clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Grills and Smokers That True Pitmasters Love

Time to upgrade your summer barbecue situation to pro levels

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

A rack of lamb hits a Big Green Egg grill
MCT via Getty Images

If there’s one thing you can count on every summer, it’s countless “grilling season!” articles, all promising to turn your backyard barbecue into a Francis Mallmann-level feast. But for all the lawn furniture recs and recipe advice, the most important part of the outdoor dining fantasy is the grill itself — so how do you know which is the right choice?

Different grills serve different purposes: Propane-powered gas grills are popular with home cooks for their ease of use and minimal cleanup, but are generally pooh-poohed by professionals, who turn to charcoal instead. Charcoal takes more time and skill to get going, but burns at a higher temperature than gas, which forms a better sear on the exterior of the meat without overcooking the interior. (Plus, charcoal satisfies that whole primal-urges-to-cook-with-fire thing.)

That said, there’s a world of nuance within charcoal grills, from classic kettle grills (i.e. Webers), to thick-walled ceramic grills (i.e. the Big Green Egg) to smokers designed for low and slow cooking (think competition-level barbecue rigs). And then there’s how you use them: Grilling involves high, direct heat coming from the bottom and is best suited to smaller cuts (i.e. steaks, burgers, hotdogs), while barbecuing involves a closed top and applies slow, indirect-heat technique aided by wood smoke, ideal for large, tough cuts like brisket or ribs.

Below, a few seasoned chefs and pitmasters share their picks for the best grills and smokers on the market.

The new kid on the block

Chefs are waxing poetic about the Kudu, a newfangled contraption inspired by the design of South African grills. Chef Katie Button of Curate in Asheville praises it for its flexibility. “It’s basically a charcoal powered mobile range top, and I love it for anything where you want the heat coming from only underneath,” she says.

The Kudu has an open base for the coals and a variety of attachments, including a grilling grate, a cast-iron skillet, and a rotisserie that each connect and swing over the coals at adjustable heights. Apart from standard-issue grilling, “I’ve made eggs, pancakes, and even paella to great success with the Kudu,” Button says. The cherry on top is its quick assembly and disassembly, making the Kudu ideal for camping trips.

The Big Green Egg (left); the Kudu (right)

The classic grills

A popular option for home cooks and pro chefs alike is the instantly-recognizable Big Green Egg. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the Swiss Army knife of the charcoal cooking world. It does so much, so well, and is very versatile,” says BBQ Hall of Famer Adam Perry Lang, who praises it for slow and low cooking, as well as high-temperature grilling. “It holds its heat really well in all kinds of weather conditions, and if you take your time in understanding and setting the dampers correctly, it can hold a perfect 275 degrees for well into 10 hours... which means you can get some rest for those overnight cooks if you’re a weekend BBQ warrior,” he says.

In addition to smoking and grilling, the Big Green Egg can also function as an oven for roasting and, with the addition of a baking stone, pizza-making. That said, some models can be pretty pricey and you can’t buy them online; instead, check out the company’s website to find “authorized dealers.”

Let’s say you don’t want a giant ceramic egg hanging out on your porch. Consider instead a Santa Maria-style grill, which has a charcoal bed and a cooking surface that can be raised or lowered with the crank of a flywheel — a style some might recognize from Grillworks grills. “Because the grill surface isn’t fixed, you can regulate the heat to cook different things at different times, and move your items to warmer or cooler parts of the grill as needed,” says Michael Cimarusti of Providence in LA. He recommends a Sunterra model, with optional electric rotisserie attachment that’s ideal for roasting whole birds, porchetta, and hunks of beef.

Or you can kick it old-school, per BBQ royalty: “I’ve grilled on just about everything, and I can confidently say that if you’re a home cook buying a grill, the king has always been and always will be a 22-inch Weber grill,” says veteran pitmaster Pat Martin of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in Tennessee and South Carolina. “You can barbecue on it,” says Martin, versus just grilling. “You have to tend to it a little more because the metal is thin, but as far as grilling goes, they can’t be beat. They’re affordable and durable for backyard use. What more do you need?” With its ease of use, variety of sizes, and undeniable visual appeal, the Weber is a classic for a reason.

Sunterra Santa Maria 30-Inch Cart Grill (left); Weber Original Kettle Charcoal 22-Inch Grill (right)
Sunterra Santa Maria 30-Inch Cart Grill (left); Weber Original Kettle Charcoal 22-Inch Grill (right)

The smokers

For fall-apart tender briskets and ribs at scale, a smoker is the way to go. An offset smoker is one of the simplest setups out there, involving a large barrel with a firebox (a smaller barrel fueled by wood or charcoal) attached to the side that fills the larger chamber with smoke. Cooking this way, with indirect heat, allows for slow and even cooking, reducing the likelihood of meat drying out.

“I like a horizontal offset smoker with a long firebox and a decently-sized smokestack,” says Dylan Taylor of the forthcoming Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth, Texas. “A long firebox allows me to play with the distance between the fire and the meat, and the smokestack diameter and height dictate how fast heat and smoke travel through the smoker.” Old-school versions might be made out of old propane tanks, though Taylor recommends the custom pits out of Mill Scale Metalworks and Austin Smoke Works. “Just be sure to use thick metal for insulation and to avoid warping over time,” he recommends.

Backwoods Chubby Vertical Charcoal Smoker (left); BioLite FirePit (right)

For those looking to get some professional pitmaster vibes, butchers Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest of J&E Small Goods in New York recommend the Backwoods Smoker Chubby, a vertical charcoal smoker that mimics competition-grade smoking rigs in a more compact size. “What I like about it is that it actually has venting in all the right places, so you can make adjustments, and it does have a propane assist if you’re in a hurry to get it going,” says Nakamura. The Chubby is ideal for low-and-slow smoking (it can fit up to eight racks of ribs, three briskets or four Boston butts at a time), but its stainless steel water pan can be removed so you can use it as a grill as well.

If you’re short on space and budget, Nakamura and Guest recommend BioLite’s smokeless, portable, solar-powered “firepit” smoker, which isn’t as strong as a bigger grill but more portable. “If you’re a rugged person who camps and wants to stay compact and efficient, the solar-powered aspect is a major plus. It’s obviously not as powerful as a big smoker, but it’s great for sausages on a stick, burgers, and s’mores,” Guest says. “Plus, it’s perfect if you have an older neighbor who will get about all the smoke coming into their apartment.” There’s also the Lodge Cast Iron Sportsman’s Grill, which is good for small spaces and camping (as long as a hike isn’t involved).

The DIY route

All of this said, there is another choice for the best grill: the one you build yourself. “It cost me one trip to the welder and about $150 to make a custom grill that will last a lifetime,” says Pat Martin. “It’s a very rudimentary setup — basically a grill grate with legs on it, like if a campfire and a grill had a baby. Mine is two and a half feet wide and 18 inches deep, with 15-inch legs that I just set in the grass,” he says. You can create different heat zones by shoveling hot coals under one area and cooler coals under another, but the real sell is the festive atmosphere this basic setup creates.

“Everyone wants to be around a warm fire,” Martin says. “People spend so much money on grills, but this is priceless.”