subject of the firebox, it's important to mention that for a true smoky flavor you must use wood, whether it be chips or lumps. Charcoal is great for creating heat. And if you want to do a hot smoke, use a mixture of wood and charcoal. For a cold smoke, just use lumps of wood.
One thing we need to stress is that this unit is made in China and requires some DIY. One user described having to get extra gaskets and silicone sealant, etc. But for these crazy prices it is worth getting the Dyna-Glo and doing the DIY - if you're self-confident in DIY, that is.
Large capacity (both models)
Powder paint coated
Electronic pulse ignition
Ash catcher drawer
Two doors system for food and firebox
Suitable for both hot and cold smoking
Construction not that great
Some DIY required
Thermometer not all that accurate
VERDICT: If you do a lot of smoking in large quantities, and don't mind the initial DIY, this is the smoker for you!
We make no apology for including yet another Weber charcoal smoker grill in this review. Weber grills are good and everyone in BBQ-land knows it. The Weber 741001 Original Kettle 22-Inch Charcoal Grill is in some ways the big brother of the Smokey Joe (reviewed above). And at the time of writing it costs less than $100.
Its 22-inch diameter plated steel food grate gives you 363 inches of cooking space. And the dome-shaped lid translates area into volume. You can easily cook a large turkey or a rack of ribs in the Weber 7141001.
To ensure that the Kettle is durable and long-lasting, Weber have given it coating of porcelain enamel, baked in at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes the porcelain enamel to be fused to the steel, thus ensuring that it will not burn off during cooking. (Remember that the cooking takes place at a much lower temperature than the temperature at which the enamel was baked on in the first place.)
Weber also made it easy to remove the lid: they gave it a glass reinforced nylon handle that stays cool even when the lid gets hot. But what do you do with the lid once you have taken it off? You don't really want to put a hot lid on the ground or the grass do you? Weber have thought of this too. They have provided an angled lid hook. That means, you can hang the lid on the side of the kettle and keep it safely out of the way while you remove cooked food or add more raw food.
For heat control, Weber have provided a four-hole, no-rust aluminum damper. This gives you a high degree of control over the air flow, to do the type of cooking that you want. You can choose between fast cooking at a high temperature, slow cooking at a lower temperature or anything in between. Even if you are inexperienced in the art of barbecue, you will soon learn how to vary the temperature according to the type of meat and the size of the cut. The only drawback is that it's hard to add coal after you've started cooking, due to the fact that the food grate isn't hinged.
When you want to remove the ash at the end you just move a handle underneath the kettle back and forth. This opens the three ash holes at the bottom and sweeps the ash back and forth so that it falls into those holes. But don't worry, the ash won't fall onto the ground. It will be caught by the deep, high-capacity rust-resistant ash catcher that sits below the kettle. You can then lift off the ash catcher tray and empty the ash into a bin or onto a compost heap. (Remember the ash has a high potassium content, so it is good for enriching the soil around certain plants.)
If you want to move the kettle around you'll find that equally easy. Because it comes with two, durable, all-weather wheels. Of course, you shouldn't think that this makes the unit portable. But it does mean that you can wheel it to the ideal spot in your back yard or garden. Alternatively, you can wheel it in and out of a shed.
Finally, all this comes backed up by Weber's limited 10-year warranty.
Big cooking area
Large cooking volume
No-rust aluminum damper (air vent)
Tough porcelain enamel coating
Glass-reinforced, nylon lid handle - cool touch
Angled lid hook
Efficient ash-removal sweeper system
Easy lift-off ash, ash catcher tray
Durable, all-weather wheels for mobility
Cooking grate is not hinged (for adding charcoal)
No built-in thermometer
Ash catcher is not enclosed
Has only one handle
VERDICT: If the Smokey Joe isn't big enough for you, but you want something reasonable portable, buy this one.
