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What to look for when buying a charcoal barbecue

For most people, the thought of a barbecue involves a white hot, charcoal fuelled beast, pumping out plumes of smoke to provide that delicious flavour we all know and love. Whilst much more simple to choose than a gas barbecue, there are still a number of options – some more interesting ones which you may have never even considered in fact – that need to be weighed up to unite master with the correct grill. 

 

Size and portability

Unlike gas where you need to also think about matching overall size with the number of burners, with charcoal the bigger the area, the more charcoal you throw in. For a portable barbecue which you are planning to take to the beach or park, you needn’t worry about anything but price. However, if you are planning on entertaining more guests, then you’ll start needing bigger grilling areas and quality. In addition, don’t forget that the beauty of charcoal means you can always use your bigger barbecue to do small cookouts; just add less charcoal and keep everything tightly packed in the centre instead.

 

Build and temperature control

If portability isn’t an issue, don’t attempt to save money with a cheap build. The last thing you want is it blowing over, or the handles of the grill falling off and dropping your meat or burning yourself. If you go for posh models you can have the look of the slinky gas barbecues but put charcoal in instead. Don’t bother - the best part about charcoal barbecues is simplicity. After all, charcoal barbecuing is basically a process of chucking a large bag of coals into a metal container and hovering a grill above it. Go for a solid, sturdy grill with good handles which sits firmly in place on the barbecue. Many grills come in the form of chrome-plated metal, but even better ones will be solid stainless steel or enamel-coated. Enamel coated surfaces are much more common on charcoal barbecues then with gas, which allow easy cleaning, heat retention and weather protection, but are prone to chipping. Complete the package with welded or strong-bolted legs to keep it firmly in place.
So what type to go for? The main way to control the temperature in charcoal cooking is to raise or lower the height of the grill, so think about having a range of levels, as well as extra grills to maintain different heights at all times (allowing you to cook more fragile foods simultaneously). Temperature can also be controlled with lids and air vents, so if you fancy roasting as well as grilling go for an enclosed style such as a kettle drum. A temperature monitor can be bought separately if you don’t get one with your enclosed system. Little touches also help on more commercial models such as one touch coal waste removal slots and hinged grills you can fit it in the dishwasher.

 

Simple models: Braziers

A good starting point for occasional barbecuing needs is a mid-size Brazier model. Probably the most familiar to all of us, Brazier simply means a charcoal tray with no vents or lid, where temperature is controlled solely by the height of the grill. These are available as hemispherical pans, drums or as long rectangular trays such as “trolley” models, complete with wheels and often table areas at the side to put various bits and pieces. They range in size from medium to huge and are reasonably priced, but don’t expect them to last forever or be made of the best stuff.
Price: <£50

 

Kettle barbecues

The lidded, vented and more flexible abilities of the kettle style are a recommended purchase, and still do not carry a hefty price tag. You should expect build quality to be better, so if bought in a shop test the lid – it should be heavy and well hinged. Look for coated or stainless steel vents which will resist rust, and consider the grill, as often the handles are so small you will have trouble picking up the grill with oven gloves on. The beauty of kettle models is in the versatility; open the lid and grill as normal, but close it and you suddenly gain the ability to roast. In addition, with the lid closed you can allow that beautiful smoky flavour to permeate more into the food, and flare ups from the drippings are no longer a problem in the enclosed environment. Posh models have temperature probes, but to be honest you can stick a simple chef’s thermometer in there and save yourself some dosh. Charcoal dividers are a nice touch, allowing you to place the coals on one side and cook the meat at the far end to roast more gently with the lid on. 
Price: £50+

 

Something different: Slow cookers

If you are used to flash burning (ahem, “cooking”) your typical range of sausages and burgers then you might have never thought of slow cooking. The best part of using a charcoal barbecue is that flavoursome smoke, so why give your meats such little time in to soak it up? Slow cooking models are more gentle version of the kettle style, using controllable air vents to determine how hot the charcoal becomes. Crucially, the slow cooked, smoky tenderness is achieved a water pan at the bottom - keeping meats, vegetables and fish moist. Big enough to cook a whole roast in, you’ll certainly be wowing your guests with something a little different. 
Price: ~£200+