Barbecuing on a Budget: The Best Charcoal Grills Under $200
he first real day of summer isn’t marked on the calendar or announced by the thermostat. It’s ushered in by the warm fragrance of someone somewhere in the neighborhood lighting the charcoal in a grill.
Charcoal grilling creates flavors you can’t get with any other method of cooking. High heat means delicious searing and the coals give foods a deep, smoky taste that’s a big barbecue must.
So, you’re ready to get the party started and fire up the grill. While a charcoal grill is a fundamentally simple creature, there are dozens of models to choose from.
Differences in materials, layout, and portability make some better suited to specific uses than others.We’ve got all the info you need to pick the best grill for you. Here, you’ll find our top choices for the best charcoal grills under $200. We’ll also cover the basic anatomy of a charcoal grill and give you pointers on what to look for when you’re shopping.
Our roundup includes the Lodge Sportsman Charcoal Grill, the Char-Griller Smokin’ Pro Charcoal Grill, the Weber Jumbo Joe, the Char-Griller Akorn Jr. Kamado Grill, and our very top choice, the classic Weber Original Kettle Premium 22” Grill.
What to Know About Grilling with Charcoal
Barbecue's Favorite Fuel
Charcoal briquettes were invented at the end of the 19th century. These little black lumps are made of compressed charcoal from wood that has been burned down to little more than pure carbon. Charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than wood because water and other volatile compounds have already been removed. By contrast, wood smoke contains organic compounds, steam, and soot particles.
These impurities in wood smoke aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They create the mouth-watering flavor foods take on when smoked. However, when it comes to generating the heat to get the job of cooking done, charcoal is king. It’s especially desirable if you want to grill on high heat to sear steaks or crisp up the crust on a pizza (and you thought we were just here for the burgers!).
When you think of a backyard grill-out, it’s likely you picture the classic round kettle grill with a domed lid standing on a tripod. This design was invented in the 1950s. The original prototype was a metal buoy sliced in half horizontally. A round grill with a lid trapped heat inside, cooking food more evenly and preventing ash and smoke from getting blown all over the place.
The round design is still popular, and in fact, has the pride of first place on our list. They’re easy to light and access, provide a good amount of cooking real estate, and they can be moved around without a ton of effort.
Operating Your Charcoal Grill
In any charcoal grill, lit charcoal lines the bottom of the grill and food gets set on a grate overtop. Some grills have a lid that can be closed to trap heat while others are open on top. Most grills will have two dampers that are used to control the heat inside. Good management of the dampers will allow you to cook food at the rate you want, so it’s important to understand how they work.
The most common two-damper system works with one intake damper at the bottom with the coals and one exhaust damper at the top to let out heat and smoke. This creates a system of airflow funneling up through the grill and providing the lit charcoal with the oxygen it needs to burn hot. Slowing that air current by restricting the flow through one or both of those dampers cools things down. Increasing the airflow makes more oxygen available and heats things up.
The other major step in creating a controlled cooking environment is setting up a “two-zone fire” inside the grill. This basically amounts to hot charcoal heaped to one side. The food directly over the coals is exposed to high, direct heat. The food on the other side is cooked more slowly by indirect heat. Check out more tips for managing the fire in your grill from Serious Eats.
After grilling, the spent ashes will need to be removed from the grill and disposed of safely. The way a grill collects and stores ash will have an impact on how easy they are to clean after use.
Charcoal grills are the easiest kind of grill to take on the go with you because all you need to fire them up is a sack of charcoal, matches or a lighter, and a bit of lighter fluid. No electrical socket or bulky propane tank is required. Small charcoal grills are a great choice to take camping or tailgating, packing all the biggest and best flavors into a package you can set up virtually anywhere.
The Best Charcoal Grills Under $200
At a glance:
- 39.5”H x 22.5″W x 27″D (lid closed)
- 22” cooking space diameter
- 363 square inches of cooking space
- Built-in lid thermometer
This darn thing is a classic for a reason. It looks the part of a backyard barbecue and has the performance to back it up. Weber’s Original Kettle Premium 22” Grill takes this traditional design that’s been popular for generations adds numerous upgrades.
The bowl and lid are both coated with porcelain enamel, making them highly rust-resistant. The glass-reinforced nylon handle on the lid features a heat shield to protect your hands. The lid-mounted temperature gauge makes it easy to know what’s going on inside.
One of the best features of the Premium grill is its One-Touch cleaning system. When grilling is done, this clever design swipes around the bottom of the bowl and gathers the ashes into the removable ash catcher. All you have to do is pull it out and dump it, mess-free.
