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How to Choose a Portable Grill

We've tested enough grills over the years to have a lot of advice to s...
Photo: Valentine Cullen
Thursday April 18, 2019
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Portable grills provide a rewarding cooking and dining experience in the outdoors. While camping stoves can make cooking feel more like a chore, travel BBQs can turn any gathering into a cookout, whether at a campsite, state park, on the beach, or tailgating. All in all, they are a simple solution for cooking an excellent meal away from home. This article helps you focus on the performance and features you need from your next portable grill.

Types


There are two main types of portable grills: portable propane gas, like the Napoleon TravelQ 285, and portable charcoal models, like the Weber Go-Anywhere. There are sub-genres — "infrared" gas-options, like the Solaire Everywhere — and exceptions to the two major grilling methods — mainly electric models. But the majority of portable grills fall under these two types, so let's examine the pros and cons of each:

Gas


The most commonly used grills are run on gas — most commonly propane — and there are many reasons why. Not only are they convenient, but they're also effective.

Pros
  • Propane is easily accessible and cheaper than charcoal
  • Easy and convenient to light
  • With the right controller, grilling temperature is easy to manage

Cons
  • Gas grills tend to be more expensive, and more complicated to fix
  • Cooking over gas doesn't always afford the same flavor
  • Most propane grills aren't capable of reaching the same heat as charcoal

Charcoal


Ah, the simple yet refined art of cooking over an open flame. Many of the world's top chefs swear by pit-cooking to achieve the best possible flavor out of a cut of meat.

Pros
  • Charcoal grills are simple, more portable and less expensive than gas-powered competitors
  • Manipulating the coal bed allows for maximum control over heat zones
  • The flavor of pit-cooking is inimitable

Cons
  • Charcoal is messy, and can be expensive when compared to propane canisters
  • You'll need to additionally purchase a charcoal chimney to light the grill
  • Charcoal grills tend to give off lots of smoke, and may actually be banned in some places, like apartment complexes.

During our charcoal grill testing, we used a charcoal chimney starter. These tools make getting coals started much easier. We think the small investment is worthwhile for the time and effort it saves.

Portability


The first thing to consider when shopping for a portable grill is… its portability! How much weight are you willing to carry, push, and pull around to get to your next picnic or barbeque? How easily does this grill pack-down, and store in the trunk or truck bed? We consider a grill portable if it weighs less than about 50 pounds, is relatively easy to carry (i.e., one person can carry it up and down stairs), or offers features that allow it to be easily transported. We also consider its packed-size, ease of break-down, and if it has latches to secure the lid — this feature is particularly important for charcoal grills.

The Gonzo Grill is a little awkward to carry. It definitely carries...
The Gonzo Grill is a little awkward to carry. It definitely carries best with two hands, but can be tucked under your arm.
Photo: Jediah Porter

The last thing you want to do is to leave your grill behind on adventures because it is too cumbersome or heavy for you to carry or transport. We tested a pretty significant weight range for grills — from 4 up through about 40 pounds — so know what factors into making them portable. Know your carrying capacity, and limit your purchase to something that will be easy for you to maneuver. There are a few types of portable grills: tabletop (some that also offer stands), and cart styles that have two wheels. Tabletop products can be lightweight or heavy, and the cart style products typically run from 40 to 60 lbs.

A little field trip as an excuse for some tailgate-grilling. Small...
A little field trip as an excuse for some tailgate-grilling. Small models are perfect for a truck tailgate, while other slightly larger may need the extra space afforded by a folding table or stand.
Photo: Aaron Rice

One chooses a portable grill for one of two major reasons — or, of course, both applications could matter to you. First, people want a portable grill for picnicking, tailgating, and camping. For these uses, size and weight are the primary considerations. Smaller and lighter is better, all else equal. Another common application is for use in more confined living spaces. In short, tabletop models are best for picnicking and camping while stand-alone, roll-away kinds are better for routine home use.

