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Should I buy a charcoal barbecue?

By Victoria Pearson

Explore the pros and cons of cooking with different types of charcoal barbecue

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Charcoal is the traditional fuel used for barbecuing. It gives you an authentic smoky flavour and appearance because sizzling fat and juices drip on to white-hot charcoal and vapourise into smoke, which flavours your food.

Types of charcoal barbecue

There are three main types of charcoal barbecue.

Freestanding charcoal barbecues

These are grill-only barbecues and consist of a stand, grill and basin to hold the charcoal. You’ll find square and circular models, as well as some that are distinctively half-barrel in shape.

You can buy a basic freestanding barbecue for around £10-£20 at most DIY stores, supermarkets and high street retailers. More expensive models, costing £50 and over, will usually have additional features such as a storage shelf, wheels to help you move it, and a grill that can be adjusted towards or away from the heat to help you alter the heat levels while you’re cooking.

Most of the cheap and medium-priced freestanding barbecue grills you’ll find on the high street and in DIY stores will be own-label brands. 

Half barrel or oil-drum barbecues

Freestanding half barrel or oil-drum barbecues are large, distinctively shaped barbecues with a huge amount of grill space. They’re ideal if you need to cater for large numbers.

Prices for half barrel or oil-drum charcoal barbecues typically range from £50-£100. Brands tend to be own-label, including the likes of Argos, B&Q, Homebase and Tesco, although popular barbecue brand Landmann has one in its range.

Kettle barbecues

Kettle barbecues have circular bodies and distinctive hoods. These hoods fit tightly over the grill, heating the air trapped inside and raising the temperature, just like an oven.

You can use the kettle hood to bake or roast meat, fish and vegetables. Pick one with a thermometer in the hood if you want to be able to monitor the temperature for more accurate roasting.

The best charcoal kettle barbecues will have air vents at the bottom and on the hood. Cold air is drawn in, which keeps the coals burning, and excess hot air is released through the hood vents. You should keep vents open when you’re lighting the barbecue, but make sure coals are shielded from high winds.

In our guide to barbecue features you'll find more information on the accessories that might come with a charcoal kettle barbecue.

Kettle barbecue brands and prices

There are plenty of cheap own-label kettle barbecues in Argos, B&Q and Homebase, as well models from popular brands such as Landmann and Weber.

You can buy a charcoal kettle barbecue for as little as £20, although you'll probably find the grill small and the basin too shallow to hold much charcoal. You may also find that the hood doesn’t fit tightly because it's too flimsy, and cheaper kettle barbecues are unlikely to have vents in the hood to help you control the cooking temperature.

Prices for one with vents start at around £30-£50 for an own-label model, but expect to pay a lot more for a branded, well-built model with high-spec materials and a solid construction. 

The archetypal Weber charcoal kettle barbecue will set you back over £100, but you'll get a lot of top-spec features.

Why not visit our reviews to compare results for Weber barbecues, Outback barbecues and Landmann barbecues.

Buying fuel for charcoal barbecues

You can buy charcoal – either lump charcoal or briquettes – from most DIY stores, hardware shops and petrol stations. During the summer months you’ll also find it in supermarkets.

Charcoal barbecues can be tricky to get lit. There's a tendency to sell charcoal and briquettes in large bags with a number of smaller single-serving bags inside. Setting fire to these smaller bags is often all you need to do to get the charcoal burning, and they are cleaner to use because your hands don't touch the charcoal. The disadvantage is that one bag might not be enough fuel for the amount of food you might want to cook.

Lumpwood charcoal 

This is a natural charcoal with no additives. Lumpwood lights quickly, burns hot and clean, and produces less ash than other types. Expect to pay £5-£8 for a 5kg bag of standard charcoal – enough for two medium-sized barbecues. 

Instant-light charcoal includes a combustion accelerator in the bag - you just set fire to the bag and you are ready to go. But it can cost more than twice the price of standard charcoal.

Pros: Lighter to carry than charcoal briquettes, easy to light and burns quickly, so you're ready to cook sooner than if you're using briquettes.

Cons: Does not burn for long enough to cook large amounts of food or thick joints of meat all the way through.

Briquettes

These are compressed lumps of coal dust and other combustable material such as charcoal and peat. They are denser and heavier than charcoal.

Pros: Burns hotter and longer than lumpwood, so ideal for use on larger barbecues, or for smoking and roasting food.

Cons: Heavy to carry in large amounts, takes longer than charcoal to reach white-hot cooking temperature.

Visit our barbecues review to compare the charcoal barbecues that Which? has tested.

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