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For most people, especially seasoned chefs, charcoal and briquettes are widely considered to be the best fuels for grilling meats.
Along with wood pellets (see our guide to the best Pellet Grills), charcoal generally produces more smoke than gas because its molecular ingredients are more complex (gas is a more simplified, odourless compound that produces just water and carbon dioxide).
Charcoal is also a much more authentic – and therefore fulfilling – way to grill food. Charcoal barbecues are also generally easier to assemble than their gas counterparts.
Even the cheapest charcoal model will generally grill as well as the most expensive; after all, you’ll get the same results using just four bricks on the ground and a cheap grate.
The main considerations are therefore the quality of the barbecue’s components (an important asset if durability is a main prerequisite), the dimensions of its grill, special features, how good it looks and, of course, price.
What type of charcoal barbecue is best for you?
If you tend to burn your food quite regularly, go for a lidded (convection) model which will grill more evenly, less fiercely and a little slower than an open-top brazier-style BBQ.
Lidded barbecues (especially the kettle variety) use a convection process – rather like an oven – to cook the food. The secret is to keep the lid on as much as possible or the convection process will come to a rapid halt.
The lid also prevents the smoke from the fats escaping into thin air and the result is food infused with a delicious smoky flavour. Convection barbecues also allow you more time to engage in idle chit-chat without constantly having to break away from the conversation to turn the food over.
Any model with a lid like these reviewed below can be used in much the same way as a brazier by simply leaving the lid off.
Lump wood charcoal or briquettes?
Most experts will recommend lump wood charcoal over briquettes. Lump wood provides a superior flavour due to the fact it doesn’t contain any chemicals or binders. However, lump wood charcoal usually burns quickly and more fiercely and by the time it’s at optimum temperature, it starts to burn down quite quickly.
Briquettes, on the other hand, take longer to reach optimum temperature but stay hot for much longer. And that’s a good thing if you’re cooking two separate amounts of food or have a lot of mouths to feed. Heat Beads and Weber produce some of the best briquettes on the market.
This keenly-priced model is just the right size for a small patio or balcony and the build quality is excellent for the price; the heavy-duty lid is especially worth mention.
The Blooma Rockwell 200 doesn’t come with a side shelf but the bottom shelf is rigid enough for the storage of plates, condiments etc.
The split grate itself measures 42 x 41cm – plenty of space for up to six ravenous guests – but there’s no separate ash catcher so you’ll need to scoop out the ashes after a few sessions.
In the arena of basic budget-priced models, the Rockwell ticks most boxes.
It cooks well, it’s compact enough for easy storage and it looks like it will last quite a few years without turning into a heap of rust.
For those who require more meal estate, the larger Rockwell 310 has a larger grill, a side shelf and closed cupboard for charcoal storage.
Multi-fuel for convenience
Charcoal heats up quickly
Not the prettiest of models
Awkward to assemble
If you’re torn between cooking on gas or coal or just want the best of both worlds, then how about this two-in-one griller that can run off both charcoal or gas? If using gas, simply turn on the three burners and start grilling.
But when the need arises for some good old-fashioned charcoal grilling, simply reach down to the compartment beneath the burners, pull out the charcoal tray, place it on top of the three burners and fill with briquettes or lump wood charcoal.
Now turn on the gas to light the charcoal using the electronic igniter. It should be ready to grill in about 20 minutes – a lot quicker than the conventional method of using firelighters.
The Gas2Coal comes with an excellent porcelain-coated cast iron grate that measures a very ample 61.5cm x 44.5cm, plus a separate side gas burner for heating stuff like baked beans and potatoes or frying onions.
Granted, this isn’t the most stylish looking barbie in the yard and it takes about three hours to assemble, but it grills very well on either charcoal or gas and is a great overall choice for fence sitters. Also available as a two- or four-burner option.
Reliable grilling method
Exceptional build quality
Lid doesn’t have a hinge
Weber barbecues are known to last for years, even when kept in the garden without a cover on. That’s testament to the quality of the materials used and a major reason why Weber is one of the most popular barbecue manufacturers on the planet.
Weber’s kettle system is an extremely efficient and reliable way to charcoal-grill food without burning it to a cinder. Yes you can easily grill on it using the direct method of grilling (simple take the lid off), but for peace of mind and higher success, we’d opt for the indirect convention process and grill with the lid always on. This way the food will cook all the way through without scorching it.
The Master-Touch GBS E-5755 comes with a clever ash-removal bucket, an easy-to-use venting system and a 57cm stainless steel grate that can also accommodate a wide range of cooking accessories – wok, poultry roaster, griddle, pizza stone, etc.
If you’re in the market for an extremely versatile workhorse that delivers the goods without any fuss, the Master-Touch GBS E-5755 is a top choice.
Double skin wall
Great for smoking, too
Too big for most of us
Takes a while to assemble
This multi-faceted barbecue from Weber adopts the Japanese Kamado method of grilling (both direct or indirect), searing, slow-and-low smoking and roasting, and features a steel double wall and a brilliant sprung lid with an oven-style gasket that seals in the heat for up to five hours on a single dose of charcoal.
The Summit takes about 90 minutes to assemble and, as to be expected from Weber, the build quality is exemplary.
It’s superbly designed, too, and comes with an excellent vent system that allows you to make fine adjustments to the airflow.
The huge 61cm stainless steel grilling grate also features a removable centre section for adding optional accessories from Weber’s Gourmet range. Just below it is an aluminium deflector dish designed for flare-free indirect cooking.
The summit performed exceptionally well in our test, retaining its temperature for a staggeringly long time. In fact, a single self-lighting bag of cheap lump wood charcoal remained at a temperature of around 350˚C for just over four hours.
If you’re after an extremely well-designed model that really does it all, then look no further than this solidly built and highly commendable behemoth.
Height adjustable charcoal grate
Some cheap materials
This keenly-priced barbecue cart comes with an adjustable charcoal grate that can be raised or lowered using a simple winding action. This is an invaluable asset on a barbecue, especially for novices.
Why? Well let’s say you put too much charcoal on the tray and its created an inferno that is likely to incinerate anything that touches the grate. Or perhaps you’re doing a long cook, and by the time you come round to putting the skewered prawns on the grill, the charcoal looks like it’s about to die.
With this grill you simply wind the handle and the whole charcoal bed moves up or down by up to eight inches.
Other cool features include a porcelain-coated 48cm x 36cm grill grate with a removable centre section that can be replaced with a host of optional cooking accessories, a hatch for loading more charcoal, a folding side shelf, a built-in thermometer and a bottle opener on the side.
If you always struggle to maintain the correct grilling temperature when using charcoal,
This budget-priced model will soon become your new best friend.