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10 Best charcoal smoker grills

10 best charcoal smoker grills for Summer 2018

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.

Charcoal smoker grills - our top picks

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.

Best high-end charcoal smoker grill

WEBBER 721001 Smokey Mountain Charcoal smoker grill


Weber  721001 Smokey Mountain

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.

Weber  721001 Smokey Mountain Charcoal smoker grill


Weber 721001 Smokey Mountain Cooker
Weber 721001 charcoal smoker grill

Weber 721001 holding the bird

PROS:
Huge capacity
​Porcelain enamel coating
Great heat control
10-year warranty
Enameled water pan
Rust-resistant air vents
Rust-resistant aluminum door


CONS:
Expensive
Not portable
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.

Best budget charcoal smoker grill

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.

Weber 10020 Smokey Joe  charcoal smoker grill

Weber 10020 Smokey Joe in action

Weber Smokey Joe 10020 charcoal smoker grill

Weber Smokey Joe 10020

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.

PROS:
Incredibly low price

High capacity for its overall size
Relatively portable
Durable

Ash holes and ash pans
Includes recipe guide


CONS:
Not suitable for large gatherings

Weber 10020 Smokey Mountain charcoal smoker grill

Weber 10020 Smokey Mountain charcoal smoker grill

VERDICT: The best budget charcoal smoker grill, inexpensive, portable and easy to use.

Best true portable charcoal smoker grill

Weber Go Anywhere  12120 charcoal smoker grill

Weber Go Anywhere 12120 charcoal smoker grill

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.

Weber Go Anywhere 12120 charcoal smoker grill
Weber Go anywhere charcoal smoker grill

PROS:
Affordable

Reasonable capacity
Extremely portable
Durable (if used right)

CONS:
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.

Charcoal smoker grills - the best of the rest

Char-broil American Gourmet offset smoker

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.

Charbroil American Gourmet offset charcoal smoker
Charbroil American Gourmet offset charcoal smoke

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.

PROS:
Versatile (grill, BBQ and smoke)
​Reasonably priced
Large cooking area
Auxiliary cooking area
Adjustable height rack
Enameled racks
Wheels
Side tray
Wire shelf
Ash removal door

CONS:
No warming rack
Flimsy construction (including screws coming loose)
Some users have reported paint peeling
Built-in thermometer only moderately accurate

Charbroil American Gourmet offset charcoal smoker

Charbroil American Gourmet offset smoker

VERDICT: A very versatile charcoal smoker, BBQ grill, but lacking the durability and robustness of the Weber models.

Dyna-Glo offset smoker (inc. wide model)

Dyna-glo charcoal smoker

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.

Dyna-Glo wide charcoal smoker

PROS:
Large capacity (both models)
Low price
Steel construction
Powder paint coated
Electronic pulse ignition
Ash catcher drawer
Two doors system for food and firebox
Built-in thermometer
Suitable for both hot and cold smoking

CONS:
Construction not that great
Some DIY required
Thermometer not all that accurate

Dyna-Glo  thermometer Charcoal smoker

Dyna-Glo thermometer

VERDICT: If you do a lot of smoking in large quantities, and don't mind the initial DIY, this is the smoker for you!

Weber 741001 Original Kettle 22-inch Charcoal Grill

Weber 741001 original kettle grill-01

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.)

Weber 741001 original kettle charcoal smoker grill in action

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.

Weber 741001 original kettle grill - ash removal sweeper - charcoal smoker

Ash removal sweeper

PROS:
Big cooking area
Low price
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
10-year warranty

CONS:
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.

Weber 14401001 Original Kettle

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.

Weber 14401001 hinged food grate
Weber 14401001 ash catcher

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.

PROS:
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
Built-in thermometer
Durable, all-weather wheels for mobility
Two handles
10-year warranty

CONS:
Thermometer only partially accurate

Weber 14401001 thermometer

VERDICT: The original kettle PLUS - has a HINGED food grate, an ENCLOSED ash catcher, TWO handles and a built-in THERMOMETER

Char-Griller 16620 Akorn Kamado Kooker Charcoal Barbecue Grill and Smoker

Akorn Kamado Kooker charcoal smoker frill

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.