The Weber 14401001 original Kettle is essentially the same as the 741001. The only differences are that this one has a deep and enclosed, removable ash catcher, a built-in thermometer and the food grates are hinged on both sides. This means that you can easily add charcoal after you have started cooking. This means that even though the unit is the same size as it's "fraternal twin", it can actually serve more people.
If, for example, you are planning a barbecue party where guests will be coming or going over the course of a few hours, then you will need to add charcoal periodically. The hinged top makes it easy to top up. The alternative would be to clear the food from the grate and then use coal tongs to lift off the lid, find somewhere safe to put it and then add charcoal. It can be done - and I have done it. But it is a tricky operation and one best avoided if there is a suitable alternative. The cleverly designed hinged top provides that alternative.
The large, removable, cylindrical ash catcher is better than the open dish of the 741001, because the open dish can spill ash of there is too much or if the wind blows while you are carrying it to wherever you are proposing to dispose of the ash.
With this unit's deep ash cylinder there is no such danger. Also, bear in mind that with this unit, because you can add extra coal, it is practical for cooking for more people. And this, in turn, means that you will have more ash left over at the end.
Big cooking area and volume
Hinged cooking grate (for adding charcoal)
Rust-free aluminum damper (air vent)
Tough porcelain enamel coating
Glass-reinforced, nylon lid handle - cool touch
Angled lid hook
Enclosed ash catcher
Durable, all-weather wheels for mobility
Thermometer only partially accurate
VERDICT: The original kettle PLUS - has a HINGED food grate, an ENCLOSED ash catcher, TWO handles and a built-in THERMOMETER
First off, one of the main features of the Akorn Kamado Kooker is its excellent triple-walled, thermal insulation. It would be hard to understate the value of this feature. because better insulation means less heat loss and less heat loss means burning less fuel. But this isn't about saving money, it's about greater efficiency. Because if you're doing a long smoke of say 12 - 16 hours, you don't want to have to get up in the middle of the night to add wood or charcoal!
And that's where this charcoal smoker holds it own against even the top competition. Made of 22 gauge steel, it really locks all that heat in. The exterior is powder coated, so it'll last a long time, through many cycles of heating and cooling. On the inside, the steel is porcelain coated.
The cart - yes it's movable - is made of tubular steel and has lockable rubber wheels.
The cooking area of the main food rack is 314 square inches. This might not seem like a lot in terms of surface area. But the Kamado has a large cooking volume making it suitable for large roasts. And this is further enhanced by the fact that one can remove the main food rack and cook deeper inside the body of the unit.
There is also a 133 square inch, circular warming rack that sort of "floats" above the main rack and is on a hinged setting so that it can be moved directly over the heat or away from it.
For heat control, there are adjustable dampers (i.e. air vents) top and bottom to regulate the air flow, and thus the temperature. The dampers are indexed so you can note the position and re-use it when you find the settings that work for you. And for large gatherings with guests who come and go, you can remove the inner circle of the food grate and add more charcoal!
This gives you a huge range of heat control, from 200 - 700 degrees Fahrenheit! And there's even a temperature gauge built into the lid so you can check!
Okay so what else do you get for your money?
First of all, the two side-shelves of the Akorn Kamado charcoal smoker, fold down for storage and up for use. They also have three hanging hooks each for BBQ tools that you can hang on them at the ready. The fact that they have these hooks on both sides makes it easy to hang your raw meat tools on one side and your cooked meat tools on the other. You can do the same with the shelves themselves (raw meat and cooked meat respectively).
In addition to the ability to lock the wheels in place, you can also lock the lid down. This is especially useful when moving the unit across uneven terrain.
The side handles and lid handle are insulated, making sure that you can safely open and close the Kadado without risk of burning your hand. And of course, you can also move it when in use, although this should be done as little as possible.
The unit comes with a 5-year warranty for the lower body and a 1-year warranty for everything else.
