Portable Charcoal Grills

From Cook's Country | June/July 2011

Overview:

Whether you grill for two, take your grilling on the road, or just lack the space for a full-size grill, a portable charcoal grill offers the smoky flavors of charcoal grilling in a convenient size. Portable grills come in two styles: Some look like smaller versions of full-size kettle grills; others collapse flat for easy storage. We gathered six portable grills with prices ranging from just over $20 to $140 and tested them with burgers, flank steak, and butterflied whole chickens.

A portable grill should be just that: portable. It practically goes without saying that grills that fold flat are handy for fitting into the trunk of a car. But dismantling and reassembling greasy grates and ash-covered panels that must be folded just so turned out to be more trouble than the grills were worth. Weight also hindered portability. Most of the grills that we tested weighed less than 15 pounds, but a 32-pound cast-iron model was difficult to lift, let alone move. We came to appreciate lightweight grills that don't require assembly every… read more

Whether you grill for two, take your grilling on the road, or just lack the space for a full-size grill, a portable charcoal grill offers the smoky flavors of charcoal grilling in a convenient size. Portable grills come in two styles: Some look like smaller versions of full-size kettle grills; others collapse flat for easy storage. We gathered six portable grills with prices ranging from just over $20 to $140 and tested them with burgers, flank steak, and butterflied whole chickens.

A portable grill should be just that: portable. It practically goes without saying that grills that fold flat are handy for fitting into the trunk of a car. But dismantling and reassembling greasy grates and ash-covered panels that must be folded just so turned out to be more trouble than the grills were worth. Weight also hindered portability. Most of the grills that we tested weighed less than 15 pounds, but a 32-pound cast-iron model was difficult to lift, let alone move. We came to appreciate lightweight grills that don't require assembly every time we want to cook, as well as features like clips to secure the lid for easy transport.

Cooking over an open flame is the most basic, and probably the oldest, culinary technique. So it may not be news that we were able to cook burgers and flank steak on all of the grills. But when it came to capacity and design, we found significant differences among the models. We preferred grills that fit at least six burgers and three-quarters of a chimney's worth of briquettes (enough to cook two rounds of burgers and steak back-to-back). We also saw the value of a raised lip, which kept the food from falling off; otherwise, we had to chase burgers that were dangerously close to (or partway off) the edge. You don't need a cover for basic grilling, but you do for grill-roasting. The technique, which in effect creates a small oven, is ideal for larger cuts, like a butterflied chicken. To get low, steady heat, you bank the coals on one side and use a cover to trap the warmth. Excepting one very small grill, we had no trouble building the fire this way on all the models. But only one of the two grills that had covers could actually fit the chicken under the lid.

Between enduring high heat, grease, grime, and getting banged around in the back of a car, portable grills undergo a lot of heavy-duty use. They need to be made of sturdy stuff. We downgraded a few grills for their flimsy construction; one model even buckled as we were cooking on it. To simulate the grill being knocked over while unpacking a picnic, we dropped the models from the back of an SUV onto hard pavement. All grills passed this test, although not without a few dents.

So, which portable grill should you buy? It depends on what you need it for. If you don't intend to lug it on trips, a cast-iron grill is the high-heat cooking champ. Remember, though, that it lacks a lid, so you can't grill-roast. For the best all-around portable grill, we recommend a model which offers an ample cooking surface, a cover that can be secured for travel, a convenient raised lip, and a reasonable price.

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  • Product Tested

    Results Key:

    Good ★ ★ ★ Fair ★ ★ Poor
  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Highly Recommended - Winner

    Weber Smokey Joe Gold

    This smaller version of our favorite Weber One Touch Gold Charcoal Grill shares many of its attributes. The ample cooking surface fit six to eight burgers at a time or a 1½-pound flank steak. The domed cover allowed us to grill-roast a butterflied chicken perfectly. Adjustable vents on the cover and on opposite sides of the grill’s body gave us plenty of control over the fire.

    • Design ★★★
    • Cooking ★★★
    • Durability ★★★
    • Portability ★★

    $34.70

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended

    Fyrkat Charcoal Picnic Grill by Bodum

    Compact and lightweight for easy transport, this colorful little grill is similar in design to our winner. While the cooking surface easily accommodated a whole butterflied chicken, the lid’s dome was too shallow for it. But for high-heat grilling, such as steaks and burgers, this grill performed as well as the winner.

    • Design ★★½
    • Cooking ★★½
    • Durability ★★★
    • Portability ★★

    DISCONTINUED

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Lodge Sportsmans Grill

    This grill easily fit six burgers but was a little too narrow to accommodate a butterflied chicken. We couldn’t grill-roast, either, because the grill has no cover. We did, however, like the draft door to regulate heat, and a flip-down door made it easy to access coals. Made entirely of cast iron, this grill seared beautifully. If only it didn’t weigh 32 pounds. Portable, yes—if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    • Design ★★
    • Cooking ★★½
    • Durability ★★★
    • Portability

    $139.95

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Son of Hibachi

    This grill is a chimney starter and a grill in one: Fill it with coals and use it as a chimney when folded; unfold it to reveal two adjustable cast-iron grates, albeit very small ones. When you’re done, fold it up and place the hot grill in its heat-resistant snuff-out pouch—very clever. Unfortunately, this grill held the fewest briquettes and could not fit a whole chicken, nor does it have a cover. Only for small batches of food.

    • Design
    • Cooking ★½
    • Durability ★★★
    • Portability ★★★

    $69.99

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Fire Sense Hotspot Notebook Portable Charcoal Grill

    This grill stands 13 1/2 inches tall but collapses to just 1 inch thick. It has plenty of cooking surface and a high coal capacity, and it easily fit eight burgers. But it doesn’t have a cover, making it ill suited for anything other than high-heat grilling, nor does it have a lip, so we found ourselves chasing burgers off the edge of the grill. This model dented and warped during testing.

    • Design
    • Cooking ★★
    • Durability
    • Portability ★★★

    $27

  • Not Recommended

    Bayou Classic Fold and Go Charcoal Grill

    This grill has the largest cooking surface of all the grills we tested, but no lip or lid. It folds down to just 2½ inches wide, which is nice for portability, but all the hinges required to collapse it proved cumbersome. More than once, the sides buckled while we were cooking, making the grilling surface unsteady (to say the least). What’s more, the grill’s sharp edges tore the carrying case it came with. The final demerit: It has no lid.

    • Design
    • Cooking
    • Durability
    • Portability ★★★

    $20.43

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