Three Things to Look for in a Portable Charcoal Grill

Portable charcoal grills make outdoor cooking easy, inexpensive, fun, and delicious. Here’s a guide to choosing the best size and style for you

Going on a picnic, camping for the weekend, hosting a tailgate party…you’re probably not going to bring Chinese takeout with you. Cooking on a charcoal grill is a time-honored tradition during these and other activities, and the inexpensive portable charcoal grill makes it happen for millions. And meat cooked over hot coals tastes terrific. Condo and apartment dwellers also appreciate portable charcoal grills so they can cook steak, chicken, burgers, and more in small outdoor spaces, and store it once it’s cooled.

There are numerous portable grills on the market, in styles ranging from kettle-style grills made of stainless steel that weigh as little as two pounds, to rectangular versions that are great for cooking kabobs, to drum-shaped versions that double as smokers. No matter what kind of portable grill you need, keep these three features in mind as you shop:

1. Look for easy-to adjust bottom and top vents, which allow control of combustion and thus cooking temperatures.

Weber 121020 Go-Anywhere Charcoal Grill
Look for a grill with easy-to-adjust bottom vents.Weber

The amount of oxygen that let into a grill directly affects the combustion rate of the charcoal. Open both vents when lighting the grill. Once the coals are fully lit, close the vents a little at a time until they reach your desired cooking temperature. (If you have a gas grill, you can think of the vents as the knobs that allow you to adjust the amount of gas being sent to the burners.)

2. Go with the heaviest grill that's convenient for you.

Cajun Classic Round Seasoned Cast Iron Charcoal Hibachi Grill
If you won't be carrying the grill long distances and can handle the weight, cast iron is a good way to go.Cajun Classic

While stainless steel is strong for its weight and various coatings will aid in keeping the grill hot, cast iron excels at heat retention and distribution. Your fires will be hotter and the heating surfaces will be more consistent (no cold spots). Also, a cast iron grill top will get very hot and put beautiful grill marks on whatever you're cooking.

3. Strike a balance between convenient size and ample cooking space.

Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill
The bigger your charcoal grill the more things you can cook at once.Weber

You're buying a portable grill so you can easily transport it, of course, but a larger grill will give you more options than a smaller one. Besides allowing you to cook more food at once, a large cooking surface also means you can vary the amount of coals, and thus heat, in different areas of the grill. That means you can go low and slow for chicken on one side of the grill top, while putting a nice char on a steak on the other side. You can also keep one area totally free of coals and use the grill top space above it to keep food warm, without cooking it further.