Kamado warming rack
Akorn Kamado Kooker charcoal smoker grill

PROS:
Huge cooking volume
Warming rack
Removable grill center for adding charcoal
Tough porcelain coating inside
Powder paint coating outside
Insulated handles
Removable, enclosed ash catcher
Built-in thermometer
Durable, all-weather wheels (with lock)
Lockable lid
Folding side trays
Hanging hooks on side trays for tools

CONS:
Limited warranty (1-year parts, 5-year body only)
Requires self-assembly
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.

Char-Griller 2137 Outlaw

Char-Griller 2137 Outlaw 1063 Square Inch Charcoal Smoker Grill

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.

PROS:
Large cooking area
Warming rack
Removable grill racks to allow adding charcoal
Powder paint coating outside
Insulated wooden handles
Built-in thermometer
Durable, all-weather wheels
Front and side wooden shelves
Wire bottom shelf

CONS:
No easy ash removal

Char-Griller 2137 Outlaw 1063 Square Inch Charcoal Grill Smoker

VERDICT: Great for cooking big quantities without a long wait

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Solar cooker? Looking to buy? Best solar cookers for 2018

In this age of green energy, many of us are looking to for cleaner ways to cook, like a solar cooker. Of course, cooking with wood or charcoal is eco-friendly in the sense that the fuel is part of a closed chain. We burn wood, or charcoal made from wood, the carbon dioxide enters the air and trees photosynthesize the carbon dioxide, release the oxygen and lock up the carbon in their bodies creating more wood.

If instead of burning the wood, we let the trees die decompose, then the carbon dioxide still enters the atmosphere – albeit at a slower rate - because dead trees decompose. So, in a rough and ready way, wood and charcoal cooking are carbon neutral.

But is there a better way – or at least an alternative that has the virtue of being a “go anywhere” solution that is also carbon neutral? Well “go anywhere” is a relative term. After all, not every fuel is available everywhere. And when the fuel isn’t portable – and sadly sunshine is not portable – then it isn’t really a true go-anywhere solution.

But like I said, “go anywhere” is a relative term. After all you wouldn’t really want to do an outdoor barbecue when it is pouring with rain, or even just cloudy and overcast. Maybe a quick grill on a gas barbecue on the porch. But then, as soon as it’s ready, you’d bring the food in and eat indoors.

But when the sun is shining, that is the time for a true outdoor meal. And solar cookers are the perfect way to exploit that cleanest of all energy sources.

And so, in this review, we will be reviewing a number of solar cookers and giving you the lowdown on the type of results they produce.

Sunflair portable solar cooker

Sunflair Portable solar oven

Sunflair Portable Solar Oven Deluxe

Weighing only 18 ounces (barely more than half a kilo) it is a true go-anywhere solar cooker. That weight refers only to the solar oven itself, which is made of soft material. The entire kit of course adds extra weight. But when you bear in mind that the kit includes one enamelware pot, two silicone pots, two heat-conducting baking trays, two baking/dehydrating racks and a solar thermometer, you can well appreciate the value that this kit has to offer. They also throw in a user guide which doubles as a recipe book. The oven itself is its own carrying bag.

Best of all, it requires no assembly. It can be set up or folded away in seconds and easily stored out of the way. Its folded size is 2 x 15.5 x 19 inches. The silicone pots collapse to 2 cm height. And the pots are dishwasher, microwave, and oven safe.

It works by reflecting the sun’s rays with aluminized material onto the centre of the cavity. At the same time, the cavity is sealed behind transparent material creating a greenhouse effect. And the whole thing is thermally insulated. The combination of reflectively focussing the sun’s race and trapping the heat, raises the temperature inside the cavity of this solar cooker to the cooking temperature.

Sunflair Portable solar cooker

Sunflair Portable solar oven in arctic conditions

But what can you cook with it?

Well the makers give the obvious examples of cookies and pizza. You can also use it to dry fruits and herbs. But it can do a whole lot more than that, because it can reach an internal temperature of 285° F. That’s lower than the temperature of an oven, but in the upper range for a slow cooker. More important it is significantly higher than the boiling point of water and thus perfectly good for a wide range of cooking.

