10-Seconds on the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
This grill and smoker needs a lot of babysitting for a set and forget barbecue.
If you’re looking for a cheap yet versatile portable charcoal smoker, the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker is a definite contender.
Promising the flavor of charcoal grilling and smoking with the ease of gas cooking, the idea of a 4 hour set and forget charcoal smoker suits cooking at a tailgate, camping, at the beach or basically anywhere you’ve got better things to do than tend to the coals.
But, what’s the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Smoker and Grill really like to use?
Does it do a good job of regulating the temperature for you? How much food can you fit on there? What’s the power situation like? And, how does a steak, some ribs or a chicken turn out?
We answer these questions and more in our comprehensive Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal review.
We bought the barbecue without the cart. But, please note that if you’re looking at the Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker with Cart, it’s exactly the same goods, it’s just on a stand.
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Table of Contents
The Quick Version of Our Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Review
The first thing we’re going to mention is that the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker only goes down to a minimum temperature of 250°F. So, if you want to use this barbecue to smoke, you still can, but you can’t easily get to that low and slow 225°F most people are looking for.
The next thing we’re going to say is that, for what’s meant to be a set and forget grill, you have to do a fair bit of babysitting.
Yes, the SteadyTemp™ dial does do an alright job of maintaining your desired temperature. But, with no temperature markings on the dial itself and the variability of charcoal, we find you do need to do quite a bit of playing around with it to get to the temperature you want.
Once it’s there, the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill does stay there fairly well. That is until your hopper needs refilling…
Masterbuilt claim you should get up to 4 hours of cook time before you need to pop more charcoal in.
But, even with running a quality lump charcoal at the lowest temperature, we haven’t got anywhere near the 4 hour mark. We’ve found we need to check the temperature gauge pretty frequently in case the temperature is dropping from the charcoal running out.
And, we try to add more before the coals get too low and you have to try to relight them mid-cook which will do all sorts of things to your temperature control.
In terms of cooking, the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker does a decent job.
For smoking, the indirect heat does a good job without burning. And, the flavor is there but isn’t overwhelmingly smokey.
When grilling, we have had a hard time getting much above the 400°F mark. And, because the heat isn’t direct, it’s definitely not the same as putting a steak over a charcoal grill.
But, low and slow or hot and fast, the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal does turn out fairly decent food.
We generally end up using it a bit like an outdoor oven. Roasting a big hunk of meat is our favorite thing to do in this smoker.
Masterbuilt are one of the most well-known smoker brands out there.
Originally specializing in electric cabinet smokers with propane smokers on the side, Masterbuilt built a reputation for decent quality but affordable barbecues.
More recently, Masterbuilt have expanded their product line to include a range of digital, automated, temperature controlled charcoal smokers.
Basically, they’ve combined their expertise for affordable electric components with authentic charcoal cooking to appeal to a different range of customers.
This smoker, the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker is the smallest barbecue in this newer range.
About the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker
The Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker is Masterbuilt’s only portable barbecue.
Designed to satisfy both grill enthusiasts and smoking aficionados with it’s versatile temperature range, this barbecue stands out from the charcoal crowd with it’s electric powered fan that helps to automate the temperature of what would otherwise be a very hands-on grill.
While it’s 200 square inches of cooking space isn’t huge, you can easily cook for 4 people at a time, possibly more depending on what cut of meat you’re throwing on there.
You will need electricity though (either a power point or 4 x AA batteries).
The design of this barbecue relies on the electronic fan blowing air into the hopper when needed to help create an even temperature environment.
The idea is flavor of charcoal smoking with the ease of a gas grill.
We haven’t found it to be anywhere as easy to use as a gas grill though…
Features of the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
- Powder-coated steel case
- Porcelain-coated steel cooking grate
- 200 square inch cooking capacity
- Charcoal MiniHopper™ holds 1.5lbs of briquettes or 1lb of small lump charcoal
Ease of use:
- 250 – 550°F temperature range
- SteadyTemp dial to set the temperature target
- Lockable lid for easy transportation without having to empty ash on site
- Option to power with mains cord or 4 x AA batteries
Unboxing and Setting Up the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker
There’s not that much setup to do for the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker.
If you’re buying the barbecue with cart, there’s a bit more to do as you’ll build the cart and lock the grill onto it.
But, for the grill only, you’ll need to attach the side and front handles, insert the grease tent, firebox and grate, then simply screw on the temperature gauge and you’ve got yourself a new barbecue.
You’re probably looking at about 10 minutes to setup the barbecue only version or 20 minutes for the grill and cart.
Then, once it’s all put together you’ll season to cook off any leftover residue from manufacturing.