Huge cooking volume
Removable grill center for adding charcoal
Tough porcelain coating inside
Powder paint coating outside
Removable, enclosed ash catcher
Durable, all-weather wheels (with lock)
Folding side trays
Hanging hooks on side trays for tools
Limited warranty (1-year parts, 5-year body only)
Useful extra parts come as chargeable extras
VERDICT: A strong competitor to the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, better insulation and mobility but complicated self-assembly and a weak warranty hold it back.
The Char-Griller 2137 Outlaw rounds off this multi-product review of charcoal smoker barbecue grills. It comes with 725 square inch, cast iron cooking grates and a 338 square inch chrome steel warming area. But the drum itself is made from heavy gauge steel. Also, the hood is flanged, creating an airtight seal when closed.
The fire grate is adjustable, with three positions. But the real way to control the cooking heat is to regulate the air flow. This is done by opening and closing the dampers. More oxygen means a hotter burn. Less oxygen means a lower temperature but more smoke. That means that with this unit, you can grill, BBQ roast or slow smoke the meat.
Unfortunately, the Outlaw does not come with an easy-dump ash pan as some of the others from Char-Griller do. But it does have wheels and a sturdy tube-metal frame. This means that it can be moved around the back yard easily enough.
It is an elegant design, with a side-shelf, a front, shelf and a wire shelf at the bottom. For example, there is a closable chimney to release the smoke. And you can also attach a side box for proper cold smoking. And the outside is powder-coated for durability.
Large cooking area
Removable grill racks to allow adding charcoal
Powder paint coating outside
Insulated wooden handles
Durable, all-weather wheels
Front and side wooden shelves
Wire bottom shelf
No easy ash removal
VERDICT: Great for cooking big quantities without a long wait
How to choose the right barbecue for you can be a problem, especially if you're beginner. In this article, we'll talk you through the process of how to choose the right barbecue. We'll tell you all you need to know to make the right choice that you won't regret later.
Maybe you already have a barbecue, but it's old and rusting away in the shed. You could try to clean it and refurbish it. We can even give advice on how to clean your barbecue - or at least how to clean the food grate. But sometimes it isn't worth the effort of trying to salvage the old barbecue. It's better to get a new one.
Alternatively, what if you’re new to all this and have never done your own barbecue before? Either way, it's time to buy a new barbecue. But wait... which one should you buy?
The problem is that there are so many choose from - so many types, so many sizes, so many sellers... indeed so many prices. Consumer choice is usually a good thing. But with this much variety available on the market, how to choose the right barbecue for you becomes a logistical nightmare.
This article will take you through the process of choosing, step by step and guide you to making the right choice.
Okay here is the basic list of questions you have to ask yourself:
To answer those questions, you should first ask yourself these questions:
Are you the type who likes a quiet, intimate BBQ with your family or maybe just a handful of close friends? Or do you prefer a grand outdoor garden party with the whole world and his brother in attendance. Either way, it's nothing to be ashamed of. But the question is key to your decision on how to choose the right barbecue. Whether you’re just cooking for a handful of hungry mouths or catering to a crowd, the answer affects both the size and the type of BBQ you buy.
As a general rule, gas is better if you're cooking for large groups. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, guests tend to come and go. And of course gas can be turned up and down at will, according to when guests arrive. This means you can cook for the guests who are there and not have to worry about generating useless heat. This is especially true when guests arrive in groups.
You cook for them. They eat. Then they stand around chatting and drinking. Then, an hour later, another batch of guests arrive. What do you do? relight a charcoal grill? Keep it going and hope that it lasts till the next batch of guests arrives? Gas is perfect for that situation. It is ready in a few minutes and much more flexible than charcoal. Once the guests arrive, you do not have too keep them waiting long for their food! And that kind of hospitality will always be appreciated.
Gas BBQs can have variable numbers of burners. These are straight line burners and not the round type you get on a cooking stove. Most gas barbecues have between three and six burners. The number of burners tends to depend on the size of the booking surface. Bigger cooking surfaces usually have more burners. The surface area determines the amount of food you can cook at one time. Obviously if you expect to be cooking for a lot of people, you'll want a bigger surface area. If you find a gas barbecue that has a big surface area but only three or four burners, it will probably cook slower.