Grilling over charcoal is great, but starting these coals --...
Grilling over charcoal is great, but starting these coals -- especially in a chimney -- can be very smokey.
Photo: Aaron Rice

If your neighborhood or building doesn't allow, for one reason or another, outside storage of your grill, having a portable model for home use is your best solution. Additionally, an apartment complex may have rules or regulations against charcoal grills on balconies due to how smokey they can be to light up.

Grilling Surface Area


Your next consideration, after the importance of the different types of portability, is how much space you need on your grill surface. Do you cook for large groups? Or is it just a couple of you? Do you mainly grill your meat course, or do you also grill vegetables to accompany the main course? Our testing has allowed us to generate some guidelines.

Two steaks, vegetables, and plenty of room to spare!
Two steaks, vegetables, and plenty of room to spare!
Photo: Aaron Rice

The portable grills we tested range from around 120 to 350 square inches of cooking area. While a smaller cooktop can typically handle around four hamburgers at a time with an inch or so between each patty and two inches around the perimeter, the extra 100-200 square inches means doubling the number of persons you can cook for at one time. Two people can cook all they'd need for a hearty meal on 100-150 square inches. A group of up to four can fit their meat course, carefully, on these same grills. A group of four needs at least 250 square inches to cook veggies and meat together. A group of six or more will likely need to cook in shifts, keep the vegetables off the grill, or choose a non-portable grill type.

A fun, versatile option as an outdoor grill that can easily convert...
A fun, versatile option as an outdoor grill that can easily convert to a hibachi-style hot plate for large, group meals.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Cooking Performance


Consider your diet, menus, and cooking style. For simple burgers-and-dogs, any old grill will suffice. For more sophisticated grilling — not to even mention advanced techniques like smoking — you will want more sophisticated performance. We break down the cooking performance assessment process into a few different things. Consider maximum output, temperature control, and wind resistance.

BTU Output


While BTU output begins the discussion on how much power and heat a grill puts out, it isn't the entire story. BTUs (British thermal units) are a measurement of the amount of energy needed to heat a pound of water by a single degree Fahrenheit. There are other factors, though, that also factor into the power output of a grill, like the size and materials of the grilling surface, as well as the overall design.

Gas grills, even small ones like the Cuisinart Grillster, are...
Gas grills, even small ones like the Cuisinart Grillster, are capable of producing big temperatures thanks to incredibly efficient designs that position your food right next to the heat source.
Photo: Aaron Rice

BTU is a standard measurement of heat output, but only for a consistent heat source like a gas burner. As a result, it's simply not possible to measure the heat output of a charcoal grill in the same way. Charcoal has the capability of producing temperatures in excess of 700℉, but that all depends on how much coal fits underneath the grilling surface, and how well the chef is able to stoke them for maximum output.

We purchased this infrared thermometer to test the internal...
We purchased this infrared thermometer to test the internal temperature of charcoal grills, but found it to be super useful in finding the sweet-spot on gas grills as well.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Consider what you like to cook before being swayed by high BTU outputs. For simple meals like brats, burgers, and veggie kabobs, you likely don't need a ton of BTUs. Depending on the product design, you might even save fuel by opting for fewer BTUs. For example, the Cuisinart Petite Gourmet has the lowest BTU output we tested, but it is very light, convenient, and grills foods evenly. Conversely, the Solaire Everywhere infrared grill has amazing maximum power output but lacks close control for low-and-slow grilling.

Is there anything better (and simpler) than good beef cooked fast...
Is there anything better (and simpler) than good beef cooked fast and hot? The Solaire Infrared grill specializes in this move. Here, some head-sized ribeyes. Grill testing is rough.
Photo: Rosie De Lise

Burner Control


Burner Control is one of the most important of all the metrics tested. Inadequate burner control or ability to manage temperature zones on the grilling surface can be inefficient and frustrating. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to predict what kind of burner control a grill will have without using it. You can go online and research whether or not the product you are contemplating purchasing runs hot or cool (most reviews will state whether it grills hot and evenly or not) but keep your eye out for a couple of crucial factors.