Pre-seasoning the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal does take a while.
Masterbuilt advise you to light it and burn through a whole hopper of charcoal.
Then, you’ll let it cool down completely, apply a thin layer of cooking oil to the grate and inside of the lid and burn through another full hopper before starting your cooking.
This last step is to help to prevent rusting.
Construction and Build Quality
For what’s a pretty budget barbecue, the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker is built really well.
The whole thing looks nice and sleek. And, being lightweight, it’s actually fairly easy to move around, even without the cart.
The powder-coated body isn’t the thickest or strongest metal.
I’d expect it to get dinged up a bit with a life on the go. But, the lid and body surfaces have held up well with regular use, even after running it hot for grilling.
The only area that has been a slight problem for us is the lid hinges.
The paint on them is obviously different to what’s on the grill lid and the paint has bubbled from the high heat. We don’t see this as a big problem and you can’t see it from the front. But, it’s there and might make the hinge more susceptible to rusting in the future.
Inside, the porcelain-coated cooking grate has held up well. It’s durable and easy to clean.
The grease tent that sits underneath the cooking grate holds up well to maximum heat.
The firebox itself has buckled a little out of shape over time. Again, not a major. But, we’ll tell it how it is.
To drain the grease from inside the barbecue, the inside is sloped down to a small slit. From there, any liquid fat and cooking juices will flow into a tray that can then be emptied from the back of the barbecue.
This works as it should.
Overall, the quality of the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker isn’t bad, especially when you consider it’s price.
One small but a bit annoying thing is that the hopper lid is 100% metal. So, when you need to refill the hopper (and you will when you’re smoking), you need to use tongs or something to lift the lid so you don’t burn your hands. We’ve forgotten a few times…
Like all barbecues, you’re going to need to look after it to keep it in tip top shape. But, by simply following the care guidelines you should get at least a few years out of it.
The Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker has 200 square inches of cooking space.
What does this look like?
You could easily fit 6 burger patties on it, 1 rack of rib, a butterflied chicken or a pork shoulder.
A whole brisket definitely won’t fit. The brisket is just too long. But, you could cut a brisket in half if you were set on smoking one on the Masterbuilt Portable.
And, unfortunately, there’s not quite enough space to fit 2 racks of ribs side by side.
In terms of height inside the cooking chamber, there’s enough space to fit taller cuts like a larger pork shoulder.
One that we cooked did touch the lid and sizzle once. But, by simply rotating the meat around and flattening out the fattest bit we were able to get it fitting in there nicely.
In terms of the hopper, you’ll fit about 1 pound of lump charcoal in there (our weapon of choice). Or, around 1.5 pounds of briquettes.
If you’re smoking on the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal, you will need to refill the hopper mid-cook.
I have never been able to get close to the full 4 hours of smoke time before needing to add more charcoal. But, we’ll talk more about that in the smoking performance section below…
Starting the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
To get the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal barbecue going, you’ll place one or two firestarters at the bottom of the charcoal grate, light it, wait until the firestarter gets going and load some charcoal on top.
Then, leave the hopper lid open, turn on the barbecue and set it to your desired temperature (well somewhere along the temperatureless dial).
Give the charcoal about 5 minutes to start burning then close the hopper and barbecue lid and leave the cooking chamber to heat up.
Because there’s no temperature’s marked on the dial, you’ll be estimating where it needs to be set.
Masterbuilt recommend setting the temperature high or to the maximum, watching the temperature gauge until it hits your target temperature and then turning the temperature dial down until the fan stops blowing. The dial should then theoretically be where it needs to be to maintain the temperature you want.
This is essentially because, in Masterbuilt’s words the “knob positon in relation to the grill temperature will vary based on outside temperature, amount of food and charcoal type used”.
Basically, it’s different every time you use the thing and we’ve found this barbecue really is all over the show too.
Before we get started on the nitty gritty of how the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal performs with smoking, we want to point out that it’s minimum temperature is 250°F.
When you say smoking, most people are going to think of 225°F as your standard low and slow temperature but you can’t actually get this barbecue down that far.
If that’s a deal-breaker for you, skip to the bottom of this Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal review and we’ll show you some alternatives.
But, if you’re happy to work with a slightly hotter temperature you can.
Now, the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal has a fan inside that’s run by electricity. It’s designed to regulate the air intake for you so that you don’t have to babysit this smoker as much as you would other charcoal smokers.
It’s an awesome idea. Pretty much like a charcoal smoker x pellet smoker.
But, in reality, we’ve found it hit and miss to use.
Sometimes the temperature holds steady pretty well.