Anyway, whatever gas BBQ you choose, it should have a hood that you can close. Even if you sometimes cook on the open grill, you should keep open the option of closing the hood for a proper roast or broil.
But this doesn't mean you can't use a charcoal barbecue to cook for large numbers. Indeed, there may be some very sound reasons for buying a charcoal BBQ instead of gas - or as well as! For example, you might want to slow-smoke food in which case you need a charcoal or wood burning barbecue. These come in various designs, including so-called "kettles". But if you are planning on cooking for large groups, you may want to consider a horizontal drum type, or an egg/bullet type smoker/grill - or even an offset smoker.
We will explain this in more detail later, but for now, an offset smoker is a horizontal drum, with a side box for the fire. As if that wasn't complicated enough, offset smokers come in two sub-categories: regular offset and reverse flow offset. We'll explain about this later also.
Either way, if you’ve decided on charcoal, your best bet for big groups may be an oil-drum type barbecue or an offset smoker. You can even get a half-drum charcoal grill without a hood. But we wouldn't recommend it. Apart form anything else, it would limit what you can cook. If you're going to cook for big groups, you should have the flexibility to try different types of food and cooking methods.
Of course, if you’re only cooking for small to mid-sized groups, there are plenty of smaller charcoal barbecues to choose from. These include simple open grills and small “kettles” with hoods.
Also, one very important point here: even with charcoal BBQs, the quality varies between manufacturers, Make sure that you get a good quality, well-made model.
Finally, both gas and charcoal barbecues include models with a warming rack. This is very useful for keeping food warm after it’s been cooked. If you plan to cook for large or medium size groups, a warming rack is a must.
Will you be cooking just burgers, kebabs and hot dogs? Or possibly steaks and other flat cuts. Maybe chicken quarters or pieces like chicken pieces on-the-bone: wings, drumsticks, thighs, etc. or possibly whole chickens or a whole turkey, duck or goose. Or maybe a leg of lamb? A rack of ribs? Or a large off-the-bone beef joint?
Each of these calls for different considerations when it comes to cooking. And if you want to be able to cook by different methods, you need the right equipment to give you that capacity.
These can be cooked on an open grill, although the steaks, sheesh and kebabs might take longer than the burgers and hot dogs. With steaks, this depends, to some extent, on how you like them cooked.
Hot dogs (British "bangers"), burgers, sheesh kebabs and lamb koftes, can all be cooked on an open grill and turned or flipped when necessary. And although the sheesh, kebabs and koftes might take longer then the burgers and hot dogs, it is still better not to cook them in a closed grill. The reason for this is because the skewers the meat is on (whether wood or metal) would get too hot to handle.
Steaks on the other hand can be cooked both on an open grill and in a closed barbecue. Our opinion? Well, although you can cook steaks on an open grill, there is a case for closing the hood and trapping the heat. Firstly it can enhance the smoky flavor (however more on that later). Secondly it helps to cook them through, so they don't get overcooked on the outside at the expense of the inside. This isn’t necessarily a big deal with beef. After all, beef can be eaten rare or even raw. Just ask the French!
However, you may have guests who like their steaks done well or medium well. So, if there is any chance that you will be cooking steaks, get a proper barbecue with a hood.
You might also be thinking of cooking chicken pieces on-the-bone: wings, drumsticks, thighs, etc. That again can be done on an open grill, but it takes longer. Also you have to make sure that the meat gets done through, without burning the outside. Unlike beef, this could be a health problem with poultry. Chicken and turkey must be cooked through.
If you have the skill and experience you can do it. But our advice for the inexperienced is that if you want to cook chicken pieces on the bone, it is preferable to get a barbecue with a closable hood. Indeed, strictly speaking it is only a barbecue if it does have a lid or hood. Otherwise it is just a grill.
