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Published Aug. 26, 2021

Humans love fire. It keeps us toasty, deters hungry predators, provides a comforting circle of light in the dark, and of course transforms our food from raw and unappealing to warm and delicious. For most of human history, the hearth was the center of the home, and nowadays, about 70 percent of households in the United States own a grill, and many own more than one—such as an outdoor grill for home use and a camping grill for taking the fire on the road. But, if you want to enjoy the uniquely delicious flavor of food cooked over fire away from home, you’ll need something portable. The best portable grills of 2021 are perfect for preparing a meal while tailgating, camping, at picnics, and more.  

The Best Portable Grill is a Human Need

The best portable BBQ grill is light enough to move and transport easily, but provides all the benefits of a standard charcoal grill or propane grill (except for size). And we like those benefits because of something called the Maillard reaction.

Early humans probably had no problem digging up edible roots or harvesting meaty leftovers when they stumbled upon a large predator’s abandoned kill. But breaking down raw food is tough on the digestive system, and it definitely doesn’t kill any microbes or parasites that might have colonized those foods.

The Maillard reaction is the chemical process that uses heat to drive interactions between proteins and sugars that transform raw foods into toasty complex flavors and lends them the heady aroma of a grilled meal. Plus, all that heat slaughters any disease-causing organisms that are along for the ride. The Maillard reaction — and the human response to it —i s the voice of evolution whispering this food is nutritious and safe.

That’s why your senses perk up when you get a whiff of your neighbor’s bbq wafting into your yard, or the visceral yum reaction you experience when you see grill marks seared into your meat. That reaction is hardwired into your brain. 

There’s no question grilling makes everything better. The only question is which grill is the best portable grill for you. We zeroed in on five types of to help you answer that question.

Easy, Clean Grilling with a Portable Propane Grill

Whether it’s an outdoor grill for cooking out at home or a grill for your camp kitchen, the major question when it comes to selecting a grill is what kind of fuel you want to use. For most people, this boils down to two options: propane or charcoal.  

Generally, propane grills are widely considered easier to use than charcoal. And, 64% of grill users prefer gas. There’s a push button to ignite the flame and a knob to control the heat. It flips off easily and doesn’t leave hot ashes to deal with. Propane also burns cleaner.

If you want a portable gas grill, look for one with a lid that latches closed so it’s easy to transport, two burners so you can grill two foods at different heat levels, and a stainless steel grate to make clean-up easy.

Best Tabletop Portable Propane Grill: Cuisinart Propane Tabletop Grill

Stainless steel, 2-burner, propane, tabletop gas grill
At only 22 pounds, you can take this grill with you to the game or the campsite easily. Cuisinart Cuisinart

Cuisinart’s tabletop grill has a big stainless steel grate for cooking large cuts and two burners with separate controls for grilling separate meals. It has automatic ignition, a drip tray, a carry handle, a locking cover, and folding legs for easy transport.

Good to Go with a Stand-Up Propane Grill

Many portable propane grills are designed to sit on a table or other flat surface. This cuts down on the grill’s weight and size, making for a light and compact unit that’s easy to chuck into the truck for a BBQ-fueled road trip.

But what if you want to grill out without worrying about finding a table? Some portable propane models come with a built-in stand that folds down for transport, and then pops up into a rugged full-size design when it’s time.

The most important feature of these grills is of course the robustness of the frame, so look for a unit made with high quality materials.

Best Stand-Up Portable Propane Grill: Coleman RoadTrip Portable Stand-Up Grill

Sturdy Construction

This grill has a rugged, wheeled frame that folds easily for transport and storage. Coleman

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Coleman’s portable propane grill has a sturdy frame for when you want a stand-up option—and quickly collapses flat to put away or wheel to your campsite. It includes a 225 square inch cooktop, a side table for plates and condiments, and push-start ignition. You can swap out the grate top for a griddle top (sold separately), giving you a portable flat top grill.

