The sun has only to peek from behind a cloud and barbecues are whipped out and fired up – our collective obsession with cooking outside over flames is here to stay.
We’ve now moved on from the campfire to the barbecue, and for the authentic fire-food-smoke experience, the charcoal barbecue is king. Gas barbecues may be quicker, cleaner on the hands and easier to control, but charcoal barbecues offer more versatility.
In this round-up of the best charcoal barbecues, we have looked at those suitable for four or more people. We reviewed a variety of styles, from the simplest of drums and open grills, to the ever popular kettle, American-style heavy-hooded and Kamado-style ceramic egg barbecues. Prices range from the affordable to expensive and everything in-between.
Best charcoal BBQs to buy
Big Green Egg large ceramic grill
An investment charcoal barbecue for serious outdoor cooks
This hefty piece of kit takes some getting used to, but once you’re familiar with the temperature control and various mechanisms, you’re away. The Big Green Egg can hit searing temperatures or retain a gentle heat with finite precision for very long periods. It multitasks as a smoker and oven for baking and roasting, with lots of extras available for purchase, including extra racks, baking stones and grills (but be warned, the prices can increase steeply once you start adding accessories). The barbecue function is excellent – it comes up to temperature in 20 minutes and produced some of the best food of all we tasted.
Azuma Rhino charcoal barbecue
Best budget charcoal barbecue
The Azuma Rhino took the longest to assemble of all the barbecues we tested – a total of two hours. However, once you’re past that, there is a lot to recommend about this pocket-friendly barbie. The ample 57cm grill can take food for four people and many more beyond. With the lid down, the heat circulates very well, resulting in well-cooked food. What we really liked about it is the clever front handle and door that allows you to add extra charcoal without having to move food or scorchingly hot grill plates.
Berghoff portable barbecue
Best portable charcoal barbecue
A petite portable barbecue cannot fully replace a traditional version, however they are worth mentioning for their versatility. For those with small gardens – or no garden at all – they are a neat solution to outdoor cooking. This stylish Berghoff barbecue is lightweight, despite being made of sturdy carbon steel. The strong carrying strap is more than fit for purpose, then the cork lid cleverly doubles as a heatproof mat when using the grill on grass. When alight, the lid also acts as the vent to allow or prevent too much air coming into the firebox from the bottom.
Napoleon Pro Cart charcoal kettle grill
A multi-functional, stylish charcoal BBQ
With its generous grill size (52cm diameter), easy assembly and stylish look, the Napoleon Pro Cart charcoal barbecue is ideal for family gardens. Napoleon is a leading barbecue brand and this is demonstrated in the design – the grill has three twist-and-lift height options, plus there are effective vents for controlling temperature and an in-built thermometer for keeping track. But the real selling point is in the two charcoal burning areas, which make it suitable for both direct and indirect cooking.
Indoba Cibus pedestal barbecue
With its eye-catching design and all stainless steel finish, this barbecue is a real talking point. The tall column functions as a vent to control airflow to the main firebox. We found the heat distribution was very good as a result. The grill has two handles to move it into three different positions, allowing you to switch between different heats to achieve the optimum cooking conditions for your food. While the Indoba Cibus is easy to assemble thanks to clear instructions, some of the edges are sharp, as are some of the corners when constructed.
Which barbecue to buy?
Once you’ve decided whether to buy a gas or charcoal barbecue, which style to go for will depend on what you want to do with it, how many people you want to cook for, the space you have, budget and how often you will use it.
For simple, straightforward cooking, a basic grill without a hood or air vents will do a good job. However, you will have to stay by it, learn to position the coals to create various heat zones around the grill and regularly turn and move the food for even and safe cooking.
Domed kettles and rectangular or square-hooded American grills are more versatile. By using the hood and air vents, heat can go from hot and fast for cooking over the coals (known as direct cooking) to long and slow for smoking or cooking large joints of meat or whole fish.
Using inserts or shelves to move food away from the main heat (known as indirect cooking) is for more delicate dishes. The closing of the hood helps the food to cook evenly without too much fuss so lessens all the turning and moving, and means you are free to socialise.
The Kamado grill comes from the Japanese for the wood or charcoal-fired earthen vessels used as an oven but now is a general term for ceramic grills. The distinctive egg shape and thick, heavy ceramic lining make these incredibly versatile and precise for grilling, roasting, baking and smoking using both direct and indirect heat.
They could be a little advanced for the beginner but for the serious grill-chef they are a wonderful and exciting piece of equipment restricted only by the imagination.
Fuel and lighting
Our burning desire for eating outdoors is raising questions around deforestation and where the charcoal is from. Look for the FSC logo of the Forest Stewardship Council, the world certification scheme of wood products on the pack to ensuring properly managed forests for your charcoal.
Choose your charcoal carefully. It is possible to buy sustainable charcoal, but generally, it will be more expensive. On the flipside, you should need less of it because it burns more slowly, and gives out better heat, which will offset some of that cost.
Briquettes and self-lighting charcoal contain chemicals and give off strong odours which will impact on the flavour of your food.
Never use petrol, chemicals or firelighters intended for coal fires to light your barbecue and never ever use in a ceramic grill. Look for natural firelighters now widely available.
How we tested charcoal barbecues
We tested the range by cooking classic barbecue favourites – sausages, burgers, assorted vegetables, including potato slices, and notoriously easy-to-stick halloumi cheese.
What we looked for when testing charcoal barbecues
Ease and time to assemble, tools included or needed.
Sturdiness and quality:
The sturdiness of the barbecue and the quality of materials and accessories included.
Size and height of the grill:
The size of the cooking surface of the grills and height from the ground.
Wheels and locking system:
Both the quality and size of the wheels, effectiveness and ease of use of the locks and manoeuvrability.
Effectiveness of the hood:
The weight and fit of the hood, handles and vents.
Time from loading to lighting and readiness to cook.
Heat across the cooking area.
The evenness, taste, texture and succulence of the cooked food.
Shelves and extra surfaces:
Where applicable, the sturdiness and practicality.
Ease of cleaning:
Effectiveness and ease of cleaning, including manufacturers guidelines if provided.
How quick and easy it is to put away.
Value for money:
Is it worth the price tag?
Excessive use of plastics and polystyrene.
This review was last updated in July 2020. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at email@example.com.
Do you have a favourite charcoal barbecue? We’d love to hear your product suggestions…