These Are the Best Portable Grills of Summer 2020

Roy Berendsohn, Bradley Ford
Photo credit: Trevor Raab

From Popular Mechanics

One of the best ways to cook outdoors is on a portable grill. These small appliances help you make a tasty meal anywhere, from the shore of a lake to your own backyard. They also lend additional firepower to your main grill when you’ve got a big cookout going. To help you select the right portable grill, we not only tested their cooking capabilities, but also ate everything we made. Check out quick reviews of five of the top models—from homeowner-grade appliances to gourmet options—or scroll deeper for more in-depth reviews of these and others, plus buying advice.

Selecting the Right Grill

Portable grills are fueled by lump and briquette charcoal or propane, each with its own advantages. Lump charcoal is easier to ignite and burns hotter than charcoal briquettes. Because it’s charred wood, it consists of irregularly shaped pieces, so this requires a bit of experience to build a fuel bed correctly. Bagged charcoal is slightly more difficult to light but is easy to work with in that you ignite a pile of it in a charcoal chimney and pour the glowing coals onto the coal grate. You can easily move these regularly shaped pieces with a coal shovel to put the heat where you need it. Charcoal is dramatic and fun to work with; outdoor chefs generally like smoke and flames. Propane, both in a 16.4-ounce camper-size fuel bottle and the common 20-gallon size, is tame compared to charcoal. It’s certainly cleaner and quick to set up and light: Open the fuel tank’s valve and light the burner with a match, butane lighter, or the igniter on the grill.

Aside from fuels, think about your other needs. Do you need to set up, cook, and cool down quickly? Then gas is your obvious choice. Just how compact does the grill need to be and how lightweight? These point you in the direction of a small, sheet-metal kettle or 16.4-ounce propane model. If durability is your sole criteria and not weight, look at the grill’s build and features that contribute to longevity. Perhaps a cast-iron hibachi is your best choice or maybe it’s a simple charcoal grill built from sheet metal.

How We Tested

We slid each grill out of the box, and while it was still new and clean, looked over its workmanship and build quality, checking every nut and bolt and the neatness of its manufacturing.

After all the grills were assembled and fueled, we did a quick but thorough evaluation of cooking-surface temperature. For gas appliances, we used several loaves of white bread, distributing each slice on the hot surface. Blackened areas are hot spots, still-white areas are cold spots. Evenly browned slices are just right. For charcoal grills, we used a glowing bed of charcoal in two modes: direct—to provide heat directly under the food; and indirect—placed to the side of the food and reflecting heat off the grill body. We checked whether the charcoal was easy to place and manipulate inside the grill and whether the vents provide sufficient airflow to keep it glowing.

Photo credit: Trevor Raab

Next, we cooked about 30 pounds of juicy hamburgers hand-formed from ground chuck, marinated bone-in chicken, and vegetarian patties. And we called in a pro: cookbook author, chef, and barbecue expert Dave Joachim.

We covered all the grills with food and moved down the row, from one grill to the next, checking how much attention the beef, chicken, and patties needed to quickly get to the end point: an evenly browned exterior, a warm and juicy interior, and attractive sear marks on the top and bottom. For the sake of food safety, we patrolled using a professional-grade digital food thermometer carefully inserted into the food horizontally. The last step of the test was the best part: We ate what we cooked. Here are the portable grills that passed the test, and how well they fared.

Watch: Dave Joachim's best grilling tips.


―EASIEST TO TRANSPORT―

Cuisinart CGG-240

Fuel: Propane, 16-ounce | Cooking surface: 18" x 13 "

There is no need to carry this stainless steel Roll-Away gas grill from Cuisinart. The stand folds down flat for maximum portability, so it can roll behind like a roller bag at the airport—plus, it can be hung on a wall for storage. When set up, it has a relatively small footprint of 18” x 34” that makes it ideal for apartments or places with limited space. Once open, two shelves swing out to provide handy staging areas on either side of the grill. The single 15,000 BTU burner sits beneath a metal cover to help distribute heat evenly under the grill grate. Our bread test revealed that there were two hotter spots, to the front and back of the cover, where the heat rose around it. Knowing this, it was easy to see where to cook things like chicken with indirect heat. The 18” x 13” enameled, cast iron grate can fit twelve burgers with room to flip them—more than enough for a meal or small gathering.