Whole joints of meat, and especially meat-on-bone, take longer to cook than flat cuts or skewers. And these definitely call for a barbecue with a closed hood. For cooking a whole joint you need a true barbecue. In fact, you can roast a whole chicken or a leg of lamb in a closed barbecue.
There is an exception to this rule. There are some grills with electric-powered slow-rotisseries that turn the joint slowly. These can be used to roast a joint over an open grill. The rotation ensures that the joint cooks evenly on the outside. However it is another potential point of failure. Also, if you're planning on adding wood chips or chunks to get that smokey flavor, then an open grill with a rotisserie doesn't cut it.
Part of the thrill of a barbecue is getting that smoky flavor. And here we must sound a word of caution. Most people believe that charcoal grills offer the best taste, because the charcoal creates a smoky flavor that gas can't. However this may be a psychological myth. Charcoal gives off a lot of smoke when you light it. But you are not supposed to start cooking over the charcoal until not only has the flame subsided, but the charcoals have turned white or gray on the outside. Therefore, by the time you start cooking over the charcoal, it is not longer giving off smoke, just heat.
Now of course, you will get the occasional flare-up and this will add smoke. But you can get exactly the same effect on a gas barbecue.
If you really want smoke, you must either cook with wood chunks or add wood chunks or chips to the grill. You can do this with gas grills as well, using specially designed wood chip boxes. But many users have found wood chips in boxes on gas grills problematical. There is also contradictory advice out there. Some people say, soak the wood chips first. Others say that all this does is slow down the process of getting the wood chips to give off smoke. In any event, the results from wood chips with gas are never as good as when you add wood chips to charcoal. In fact it is better to use wood chunks as the actual cooking fuel!
This leads to another point. Some charcoal barbecues double as smokers. This means that not only is the hood closed, but it cooks the food with indirect heat. Smokers cook slowly on a lower temperature. This is good for tougher joints. And they give the meat that real smoky flavor. But they do take more time - anything from 5 hours to 24 hours!
Obviously a dedicated smoker isn’t suited to the impatient. But a combined smoker/barbecue gives you the best of both worlds.You can get smoke from any charcoal grill by adding wood chips. But if you want a really smoky flavor you need a proper smoker.
Broadly speaking, smokers fall into two categories. The upright (bullet/egg) type and the offset type.
An upright smoker has the fire at the bottom and the food above it on open racks or suspended from hooks. At first, appear it might appear that an upright smoker is cooking with direct heat, as the wood or charcoal is at the bottom and heat rises. However, upright smokers have a physical barrier above the coal and below the meat: a water pan. The water pan serves several purposes.
As mentioned earlier, offset smokers come in two forms: Regular Offset and Reverse Flow.
An offset smoker has a firebox on one side and separate food chamber where the food is smoked. In the more conventional type, the firebox is one side, the hot smoke enters the food chamber, cooking the food and giving it the smoky flavor. The smoke - while still warm or hot - then leaves the chamber via a chimney on the opposite side to the firebox.
The problem with this type of smoker is that it is hotter at one end than the other. If the meat is thicker at one end than the other (like a leg of lamb), this feature can be used to your advantage. But if you are cooking something like a whole turkey or a rack of ribs, then it can be a disadvantage.
One can to some extent solve the problem by adding something called tuning plates under the food rack. These regulate the amount of heat and smoke getting through to the meat at different points along the width of the smoker.
Also, one can always turn the meat part way through the smoking process. But an alternative is to use a reverse flow smoker.
A reverse flow smoker is like a regular offset smoker except that it has a steel or other metal plate - called a “baffle plate”. This plate runs most of the width of the smoker under the food rack. Reverse flow smokers also have their chimney on the same side as the firebox. The plate allows some heat, in the form of convection, to rise and get to the meat. But it directs the hot smoke to the far end of the food chamber. Then the smoke rises up and flows back across the meat in the food chamber, subjecting it to more heat and giving it a powerful dose of smoke.