Weber has many years of experience in the grilling industry, and they really make products that are meant to be used. Their workmanship lasts a lifetime and their grills are loaded with thoughtful little features to put the process right at your fingertips. Fuel is easy to add while you’ve got the grill going. Your tools can hang conveniently off hooks built into the handle on the side of the bowl. It’s got wheels for easy transport. It also has enough space for more than a dozen burgers, so invite everyone.
At a glance:
- 25.3”H 20.5”W x 21.5”D
- 14” cooking space diameter
- 153 square inches of cooking space
- Easy-empty ash pan
The pint-sized, egg-shaped Akorn Jr. packs a big punch when it comes to heat and flavor. Ceramic cookers like this that came to be known as “kamado” grills have been in use in China and Japan for as long as three millennia. That’s quite a lot of history and a testament to the fact that the design really works.
The triple-walled steel and ceramic coating provide excellent heat retention. This grill is designed to handle temperatures from 200 to 700°F, meaning you can really throw down with some high-heat cooking. The Akorn Jr. maintains high temperatures using less charcoal than many grills require. This small appetite for fuel and diminutive size make the Akorn Jr. great for small spaces and portable parties like your local tailgate.
Because it has such good temperature consistency and control, the Akorn Jr. can double as a smoker. Kamado grills are designed to replicate the conditions of large-scale ceramic commercial cookers. While this little grill doesn’t have the space to feed a huge group, it has no trouble delivering on huge flavor.
At a glance:
- 19.7”H x 19.7″W x 20.5″D
- 18” cooking space diameter
- 240 square inches of cooking space
- Lid lock and carry handle
Another Weber placed on our list of budget-friendly charcoal grills. Weber’s great quality shines across their entire product line, and the Jumbo Joe is certainly no exception. This party animal stands barely over a foot and a half high but still delivers 240 square inches of cooking area.
Like the Kettle Premium, the Jumbo Joe features porcelain-enameled construction for rust protection. A removable ash pan underneath the grill keeps cleanup simple. This grill features the same sturdy glass-reinforced nylon handle and heat guard as its big brother. It only weighs 22 pounds and is ready to go with you anywhere. It’s also the least expensive grill on our list. If you’re looking for a second grill or you’re short on space, the Jumbo Joe plays like a big grill in a small space. It’s a really worthwhile addition to your gear.
At a glance:
- 50”H x 62”W x 29”D
- 580 square inches of primary cooking area
- 830 square inches of total cooking area
- 250 square inch firebox
While a lot of charcoal grills can be rigged up to smoke food, the Char-Griller Smokin’ Pro Charcoal Grill comes ready to star in both roles. A side firebox provides outstanding smoke flavor for when you want to go the low-and-slow route with your barbecue.
This grill offers an enormous 830 square inches of total cooking area. Platforms on the side and front provide easy access to tools and accessories. The Smokin’ Pro has a sturdy steel construction and durable powder coat for rust resistance.
While it does have wheels, this 118-pound piece of equipment is better suited to get set up in one place and then left there. It’s a reliable and versatile barbecue tool with more than enough space to take care of big cooking jobs.
At a glance:
- 10.25″ H x 8.25″ D x 19″ W
- 120 square inches of cooking space
- Pre-seasoned cast iron
Lodge is a brand name synonymous with cast iron, and the Sportsman Charcoal Grill is no exception. This squat cast iron hibachi grill is rock solid.
Hibachi grills have no lid, which makes them great for direct-heat grilling. Searing steaks and fish, or cooking up appetizers and kebabs, is fast and easy on this style of grill. If you want to replicate the Korean BBQ style of dining where everyone chooses their own ingredients and grills communally around the table, this is the style of grill to choose.
Lodge’s cast iron version is built to last a lifetime or two. It takes full advantage of cast iron’s heat-retention properties, getting and staying searing hot. This does mean you need to put it on a fireproof surface and make sure it’s not a burn hazard to anybody, especially children.
While its small size makes it easy to store and transport, it does weigh 33 pounds, so you probably don’t want to be stuck carrying it on the way to a walk-in campsite.
Bring on the Grilling Season
While it’s hard to beat the Weber Original Kettle Premium 22” Grill on great value and classic looks, any of the grills on our list will see you right. There’s a large spectrum of features available so you can choose the grill that suits your needs. At this budget, you can even go for a portable grill in addition to the one that stays home in the yard. May the summer sizzle!