Technically, the makers of this solar cooker recommend a UV index of 3+ for solar cooking. They claim that it can used in all four seasons within 40° of the equator and in “three seasons” outside that zone. The makers even claim that you can sometimes get better temperatures in winter than in summer, because there is less dust in the air, making the sun’s ultraviolet rays more intense.

At these temperatures one can do stews and cook flat pieces of meat off-the-bone. Remember that the required internal temperature of the meat for safe cooking is lower than the temperature that the oven must reach in order to deliver that internal temperature.  Delivering the right internal temperature depends on two factors: oven temperature and time. Conventional ovens rely on temperature. Slow cookers rely on time.

And therein lies the problem. This solar oven functions like a slow cooker. It is great for the kind of recipes one does in a saucepan, casserole, Dutch oven or Potjie.  But you can even roast a whole chicken in it, if you are ready to wait three hours. On the other hand, rice can be cooked in it in 30-40 minutes and baked apples in 25.

Sunflair Portable solar cooker and a roast chicken

Sunflair Portable solar oven and a roast chicken

Catch your food on the... er... fly?

But what is really great, is that you don’t necessarily have to bring food along at all. If you are going fishing on a catch-and-keep basis, you can catch your dinner in the river, lake or sea and then cook it in the solar oven. Again 30 – 40 minutes will ensure that most fish are done to perfection. And if you catch a whopper and can’t be bothered to take it home, you can just extend the cooking time to 50 – 60 minutes.

Obviously if you want to set up and cook something quickly this is not for you. Also, it is important to use a reliable meat thermometer to test the internal temperature (of the food, not the solar cooker) to make sure that any meat you are cooking is done. Hot dogs can probably be cooked relatively quickly, although we didn’t actually test this.

The makers also cite other uses of the Sunflair, such as sterilizing bandages and emergency surgical tools, candle and soap making, clay crafts and cooking frozen dinners. We can’t vouch for any of these. Nor can we vouch for their claim that it can be used from Alaska to Afghanistan. But they do offer a 30-day return policy and claim that a portion of proceeds goes towards “providing a safer, healthier, and greener cooking experience for all, both here at home and across the globe.”

Sunflair Portable solar cooker drying fruit

Sunflair Portable solar oven drying fruit

PROS:
Portable
Light
Can be used anywhere
Easy to use
Folds away
Easy to clean

CONS:
Very slow
You need a food thermometer to be sure food is cooked through

VERDICT: A useful emergency standby solar cooker that can cook (slowly) for 4 – 8 people.

SolSource Classic solar cooker

SolSource Classic cooker

SolSource Classic Solar Cooker

The SolSource Classic – and its little brother, the SolSource Portable – are reflective parabolic dishes that reflect the sun’s light onto a focal point, thereby creating intense heat. The cooking utensil is then placed at the focal point where it can be heated to a theoretical maximum temperature of 300°C (572°F). This is comparable to a domestic oven. But more importantly it reaches this temperature in a mere 20% of the time it takes a charcoal grill to reach its peak temperature.

It is made of reflective polymers, described by the makers as “self-healing” – which presumably means it automatically corrects deformations in its shape, if and when they occur. You might think that this is inferior to an aluminum parabolic dish, but in fact we found it better than most of its aluminum competitors in terms of heating capacity. The fact is, reflective polymers work better than aluminum. The downside is that it can get damaged slightly more easily, if (say) hot oil or grease from the cooking utensil splashes onto it.

You operate this solar cooker by pointing it directly at the sun. However, if you want to cook on a lower temperature than the max, you simply adjust the reflectors, so you are not getting the full solar heat. In effect, you make the parabola less focused on the bottom of the dish. To facilitate this, the kit includes a small darkened mirror so that you can make the adjustment without looking directly at the sun or its bright, reflected light.

SolSource Classic solar cooker focussing sunlight on a frying pan

SolSource Classic focussing sunlight on a frying pan

Versatile... within limits

While it doesn’t offer the special flavor of a charcoal grill, it does have the advantage of avoiding the fumes you get blowing in your face when you cook over an open fire. You can use the SolSource to boil, fry, braise, grill, sauté, roast and bake. These last two are achieved by placing a baking or roasting tray inside a larger pot like a Dutch Oven. Ideally you should turn the baking tray, or the pot housing it, at regular intervals, to ensure that the food bakes or roasts evenly.