In some ways, the baffle plate produces a similar effect to the upright smoker. It blocks the direct heat, much like the water pan in an upright smoker. It catches the grease that drops from the meat, which can then burn without flaring up (thereby creating additional smoke. And of course one can put water on it. This all offers several advantages:
If you have decided that you must have a proper smoker, then the question of "How to choose the right barbecue?" gives way to the narrower question of what type of smoker to buy.
How to choose the right barbecue is also affected by the question of how you plan to use it? Are you planning on taking your barbecue or grill on picnics and camping trips? Or will you use it only in your back garden or balcony? Will you use it spontaneously, on a last-minute decision? Or will you only on carefully planned occasions? Will you cook outdoors for a sit-down meal indoors? Or an al fresco meal in the yard? Or a buffet, where people walk around the yard and mingle with other guests. The answers to these questions affects your choice of barbecue.
If you want to take your grill on picnics or camping trips, then you need a portable grill or BBQ. However, remember that portable grills tend to have a smaller cooking surface. That means you can cook less food on them at any one time. This may be a problem if you have hungry children who want their food now! On the other hand, if you choose food that can be cooked easily - like sausages and hamburgers - then it’s not such a problem. if you want to do BBQ picnics and cook at home with the flexibility of a larger barbecue, consider getting two!
As for spontaneity, if you want to cook a barbecue dinner on the spur of the moment, get a gas BBQ. Gas heats up quickly in about five to seven minutes. Charcoal takes 20 minutes if you’re lucky and an eternity if you aren’t! Also, if the weather is in its can’t-make-up-it’s-mind mood, you may want to eat your flame-grilled dinner indoors. A gas barbecue gives you the best of both worlds. You can cook on your outdoor gas grill and then bring the food inside and sit down in the kitchen, living room or dining room.
On the other hand if you only want to use your barbecue for pre-planned events at the weekend, then gas or charcoal are equally good. In fact, hot coals may be better. Why? Because of the ritual of everyone gathering round the grill, giving their conflicting advice on how to get the fire started. It’s all part of the group-bonding experience.
Grills, barbecues and smokers can have a variety of features. What sort of features do you want yours to have?
With gas, you can control the temperature quickly. If the food is getting overdone on the outside, you can turn it down immediately. With charcoal you can’t do that. You can move the rack higher above coal. But it’s not the same. Also, moving a hot rack is a quick way to burn your fingers! And that assumes the barbecue allows the rack to be set at a variable height.
If you’re particularly adventurous, you could try the twice-cooked method. First you shallow fry the meat on a griddle plate. This seals the outside and stops it drying out. Then you grill it on the open flame.This cooks it through. But it stays juicy and succulent on the inside.
Some barbecues and grills - both gas and charcoal - come with such a griddle plate. The plate usually covers half the barbecue. If not, you can buy a griddle plate. In either case, you can remove the plate and use the whole surface of the grill.
Aside from twice-cooking the meat, you can use the griddle plate for frying side-dishes. For example, if you like fried onions or mushrooms on your burger, you can just fry them on the griddle plate. And, come to think of it, a fried egg on top of your burger, also goes down a treat.
Finally, some gas barbecues come with a side burner or two. This is useful for cooking vegetables or heating sauces.
For some people, this might be the most critical question. How to choose the right barbecue, then becomes a case of: what's the best barbecue I can afford. This is not unreasonable. While your choice of barbecue must be shaped by the what, where and when questions, you can’t ignore the price.
Charcoal grills are cheaper than gas for the same surface area. And there are some really cheap charcoal grills and barbecues at prices that gas can’t match. “Semi-portable” models can be very cheap. But they’re usually flimsy and probably won’t last more than one or two seasons.
In general you’ll find enormous price differences between different brands, even if the models look similar. This isn’t just a matter of “big-name” versus “new upstart”. The more expensive models are usually better made and tend to last longer. But no model lasts for ever. Even the best models eventually suffer wear and tear.
If you’re a complete beginner, it’s better to buy a cheaper model the first time round, till you get to grips with outdoor cooking. But if you’re an old hand or you know what you want, then take the plunge with a more expensive model that does the job best.
