It's fair to say barbecue weather can't come soon enough; we've been teased with surprise sun for weeks and many of us are counting down the days until we can cook up a storm in the garden again.
While many of us are turning to gas options, traditional charcoal grills are still popular, offering a rustic, primitive charm and smoky flavour and smell that gas cannot easily match.
Charcoal BBQs are often cheaper than gas, although they take longer to light up and, unless you're an experienced BBQ cook, it can be tough to get to a consistent temperature.
How does a charcoal BBQ work?
Charcoal barbecues are as traditional as it gets, and the basic concept has remained untouched for hundreds of years. All you need, really, is a pit for the burning coals and a grill for the food.
Some will be more high-tech: lids or tiered grills for temperature control; heat deflectors; slow cooking or smoking functions, etc.
Lighting a charcoal BBQ is never as easy as gas, but that's part of the fun, right? Good-quality charcoal will provide better flavour and burn for longer at a higher temperature - ideally, they won't leave specks of charcoal on your food either.
Is charcoal environmentally friendly?
According to Greener Ideal, charcoal is less eco-friendly than gas or electric, as carbon monoxide and soot is released as it burns.
There are, however, some measures you can take to lessen the effect. Instead of briquettes, opt for a natural option like lump coal, which releases lass gas and soot. Flavour-wise, there's little difference.
You could also opt for a dome grill, which captures the heat better, so less fuel is burned.
Does charcoal taste better?
It's a matter of personal preference. Charcoal imparts a more smoky flavour on the food being grilled, which many will enjoy.
Don't use lighter fluid, which can give an artificial flavour to the food.
Which charcoal barbecue should I buy?
We put the best charcoal BBQs through their paces to help find the right model for you.
All barbecues were tested by Xanthe Clay
1. Halo Cooltouch
Best for: families and Jaguar lovers – the parts for both are cut on the same machines
British-designed and built, the Halo is made with marine-grade stainless steel that won’t rust and has an impressive level of engineering. Double-wall insulation means the outside doesn’t get hot and also makes it more fuel efficient. Not as deep as some other kettle barbecues so you’ll need to bone out large joints if you want to put the lid on, but the heavy grids are dishwasher proof.
These Kamado ovens – a Japanese-style ceramic oven with excellent heat retention – were last year’s sensation. I tried out the second smallest version, the MiniMax, and was impressed. It lights easily and comes to temperature quickly, but all cooking is done with the lid down so there’s not much posing with tongs to be done. Meat I cooked in there came out juicy and with a nice touch of smoke even without adding chips. Simple to use, it’s not hard to get impressive results – no wonder the chefs love it.
3. Kamado Joe Junior Grill
Best for: foodies with an eye for value
Another Kamado oven, Kamado Joes are almost identical to Big Green Eggs. The Joe Junior is slightly larger than the BGE MiniMax – it is said to be portable but at over 30kg, not by me. It worked just as well as the BGE, but the price tag is much lower, plus it comes with the ceramic heat deflector (great for slow cooking) that is extra with the BGE. Larger models also have a split grill option, meaning you can cook both directly and indirectly at the same time, which is one up on the BGE.
Webers are the original kettle barbecue and they remain great workhorses. They’re weatherproof too – I’ve got one that’s been outside uncovered for four years and it’s got just a touch of rust around the vent. This larger model has a built-in thermometer (really useful for lid-down barbecuing) and a clever system for clearing out the ash. There’s a myriad of accessories available including a pizza oven.
5. Drumbecue original charcoal BBQ drum tower smoker
Best for: experienced barbecuers
The year’s coolest barbecue, this boy is big. One of these in your garden says: I have lots of friends and I know how to party. And the fact that it is made from a cut-open oil drum just adds to the macho appeal – this is the barbecue used by all the chefs at Meatopia, London’s annual meat fest. It’s not without its flaws – load the clever-looking fuel drawer with the suggested 3kg of charcoal and the whole apparatus tips over. That said, once it’s going it is a joy to cook on with heaps of space to create different cooking areas.
A cute little pot-bellied stove from Australia, this functions as a green patio heater and a small barbecue grill. It’s got a mesh to protect from sparks (bush fires being a major risk down under) and a pipe so you can vent the smoke away from the party. There’s no lid-down option but it’s pretty easy to pack away if you want to take it on the road or to a festival.
7. Landmann tripod charcoal barbecue
Best for: beach barbecues and old-fashioned camping
More of a portable campfire than a traditional barbecue this still works just fine and is great for sitting around in the evening – just add a guitar. The grill can be raised and lowered to vary the heat intensity, and while the tripod is not rock solid it’s sturdy enough and easy to pack away. The grill does swing though, and the fire is low, so this isn’t one for parents of small children.