The one limitation of this solar cooker is that you can only use the SolSource when the sun is visible. That doesn’t mean it has to be a hot day, or even a warm one, but the sun has to be visible. If it is completely concealed by cloud cover, then it isn’t going to work.

You might think that because the surface reflects solar heat that it gets extremely hot itself. However, this is not the case. Because the SolSource works by focusing the heat from a large surface area onto a small one. So, the reflective surfaces of the mirror sections heat up the utensil at the focal point, without getting hot themselves. This greatly reduces the risk of burning yourself – although you still can, if you touch the heated cooking utensil.

The SolSource Classic solar cooker in action

The SolSource Classic solar cooker in action

Easy to use, easy to clean

But the real value of this phenomenon is that when you have finished cooking, the surfaces are easy to clean. Just wash them with soapy water, wipe the grease off and you can put it away for next time. Weighing a tad under 40 pounds, it can easily be moved around by a single adult.

The cooking utensil stand at the focal point of the reflector is cleverly designed. It is reversible, so it can accommodate a wide variety of pan sizes. You can use it with a Dutch oven, skillet, ribbed grill pan, frying pan, saucepan, etc. To get the best results, you should use pots with dark, matte exteriors. Aluminum or steel will reflect some of the sunlight away, whereas pots with dark exteriors will absorb it.

According to the makers of this solar cooker, this device was tested by nomads on the Himalayan Plateau and was designed with portability in mind. It can withstand high wind, and even though the reflective dish might appear to move around a little, as long as the legs are staked down at the bottom (and it comes supplied with stakes) it will remain stable in most windy conditions. However, the SolSource Classic is not really portable. That is why they call it a backyard solar cooker.

A work of art - the SolSource classic solar cooker

A work of art - the SolSource classic

Good but not perfect

One small problem we noticed is that although you can vary the angle of elevation, it does not have a wide enough range or vertical motion to catch the sun when it is low in the sky. This is particularly frustrating when you’re trying to cook in the evening. Also, the clamp that locks the dish in place vertically does not have enough grip and we had to use a bit of force to tighten it.

The pot stand also wobbled a bit and didn’t provide much stability for smaller pots.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle is the price. There are several aluminum solar cookers out there that are cheaper.

SolSource Classic  solar cooker

SolSource Classic solar cooker

PROS:
Heats incredibly fast and cooks quickly
Versatile (takes many utensil sizes)
Easy to vary temperature by mirror realignment using black mirror as a guide
Semi-portable
Stable
Heats food without getting hot itself
Easy to clean

CONS:
Somewhat expensive
Not enough range of motion to catch low sun
Weak clamp lock for vertical elevation
Wobbly pot stand – especially for small pots

VERDICT: In good sunlight, this solar cooker quicker than an oven and also a good conversation piece for a summer meal in the garden.

SolSource Sport  portable solar cooker

SolSource Sport portable solar cooker

SolSource Sport Portable

Weighing in at just 10 pounds, the SolSource Portable solar cooker is the little brother of the classic. It is easy to assemble and disassemble, with clearly written instructions as well as several useful videos, available on YouTube and the company’s own website. The mirrors can be detached, and the frame collapsed in three or four minutes. It even comes with a bag for the outer panels and then a larger backpack bag for the whole thing. Once dismantled, it can be packed away in its dedicated bag and put in the back of a car or even carried. And one can do this over and over again without damaging it or inflicting wear and tear.

Because it is smaller in surface area, it cannot reflect as much light onto the cooking area. Therefore, the SolSource Portable can only reach temperatures of about 200°C (400°F). However, whilst some oven cooking is done at higher temperatures (like thin-crust pizza), most is done at the between 175°C (350°F) and those upper temperatures above.

SolSource Sport solar cooker and carry case

SolSource Sport and carry case

PROS:
Portable
Requires no fuel
Heats up quickly
Easily assembled and dismantled

CONS
Can’t reach highest oven temperatures
Expensive

VERDICT: Unlike the Classic, this is a useful device for outdoor cooking that you can take with you on the road.

