After 40 hours of research and reporting, plus hands-on time with half a dozen grills and two days spent cooking 40 pounds of burgers, BBQ, and whole chickens, we believe that the Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill 22″ is the best charcoal grill for most people. Thanks to its 65 years of continuous refinement, it was the most versatile, most user-friendly, and best-performing charcoal grill we tested.
The Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill 22″ is a classic for good reason. It’s compact yet big enough to cook an entire elaborate meal for a family, a simple spread for a party, or even a whole Thanksgiving turkey. From 12 well-seared burgers to an entire cut-up barbecue chicken to a perfectly cooked whole chicken and a killer rack of wood-smoked baby-back ribs, it produced beautiful meals in our test—and needed no expertise and no fussing on our part to do so.
Though the basic design has barely changed since 1952, Weber has constantly added helpful details; this latest iteration has convenient tool hooks on the side handles, for example. An enclosed ash catcher—the main upgrade the Premium offers over the basic 22-inch kettle—makes cleanup easy and eliminates concerns about stray embers. Assembly is dead simple, and the construction and materials are sturdy. Add its solid warranty and well-regarded customer service, and this grill is the best value going.
Before lighting a single briquet, we spoke with more than a dozen experts.
Joe Salvaggio of Big Apple BBQ spent an hour explaining the fundamentals of charcoal-grill design, function, materials, and maintenance. Joe and his brother Tony have run Big Apple BBQ, one of the New York region’s leading grill shops, for 30 years. They carry regular charcoal grills, kamados (charcoal-burning griller-smokers, usually made of heavy ceramic, the most familiar being the Big Green Egg), and griller-smokers that burn wood pellets (Traeger being the most familiar). Because Salvaggio is an independent retailer, he was able to speak freely about what he sees as the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various designs.
At the 2017 Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo (in Atlanta, early March), we interviewed senior product managers from almost every major grill maker in attendance, including some representatives of finalists Weber and Napoleon.
We backed this reporting up with comprehensive research—the in-depth, professional reviews at AmazingRibs.com being a standout source—and hands-on time with grills at the big hardware chains.
We then tested grills ourselves, our experiments running the gamut from grilling burgers (fast, high heat) to smoking (slow, low heat). Our tests were designed and run by Sweethome writer Lesley Stockton, who has a decade of experience in professional kitchens, many of them spent on the grill station. Sam Sifton, food editor of The New York Times (parent company of The Wirecutter and The Sweethome), joined in the testing and added his extensive knowledge.
If you’re buying a grill, your first decision is which type of fuel: charcoal or gas.
Charcoal grills have several upsides:
On balance, gas is probably the better choice if you favor no-fuss cooking or grill often (and especially if you grill on weeknights, when time is at a premium). If you’re an occasional griller or you enjoy getting hands-on with your cooking, charcoal is an economical choice that, with a bit of practice, produces superb results.
Going into our research, one thing was obvious: The classic Weber kettle would be the centerpiece of our test, because it has dominated the charcoal-grilling field for years—for good reason. If you know what you’re doing, it’s an exceptionally versatile piece of equipment, equally adept at basic grilling tasks and complex, competition-level slow-smoked barbecue. And because the basic 22-inch Weber kettle’s iterations (the plainer version lacks an enclosed ash catcher) cost between $90 and $160, we also set that as our general price range.
Based on our conversations with Joe Salvaggio of Big Apple BBQ and the many manufacturers at the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo, we eliminated kamados and pellet griller-smokers for this guide. Those designs offer attractive versatility, but they’re also expensive—$350 at minimum, and the most popular and best-regarded styles run twice that or more. Kamados also have difficult learning curves. And Salvaggio noted that wood pellets simply don’t produce the searing heat you need to make perfect burgers or steaks.
After much discussion, we also decided not to insist on a built-in cart, with side tables, on our charcoal contenders. Most manufacturers offer them as an option, but you pay a premium of about $200 on average. They’re handy, no doubt, but if your patio or deck already has a table or countertop, you’re paying for something you don’t need and giving up valuable living space, too.
We didn’t spend much time fretting over materials: Kettles are generally made of thin carbon (that is, not stainless) steel that’s coated with porcelain. And though grates come in a range of materials—thin wire (nickel-plated or stainless steel), plain cast iron, porcelain-coated cast iron (more rust resistant), and massive, welded stainless-steel rods—there’s no consensus on which is best. Manufacturers push the “heavier is better” line, but a strong professional contingent (some of the experts at AmazingRibs.com, for example) favors the cheap, thin wires, because they expose more meat to the searing heat of the coals. Joe Salvaggio, by contrast, likes porcelainized cast iron because in his opinion it holds and delivers heat better than the even heavier stainless rods on his top-end wares.
Price was another consideration for us: Taking the Weber kettle as a guide, pricing of $100 to $200 gets you from the most stripped-down version to the most embellished. So we set that as a general range while remaining open to higher- and lower-priced grills if they offered real value.
We knew we’d be looking at intangibles, too, such as whether the instructions were clear, whether assembly was reasonably straightforward, and whether adjusting the vents was intuitive and easy or confusing and complex. And of course, we’d consider the biggest intangible of all: the grills’ ability to perform in our tests.
But those judgments would have to wait until we got our hands on the things. After weeks of research, reporting, and discussion, we settled on three charcoal grills to test.
Over the course of two days, we put three charcoal grills through a battery of tests designed to demonstrate their qualities and highlight their differences. We cooked burgers on high heat to see how well the grills seared meat and how even and intense a heat they could generate across the whole grate surface. We slow-grilled cut-up chickens to see if our contenders could hold a low temperature evenly across the whole grate. And we roasted whole chickens indirectly to see if the grills could create browned skin and perfectly cook meat without charring. The New York Times’s Sam Sifton, editor of the Cooking section, joined us for these tests. (The New York Times Company is the parent of The Wirecutter and The Sweethome.)
For the high-heat, whole-grate burger test, we lit a chimney’s worth (6 quarts, or about 90 coals) of briquets. (We used Stubb’s All-Natural Bar-B-Q Charcoal Briquets, our runner-up from our extensive briquet tests.) We poured the lit coals into the grills, spread them in an even layer, and then heated the grills with the lids down and all vents fully open for 15 minutes (a standard manufacturer’s recommendation). We then oiled the grates and distributed 6-ounce patties across the whole cooking surface (10 to 12, depending on the grill). While the burgers cooked we kept an eye out for flare-ups—they’re not desirable, as they char the meat and create acrid smoke—and examined the evenness of cooking on the different areas of the grates. After about 10 minutes of cooking (five minutes per side, lid open), we compared how well each grill had seared the burgers, looked for any patties that were charred or still unacceptably raw, and took a taste.
For the low-and-slow, whole-grate test, we let the same batch of coals burn down to the white-ash stage with the lid open (about 20 minutes). We then reoiled the grates and distributed a whole cut-up chicken—two each of breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and wings—skin side down. We then closed the lids for 45 minutes, occasionally checking for charring and redistributing the pieces as necessary (ideally, it wouldn’t be necessary at all). As the chicken cooked we monitored the grills’ temperatures, using the built-in thermometer where available and a probe thermometer where not. The goal was a steady hold at 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and we adjusted the vents to get as close to that as we could. After 45 minutes, we flipped the chicken parts, slathered on a coating of barbecue sauce, and closed the lid for another five minutes. We repeated this step twice more, rounding out the cook time at an hour flat. Then we had a taste, paying special attention to the breast meat—a long cook can dry it out.
For the indirect-cooking test, we cooked a whole chicken at as close to 500 °F as we could get. (The 500 °F test emulates Barbara Kafka’s famous oven-roasting method.) We moved the remaining coals to one side of the coal grate and added half a chimney’s worth of freshly lit coals. Then, as usual, we oiled the grates, placed a 3- to 4-pound chicken as far from the coals as practicable, and put the lid on, making sure the lid’s vent was directly above the chicken so as to draw the smoke and hot air around the bird. In effect we were testing whether the grills could function as ovens—a really nice feature in the hot summer months, when you may not want to warm up your kitchen. At the end of each hour-long test, we noted the depth and evenness of browning, and finally we did a taste test, again paying special attention to the breasts—ideally, they’d be fully cooked but still juicy.
Throughout, we also tested our “necessities”—accessories such as spatulas, tongs, grill brushes, and sheet pans. We learned a lot about them (and we have a guide to what we learned), but they also helped us identify a few design strengths and flaws of the grills.
Before the cooking tests, we spent a day assembling the three grills. Overall, the cooking tests were far more important to us; you assemble a grill only once. But poor instructions can make assembly slow, frustrating, and full of retraced steps. And a simply bad design can make assembly needlessly difficult. Plus, poorly finished parts can have dangerously sharp edges, sharp enough to cause a nasty cut. So we kept an eye out for all of these problems.
Finally, after all our tests were done, we did routine maintenance, emptying the ash catchers, brushing the grates, and washing out the grills.
The Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill 22″ is our pick as the best charcoal grill for most people. It’s a classic for good reason. In our tests it outperformed the other grills in cooking, ease of assembly, and user-friendly details. We got good results in one or another respect with the other models, but they didn’t perform consistently great on everything the way the Weber did. From 12 well-seared burgers to an entire cut-up barbecue chicken to a perfectly cooked whole chicken and a killer rack of apricot-wood-smoked baby-back ribs, the Weber produced beautiful meals—and needed no expertise and no fussing on our part to do so. It’s compact yet big enough to cook an entire elaborate meal for a family, a simple spread for a party, or even a whole Thanksgiving turkey.
In cooking performance, the Weber was the best and most hassle-free grill in our tests. It produced an excellent high-heat sear on hamburgers, crisped the skin of our barbecue chicken over the course of a long, low-heat cook, and delivered a deeply browned, well-cooked whole chicken via indirect cooking. That’s a reflection of the Weber’s excellent ability to control how much heat your charcoal briquets are putting out, which you manage by adjusting the vents underneath the grill and on top of the lid.
The Weber’s design makes controlling the heat simple. You open and close the lower vents with a long handle mounted above the ash box. The handle stays cool to the touch—no need to put on gloves or use a towel—and slides easily. The handle on the 22-inch Napoleon Rodeo Charcoal Kettle Grill, the other kettle in our test, was too stiff, and we had to really crank down to move the vents. Up top, the Weber’s lid vent is a simple disc of aluminum; you just flick it left or right to open or close the vent holes. (Make sure to use a spatula or your tongs to do this—the disc gets hot. Same goes for the Napoleon’s similar lid vent.)
The Weber comes with an integrated thermometer (as does the Napoleon, but not the PK Grill). Such a feature is useful for getting your charcoal grill into the ballpark for the cooking temperature you want—but you should be aware that charcoal grills inherently have hotter and cooler spots, because charcoal doesn’t lie perfectly flat and burns faster or slower depending on wind and vent conditions. Bottom line: You have to keep an eye on how fast things are cooking, and adjust accordingly.
The round shape of the Weber and Napoleon offers one particular benefit that’s not immediately obvious. Instead of moving your food around, you can spin the grate around to expose burgers, chicken, or whatever else you’re cooking to higher or lower heat. In contrast, the PK Grill’s rectangular grate can’t spin around; you have to move the food or the coals to adjust the cooking.
All our test grills’ grates are hinged, a nice feature that lets you add or adjust the coals without lifting the whole grate off. We preferred the Weber and Napoleon designs, which each have a pair of hinged sections, on opposite edges of the grate, that let you directly access the entire bed of charcoal below. All three grills feature simple, thin-wire grates. We noticed no performance differences, and all worked well, with no notable sticking of the items we cooked.
When it came to assembly, the only direct comparison we could make—because of the similar overall design—was between the Weber and the Napoleon. The Weber model was comprehensively superior. Offering clear instructions and a minimal need for tools or acrobatics, Weber has refined its engineering to maximize simplicity. The legs and ash catcher slot effortlessly into built-in sockets and lock in place with idiot-proof spring pins—not a bolt or screw in sight. And where a wrench is needed, as on the thermometer attachment, Weber supplies a simple plastic tool. All you need is a Phillips screwdriver to attach the side handles, and something dense (a hammer, a chunk of firewood) to tap the end caps of the wheel axle into place. One person can have the grill up and running within minutes of opening the box.
Finally, after the head-to-head tests were done and we knew the Weber would be our pick, we tested it a fourth way. Using a very popular third-party accessory, the Slow ’N Sear Plus charcoal basket, we smoked a rack of baby-back ribs. We were testing the Slow ’N Sear’s claims primarily, but we were also testing the Weber’s ability to hold a very low, steady heat. The grill performed terrifically, turning out tender ribs with great smoky flavor. But this is, more broadly, a point about the Weber kettle’s versatility: Because this grill is so popular, both Weber and other manufacturers offer a bunch of add-ons (such as charcoal baskets, pizza stones, and rotisseries) that increase its capabilities. To use a contemporary term: It’s hackable. With a little ingenuity and not much outlay, you can make the Weber grill even better than it already is.
The 22-inch Weber Original Kettle Premium is short. The grates are just 27 inches from the ground. Compare that against the standard kitchen-counter height of 36 inches, and you quickly grasp the reality we experienced: It’s a literal, if passing, pain in the ass (and lower back and hammies) to spend a lot of time working over the grates. Granted, you spend 90 percent of your grilling time standing around waiting for stuff to cook, not leaning over the coals. But the Napoleon, which we otherwise didn’t love, is a generous 34 inches in height at the grate, and that made it a pleasure to work on. Given Weber’s attention to engineering details, we suspect the low height is by design. For the same reason, we believe Weber could do things differently—and better.
The Weber grill has three legs—an inherently stable design, because having three points of contact means the legs will automatically “find their level” even on bumpy ground. That said, the Napoleon model’s four legs felt just as stable, and more stiff, on a garden-variety concrete patio—and also allowed Napoleon to install a big, square shelf underneath the grill. The Weber grill has a smaller, triangular shelf, and it’s far less useful.
Finally, the Weber model doesn’t come with a grill cover. It should—every grill should, and most don’t. Weber sells one for its 22-inch kettle for about $30.
Charcoal grills, as pieces of equipment, are simple. So, happily, is their maintenance.
Clean the grates before or after each use by brushing them free of cooked-on gunk and wiping them with a wet rag. Oil the grates after heating them, before you cook anything—it’ll help keep food from sticking.
Empty the ash box after each use, but not immediately after—give the ash at least 12 hours to cool down, and double check before dumping the ashes into a garbage bag or trash can: If the ash catcher is even slightly warm, the ash inside is still a fire hazard.
Don’t be tempted, however, to use water to extinguish the ashes faster. Water plus ash equals sodium and potassium hydroxide—better known collectively as lye, caustic alkalines that readily burn flesh.
For the same reason, don’t let your charcoal grill sit out in the rain, as the resulting lye will quickly corrode any metal it touches. Instead, bring your grill into a garage, put it under an awning, or tent it with a grill cover (in every case, after the ash is cool).
And never, ever use your charcoal grill in an enclosed space. Burning charcoal produces carbon monoxide, an odorless, deadly gas. Outside, it diffuses harmlessly into the air. Indoors, it can overwhelm and kill in minutes, without warning.
Do these basic things, and your charcoal grill should last you for a decade or more.
The 22-inch Napoleon Rodeo Charcoal Kettle Grill (model number NK22CK-L) is considered one of the better Weber clones available (the pros at AmazingRibs.com, among others, rate it highly). In our cooking tests it performed well, though not quite as well as the Weber. In particular, we didn’t find its unique heat-diffusing plate, a shallow metal dome that sits in the middle of the coal bed, notably effective. We loved its height—at 34 inches at the grates, it’s nearly counter height, and a full 7 inches taller than the Weber, so it was less tiring to work on. The Napoleon’s four legs, versus the Weber’s three, make this grill more stiff and stable, and allow for a nice big shelf underneath.
What we did not like at all was the complex assembly. The chief problem lies in the way the bottom vent and ash catcher assembly is attached to the grill body. Whereas the Weber’s assembly snaps into place via three strong spring clips—a simple, idiot-proof, and rock-solid attachment—the Napoleon’s requires you to mount it by tightening three screws. (The experience is like attaching a domed ceiling-light fixture, if you’ve ever done that.)
For one, the screws are not much bigger than those that hold eyeglass frames together. When you think about the ash catcher’s job—to capture hot ashes and embers—the tiny screws don’t inspire much confidence. Also, the instructions are faulty, suggesting that you need to insert the screws yourself—after fruitlessly searching for them in the parts bags—when in fact they’re preinstalled on the vent assembly.
But the biggest problem is that the instructions completely overlook what we found to be a potentially dangerous design flaw. The Napoleon’s vent assembly consists of two metal collars, one inside the other. When you invert the assembly to screw it to the grill, the inner collar can slip down unnoticed and prevent the screws from attaching to the grill body. The devious thing is that the inner collar will hold the screws temporarily—so you’ll think everything is as it should be—but if you bump the grill or try to open or close the vent, it’ll let go, sending the vent and ash catcher crashing to the ground. That happened to us twice before we figured out what was going on. If it had been full of hot ash, we would have had a real problem.
Napoleon makes attaching the legs hard, too. Instead of clipping them into premounted sockets, as on the Weber, you have to individually push four bolts through holes in the kettle floor from the inside, hold them in place with one hand while holding a loose socket in place on the outside of the kettle with the other hand, and finally screw each leg onto its bolt with whatever fingers you still have free. In practice this means you either need an assistant or must push one of your hands through the vent assembly—which contains, as we discovered the hard way, enough sharp edges to shave the skin off your knuckles.
Add the extra $50 you pay for the $200 Napoleon grill over the Weber kettle that it emulates, and the Weber model’s superiority is even starker.
We found a lot to like about the PK Grill & Smoker, and we’re not alone: AmazingRibs.com and BBQ Guys, as well as many owners, recommend it enthusiastically. The thick cast-aluminum body holds and reflects heat efficiently, and it’s extremely sturdy and inherently rustproof—all the same reasons we insisted on a cast-aluminum body for our gas-grill pick. The shallow rectangular shape keeps the coals close to the grates, so it’s terrific for searing steaks or burgers on high heat. It’s also perfectly designed for indirect cooking: Just pile the coals at one end and place the food at the other. (To get the best indirect-cooking results on kettles, you need to hold the coals to one side with bricks, an aluminum pan, or a charcoal basket, because the sloped sides tend to force the coals to the middle.)
With four vents (two each top and bottom), you can fine-tune the PK Grill’s heat output and create hot and cool zones; kettles, in contrast, have just one bottom and one top vent and thus run at a single heat level. Assembly is impressively easy, and the built-in cart and shelves (there’s no cartless option) would be welcome on a patio that doesn’t have a worktable of its own. Lastly, though we didn’t test the grill this way, it is somewhat portable, as its makers emphasize: The grill simply lifts off the cart, and the lid and firebox separate without tools, so you can easily put them into the trunk of a car and bring them to a tailgate or car-camping site. And because the pieces are aluminum, they weigh only about 15 pounds apiece. (Without the cart, however, you’ll need to grill on the ground or on a fireproof table.)
But as it approaches its seventh decade, the PK Grill’s venerable design is showing some signs of age. It’s short—27 inches at the grate, same as the Weber—and that’s hard on the back muscles. The bottom vents are hard to access, as you have to reach all the way under the blazing-hot grill to flick their little finger-tabs back and forth. The grates lie less than a quarter-inch below the rim of the grill body—most other grills have a few inches of overlap—and that means there’s no backstop if you accidentally shove a piece of food too far. We worried about this problem before our tests; when Sam Sifton flicked a chicken wing onto the ground, our worries were confirmed. Finally, the grill has no ash catcher, meaning anything resting on the cart’s bottom shelf will get dusted. (We put a disposable aluminum turkey tray on the shelf to try to keep it clean.) And the same detachability that lends itself to tailgating or car camping also renders the lid hinge unstable: If you don’t raise and lower the lid dead square, it can slip out of joint and brush against your hand (a burn danger) or fall off entirely. We also didn’t love the coal access. Though the single hinge opens one half of the grate, we would have preferred being able to access both sides independently rather than having to stretch to reach the far corners. The hinged sections on the opposite edges of the Weber and Napoleon grates let you do just that.
PK Grills, the company, has recognized the need for an update. In February 2017, it launched the PK360, a bigger, slicker design with front access vents and a better lid attachment. It still has no significant backstop for the grates, however, and no ash catcher—though because there’s no bottom tray, that just means you’ll get ash on the ground. And at $750, it was beyond our price consideration.
The other grill we strongly considered—and then strongly dismissed—is the popular Char-Griller Wrangler 2123. Basically a Texas-style barrel smoker without the external smoker box, it’s undeniably a simple and sturdy design, and one that (with smoker box attached) has produced exceptional slow-smoked barbecue for years. As for its performance as a grill—rather than as a smoker—we’ll let the top positive (again, positive) Amazon review speak to that: “No other product on the market cooks as well as a Char-Griller,” says owner and mega-fan Cheese. Before long, Cheese goes on to list no fewer than 10 “complaints I’ve noticed that I feel I need to address in my own special and eloquent way.” Included are “these things will catch on fire,” “it will leave a grease stain on your deck or porch,” and “stuff comes loose.” The negative reviews barely approach Cheese’s detailed rundown of its faults.
We dismissed the many cheaper knockoffs of the Weber kettle—they’re not much cheaper, for one, and the quality just isn’t there. Models by (or branded as) Kingsford, Char-Broil, PizzaQue, and Grill Zone run about $75 to $95 for a grill equivalent to the plain Weber Original Kettle ($100). The Weber Original Kettle Premium, our pick, comes in at $130 to $150 and offers the enclosed ash catcher (prevents messes) and the many thoughtful design features, plus the 65 years of tested performance, outlined above.
We looked briefly at kamados (charcoal griller-smokers, the best-known being the Big Green Egg) and pellet griller-smokers (the best known being the Traeger), but on price, technique, learning curve, and performance, they were outside the scope of testing we settled on for this guide.
(Photos by Kyle Fitzgerald.)
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