―BEST OVERALL―

Weber Smokey Joe

Fuel: Charcoal | Cooking surface: 13¾" diameter


This is a phenomenal small grill, a kettle-shaped classic. A bottom vent and an aluminum top damper allow precise airflow. Despite the small kettle’s volume, there’s enough room to manipulate the coal for precise cooking: Mound charcoal on one side for indirect heating and rotate the lid to place the top damper so it draws smoke past the food. Its setup and cooldown are simple, precise, and fast. Years of experience with this grill has convinced us that classics can’t be improved upon.

―BEST CHARCOAL GRILL―

Oklahoma Joe’s Rambler

Fuel: Charcoal | Cooking surface: 17” x 13”

This somewhat simple, unassuming grill turned out to be the “sleeper” in our test. We were really impressed by how easy it was to grill with either direct or indirect heat. The charcoal tray is adjustable, hanging from a ladder rack that can quickly raise or lower the coals as needed. The burgers we grilled had fantastic coloring and that “cooked over charcoal” taste. To cook chicken slower, we shuffled the coals to one side, put it in away from them, and closed the lid. Heat can be managed with the damper on top, and monitored with a large, easy-to-read thermometer. As far as portability, this table-top grill doesn’t break down to take up less space—what you see is what you get, and it might be difficult to transport in some smaller cars. We were surprised to find that the Rambler is nearly 50 pounds. That might seem a tad heavy, but it has cast iron grill grates and it’s fabricated from thick gauge steel, instead of cheap stamped sheet metal. It’s built to last but we wouldn’t suggest hiking into the woods with it.

―BEST FOR TAILGATING―

Coleman RoadTrip 285

Fuel: Propane, 16-ounce | Cooking surface: 25” x 12”

For tailgating, camping, or a barbecue in the park, the RoadTrip 285 is easy to haul and set up. It uses 16-ounce propane canisters—bring spares if you’re cooking for a crew, or making multiple meals. The two-piece cooking grates are made of cast iron and covered with porcelain, covering three burners and yielding 20,000 BTUs. The burners all sit under the solid center sections of the grates, which our bread test revealed to be the hottest area on the grill. Indirect heat does need to be managed carefully when cooking thicker things like chicken on the bone—we kept it over the open grates around the edges of the grill. The 25” x 12” cooking surface will hold a lot of burgers or dogs or whatever your preference. And, if you want to mix things up, the grill grates can be swapped with griddle or stove grates (available separately).

―BEST FOR CAMPING―

Camp Chef PG100

Fuel: Propane, 16.4 ounce | Cooking surface: 11" x 18"

This single-burner grill is built to handle the rugged conditions of travel cooking, with steel-rod fold-out legs and two substantial clasps securing its stainless-steel lid. Camp Chef claims it puts out 12,000 BTU, but it’s uneven—our bread test revealed comparatively cool corners and front edge, owing to the coverage of one burner. Otherwise, that’s a lot of heat available to a relatively small grill surface. In some respects, we found it was a bit too much heat. It’s good for quick heating of simple foods, say hot dogs or thin hamburger patties. But it can be too much for thicker cuts; burning the outside before the center is fully cooked. If all you want is a rugged, well-built grill to sear some dogs and frozen burgers at tailgates and picnics, this one is an all-star.

―BEST FOR GENERAL COOKING―FIREDISC Original

Fuel: Propane, 16-ounce | Cooking surface: 22” diameter

Strictly speaking, the Firedisc isn’t a grill—more accurately, it’s a portable outdoor cooker. The 22” “disc” sits on a sturdy, two-piece, stand that is made from thick steel bar stock. The pieces come apart without tools, lay flat, and can easily slide in the back of a car or truck. We prepared burgers and marinated chicken on the bone in our test unit. While the Firedisc was capable with our test menu, it is best used like a wok or cast-iron frying pan—in fact, it’s seasoned just like cast-iron cookware. In it, you can boil, flambé, fry, or sauté, so there’s a ton of options for folks that love to cook. Fajitas, fried chicken, pancakes, stir-fry, cheese steaks, bacon—all fair game in the Firedisc. With the weather warming up, we took our taco Tuesday out on the patio for a change—cooking out doesn’t have to mean burgers or barbecue.