GoSunSport solar cooker

GoSunSport

GoSun Sport

The GoSun is quite a remarkable solar cooker. Essentially it consists of a dark transparent vacuum tube and two parabolic reflectors (>95% reflectivity). The reflectors – which must be angled towards the sun, aim sunlight at the tube. The sunlight penetrates the tube and is trapped inside, heating the food inside and cooking it. That does not mean that the food itself is in a vacuum. Rather it is like the contents of a transparent thermos flask. The vacuum forms an insulating layer. But the glass also creates a greenhouse effect, as the ultraviolet light penetrates the chamber and heats the contents, but the infrared given off by contents is unable to penetrate the glass to escape. It can work even on overcast days as long as the sun is above the horizon. But on cloudy days the cooking process is noticeably slower.

In practice this process converts the solar energy into heat with a whopping 80% efficiency, reaching temperatures of 288°C (550°F). This is easily enough to cook food. In theory, this might be enough to actually burn the food. But this doesn’t happen in practice. The nature of the heat capturing technology is such that you can even cook in cloudy conditions, as long as you can see a defined shadow. It is the sun’s ultraviolet rays create the heat.

Food coming out of the GoSun Sport solar cooker

Food coming out of the GoSun Sport

The “lid” of the food chamber (more like the end piece in practice) is made of stainless steel and is insulated so that you can touch it without burning yourself. The frame is also stainless steel, but the reflectors are aluminum and the feet are made of rubber for grip and stability. This use of materials ensures that the outside never gets hot. Only the inner chamber, where the food is cooked, heats up.

The food is cooked, by placing it into a steel pans that slide into the cooking tube. After you’ve finished cooking, you can leave the food inside to stay warm – i.e. turn it or not rep-angle it, so that it is no longer getting direct sunlight. Or you can close the reflectors. Then, when you’re ready to eat, just slide the food pan out of the tube and serve. In the case of the GoSun Sport (as opposed to the larger GoSun Grill), the tube is 24 inches long and has a 2.3-inch diameter.

GoSun Sport solar cooker cool on the outside, hot on the inside

GoSun Sport cool on the outside, hot on the inside

The GoSun solar cooker is rounded off by a user manual, a recipe booklet, a cleaning tool that attaches to the end of the tray, a 7.5-pound foldable, clamshell case (with handles) and a two-year no quibble warranty “when ordered on Amazon from GoSun Stove or Brookstone.” It also comes with a strong carry bag, making it truly portable.

At the kind of temperatures that the GoSun achieves, food cooks quickly. Hot dogs and fish are easy enough, but burgers and steaks are a bit more difficult, if only because the narrow diameter of the tube makes it impossible to lay them out flat. Of course, if one cuts meat into cubes one can cook it. One could even add some liquid to the steel cooking pan and braise the meat. Or start off with oil to sauté or brown it and then add liquid to braise it and cook it through.

The kind of food you can cook in the GoSun Sport solar cooker

The kind of food you can cook in the GoSun Sport

But if you want to cook larger quantities, you should consider getting the bigger – and more expensive - GoSun Grill (see below). That said, meat and potatoes can be cooked easily in the GoSun Sport in an hour to an hour and a quarter. You can perhaps, maximize the amount you can cook, by cutting the food into strips or cubes. But it is really only suitable for cooking a full meal for in small quantities. That could be anything from one hungry adult and a child to 2-3 average adults.

It is basically a new sort of camping cooker. It is versatile as to the type of food it cooks, beef, chicken, hot dogs, fish, dough-based products. But you must be flexible to work with these limited dimensions. You can even hard “boil” eggs (in their shells) in the cooker. Chicken drumsticks and wings can also be cooked to perfection, especially when you spice them nicely before putting them in. In good conditions it cooks fast. You can have a meal ready in 15-20 minutes.

The problem is that it is not cheap. The price seems pretty steep for a solar cooker that doesn’t cook large quantities.

GoSun Sport solar cooker carried by its handles

GoSun Sport carried by its handles

PROS:
Easy to use
Can be set up to cook and keep warm
Heats up quickly
Retains heat well
Works (slowly) on overcast days, if sun is visible

CONS:
Small, limited capacity
Quite expensive for what it does.

