When the weather gets warm, nothing beats a get-together for some cold drinks and hot BBQ—but you can’t get the job done with a standard grill. While grilling out is just as big a harbinger of summertime, there’s something special about barbequing: it takes more time and commitment, produces vastly different flavors than grilling, and pleases even the pickiest of palettes.
You don’t have to spend a grand or more to get a high-quality BBQ grill, though. Our buyer’s guide will explore some of the best options at or below this price, study each model’s pros and cons, and look at what, exactly, makes a BBQ more than just your average cookout.
Top 5 Best BBQ Grills Under $500
What’s the difference between barbequing and grilling?
You might hear people use the two terms interchangeably—along with calling the barbeque itself a grill, and vice-versa. Don’t be fooled: the two are different, even for all their similarities.
- Barbequed food:
- Is cooked slowly
- Requires the lid to be closed
- Cooks at lower heats
- Is cooked with the heat enveloping it all around
- Grilled food:
- Is cooked fairly quickly
- Can have the lid open or closed
- Cooks at higher heats
- Is cooked with more direct heat from burner
In other words, BBQ means low and slow, and grilling means fast and hot. Barbequed food is also cooked with charcoal or wood (grills use these or propane) because the smoke these fuels give off is crucial to its cooking process and finished taste. Many barbequed dishes also call for glazes or spice rubs, and grilling doesn’t; the high heat would char most of these preparations before cooking is complete, instead of slowly caramelizing them the way barbequing does.
What makes a grill a barbeque, versus a regular grill? How can I tell if a grill can barbeque food too?
You can usually grill on a barbeque, but can’t always barbeque on a grill. Propane burners are indicative of a grill, whereas charcoal- and wood-chip-fuelled grills with enough space and proper lids can be suitable for grilling and barbequing. Some barbeques also have rotisserie options, to cook and slowly rotate (via a motor) chickens, turkeys, leg of lamb, etc.
If a grill has a lid, runs on wood chips or charcoal, and can cook food with a “low and slow” approach, it can barbeque. Most sellers will specify what a grill is meant for, so read product descriptions carefully to determine if a grill can handle your barbeque needs. Keep in mind that, just because a description or title says “BBQ,” that doesn’t make it so; sellers and some manufacturers use the terms interchangeably, too, and don’t know or care that there’s a very real difference.
Is there a difference between smoking and barbequing?
No; smoking is a barbeque process, one that can be attained a few ways and to different degrees, depending on what you’re cooking and your personal tastes. Whenever your barbeque, you’re technically smoking the food—using low, indirect heat from coal or wood to cook food.
That said, smoking usually:
- 1) happens in/because of a smoker or firebox, which can be a separate machine, or attached to a barbeque grill.
- 2) uses temperatures below 200 degrees Fahrenheit to cook food even more slowly than barbequing, which occurs somewhere in the 200-250 degree range.
During standard barbequing, you need to stir your coals or add more wood, occasionally, by lifting the lid to poke around. If you do this too much, your food becomes overexposed to the air while cooking, and can dry out.
When using a smoker, though, you don’t have to remove the lid; the heat can be controlled from an external source. For this buyer’s guide, we’ll focus on barbeque grills, some of which have smoker attachments, but are not meant for exclusive smoking.
Just curious: where did the term “barbeque” come from? Which spelling is correct: barbeque, barbecue, BBQ, or Bar-b-que?
The exact origin of the word isn’t known, but etymologists believe it derived from the Spanish word “barbacoa,” which was first recorded by explorers in the 1400s. They found the indigenous peoples of Haiti using a wooden grilling system over an open fire. The smoke gave the meat a unique flavor Spaniards previously hadn’t encountered.
There are many different ideas of where the word originated before that, but no real agreement on the proper spelling:
- Barbeque: French variation of the word; used in English-speaking countries, as well.
- Barbecue: standard English spelling and closest to original etymology.
- BBQ: abbreviation.
- Bar-b-que, -cue, -q, etc.; stylized spellings commonly used in businesses.
So which way is the right way? English experts say barbecue, but BBQ and barbeque are the most popular variations overall. In the end, it doesn’t matter—just as long as your food’s smoky, hot, and delicious.
1. Char-Griller 2123 Wrangler 635 Square Inch Charcoal Grill/Smoker
- Heavy gauge steel construction and double bottom for years of Use
- Airtight flanged Hood with heat gauge
- Cast iron grates provide even heat and locks in flavor
- 1063 sq In Total cooking area (main grill and warming rack)
- Adjustable fire grate for easy clean up and heat control
If you’re looking for a grill that can do it all—regular grilling, barbeque, and smoking—the Char-Griller Wrangler can deliver. It features an airtight lid for proper smoke retention, a must when barbequing, and has an adjustable rack and firebox to customize your cooking times and temps with ease. With over 400 inches of primary grilling space (and another 200 on the warming rack), it’s big enough for most gatherings, tall enough for ribs or whole chicken, yet light enough to wheel around the patio without straining your back.
- Runs on charcoal and can be used as a traditional grill, barbeque, or smoker depending on need.
- Grates are not coated and will require re-oiling to prevent rust.
It’s unlikely you’d find a more durably built three-in-one setup like this for the price Char-Griller’s asking. For BBQ masters who want all their options in a single grill, the Wrangler is the ultimate budget-friendly option. While it requires some maintenance—as all grills do—proper care could keep your grill in shape for 10 years or more, making the price incredibly worth it.
2. Round Kettle Charcoal Barbecue Grill, 18” from Imperial Home
- 14 Inch Diameter Cooking Area
- Heavy gauge stamped steel body
- Tough baked enamel finish for durability and easy cleaning
- Chrome plated cooking grid
- Removable legs and ash tray
For a back-to-basics approach, consider this kettle-style charcoal grill from Imperial Home. It’s large enough to feed four to six people, features removable legs for storage, and has a heavy-duty body but lighter lid for a blend of strength and ease of use. While it lacks the ability to smoke food properly, it can get the job done with basic grilling and barbequing.
