Cuisinart Portable Charcoal Review
Cons: Cheap, poor insulation, wonky
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Our Analysis and Test Results
A smaller, on-the-go version of Cuisinart's classic charcoal grill, the Portable Charcoal Grill offers an inexpensive option for tailgates and picnic barbeques. Although it offers solid grilling capability for the price, this portable grill is poorly constructed. The lightweight, aluminum construction is flimsy, the paint bubbles at high heat, and the grill is wonky from the first assembly.
As a charcoal grill, the output power of the Cuisinart Portable cannot be measured like others in terms of BTU's. But regardless, we wouldn't claim that this is a powerful grill. Although the 14" diameter of the grill pan affords a good amount of space to build a solid coal bed, other factors contribute to the generally poor performance of this relatively small grill.
The first major flaw with this compact, charcoal grill was getting a solid bed of coals to stay lit in the first place. While a tall chimney came close to the right amount of lump coal, it often took two lightings to get a bed burning at the right temperature. If we did not succeed in building a proper coal bed the first time, it was often smothered out by the grill lid.
The other major contributing factor is the lightweight aluminum construction. While this means that it heats up quickly, it also means that the grill loses heat quickly. We noticed this immediately — on our first night of testing, we were able to touch the bottom of the grill only 15 minutes after removing our food. During our peak-power test, this little grill ripped up to an impressive 454℉ right after adding the coals. But after five minutes, the grill surface had decreased to 250℉ — before ten minutes, the coals were completely out.
This happened again on a night when we were grilling pulled chicken — a good test meal that necessitates slow-and-low cooking, and is only possible on a grill with solid heat retention. Due to poor airflow between the top and bottom vents, the bed of coals went out completely before we were even able to achieve the proper internal cooking temperature.
After we were able to get the finicky Cuisinart Portable under our control, we were actually quite impressed with the cooking control of this little grill. We were able to build a solid bed of coals that maintained a nice, even temperature to cook a wide array of food — from steak, to sausages, to fish and baked potatoes. The lack of heat retention means that any searing needs to happen right away, but besides that, this grill does a decent job when it comes to low, extended cook times.
While the cooking area may boast a 14" diameter, the coal surface is nearly half that, making it a little more difficult to create different heat zones to simultaneously cook meat and vegetables at different temperatures.
The Cuisinart Portable does not have an external thermometer, so we recommend keeping a close watch on your temperatures. With the top off, it is necessary to manipulate coals in order to keep a consistently high temperature for meat. But generally, low burn temperatures made it perfect for blistering peppers and charring onions.
We found this process of manipulating coals to be a bit of an annoyance; not for the process itself — that's part of the art and allure of cooking over charcoal — but due to the tiny indentations that hold both grates in place. The bottom grate that holds the charcoal would easily shift out of place when we went to turn the coals, and the top grate was consistently difficult to seat correctly.
On one hand, this little grill is super portable. The Cuisinart Portable is by far the lightest weight grill in our review; it also has a tiny footprint, making it a great option for the packed table at a potluck or family picnic. The lid is effectively held in place with three latches — locking in coals, ash, and all — and can easily be carried by its top handle and transported without disassembly. Unfortunately, that's where the accolades end.
While this small, portable grill does not require disassembly, that also means that it must continue to stand up during transport. Unfortunately, this grill is top-heavy, and incredibly unstable on a car ride — not only that, but from the initial assembly, this grill was wonky. The legs are uneven, so it does not stand level, even on a table.
Fortunately, we didn't experience a tip-over that would likely have spilled all of the grill's ash and coals all over the trunk of our car. But it is easy to imagine, so we suggest either responsibly dumping the cooled coals before taking off, or seriously securing this grill prior to the car ride home.
For its size, the Cuisinart Portable boasts an impressive 14" diameter — that translates to just over one square-foot of grilling space. While this may not sound like a lot, we found that it was ample to cook both steak, peppers, and onions on fajita night.
The grill surface is a standard, chrome-plated grate, that was relatively easy to scrub clean after each meal. The dome-shaped lid is big enough to accommodate covered grilling of larger portions, but with the relatively weak output power, we wouldn't suggest loading this grill up.
This simple grill doesn't sport any particular features to help you cook through adverse weather, but we found that it performed pretty well when it came to wind resistance. Although it is not deep, the grate is inset enough to protect the bottom of a chimney from scattering flaming debris when starting the coals on a windy day. The lid latches do a really good job of keeping it attached to the grill, but be careful where you set it down when you take it off… the wind might just pick it up and carry the lightweight aluminum lid away!
To put a positive spin on a design flaw, the airflow of this grill was actually improved when the wind picked up. We had difficulty, time-and-again, with the Cuisinart Portable smothering coals due to the lack of well-designed ventilation. But on windy days, we noticed that air was pushed up through the bottom vents, effectively stoking the coals and increasing the time we were able to keep this grill hot. As we mentioned above, heat retention is not this grill's forté, so don't expect that to improve when grilling out in the wind.
No two-ways about it, this grill is cheap — the materials, the construction, the performance — and it is all in-line with the sticker price of the Cuisinart Portable. We joked with friends that this grill may have the biggest appeal for the college crowd — something that could be thought of as a 'single-use' portable grill — perfect for that next tailgate or backyard party, but not the environmentally-friendly choice. For the price, we didn't expect any extras out of this simple, classically-styled grill. However, we did hope for a little more durability to get us through at least one summer season.
The Cuisinart Portable Charcoal Grill is an easy, cost-effective solution to charcoal grilling. Try it out for yourself without worrying about any sort of investment.
— Aaron Rice