If you're ready to replace that old rust bucket, or thinking about finally adding a smoker to your repertoire, don't start in the aisles of your nearby hardware store.
Most of the nice folks working there only know about the limited selection on their showroom floor. As Director of Equipment Reviews for AmazingRibs.com, I've reviewed hundreds of grills and smokers and typically have at least a dozen on my deck at any given time. Here are 10 great models from each category that made our AmazingRibs.com top ten lists for 2015.
1. Weber Original Kettle Premium 22" Charcoal Grill $159
If you want a family sized charcoal grill for less than $200 that can cook anything and will last forever, this is it. When George Stephen, Sr. introduced the Weber Kettle in 1952 he set America's backyards on fire. Today's design is not far from the original and it is by far the most popular backyard grill in the world. In 2015 Weber made a few tweaks to this classic kettle and changed the name from One-Touch Gold 22.5" to Premium 22". They maintain the actual size has not changed and the grate continues to provide 363 square inch cook surface. The large arched lid is big enough to accommodate roasts and turkeys, but disregard the built in heat indicator, it can be waaaay off. Get a good digital thermometer that you can bank on. For searing, Weber Kettles put most backyard gas grills to shame. Add a Smokenator and turn your Weber into a damn good smoker for ribs, pork, brisket and fish.
2. Portable Kitchen Grill (a.k.a. PK Grill) $369
Another basic, elegant model that was introduced in 1952, the same year as the Weber Kettle, is the Portable Kitchen Grill. Ownership changed over the years but design and construction did not. They still have the original, thick cast aluminum body which retains and radiates heat efficiently. PKs never rust and older models often show up at garage sales or get passed along from one generation to the next. The flat bottom, rectangular shape, and unique damper placement of two on the lid and two in corresponding locations under the coal make PK particularly well suited for 2-zone cooking.
PKs never achieved Weber's popularity, but they're still around today and continue to win over fans who love the durability, versatility and shiny retro-cool appearance. They can be lifted out of the cart for cleaning, camping, or tailgating. Made in the U.S.
3. Hasty-Bake Gourmet 256 Dual Finish Charcoal Grill $1,399
The first Hasty-Bakes were built in 1948 and the design remains much the same. No need to fix what ain't broken. The adjustable coal tray moves up and down with a crank on the left side. A large door on the right side gives complete access to the charcoal tray to easily add coal and move it around for 2-zone cooking. There is a removable heat deflector above the coal grate to improve indirect cooking. In addition to the 522 square inches of main cooking surface, it has an upper rack and a glass window to keep an eye on the food inside. Hasty-Bakes are made to last and many families hold onto them for generations. The company even offers restoration on old models. Our president, Meathead, says it is his favorite grill. Period.
4. Broil-Mate 165364 LP Gas Grill $199
A basic low priced gas cooker with a design that was typical of the first gas grills made in the early 1960s: Cast aluminum body and an old style 40,000 BTU Dual-H burner. Cast aluminum holds heat well and the H-burner is actually two U-shaped burners fused together with a separate control knob for each side. Broil-Mate could have saved their money and yours by leaving off the useless hood heat indicator. A good digital thermometer is required to achieve your goal of BBQ domination. You could easily walk past this plain little grill in favor of a big shiny model that was made cheap to sell cheap and carries a one year warranty, but if you're shopping in this price range you would do well to stop and take a look. Broil-Mate's aluminum housing will not rust and comes with a limited lifetime warranty on the cook box, 5 years on burners and stainless steel components, and 2 years on everything else. Broil-Mate is one of five grill brands owned by Canadian BBQ manufacturer and distributer, Onward Manufacturing.
5. Weber Genesis EP-330 3-Burner $999
Genesis is one of the most popular gas grills in America. Known for solid construction, performance and attractive appearance, it's the grill you buy when you grow up. The EP-330 features a sear burner and side burner. While side burners are nothing to get excited about, when it comes to searing steaks you can never have too much sizzle. The sear burner really bumps up the versatility and appeal of this cooker. EP models are only sold by independent hearth and patio dealers so you cannot pick one up at your local hardware store. They are worth seeking out though because, unlike other Genesis grills, EPs come with long lasting stainless steel rod grates and flavorizer bars: a significant upgrade. Put it all together and you have the premier model of Weber's Genesis line. Made in the USA.