VERDICT: It works, but it is not clear what is the target market, given its limited capacity.

GoSun Grill solar cooker

GoSun Grill

GoSun Grill

The big brother of the GoSun Sport, the GoSun Grill has considerably more capacity. It comes with two long deep stainless-steel cooking pans. And if you can even buy extra pans to be able to cook a second round as soon as the first round comes out of the grill. But even with just the two pans, packed to the brim, you could easily cook a full main course for 4-6 people.

And because you get two pans with the solar cooker, you can cook different items. For example, you could roast four chicken quarters in one and potatoes in the other. You could even bake a load of bread in one of the pans.

The GoSun Grill solar cooker

The GoSun Grill

PROS:
Good capacity
Heats up quickly - works fast in direct sunlight
Works in cloud-filtered sunlight
Retains heat well for keeping food warm

CONS:
Very expensive

VERDICT: Because it is bigger than the Sport, the GoSun Grill makes a very useful backup device in the event of a grid failure and good try out for outside eating. But it is expensive.

All American Sun Oven solar cooker

The All American Sun Oven and the pots that come with it.

All American Sun Oven premium bundle

This is essentially a large box with reflectors inside and out to direct the sunlight (and thus the heat inside the box where you can put racks, trays, dishes or pots to cook food – just as in a normal oven. In fact, it comes with a dehydrating and baking rack set, 2 “easy stack” pots with lids, 2 loaf pans and an eCookbook with 600 recipes.

The reflectors are made of rust-proof, highly polished aluminum. The makers claim that it can reach temperatures in the 360 – 400 °F. However, in our experience, it would be more realistic to say 300 – 350 °F.

As with many of the other solar cookers reviewed here, it works best when there is enough sunlight to cast a shadow. You can do pot roasts and stews, bake cookies and cakes, even roast potatoes. It works if it is sunny outside, even if it is not actually hot. Conversely, it also works (somewhat) if it is cloudy, but then only if it is hot. If it is neither cloudy nor hot, then it will not work.

The All American Sun Oven solar cooker in action

The All American Sun Oven in action


Sun ovens like this, were originally designed for the third world – especially the hotter climates of the third world. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Eskimos and Inuits using it in summer, but I wouldn’t like to make them any promises either. For equatorial and tropical residents, however, it is a useful tool.

But what about affluent westerners? Does it have any value? Well it could certainly be a useful backup in the event of a power outage, if you cook normally with electricity and don’t have gas facilities. But then again, does that make it any better than wood or charcoal? It is probably not as fast. And it can only be used when the sun is out. On the other hand, if you live in an urban area and there are restrictions on wood or charcoal burning, then a solar cooker like this could fulfill that backup function.

Some one suggested that it was useful in the event of a tornado taking out part of the grid. But we can’t endorse this suggestion, as it is best not to use the sun oven on windy days. The wind will blow the reflectors out of alignment and you will find yourself adjusting them constantly.

A problem with this solar oven is that when it first arrives out of the box, if it is put to immediate use, it is haunted by a not very pleasant plastic odor. At another user’s suggestion we solved this problem by putting in an open container of vinegar and exposing the oven to direct sunlight. Some of the vinegar evaporated, steaming out the inside. Then we wiped it down and then started cooking.

The results are comparable to an oven set between 300 and 350. You can roast par-boiled potatoes in an hour, small cut raw potatoes in an hour and a half and if you like them brown and crispy, leave them in for two hours. My sister’s potato and sweet potato mixed roast (using olive oil and garlic) also took two hours to come out perfectly.

The opening to the oven is set at an incline, to catch the sun. But you also have to turn it horizontally to get the best results. Now obviously, there are limitations to this piece of equipment. Unlike parabolic reflectors, it cannot reach the temperatures required for frying or to operate a pressure cooker effectively. Also, it cannot reach the temperatures necessary to bake thin-crust pizza. But it can bake, braise, pot-roast, roast and stew.

The Thermometer of the All American Sun Oven solar cooker

The Thermometer of the All American Sun Oven

PROS:
Can duplicate oven cooking for all but the highest temperatures
Works (to at least some degree) wherever there is sunlight
Useful backup device

CONS:
Can’t achieve high temp for pizza, frying or pressure cooker
Still a little too expensive for such low tech

VERDICT: A useful backup for power outages if you live in an area affected by them and an alternative to oven cooking on hot days.

