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Portable Charcoal Grills

Can smaller, portable charcoal grills match the performance of their full-size cousins?

By and

Last Updated Aug. 9, 2022. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 5: Thrill of the Grill

Update, August 2022

We tested two new portable grills; the Weber Smokey Joe Premium remains our winner. We also like a larger version of our winner, the Weber Jumbo Joe Charcoal Grill 18", as it was easy to use, performed well, and had an ash catcher for easier cleanup.

See Everything We Tested

What You Need To Know

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 low to high 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 a few 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.


Everything We Tested

Good : 3 stars out of 3.Fair : 2 stars out of 3.Poor : 1 stars out of 3.
*All products reviewed by America’s Test Kitchen are independently chosen, researched, and reviewed by our editors. We buy products for testing at retail locations and do not accept unsolicited samples for testing. We list suggested sources for recommended products as a convenience to our readers but do not endorse specific retailers. When you choose to purchase our editorial recommendations from the links we provide, we may earn an affiliate commission. Prices are subject to change.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing. We stand behind our winners so much that we even put our seal of approval on them.

Valerie Sizhe Li

Valerie is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews. In addition to cooking, she loves skiing, traveling, and spending time outdoors.