Enjoy Smoky Flavor with a Portable Charcoal Grill

Propane grills may be the most popular, but charcoal provides hotter temps than propane. That’s great for getting the perfect sear.

The other major benefit of charcoal is more smoke — and smoke means flavor. If you want that authentic barbecue flavor and don’t mind the time it takes to light the charcoal, wait for it to get hot, and clean up once the ashes cool, a portable charcoal grill is the perfect option. A portable charcoal grill is also much less expensive than a propane model.

Best Portable Charcoal Grill: Weber Jumbo Joe Portable Charcoal Grill

Sturdy Construction

Classic styling plus heavy-gauge steel surface for robust grilling anywhere. Weber

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Weber’s Jumbo Joe features an 18-inch circular steel grate, and porcelain-enameled bowl and lid that prevent rust and hold heat. Extra features include a proprietary lid lock and handle heat shield to prevent injury.

Portable Pellet Grills Double as Smokers

When smoke is the goal, look no further than a portable pellet grill. These forego both gas and charcoal and instead rely on a steady supply of wood pellets in the hopper. They will require clean-up like a charcoal grill since wood pellets produce ashes, and you’ll need to plug it in to power the auger, which feeds the pellets into the combustion area.

The big benefit of this type of a pellet grill is the wood smoke, which imparts another level of flavor to your food. The availability of a wide variety of wood pellets means you can tailor that smoke to your preferences — sweet, savory, nutty, spicy — simply by selecting a different type of wood pellet.

Best Portable Pellet Grill: Traeger Ranger Portable Wood Pellet Grill

Versatile Design

This grill holds 8 pounds of pellets and features a dedicated cast iron griddle surface. Traeger

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Traeger’s portable option heats up to 450 degrees and employs a digital arc controller and warming mode to ensure precise temps while grilling or smoking. This grill includes a cast iron griddle for searing or cooking sides, making it a three-function portable grill.

The Low-Cost Portable Grill

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a grill you can take on the go. After all, simply sticking a steak on a stick over a campfire will elicit the Maillard reaction. 

Long term, portable propane grills are cheaper to own and operate when compared with charcoal, but they tend to require more of an investment upfront. The least expensive option in terms of initial cost will be a small portable grill that burns charcoal.

Don’t go for a grill with thin walls — it won’t hold up over repeated use. Look for an option constructed of heavy duty materials like steel or porcelain-coated cast iron that’s still light enough to pack along.

Best Budget Portable Grill: Cuisinart Portable Charcoal Grill

Tiny but Mighty

This charcoal grill has dual vents to better control the grilling temp. Cuisinart

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Cuisinart’s charcaol grill offers 150 square inches of grilling surface and dual vents for better control of the charcoal and cooking temperature — without a large price tag. When it’s time to pack up, three lid locks keep the grill tight and ready for transport.

FAQs

What you should know before buying a portable grill.

Q: What is the best portable barbecue?

For many people, a portable propane grill is ideal because it’s easy to use, cost-efficient, and burns cleaner. For those who prefer smoky flavor and a hotter cooking temperature, a portable charcoal grill may be perfect.

Q: What is the best small propane grill?

The best small propane grill combines the slickest features of a full-size propane grill with the convenience of a camping grill. Look for an option with a large cooking space, intuitive controls, and a design that will be easy to transport. The two portable propane grills listed earlier have those features.

Q: How do you cook on a portable charcoal grill?

Remove the grilling grate and mound the charcoal on the lower grate. Apply charcoal lighter fluid and light. When the coals have a consistent layer of ash, typically in 10 to 15 minutes, spread the coals out evenly, replace the grate, and begin cooking.

A Final Tip About the Best Portable Grills

Don’t make the mistake of buying a portable grill — especially a charcoal grill — that’s too small. Cooking food in stages often means not everyone can eat at the same time, and with a charcoal grill, you may have to add more charcoal and wait for it to get hot before continuing cooking. 

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