If you're into grilling, chances are you've at least heard of kamado cookers. These egg-shaped, ceramic, wood-burning grills give a delicious smokey flavor to everything they cook. The Big Green Egg is the best known example, but competitors like Kamado Joe, Vision, Char-Griller and Char-Broil round out the category of grills that provide the benefits of kamado cooking.
Kamados can run low and slow for hours at smoker temperatures. They can sear at high heat levels too, well beyond what gas grills can manage. That's hot enough to create true steakhouse steaks and real wood-fired pizza.
Should you be tempted by the Big Green Egg, or its challengers? To find out I put a bunch of them to the test.
Over 200 smoke-filled hours later, I've cooked more than 20 pounds of pork ribs, six chickens and 10 pounds of burgers, and a few steaks for good measure. After all of that, I can say with conviction which kamado grills I like the best, and which ones you should avoid.
Here are my picks for the best kamado grills of 2019.
At $1,600, the Kamado Joe Classic III may have a steep price tag, but it delivers plenty for the money. That means lots of accessories that don't come standard with other grills, including the Big Green Egg. This kamado performs well too. On our slow and low barbecue test, we adjust grills to 225 degrees F (107 C) and let go of the controls to see what happens. In this trial, the Joe demonstrated excellent temperature stability.
The grill got a little hot in the first 30 minutes (315 F), but then settled down at the one-hour mark. From there it coasted on cruise control, parking the needle between 253 F and 219 F for almost three hours. Only the Big Green Egg turned in a tighter temperature curve, humming along for hours within the smoking sweet spot.
One feature that really sets the Classic III apart is something called the SloRoller. Billed as a "hyperbolic smoke chamber" by Kamado Joe, it's an hourglass-shaped metal contraption that sits over the fire. The apparatus functions as both a heat deflector and a convection aid. Essentially it stops radiant heat generated by the coals from striking food sitting above (on the grill grate). This prevents meat from drying out during long cooks. And according to Kamado Joe, it also encourages air (smoke) circulation within the cooking chamber.
Perhaps that's why, compared with the other kamados in my test group, food I cooked in the Classic III consistently tasted the best. Ribs and chicken were particularly good. Very juicy, they also had a distinctly delicious and smokey flavor. To be fair, you can buy heat deflectors for many of the other kamado brands I tested, but they don't come standard.
In fact, there are a ton of extras bundled with the Classic III right in the box. That includes an additional set of ceramic heat deflectors (one for each half of the grill), a coal stoker and an aluminum charcoal basket. You get two halved aluminum grates as well, an ash removal tool, plus a three-level cooking rack that you can configure as needed.
By contrast, everything on the Big Green Egg except the stand costs extra. Keep in mind, you can also save a little by choosing Kamado Joe's Classic II. For $1,195 it's almost identical to the Classic III, but lacks the SloRoller accessory and has a different stand.
The construction of the Classic III feels very solid too. I especially like the sturdy side shelves, also standard. All that makes this kamado grill an outstanding choice, if you can afford it.
Big Green Egg, the company that started the kamado craze, still has a winner. Of all the grills in my test group, the Large BGE model had the best temperature performance and stability. Once tuned to a low and slow temperature of 225 F, the Egg pretty much ran itself. It stuck to this heat level, with only minor and infrequent fluctuations.
The Green Egg also felt the most responsive. If for any reason I had to make an adjustment to either the top or bottom vents, I saw a change quickly. I typically noticed course corrections in as little as six or seven minutes.
The food I cooked in the Green Egg came out quite tasty as well. While my BGE test unit lacked the extra heat deflector accessory, chicken and pork ribs had convincing barbecue flavor. While not as delicious as what I smoked in the Kamado Joe Classic III, the BGE came in a very close second. Big Green Egg does make a heat deflector accessory, called the ConvEGGtor, but it's an extra add-on.
That's why I recommend the Large Big Green Egg for just about anyone. You'll have to go through a local dealer, and unlike the Kamado Joe Classic III, everything except the stand is extra. Ultimately though, the total cost should be less than the fully decked-out Classic III.
The Char-Griller Akorn provides real kamado performance at a rock-bottom price. It costs just $323, which is incredible considering typical kamados will set you back $800 to $1,000. The Akorn's cooking temperature isn't as inherently stable as the more expensive kamado grills I used. I suspect that's because the Akorn's body is constructed from triple-walled steel, as opposed to heavy ceramic. The grill's fire was also harder to ignite and keep lit than the Big Green Egg and Kamado Joe Classic III.
When I let it burn through our low and slow test (adjusted to 225 F), the Akorn's fire died out within 45 minutes. After relighting, temperatures inside the cooker shot up to 370 F in a mere 15 minutes. I didn't add extra fuel either, just one paraffin fire starter. Thirty-five minutes later, heat levels inside the Akorn hit 405 degrees. Temperatures then plateaued but remained hot, not dropping below 387 F for the next three hours.
Things were very different when I kept an eye on the Akorn. With a starting temperature of either 225 F or 350 F, it only took a few vent adjustments to nudge back on track. And since it's built from steel, not ceramic, the Akorn weighs less (100 pounds) than traditional kamados (200 pounds or more).
The food I cooked on the Akorn wasn't bad either. Both slow-cooked baby back ribs and chicken had pleasing charcoal flavor. That said, they couldn't match what came out of the Kamado Joe thanks to its bundled heat deflector smoker system. For a price this low though, the Char-Griller Akorn adds up to a fantastic kamado bargain.
How we test kamado grills
Testing kamado grills is an intense experience. It literally requires playing with fire, though in a controlled, responsible way. The most critical element to kamado performance is heat, specifically how well a grill holds to one temperature. And to smoke meat low and slow, that magic number is 225 F. Good smokers, kamados or otherwise, stick to this temp for as long as 12, 15 or 20 hours.
To capture this, we load kamados with thermocouples (one per grill). Essentially a sensitive temperature sensor made of a probe and a connected wire, they hang suspended just above the grill grate (1 inch). They're connected to a data logger, and ultimately a computer that records changes in heat levels over time.
We try to run temperature tests on each grill simultaneously. We also use the same weight and brand of lump charcoal (4.4 pounds or 2 kg), often from the same bag. That's true of firestarters too (one per grill).
After that we light them up, as instructed by their manuals if available. Usually that means letting the coals catch for 15 minutes, with the lid open, then shutting the grill. At this point vents remain wide open until within 50 degrees F of the target temp.
We carefully fiddle with the vents to get there. Last we let go of the controls and observe.
We follow the same procedure for our higher temperature test with a target of 350 degrees F. The idea here is to simulate heat performance required to roast chicken and other poultry.
And speaking of food, we perform lots of anecdotal cooks too. We smoke a rack of baby back ribs (225 F) on each. We butterfly (spatchcock) chickens and roast them too, sourced from the local Costco (roughly 5 pounds each). Last, we grill a set of four half-pound burger patties (8 ounces) at high heat (600 F).
Want more options? Here are two other kamado grill models I evaluated for this test group: