Great Outdoor Grills for Every Type of Cookout, According to BBQ Experts
We got the inside scoop on the best charcoal, propane, and portable grills to help you cook outside like a pro all summer long.
If someone ever tells you that grilling isn't for everyone, that person is simply wrong and is not to be trusted. The modest grill is one of the easiest ways to cook up delicious meats, veggies, side dishes, and even things like eggs -- and has been for centuries.
I've been grilling nearly 15 years now -- nothing too elaborate, but grilling nevertheless. But in no way would I label myself an expert. In lieu of this jarring realization, I knew that if I wanted to dutifully tell you all where to begin with grilling, I'd need to bring in the big guns.
So that's exactly what I did. I spoke with grill experts Jonathan Fox (of the indomitable Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q), Elizabeth Karmel (founding chef of Hill Country BBQ & the original Grill Girl), and Ryan Mitchell (renowned pitmaster and BBQ sauce scientist) and got the inside scoop on the best charcoal, propane, and portable grills for your summer barbecuing needs. Weber, perhaps not so surprisingly, was a top contender for both charcoal grilling and gas grilling -- and you don't have to shell out thousands (or even hundreds) of dollars for a good one.
I also had to ask them something that's been on my mind -- and the minds of many a weekend warrior: If you had to choose one pro-grade grill for your home, the Original PK or a Traeger, what would you pick, and why?
The Best Charcoal Grills for Your Backyard BBQ
If there was one grill everyone agreed on, it was the Classic Weber Kettle. This is likely what you're using to grill right now and is one of the most iconic backyard grills ever made. Fox told me the Kettle is his favorite because of its versatility as a grill and a smoker. Mitchell waxed nostalgic about it, "Not many grills have more memories than the old Weber Kettle. This is grill 101. Quite honestly, the memory maker of backyard BBQ. No intimidating complicated features. Light the coals, load the meat, and figure the rest out as you go."
But, of course, other charcoal grills exist and deserve their time to shine -- quite literally in the sun. Mitchell is hyped about the Char-Griller Outlaw. "We’ve been hosting quarantine smoke outs at home since the pandemic. This smoker has been impressive for all sizes of family gatherings. And we’re just partial to barrel grills anyway,” he said. “It gives us that mini hog smoker look and good capacity. And this one is sturdy enough to handle the heat. I was particularly impressed with the sturdy, removable cast iron grates."
Karmel told me she loves the Weber Summit Charcoal Grill, noting that "it has a generous 24-inch diameter which means that you can grill steaks for a crowd or slow-smoke a whole brisket with ease -- without having to cut the brisket in half to fit on the cooking grate. And the double-wall insulation makes the heat consistent."
Fox also likes the PK Grill & Smoker, a simple yet lauded grill and smoker constructed out of cast aluminum, but reiterated that for price/volume, the Weber Kettle is the deal. But if money is no object and you're looking to get serious about your backyard cooking, Fox tells me the "Big Green Egg is a solid choice for a ceramic smoker/grill." If the price of the BGE has you shook Wayfair has a ton of budget-friendly deals on similar Kamado grills.
The Best Propane Grills for Everyday Grilling
"Taste the meat, not the heat." - Hank Hill
Propane grills are by far the fastest and easiest way to cook outdoors. Twist the knob on the tank, hit the starter, and voila. Fire. However, most expert grillers stick with charcoal and wood for the added flavor. That isn't to say they aren't fans of the clean, efficient propane methods, though.
“I love my Weber Summit Grill,” said Karmel “The best thing about these grills is that they are engineered to cook with even heat, which is rarer than you think. Many gas grills have hot and cold spots and it is difficult to cook without having to turn your food. They also have heavy cooking grates that deliver great grill marks and the flavorizer bars maximize the smoky flavor while minimizing the flare-ups." For something a little less expensive, check out Weber's Spirit Series.
Fox echoes Karmel, saying "The quality of the build is durable and top-notch. And it's quick to heat up on a weeknight when we have little time to fire up the charcoal grill." You can find a whole lot of Weber Summit & Weber Genesis gas grills here.
For Mitchell, The Fuego Professional F24C is the move. "I got this as a gift earlier this year and honestly it’s been absolutely amazing. I couldn’t believe how quickly it got hot and the footprint is incredibly efficient on the patio,” he said. “The cooking surface is top notch. It'll cook anything from pizza to steaks and chicken. You can turn any patio into a professional kitchen in minutes and it makes 5-star meals."
The Best Portable Grills for Your Backyard, Balcony, Park, or Other Sliver of Outdoor Space
This section is for the eager-to-learn, future-patio-pros living in a city whose only real outdoor cooking options include grilling on balconies, rooftops (our lawyers tell us this is illegal), in parks, and at tailgates. As someone who used to grill on a small fire escape in the summer, I salute you. The only one of our experts who had a strong opinion on portable options was Mitchell, who told me The Mr. Bar B Q portable charcoal grill from Lowe’s is the go to here. “I’ve used these with simple wood chips that we found laying around a park before. And I don’t feel bad about losing it or having to leave it behind" he said.
As a city-dweller, I feel like I can chime in here with a few recs of my own. For charcoal? Check out Cuisinart's 14" Portable Grill. This is what I had on my fire escape and it served me well for years until I moved to a place with a back patio and upgraded. It cooks amazingly well for its size and is super easy to clean and store (just remember to dry it if it's been raining a lot to prevent rust). For something a little more tailgate-friendly, check out CharBroil's Tabletop propane grill. This is a true no-nonsense grill. Screw in the mini-propane tank, turn it on, and fire up your favorite foods in an instant. When you're done, you can literally just wipe the thing with a rag and it'll be clean.
For the Pros: Should I Get a PK Grill or a Traeger?
This seems to be a very real yet friendly rivalry. Both of these grills are considered by many to be the best backyard grills/smokers in the world. If you, for some reason, wander into any grilling forum you'll see people tout both as "the best grill I've ever owned." Basically, here's what you're getting with each. The Original PK is made to cook with direct high heat or low and slow. It has the ability to basically become a convection oven with four vents that you can adjust to let air in/out as needed when slow, indirect cooking. Traeger, meanwhile, has an entire series of grills. Their line of wood-fire smokers are considered the gold standard by many -- especially because you can hop on as a total rookie and cook a brisket people will line up for. Let's take it to the judges.
Ryan Mitchell: "Original PK grill for sure. We’re just not pellet guys. The PK is probably one of the most solid grills on the market, damn near commercial grade."
Jonathan Fox: "Traeger’s have become very popular -- for a reason. These pellet smokers are a great 'set it and forget it' smoker that yields a great result. However, the purist in me has to go with the PK grill. The PK can easily turn into an indirect smoker with multiple airflow controls to raise and lower temps. Half the fun is drinking a cold beverage and tending to the smoker, so the PK is for me. “
Elizabeth Karmel (who admitted she is not familiar with the PK): "Traeger. The new Ironwood Pellet Grill heats up quickly, and holds a consistent temperature. It is easy to master and smokes meat like a champ. The supersmoke button is my favorite feature. It lets you add extra smoke as you cook and is key for making real pit-cooked barbecue at home."
Cooking With Charcoal Is Better, Right?
For all intents and purposes, yes. However, if you have a backyard and you want to grill a lot, definitely get yourself a good propane unit. After all, you're still going to get evenly cooked meats and veggies in half the time it takes to light up that charcoal grill. "If you cook outdoors more than indoors, I think you need at least a propane grill for direct and indirect cooking, and a pellet grill for smoking," said Karmel.
Then again, if grilling is just about speed for you, you might be missing the point, as Mitchell pointed out. "[Cooking with] fire and smoke is almost a spiritual eating experience,” he said. “The food is great, but it’s the building of the fire that brings that nostalgia." Fox agrees, "I would pick my charcoal grill over a gas grill any day. With charcoal, you can get a much hotter fire giving a great sear which results in a flavorful crust. I love my gas grill but I started cooking with wood."