―BEST FOR BURGERS AND DOGS―

Weber Q1200

Fuel: Propane, 16.4 ounce | Cooking surface: 12½" x 16½"

The Q1200 is compact and light, the most convenient portable grill we tested. This one gets the job done almost entirely through conduction—its single burner provides heat to a porcelain-coated cast-iron cooking grid that functions much like a 189-square-inch pan. Narrow slots in the grid provide a path for drippings. With the lid down, you get reliable convection cooking as hot air circulates over the grid. The bread test confirmed that the Weber has good heat distribution, rating somewhere between the perfection of the Cuisinart and patchy the Camp Chef. But because you can’t control heat as well, you’ll need to either carefully monitor your food or save this one for burgers and dogs: It will dry out or burn chicken and more substantial cuts of meat. For added convenience, Weber sells a separate stand—a nice accessory when you don’t have a picnic table on which to set the grill.

―BEST FIRE PIT/GRILL―

Snow Peak Takibi Fire and Grill

Fuel: Wood | Cooking surface: 12 1/2” x 17”

Bring a relaxing campfire cooking experience, with real wood, into the backyard—or anywhere you go—with the stainless steel Takibi Fire and Grill. This fold-flat fire pit comes with a grill bridge that fits over the top and can be moved up or down for optimal distance to the coals. Like using charcoal, cooking on the Takibi requires a little patience—ideal conditions come once the bare flames die down and the wood is reduced to glowing coals. We used oak firewood cut down to eight-inch chunks to get a hot bed of coals, which took about 45 minutes. If you’re solely interested in cooking, lump charcoal would be a faster way to get to grilling over a bed of coals. Setting the grill bridge about 4” from the coals worked perfectly for us, with our burgers right over the coals. Chicken on the bone, needs to be set a little further from the coals to be sure it cooks evenly. With the Takibi, once the cooking is done, remove the grill bridge, throw on some more wood.

―BEST PROPANE PORTABLE―

Cuisinart CGG-306

Fuel: Propane, 20 gallon | Cooking surface: 31¼" x 20¼ "

The dual-burner Cuisinart is our favorite small gas grill, delivering nearly perfect heat distribution across its surface, which is quite large for a portable appliance. Its two burners are precisely controlled and versatile—one burner can be set on high and one on low for indirect cooking or to prepare different foods, say a kabob on one side of the grill and burgers on the other. Since the grill is fired from a full-size 20-gallon propane container, it has substantial firepower at its disposal: 20,000 BTU output. The larger fuel supply is more ideal than a smaller one when cooking for a group, because it makes it less likely that you’ll have to swap out the fuel container before you’re finished cooking. But it’s less portable than the smaller 16.4-ounce propane bottle some other grills use. This is a small grill with a big heart; it had no problem covered with hamburger patties and buns.

―BEST FOR BIG EVENTS―

MECO Americana Walk-a-bout 4200

Fuel: Charcoal | Cooking surface: 18" x 18"

The Americana is unique: a lightweight, full-size grill on a folding wheeled stand. Fold it up and go. Unfold it and cook. It’s a lot of grill for the money, especially when you consider its 332 square inches of cooking surface and its excellent engineering. Place its charcoal on a pan and you get a fair amount of reflected infrared energy from it. Yet convection is easy: simply close the lid, which is hinged to the grill body and is well sealed. Because of the features, plus the low, front-mounted sliding vent and a nicely designed top damper, the grill is highly adaptable to a variety of foods and cooking methods—and can work as the primary grill or as a satellite to a larger appliance. It’s a winner no matter how you use it.

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