Portable Solar Oven solar cooker

The Portable Solar Oven

Portable Solar Oven

This is the same type of solar cooker as the GoSun, but a whole lot cheaper. So we’re talking about a vacuum tube oven with two hinged parabolic reflectors, a stainless steel cooking tray with an integrated silicone seal and a wooden Handle for getting food in and out. It also comes with a cleaning tool, a thermometer and sun dial to assist with correct orientation.

With a similar internal size to the GoSun Sport (two feet long by two inches in diameter) it suffers from the same practical limitations. It can cook for two or three people, depending on how hungry they are.  But the good news is that, in the right conditions, it reaches a high temperature quickly. In bright sunlight, it climbs rapidly to 330°C (626°F). At that temperature, you can cook some foods in 15 – 20 minutes. So, if you are cooking for more than three people, you can cook in relays. An appetizer for all first, followed by food for hungry children and then the adults.

Portable Solar Oven solar cooker

The Portable Solar Oven

Better still, like the GoSun products, this solar cooker can cook even in cold conditions as long as there is direct sunlight. (The makers claim you can cook in -30°C).

Like the parabolic reflectors – and unlike the solar ovens – you can easily fry and sauté in this device, because of the temperatures it is capable of reaching. You still can’t do pizza or heat up a pressure cooker. But those are dimensional problems, not temperature limitations. You can certainly boil water in it. So you can steam food in it, for a healthy meal. And you can braise, bake and roast in it – not to mention, aligning it away from the sub but taking advantage of the vacuum tube to keep the food warm, if you don’t want to eat immediately.

Because it is portable – weighing just 3.3 lbs – you can take it on the road and on camping trips. When the mirrors are closed, the solar cooker has an effective double handle and it also comes with its own carry bag.

PROS:
Very affordable
Heats up and cooks very fast
Works in cloud-filtered sunlight
Can fry and sauté as well as bake, roast and braise
Retains heat well for keeping food warm

CONS:
Small – limited capacity

VERDICT: Excellent for camping trips and a useful backup for power outages. Also, great value for money.

Solavore Sport solar cooker

Solavore Sport solar oven

Solavore Sport Solar Oven

This solar cooker is a rival to the All-American Sun Oven (above).  In other words, an insulated box with four mirrors to reflect sunlight through a transparent insulating layer into the box. The reflectors are durable and corrosion-resistant.

Made from pressure-molded, recycled, industrial plastic, it is very eco-friendly in every respect. Weighing a mere nine pounds, it comes with two 3-quart graniteware pots and its own polyester carry case. The case has a two-way zipper, a reflector pouch that closes with velcro, double handles for carrying and a shoulder strap.

Solavore Sport carry case

Solavore Sport SOLAR COOKER carry case

But the good thing about this solar cooker is that you can use it as a slow cooker without the reflectors. One can set it in the direction the sun is going to be either halfway through the intended cooking time, towards the tail end of that time or due south so it heats up and peaks at mid-day. Put the food in one (or both) of the pots and have a hot meal waiting for you when you get home in the late afternoon or evening.

Like the All-American, this oven is outgrowth of low-tech cooking solutions developed for the third world. It is principally a backup system. But it can also be used by choice in summer as an alternative to outdoor gas, charcoal or wood. You might ask, why not just use the house oven? Well the answer is that on a hot day, you might not want to heat up the oven in the kitchen. After all, when you heat up the oven, you heat up the house. In fact, on hot, lazy days this is the preferred option. And if you are lucky enough to have a whole string of hot days, so much the better.

Solavore Sport solar cooker on a boat

The Solavore Sport in action, on a boat

PROS:
Can duplicate oven cooking for all but the highest temperatures
Works (to at least some degree) wherever there is sunlight
Useful backup device

CONS:
Can’t achieve high temp for pizza, frying or pressure cooker
Still a little too expensive for such low tech

VERDICT: A useful backup for power outages if you live in an area affected by them and an alternative to oven cooking on hot days.

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