Although big barbecues are required for entertaining lots of hungry guests, they're far from the most practical objects – heavy, clunky, a nightmare to clean, tempting to leave in the garden all winter long until the rust sets in. Luckily, these days there are plenty of daintier options (and we're not talking about those hideous disposable BBQs from the petrol station). Step forward the portable BBQ.
Portable barbecues are an ideal option for all sorts of situations. While they are evidently geared towards portability – the clue's in the name – they're also a good option for those short on space, for example if you just have a balcony or small terrace on which to work your magic.
The key difference is size. Portable barbies are small and dinky, but otherwise work in much the same way: light your coals, wait until white hot, and grill. What they lack is space – less space for charcoal means a shorter cooking time and less room for food. For a quick dinner, I found them ideal; if you're camping with a few pals, they will easily fit into the car.
What should you look for in a portable barbecue? Weight is an obvious consideration – anything too heavy defeats the point. Ask yourself whether you want legs, which are better on unstable surfaces, or can do without. A lid helps, as it creates convection, the air swirling around the chamber, helping food cook better and taste smokier.
"You want something lightweight, and if you're cooking for a couple of people, you only need a small amount of heat," says Marcus Bawdon, editor of UK BBQ Mag. "If you want to cook bigger cuts for more people, you'll be relatively limited." But Bawdon doesn't recommend the easy cop-out. "Disposable ones are not good in any way whatsoever. They're disposable, intended to be thrown away. The quality of the charcoal is shocking, the smoke is awful, you're left with little time, and the food is poor."
Portable options come in both charcoal and gas (which obviously means carrying around a gas canister), so the choice comes down to preference. Style-wise, there are classic kettle options that are little changed from the 1950s, while more modern designs abound too.
- See also: Telegraph Recommended's review of the best gas BBQs on the market and the best charcoal BBQs.
After speaking to experts, I picked up the most commonly recommended portable BBQs to see which was best. Here's what I found, starting with my favourite.
A little pricier than most other options I tried, but the Cobb certainly stood out. Apparently, the Cobb was designed as an electricity-free cooking system for rural Africa, and dry corn cobs, a common material there, were used as a fuel source. Hence the name.
It's certainly an interesting device – an obscure cylindrical, futuristic looking machine. Supposedly, the domed lid helps it work like a conventional oven, trapping in air. You can even cook a whole chicken, it says, though I didn't try.
It's easy to light – certainly quicker than most. There's a narrow funnel in the centre into which the charcoal goes, so it's all bundled up. This helps it ignite quickly, and you'll reach your required temperature in no time. (It also makes everything much neater and tidier.) Just a handful of coals or briquettes will last longer than most competitors, and cause a roaring heat. It's very fuel-efficient.
You also get a non-stick tray to cook on, which is super easy to clean, as well as a grill. As a bonus, it's incredibly light, and you'll get a carry bag for transportation.
An innovative system – specially designed so fat runs into a moat rather than onto the coals; and the moat can be filled with stock or water, for flavour and moisture – in a relatively simple field. Clever, practical, simple. A hit.
2. Weber Smokey Joe
Why we like it: Classic design, simple as pie
"A cracking little barbecue" says Bawdon, and I'm inclined to agree. Having used one several times, I know full well just how easy and effective it is. After a little assembly (easier than anything Ikea will throw at you), you're set. It's a mini version of the classic kettle – essentially it's had its legs lopped.
Why is it good? Well, firstly, design. Through some clever engineering, the lid locks back into a holder, so you can use it as a windshield when your cooking doesn't require it. It has an ergonomic handle, too, so it's comfortable to transport – and perfectly light.
The legs are sturdy, it doesn't wobble or fall. This means you can just as easily place it on top of a table, rather than on the floor. It fits plenty of charcoal, so you can keep cooking for quite a while. And there's plenty of space – you can easily blaze 20 sausages or more, so it's a larger option than the Cobb.
"This is the go-to portable barbecue," says Bawdon, who has had one for three decades. "It's a brilliant shape, rectangular with a lid, can cook direct and indirect, is very portable, and is very good."
Weber certainly do make no-nonsense barbecues, and this is another solid option, with the difference between the Smokey Joe ultimately boiling down to preference. I found it to be ever-so-slightly less sturdy, and there was a little less room than the Smokey Joe; roughly 10-15 sausages, for example. But it performed perfectly well. As an added bonus, there is also a gas option for those who prefer it.
For portability, the shape is perfect. While the kettle design of the Smokey Joe does take up a little more room, the Go-Anywhere can stack up in your boot Tetris-style. As for the cooking, no issues here. The rectangular shape means you can have different amounts of coal across the device, so you can cook at different temperatures, or just light up one half if you're cooking small amounts.
The most portable option of the lot is this simple little thing from Mountain Warehouse. If you're going camping it's ideal, especially if you're carrying your equipment with you, as it'll pack up into a small bag and weighs practically nothing.
That's because it's super small, and a little flimsy. The attachable metal legs are noticeably shaky. If you're the sort of person who regularly uses throwaways, this is the upgrade for you. It will only cook for a couple of people, fitting around two burgers at a time, and has no lid, which isn't ideal for gourmet barbecue cooking. But for the price it's not bad.
5. Morso Jiko cast iron BBQ
I loved this outdoor stove, though as it's not technically a barbecue, it doesn't make the top of the list. Instead, it's a solid, cast-iron stove fueled by wood. It heats up mega quick and gets roaring hot. There's a hole at the top which fits a pan – any you like, but preferably cast iron to withstand the heat.
With a heavy-duty cast-iron griddle pan I cooked the likes of halloumi, burgers and steak. Smoke swirled out of the front gap, and managed to impart some flavour into the food, giving a hint of outdoorsy-ness despite not being cooked directly on the heat.
The main downside is that, as it's solid iron, it's heavy. You could easily transport it around by car, but you wouldn't be able to cook too far from where you're parked.
This grill, from Utah-based Traeger, will make you want to don a thick check shirt and trucker hat and head to the great outdoors. More a smoker than barbecue, it provides easy smoking and grilling, and is a mightily impressive piece of kit, though comes with a couple of drawbacks.
The idea is simple: on the left-hand side there's a hopper, into which you pour wood pellets (supposedly they have to be Traeger pellets; you can choose your wood, for different flavours). Then you plug it in, select a temperature via the panel, and wait around 15 minutes for it to heat up.
On the right is the grill, and a drip tray which protects dripping fat from the heat source. You can line this with foil for even easier cleaning. There's an excellent cast iron plancha, too, which gets searingly hot and I found perfect for smoky, woody, crispy fried bacon.
You can grill, sear or smoke practically anything here, and the pellets last a long time. If they are running low, you can top up at any time. Logically, the hotter you go, the quicker the pellets will burn. Overall I found results to be excellent, and the device fun to use.
However, there were one or two drawbacks. Firstly, it's heavy: 27.5kg, to be precise. Fine for driving into the wilderness; not so much for hiking or general hefting around the home. It also requires electricity, so you'll have to take that into consideration when out and about.
This is one for the serious barbecuers – people smoking and slow-cooking racks of ribs or whole chickens. It has earned a starry reputation in this field, and deservedly so. But if you're just after a few burgers, steaks and sausages – and by all means, it can do those well – you're better off looking for something a little cheaper.