At other times it’s up down and all over the place.
The graph above shows the ambient cooking temperature inside the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Smoker in green. The purple is the internal temperature of the meat.
As you can see, the temperature steadily from the start of the cook. After dipping a little too low at 190°F, I added more charcoal which spiked the temperature, dropping again and repeating after loading the hopper for a third time.
The temperature gauge was not changed throughout this cook so it should have kept a fairly steady heat. But, the barbecue struggled to maintain anything that resembles steady for that cook. I’m not really sure why.
The pulled pork still turned out alright. But, I did have to watch the temperature and set an alarm on my MEATER thermometer when the temperature dipped below a certain level.
This made it easier for me to know when the charcoal needed topping up. But, you could keep an eye on the dial manually if you don’t have a smoker thermometer.
Either way, I wouldn’t really say that the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Smoker is at all a set and forget smoker.
We have never managed to get the advertised 4 hours of smoke time out of one hopper full of quality lump charcoal.
Instead, we found ourselves refilling it every 1-2 hours. This was before the charcoal had fully burnt through. But, we find it better to keep the hopper topped up instead of having to relight the charcoal from scratch.
You do lose some heat from fairly regularly opening the smoker lid to add more charcoal, making the temperature dips and spikes more frequent as well.
When it comes to some good old ribs, we’ve struggled a bit with those too…
While a rack of ribs does fit on the Masterbuilt Portable Charocal Smoker, the long length means one end sits very close to the firebox.
Because of this, we’ve found it hard to stop the end closest to the firebox from charring a little because it’s naturally hotter there.
Overall, we found that because of the temperature fluctuations and small space which means the meat is so close to the firebox, any meat we smoked on the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Smoker turned out a bit drier than if we’d smoked it on a different smoker.
The flavor is still good. Charcoally and not overpowering.
But, we do think there is a bit of a learning curve specific to this smoker as you need a bit of experience to work out how it distributes heat and how to best minimize temperature fluctuations during long smokers.
We want to say we love grilling on the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal but we had a hard time with that too…
Firstly, be aware that you’re grilling over indirect heat.
The fire is in the firebox to the right of the barbecue and the heat filters over from there. So, there’s no open flame just underneath the cooking grate. It can get hot but it’s more similar to a pellet smoker setup than a gas grill.
Second, you’ve got to get the barbecue hot! And, in our experience that’s been hard.
Obviously, we cranked the heat dial up to max, got the charcoal going well, and closed to lid for the barbecue to heat up. But, ours seemed to struggle to get past the 400°F point.
But, hey, if that’s where it seems to max out before the heat eventually drops, we threw some meat on there to see how it was.
Yes, you get a sizzle and it definitely cooks but we don’t really rate it as a grill.
Once we struggled getting the temperature right to grill a steak so much that we ended up finishing the steak off inside instead. Eek! We’ve never had to do that before!
We didn’t give up that easily though. We’ve tried burger patties, steak a few times, grilled vegetables, etc. What worked the best was using it like a teppanyaki style grill plate for thin meats.
We still closed the lid to keep the heat in more. But, we had fun grilling this way on the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal. And, because the thinner meat cooks quickly, struggling with the heat wasn’t such an issue.
The Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Barbecue fits the bill as a portable smoker.
With the folding cart, you’re all set.
But, even without the cart, this smoker is fairly lightweight and is easy to move with the wide handles.
The lid locks as well to give you that extra security while it’s in your trunk.
But, the locking lid also means that you can take the barbecue home while the firebox is full of ash and it won’t accidentally spill. Everything’s held shut.
Because the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker needs power, you’ll need to think about that when you’re using it away from home. More on that in the next section…
Powering the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
The fan that helps to regulate the temperature inside the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker needs electricity to run.
Masterbuilt gives you two options.
The first is the included power cord that you simply plug into an outlet. Click the link for our favorite setups to power your portable grill.
The second is 4 x AA batteries.
One set of batteries should last 6 hours. We haven’t managed to get that much power out of one set. Might be old batteries or high fan usage.
If you’re relying on battery power, definitely take a couple of backup sets with you.
Because, incase you’re wondering if you can just do without power, your charcoal will burn but the firebox doesn’t get proper airflow without the fan running. The charcoal just dies down quickly and the whole thing is a no-go. We did actually try it.
The Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker doesn’t come with anything in the way of extras.
In the box you’ll find the barbecue itself and the power cord.
You’re not paying for extras but it’s all you do need for grilling and smoking (minus the charcoal and meat of course).
You can buy the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker with a Cart if you want it to sit off the ground without needing a table.
There’s also a grill cover available.
But, the only thing we’d really recommend using with this, or any, barbecue is a quality meat thermometer.
If you’re smoking, a wireless smoker thermometer will give show you the internal temperature of your meat at all times so you can see exactly when it’s done.
You can use these for grilling as well. Or, use a cheaper instant read thermometer.
The pros use them too. It’s information, not cheating.
Cleaning the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
As with any grill or smoker, it’s best to clean down the grate after each use.
You can wash it or scrape it down. A wooden tool like this one is our favorite.
But, because it’s a small barbecue, you should also empty the ash out of the firebox after every cook to maintain good airflow for optimal burning.
It’s a quick job though. Once the ash is completely cool, simply lift the firebox out and tip the ash out. I usually do it before I start the barbecue for the next cook. That way the ash is always cold.
Other than that, you’re also going to need to empty the drip tray from behind the barbecue.
And, every now and then you’ll be taking the grate out to scrape off excess fat inside as well.
Pros and Cons of the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
What We Like About the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
- Authentic Flavor: You’re cooking with charcoal which gives your dishes that genuine smoky flavor that’s synonymous with traditional barbecue.
- Versatility: The grill and smoker combo allows you to switch between grilling and smoking, catering to a wide range of cooking styles and flavors.
- Portability: Its compact design and carrying handles make it easy to take with you on camping trips, picnics, or any outdoor adventure.
- Secure Latch: The handy lock holds the firebox and cooking lid closed for transporation.
- Sturdy Design: Both the regular and cart models feed secure and stable to cook on.
What We Don't Like About the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
- Charcoal Management: You’ll need to add charcoal quite frequently when you’re smoking.
- Temperature Fluctuations: Maintaining consistent temperatures in this smoker mode can be challenging. It’s not set and forget. How full the hopper is and the outside temperature will affect the heat.
- Learning Curve: Using it effectively requires some practice, especially for those new to smoking, which can result in less than optimal results in the beginning.
- Limited Cooking Space: While it provides ample cooking space for its size, it won’t do for large gatherings or cooking multiple dishes simultaneously.
Should I Buy the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker?
The Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker is ideal for people who are looking for:
- Authentic charcoal flavor
- The versality of a barbecue that can smoke and grill
- And, don’t need a large cooking space
This barbecue is also suitable for regular at-home use. It’s smaller, portable size is ideal for individuals, couples or even small families that don’t want a huge barbecue to run, or take up a large space in the backyard.
What Other Portable Pellet Smokers Should I Consider?
Z Grills Cruiser 200A Portable Pellet Smoker
Or, if you’re set on charcoal for your on the go grilling or smoking, check out the Char Griller Akorn Junior.
Char Griller Akorn Junior Kamado Kooker
FAQs About the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
Is the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal a set and forget smoker?
The idea of Masterbuilt’s SteadyTemp dial is that the barbecue will regulate the temperature for you by adjusting the fan speed to blow more or less air on the charcoal as needed.
But, in reality, we find that it has a hard time keeping a steady temperature. And, you need to add more charcoal quite frequently anyway. With those things in mind, we wouldn’t classify it as a true set and forget smoker.
What charcoal do I use in the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal?
Is lump or briquette better in the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal?
We prefer using lump charcoal so have tested this smoker with lump. Read more about the lump vs briquette comparison for more info.
How long does charcoal last in the Masterbuilt Portable?
We find that it’s best to add charcoal every hour or so in the Masterbuilt Portable Grill and Smoker.
That way you’re giving it a constant supply of fuel and won’t accidentally let the fire die down too much causing you to need to get it going from scratch. It also helps the temperature to stay steadier.
Does the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal have automatic ignition?
No. You will need to light the charcoal in the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal grill and smoker using firestarters and a lighter. There’s no push-start option.
Specs for the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal
Barbecue type: Charcoal grill and smoker
Barbecue material: Powder-coated steel
Grate material: Porcelain-coated steel
Cooking capacity: 200 sq. in.
Pellet hopper capacity: 1 lb of lump charcoal or 1.5 lbs of briquettes
Heat Range: 250-550°F
Fuel type: Charcoal
Price guide: $
Assembled size (in): 28 W x 17 D x 15 H
Weight: 35 lbs without cart
Warranty: 1 year
Jared Brown, an avid lover of all things meat has a fearless enthusiasm for experimenting with anything that's grilling, smoking or outdoor cooking. With a wealth of experience across a range different barbecue types, Jared's got a real knack for helping others make a decision they're happy with, ensuring they find the perfect fit regardless of conventional notions of the 'right' choice. This unique approach has made Jared a trusted guide in the world of barbecue.