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Cuisinart Portable Charcoal Review

A cute, miniature of the classic charcoal grill
Cuisinart Portable Charcoal
Photo: Amazon
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Price:  $30 List | $24.87 at Amazon
Pros:  Inexpensive, lightweight, portable
Cons:  Cheap, poor insulation, wonky
Manufacturer:   Cuisinart
By Aaron Rice ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  May 6, 2020
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42
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#13 of 13
  • Output Power - 25% 3
  • Control - 25% 5
  • Portability - 20% 4
  • Cooking Area - 20% 5
  • Wind Resistance - 10% 4

Our Verdict

Running out the door to your next tailgate, burgers in-hand, but no grill to cook them on? Have no fear, the Cuisinart Portable Charcoal can swoop in to satisfy your grilling needs, even if it's just a one-time occasion. This cheap charcoal grill just looks like it belongs at a backyard party. While its simple design may not wow with any additional features, this 4-pound grill will get the job done when it comes to barbeque basics. It works for occasional use, but for regular action, we recommend other options to satisfy your grilling needs.

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Awards  Editors' Choice Award   Best Buy Award 
Price $24.87 at Amazon$249.00 at Amazon$209.00 at AmazonCheck Price at Amazon
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$129.00 at Amazon
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Pros Inexpensive, lightweight, portableExcellent cooking performance, smaller and lighter than mostSuper non-stick grill surface, easy to clean, snazzy side tables, excellent temperature control, wind resistant, always starts first tryU-shaped burner puts out a ton of heat, evenlySturdy, hot, lightweight
Cons Cheap, poor insulation, wonkyMoody wind performanceHeavy, no lid latch, disposable aluminum grease trap inserts fly away in the wind, can be challenging to attach disposable propane canister at firstRattly construction, large packed formatToo hot for cooking some foods
Bottom Line A cheap, portable, miniature version of their classic charcoal grillOur favorite grill due to the excellent cooking performance in a light packageA high-performing tabletop model that heats up evenly, has solid temperature control, and simple cleanupAt a reasonable price, this grill brings in some more advanced attributesA hot, moderately-priced little grill for long time portable use
Rating Categories Cuisinart Portable Charcoal Napoleon TravelQ 285 Weber Q 1200 Camp Chef Portable BBQ Char-Broil Grill2Go X200
Output Power (25%)
3
8
7
5
5
Control (25%)
5
9
7
7
5
Portability (20%)
4
7
6
7
8
Cooking Area (20%)
5
7
7
7
7
Wind Resistance (10%)
4
7
8
8
8
Specs Cuisinart Portable... Napoleon TravelQ 285 Weber Q 1200 Camp Chef Portable... Char-Broil...
Total BTU N/A 12,000 8,500 12,000 9,500
Weight (pounds) 4 pounds 26 pounds 31 pounds 20 pounds 22 pounds
Cooking surface area (inches) 143 sq in 285 sq in 189 sq in 200 sq in 187 sq in
# of burners N/A 2, u-shaped 1 1, u-shaped 1
Grill material Chrome-plated Porcelainized cast iron Porcelain-Enameled Cast Iron Nickel plated stainless steel Stainless Steel
Packed Size (inches / cu ft) 14.5" x 14.5" x 15" / 1.8 cu ft 24" x 20" x 10" / 2.8 cu ft 15" x 26" x 14" / 3.2 cu ft 22" x 14" x 15" / 2.7 cu ft 23.5" x 15" x 14" / 2.9 cu ft
Piezo Ignitor No Yes Electric Yes Yes

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.

Performance Comparison


Perfectly sized for picnic portions!
Perfectly sized for picnic portions!
Photo: Aaron Rice

Output Power


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.

Once we dialed in the correct amount of coal, this small grill was...
Once we dialed in the correct amount of coal, this small grill was fast to get setup and going. The charcoal chimney shown here was purchased separately.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

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.

The unfortunate consequence of a smothered coal bed... uncooked...
The unfortunate consequence of a smothered coal bed... uncooked chicken.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

In order to get this grill up to temperature, we suggest using more...
In order to get this grill up to temperature, we suggest using more coal and starting it in a larger chimney, like the one pictured standing in back.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Control


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.

Once coals were up to temperature, we had to act fast to sear any...
Once coals were up to temperature, we had to act fast to sear any meat before the high temperatures subsided.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

We grilled ingredients side-by-side, to see how well this grill...
We grilled ingredients side-by-side, to see how well this grill handled cooking a full meal.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

Bringing the temperatures down low to more slowly roast fish and...
Bringing the temperatures down low to more slowly roast fish and potatoes. This grill did a good job with tinfoil-wrapped dishes.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

An added bonus of cooking over an open flame... the ability to roast...
An added bonus of cooking over an open flame... the ability to roast s'mores!
Photo: Aaron Rice

Portability


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.

This is easily one of the lightest grills in our review.
This is easily one of the lightest grills in our review.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

While it is lightweight, the aluminum construction is flimsy...
While it is lightweight, the aluminum construction is flimsy, damaged under the pressure of even the lid clips.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

While it is perfectly sized for tailgate cookouts, carting this...
While it is perfectly sized for tailgate cookouts, carting this grill around was far from our favorite.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Cooking Area


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.

We were actually very impressed by the ample cooking area of this...
We were actually very impressed by the ample cooking area of this grill, able to handle much more than this single serving.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

We played around with heat zones in the charcoal to create the...
We played around with heat zones in the charcoal to create the perfect temperatures to cook a number of very different ingredients.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Wind Resistance


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!

The charcoal grate sits just under 6 inches below the top of the...
The charcoal grate sits just under 6 inches below the top of the grill sides, providing enough of a wind-wall to light our chimney.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

Great airflow during charcoal lighting, but less-than-ideal when it...
Great airflow during charcoal lighting, but less-than-ideal when it comes to actually cooking... especially with the lid on.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Value


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 paint on the underside of the lid melted the very first night we...
The paint on the underside of the lid melted the very first night we cooked over high heat, which was the very first night of testing.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Conclusion


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.

Small in stature, but fun at a party! Bring this little charcoal...
Small in stature, but fun at a party! Bring this little charcoal grill with to mix things up at your next barbeque.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Aaron Rice