The dual burners are controlled by matching knobs, with lighting and...
The dual burners are controlled by matching knobs, with lighting and settings clearly marked and intuitive.
Photo: Jediah Porter

The first for gas models is whether the grill contains more than one burner — products with multiple burners are definitely easier to control. If you only need to heat up one side for a small amount of food to cook, you can, making it both more versatile and gas-efficient. Also, you can have one side set to be hotter or cooler than the other for cooking different kinds of things, which is nice for cooking many ingredients at once. Another thing to look for are covers that fit over the burners — this prevents grease from dripping directly onto the flames, which is a common cause for flare-ups and uneven cooking temperatures.

Piling coals directs heat to where you need it, which is...
Piling coals directs heat to where you need it, which is particularly useful when your meal requires different heats for specific ingredients: notice how we were able to move coals on the Weber Go-Anywhere to increase heat over just the middle 1/3 to finish this baked potato.
Photo: Aaron Rice

While charcoal models obviously won't feature the same adjustment knobs as gas grills, many find it easier to control heat zones by manipulating the spacing and piling of a coal bed. Make note of the surface area and total volume of the coal pit. These both contribute to both the overall size — and therefore heat output — of your coal bed, and also your ability to manage the coals without burning yourself. We also really appreciate grates that are easy to remove to access coals during cooking, but that securely lay back in place so that we can easily move food around to particular heat zones.

"One of the most important things to building a fire is you want to have different heat zones. Just like when you have a stove and you can turn it up or down, you want to give yourself those options over the grill, too."

Wind Resistance


Wind resistance is an important factor when choosing a product. Look for burner covers, or burners that are not very exposed for optimal wind resistance — often an insulating construction plays a big role in wind resistance. Note additional features like tops that double as wind-walls, or ventilation ports that also serve to protect against gusts. Creative ventilation adjustments, plus a well-designed lid can often be your best defense against a windy day. Consult online reviews — ours and others — for a consensus on the wind resistance to help narrow your selection.

A simple and thoughtful touch! These well-designed hangers pull...
A simple and thoughtful touch! These well-designed hangers pull double duty, holding the grill top and effectively blocking the wind.
Photo: Aaron Rice

We wish that we could provide more guidance on what makes for a wind-resistant grill. But except for the fact that more power equals more wind resistance, there is no clear pattern that has been revealed to us through years of testing.

With the exception of super-powerful burners, electric grill-tops...
With the exception of super-powerful burners, electric grill-tops may be the best solution to grilling out in the wind. This is what cooking looks like on a gusty, spring day: easy!
Photo: Aaron Rice

Added Features


A thermometer is the best additional feature you can opt for. It is very convenient to know what temperature the grill is, especially for searing. But buyer-beware, these thermometers are not always accurate from model-to-model — it is best to arm yourself with a quality meat thermometer, or go the distance and invest in an infrared thermometer to elevate to pro-status. A hanging warming rack is a nice added feature, as well as side tables and hooks in the front for hanging your grilling tools.

You would think that this would be a requisite for a portable grill...
You would think that this would be a requisite for a portable grill, but make sure to check before you buy, as not all include a quality latch!
Photo: Aaron Rice

Most portable grills have a backup burner lighting chain system in case the automatic ignite starting mechanism were to go out. The idea is that if you go on a long camping excursion and the ignition starter were to go out, and you can't get to a hardware store, you can place a match or stick or piece of paper into the empty coiled end to place an increased amount of distance between your fingers and the burner when lighting.

The backup chain lighting system of the Cuisinart Petit Gourmet. It...
The backup chain lighting system of the Cuisinart Petit Gourmet. It clips in securely in the back.
Photo: Valentine Cullen

There are also some innovative products available on the market today. Check out the infrared only Solaire Everywhere and models with interchangeable cooking surfaces like the Eureka Gonzo Grill.

Conclusion


It can be difficult sorting through options to select the best portable grill for your purposes. We hope that our step-by-step selection process and comparative reviews will help guide you. Remember, first sort out how and where you will predominantly use your grill, and then use our guide to connect you with the best tool for your job.

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