6. Saber Edge Grill $1,999
Saber dubs their new Edge Grill "A Smarter Barbecue". It employs a similar infrared burner design present in all Saber Grills, but Edge leaps into the future by offering a real-time interactive grilling experience. A free app that may be used with Android and iOS mobile devices and tablets can display temperature, burner On/Off, fuel level, battery life for the Edge LCD screen; Receive alerts for pre-heat readiness, temp Changes, and cool down; Access a full range of recipes and instructional videos; Store original recipes and share via social media.
An LCD screen on the grill control panel displays grate temperature, fuel level, burner on/off status and battery life. All Saber grills are made of top quality 304 stainless steel. With solid construction and excellent fit and finish, Saber presents fierce competition to other brands in this price range. This eye-catching, technologically advanced, infrared gas grill will surely appeal to the tech/geek in us all.
7. Pit Barrel Cooker $299
We're running out of good things to say about this simple, affordable smoker. There's nothing else like it on the market. $299 delivered to your door in a big box. Open it up and start smoking. No assembly, no baby sitting and great results every time. If you've wanted to get a dedicated smoker or replace a cheapo rust bucket that never worked well anyway, the PBC beats anything in this price range hands down.
It's a variation on the Ugly Drum Smoker or UDS, but the drum is slightly smaller and, although it comes with a grate, for most recipes you hang the meat vertically from hooks - even turkeys! Your jaw will hit the deck as you pull one round of deliciously smoked meats after another from this magic drum with little more effort than trimming and seasoning. Furthermore the meat hanging method provides beaucoup capacity. PBC easily accommodates eight full slabs of ribs. Whether you're a novice or an award winning competitor (and competition teams now use them), Pit Barrel is a welcome addition to any backyard. Made in the U.S.
8. Green Mountain Grills Daniel Boone Pellet Smoker $599
Green Mountain Grills has produced quality, technologically advanced pellet smokers since 2008. Some competitors are trying to catch up by introducing features like an integrated meat probe, which has been standard on Green Mountains for years. Now GMG is making an end run around the competition by dropping prices on all models to make their WiFi technology more affordable. The base price above on GMG's mid-size Daniel Boone already makes it a best buy. You get a lot for the money. But, for a hundred bucks more, WiFi awaits, enabling you to control and monitor your smoker from a smart phone.
9. Karubecue C-60 Pit $1450
Many believe stick burners, smokers that burn wood logs, produce the best smoked meat. But inexpensive stick burners don't work well and even high quality ones, like the Jambo Pits model from our Luxury List shown below, require a commitment and learning curve that can be daunting to the backyard chef. Inventor Bill Karau, competed on the BBQ circuit and toured BBQ joints around his stomping ground in Texas for many years before determining to design a stick burner that produced perfect smoke from start to finish, every time, regardless of skill. Thus the Karubecue was born. At its crux is a patented Inverted Flame Firebox (IFF) which sucks heat and smoke from underneath a wood fire, not the top. Heavy smoke, laden with gases and microscopic particles is pulled through a red hot fire where it burns up, sending clean, light blue smoke and heat into a thermostatically controlled oven.
The results are astonishing. If we could post a scratch and sniff picture of ribs smoked on the Karubecue there would be no need to write any further explanation of why it made our Top Ten List. The above price includes shipping from the factory, aka Karau's garage. Normally we wouldn't review a product that has no distribution, but we had to let you know about this one.
10. Weber Smokey Joe Portable Charcoal Grills $30-35
Even college students and starving artists should resist buying those $9.99 charcoal grills on display at grocery stores and scrounge the extra dough it takes to get a Smokey Joe. Some of those cut rate junkers are nothing more than a large pan with a grate: no lid, no vents and no good for anything but burning hamburgers. While Smokey Joe is nothing less than a mini version of one of the greatest inventions in history: the Weber Kettle.
Often imitated, but never duplicated, Weber Kettles have excellent air and heat control because of tight, precise construction. Furthermore, the high quality enamel coating will preserve this grill for decades.
Weber offers Smokey Joe in Silver and Gold models. The Gold model, shown above, has a convenient "Tuck and Carry Lid Holder" that snaps the lid shut for fast, easy mobility. Both have a 14.5" diameter coated steel rod grate that holds about 7 burgers. Both weigh only 9.5 pounds. And both, despite the names, are black. There is also a larger, Jumbo Joe model for $60. Made in the U.S.