Very few barbecues and grills arrive in one piece. Even large gas models usually need some DIY assembly. But the best of them have pre-assembled parts. Also, some have clear instructions and diagrams. Others are more like trying to decipher the da Vinci code!
Some models are easier to use than others. Charcoal is hard to light, which leads to the temptation to start cooking too early. This can leave the food raw or underdone. Also, charcoal is messy. And no one wants dirty hands when they’re about to handle food!
Gas is easy to light and heats up quickly. But gas carries risks (see below).
Barbecues must be cleaned. This should be done both after cooking and before the next use. The former stops it rusting. The latter is to make sure it’s clean before you put food on it.
Charcoal barbecues and grills leave a pile of ash that must be cleaned out. Some are designed to make this easy with an ash drawer that can be easily removed. Others have a hole that can be opened and the ash swept into it.
Finally, bear in mind that some barbecues last longer than others. The more flimsy ones may last little more than a season, but they are cheap. The more durable ones, will last for years. But they cost a lot more.
Larger barbecues are harder to move than small grills. This might seem like an obvious point, but if you want to store your barbecue in the shed or garage, it’s important.
You might be quite happy to leave it out in the garden. But then you will want a cover for it. When you buy a large model, it might be worth checking if it comes with a cover. If not, a separate cover may be available to buy at the same time. Make sure you buy a cover that is designed for your model of barbecue or at least a good fit.
Yes indeed there are.
Firstly, if it’s a gas barbecue, you may want to store the gas canister under lock and key.
If you do want to move the barbecue indoors or to a shed, make sure it has wheels. Again, an on obvious point, but one that’s all too easy to forget when you’re focusing on other things. And make sure the wheels are sturdy and well-made. Nothing can be worse than moving a large barbecue only for the wheels to come off!
Gas has some special considerations you should take into account. Firstly, gas barbecues need a hose and regulator. If these are not supplied with the model, then you must buy them separately. The hose must be fitted tightly - but not so tight that the clamp cuts into it. (This is not necessary with side burners - something that confuses a lot of new users.) And remember that propane and butane require different types of regulator. Most important, make sure the gas tanks and barbecue have a gas safety certificate.
When it comes to for flavor, gas barbecues can be enhanced by putting in a smoker box with pre-soaked wood chips. But not all gas barbecues have a space for this. Other gas grills have gas tamers or lava rocks to recreate the smoky flavour of charcoal or wood. With a flame tamer, the gas burner doesn’t heat the food directly. Instead, it heats up the flame tamer, which in turn heats the food. The juices from the food ooze out in the heat and fall onto the flame tamer. When they hit the hot flame tamer, they vaporise into smoke and rise up into the food.
Flame tamers also have other advantages, like protecting the gas burners from falling grease. This keeps the burners clean and prevents the gas from flaring up when hot fat falls on it. They also spread the heat more evenly. And best of all, flame tamers can be removed and cleaned in the sink or dishwasher.
Lava rocks work in a similar way, but have the advantage that because lava is porous, it captures more of the dripping fat and juices. This in turn produces more smoke, adding to the smoky flavour. Also lava rock can be spread over the entire surface, unlike flame tamers which leave some parts uncovered. Lava rocks are also better at containing any flare-ups to a local region. With flame tamers, flare-ups tend to spread, when they occur. Lava rocks are also generic and you can buy them in many places. Flame tamers are specific to the appliance. If you need a replacement, it might have to be ordered separately.
Most gas barbecues have storage space under the grill. But please remember NOT to put the gas bottle under the barbecue when in use. The gas bottle must be placed at the SIDE of the unit.
We hope this has helped you decide what you want. Now check out our reviews to make your final selection of BBQ, grill or smoker. Also, check out our reviews of barbecue-related products and also our tips and tricks. We give advice on cooking methods, how to clean your barbecue and how to make some great marinades and tasty burgers.