- 18-inch diameter.
- Stamped steel is strong (although not the strongest; good for budget grills).
- Runs on charcoal.
- Chrome-plated grate for easier clean-up and less maintenance.
- Legs are removable for storage/transport; good for camping or tailgating.
- Stylish red design.
- Better for grilling than true barbeque; users will have to stoke coals frequently to maintain/adjust low heats for longer periods barbeque requires, which can dry out food.
This isn’t the fanciest grill on the market, but it’s great for budget shoppers who need a standard charcoal grill and don’t want to pay extra for superfluous features they won’t use. It can handle barbeque, but we recommend it most for traditional grilling.
3. Best Choice Products BBQ Grill Charcoal Barbeque Cooker/Smoker
- 2-IN-1 COOKING: Barrel grill and offset smoker combination with...
- SMOKED FLAVORS: Firebox offset with side vents lets you add more coal...
- WORRY-FREE GRILLING: Built-in temperature gauge and air dampers...
- TOOL ORGANIZATION: The front-mounted wooden shelf and bottom metal...
- DURABILITY: Cast-iron and anti-rust steel frame ensure you have a...
Another does-it-all setup, this model from Best Choice Products has a strong steel charcoal grill and smoker, with a sizeable firebox right beside it, so you can utilize the indirect heat of your fuel and adjust it as needed, without lifting your main grill’s hood—which translates to succulent, juicy meats that won’t dry out with every check-in or stoke.
- Rust-resistant steel body and attractive wooden handles.
- Attached firebox is sizeable; features damper to adjust heat.
- Shelf on front of grill, lower shelf, and two wheels on cart.
- Adjustable chimney and temperature gauge in lid of grill.
- Over 400 total square inches of cooking surface area with 240 inch warming rack.
- Available with a metal or wooden shelf attachment on front.
- 60-day warranty; most grills have a minimum of 1 year, up to 5 years (occasionally more).
Other than its short warranty period, the Best Choice is…well, a great choice. It has all the features a barbeque grill requires, but comes in at a price far cheaper than similar models. With a generously sized firebox, you can smoke just about anything that will fit in the grill chamber—and let it cook as low as you want for as long as it takes, without once lifting the main lid to disturb it. It might not be big enough for some needs, however, so if you plan on barbequing whole racks of rib or entire animals, you’ll need something much roomier.
4. Char-Griller 16620 Akorn Kamado Kooker Charcoal Barbecue Grill and Smoker
- 314 square inches of primary cooking space, warming rack 133 square...
- Insulated design means more heat uses less charcoal and less airflow...
- Cooking surface is cast iron, Body is constructed of 22 gauge steel,...
- Cart is constructed of tubular steel w/rubber wheels, locking caster...
- Features Locking Lid, 2 folding black metal shelves, Easy dump ash...
The Kamado Kooker doesn’t look like much at first (and has terrible spelling we find more obnoxious than clever), but it does have some pretty impressive features that make it worth consideration. It’s designed to grill, barbeque, and smoke all in one compact machine.
- 314 square inches of grilling surface area; 133 square inches warming rack (447 square inches total).
- Design is insulted and requires less charcoal and less stoking.
- Cast iron grate; 22 gauge steel body, powder-coated exterior and porcelain-coated interior for easier clean-up and better resistance to rust.
- Wheeled cart with lower shelf; 2 foldable side shelves.
- Heat gauge in lid and top and bottom dampers (numbered for easier tracking).
- Lid locks for transport/storage.
- Small; makes about 4 servings at once.
- Still affordable, but pricier than similar models due to coatings, double-damper system, and insulted design; worth it for some buyers.
We don’t recommend this model to frequent party hosts—it’s just not large enough to feed a crowd—but for families and individual use, it’s pretty perfect. The double-damper system and adjustable features let you grill meat with a perfect sear, or slowly smoke it to barbequed perfection.
5. Landmann Black Dog 28 BBQ Charcoal Grill, 506 Square Inch
- Large grilling capacity with porcelain coated cast iron grates
- Charcoal pan adjusts to multiple positions
- Chrome plated steel warming rack provides 201 sq. in of secondary...
- Large removable ash tray
- Large stainless steel handles and temperature gauge
As the most expensive of the models featured in this guide, the Landmann doesn’t come with a bevy of extra features like a rotisserie, but it does offer extra surface area for larger parties, adjustable charcoal trays, and easy access to the fuel with a cabinet smoker, instead of a side option. It’s constructed with heavy-duty steel and features 4 wheels, which will make its hefty weight less of a burden.
- 506 square inches surface area.
- Adjustable grates with crank to move charcoal closer to/further from the food.
- Large vent system to control heat in a wider range than some models.
- Porcelain-coated cast iron cooking grates.
- Front cabinet doors are large for easy access to your heat source; stoke without lifting lid and drying out food.
- Slide-out ash catcher is extra large and simple to remove/clean.
- 102 lbs.; fairly heavy, although it does come with a 4-wheeled cart (two large, two small casters).
The Black Dog can grill, slow cook, and smoke just like any other 3-in-1, but does so in a less conspicuous package. Buyers who balk at the higher price should remember they’re getting more square inches and a very sturdy, heavy grill that can stand up to the elements better than many bargain models.
Barbequing requires a special grill to do the job justice, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay a special price; budget barbeques certainly exist, quite a few of which boast top-tier features you’d find on $1,000+ grills. The most important factor when choosing a barbeque grill is its size, durability, and proof that it is, in fact, a true barbeque.