11. Char-Broil Grill2Go X200 $150
This fun little sizzler is made of heavy cast aluminum that retains heat and won't rust. The lid snaps shut with two front locks, holding the stainless steel grate in place so it doesn't flop around while being carried by the handle like a brief case.
The X200 uses Char-Broil's trademark TRU-Infrared design. The grate is a solid steel sheet with a single gas burner underneath. When cranked on High the grate absorbs heat from the burner to produce searing infrared temps. Without an open flame there are no flare-ups, making X200 easy to use and very forgiving for those who become abandoned to the gods of tailgating.
It can also be dialed back for foods like chicken and sausage that require moderate temperature. An added benefit of TRU-Infrared is the low fuel consumption which is a big plus for this portable that runs on a 16.4 ounce propane cylinder.
12. Broil King Keg $899
Kamado style cookers continue to gain popularity in the backyard, but not so much when it comes to tailgating. All kamados, including the Broil King Keg, are great at smoking, roasting, baking and searing thin meats and the thick walls make them impervious to cold, but they're typically made of ceramic which is very heavy and can crack if dropped or knocked over. Not the BKK. It is made with modern, lightweight fiberglass encased in powder coated steel: not light enough to pick up and carry around but easy to lift off the base and pop onto the optional trailer hitch. And if it does get dropped it won't crack like Humpty Dumpty.
Other companies charge extra for just about everything but the logo. Broil King put together a nice package that includes a sturdy stand with big wheels and removable side tables, a multi-function tool for handling the grate and removing ash, and a secondary extender rack that hovers above the primary grate to provide extra cook surface. The side tables have handy tool hooks and there's even a couple bottle openers built into the handle.
13. Engelbrecht Grills and Cookers 1000 Series Braten Grill $2,826
The Braten 1000 has a cooking grate that can be raised or lowered by turning a wheel that is attached to an axle above the grill. The closer the food is to the coals, the faster it cooks. This design is commonly known as a Santa Maria Grill in the USA. But Engelbrecht offers some innovations over the typical Santa Maria. The traditional models are open on top so the heat can be applied only to one side of the food at a time. The Braten has a heavy heat absorbing lid which allows you get high radiant heat from below, reflected heat from above, and convection heat from all around as the air circulates. The lid makes it an oven.
Another innovation is that the Braten comes with a firebox on the side to double as a classic offset smoker for long, low and slow cooks, like you want when cooking pork ribs, beef brisket, or pulled pork. Made in the USA, this heavy duty versatile cooker is expertly welded and built to last: a fine example of American know how and quality. In fact President Obama gave British Prime Minister, David Cameron, one of these beauties made in Obama's home state of Illinois.
14. Jambo Pits J-3 Model $7,500
Your neighbors will be smitten with envy when this stunning professional offset smoker rolls into your drive way. Jambo Pits is the brainchild of award winning pitmaster Jamie Geer. On the competition circuit, Geer is famous for superior design, performance and beautiful fit and finish. With colorful enamel paint jobs, and characteristic streamlined trailers, Jambo’s large custom pits resemble race cars.
Geer’s insightful designs, based on experience from his championship days, have led numerous teams to victory across the country. It takes dedication to make an offset sing, but with a little effort, you’ll be running with the Big Dogs of BBQ.
15. Kalamazoo K-750 Hybrid Fire Grill $20,695
Kalamazoo occupies a rarefied space in the BBQ cosmos. Part Rolls Royce, part tank, with fire power and versatility to spare, Kalamazoo grills are imposing in appearance, performance and price.
In addition to being handmade with impeccable fit and finish, and over-built from head to toe with high quality 304 stainless steel, Kalamazoo is known for superb features like their 25,000 BTU cast brass burners, waterproof cabinets and internal chain-driven rotisseries. But as award winning Chef Rick Bayless observes, the feature that really puts Kalamazoo over the top is their Hybrid Fire Grilling Drawer: A bed of slotted heat tents that slides between the main burners and grates. Empty, the tents radiate and disperse gas heat evenly to the grates. Loaded with charcoal or wood, they provide the best of both worlds with an extended temperature range of 150⁰ to 1,200⁰F. Made in the U.S.
Max Good is the Vice President and Director of Equipment Reviews for AmazingRibs.com.