<p>These premium charcoal barbecues have gained ground in the UK over the past years, thanks to the backing of Michelin-starred chefs, celebrity influencers and moneyed foodie suburbanites</p> (iStock/The Independent)

These premium charcoal barbecues have gained ground in the UK over the past years, thanks to the backing of Michelin-starred chefs, celebrity influencers and moneyed foodie suburbanites

(iStock/The Independent)

Summer’s must-have accessory? It’s not a designer swimsuit or limited-release trainer: it’s a kamado barbecue. Popular in the US for decades, these premium charcoal barbecues have gained ground in the UK over the past years, thanks to the backing of Michelin-starred chefs, celebrity influencers and moneyed foodie suburbanites. And not just because they’re stylish, with their rounded, dimpled exteriors; kamados really do take barbecued food to the next level.

But what actually are they? Lined in a thick layer of ceramic, with heavy domed lids, these barbecues aren’t only for grilling burgers. Locking in heat and moisture, kamado-style ‘cues double as ovens, slow-cookers, smokers – letting you prepare everything from whole chickens to pulled pork, thin-crust pizzas to gooey brownies. You can control the temperature with an accuracy unprecedented for a charcoal barbecue, and hold it steady for long periods of time – sometimes as long as 12 hours on one load of charcoal. They’re efficient as well as they are effective at making great-tasting meals.

American brand Big Green Egg started the kamado craze. Launched in the 1970s, with its slick branding and loyal (bordering on cult) fan base, the market leader isn’t just a barbecue – it’s a lifestyle. Endorsed by the likes of David Beckham, Megan Markle and a galaxy of Michelin-starred chefs, this Rolls Royce of kamados has had many iterations over the years, but in the UK currently comes in three sizes. The cheapest – at £780 – the ‘MiniMax’ is portable but large enough for whipping up a family barbecue. The biggest ‘XL’ can cook 11 upright chickens at once, and comes with a starting price tag of £1,665.

With Big Green Egg’s success has, inevitably, come the imitators. One of the latest? The Pig Bluey, by The Snaffling Pig Co – a brand that, up until now, has best been known for its premium range of pork crackling. Launched in 2020, this one-size portable ‘cue, comparable to Big Green Egg’s smallest offering, comes in at £499 – less than two-thirds of the price of the MiniMax.

Of course, neither is cheap for a barbecue. But with £280 in it, can the affordable Pig Bluey dethrone the pricey stalwart?

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Big Green Egg minimax

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Founded in Atlanta in 1974, Big Green Egg took inspiration from East Asian-style, wood-fired clay ovens – invented more than 3,000 years ago. After a stint of importing kamado-style ovens from China and Japan, creator Ed Fisher eventually developed his own model. These days, Big Green Eggs have gone techy: they’re made using top-quality ceramics, developed in part by Nasa.

There’s no denying it: using this barbecue feels like a luxurious experience. Sturdy and slick, the Egg’s characteristic racing green lid opens and closes with a steady smoothness, via a solid wood handle. Everything feels built to last; the few moving parts – a removable temperature regulator on the top of the lid and the body’s built-in air vent – are responsive to subtle touch, but not jumpy. In other words, you can make minute adjustments to temperature (there is a built-in thermometer on the lid) and, so long as you’ve built your fire correctly, generally expect it to hold. This reliability makes it genuinely possible to do things like baked sourdough or six-hour slow-cooked ribs.

When you buy a Big Green Egg you’ll be given a standard stainless steel grill plus a “convEGGtor”, an additional ceramic platform that fits underneath to let you cook “indirectly”. It’s this indirect cooking that sets kamados apart from typical barbecues; the ceramic plate moderates and distributes heat, letting you prepare juicy slow-cooked lamb shoulder, whole baked celeriac or even a Christmas turkey.

You can get by on these included attachments alone, but then you’d be slightly missing the point of Big Green Egg. Part of the brand’s draw (and, arguably, for your wallet, its curse) is the long list of add-on accessories available for purchase. It’s hard not to get sucked in; if you’re spending this much on a barbecue anyway, an extra £30 on a second grill can feel negligible. Pizza stones (£53, Biggreenegg.co.uk), cast iron grills (£76, Biggreenegg.co.uk) and plancha griddles (£74, Biggreenegg.co.uk) are available – though, annoyingly for MiniMax users, many of these only come in larger sizes.

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The brand build-on doesn’t end there. You are encouraged to use Big Green Egg firestarters (£7 for 24, Biggreenegg.co.uk) and natural lump charcoal (£25 for 9kg, Biggreenegg.co.uk). Ceramic soaks up smoke flavour like a sponge, then imparts that back onto your food. That’s actually one of the selling points of a kamado-grill: it seasons your meal as you cook. But the flip side is that cheaper chemical-packed charcoals equal a bitter taste. You could choose to ignore Big Green Egg’s advice in favour of other fuel brands, but at your peril: as with buying an iPhone and then trying to pair it with knock-off accessories, it might be fine or it might be a disaster. So, if you are going to get this barbecue, prepare to buy into the brand in full.

As for the flavour? Do things by the book, and the results are sublime. It’s a waste to use this thing just for burgers – we tried everything from wings to pulled pork to delicate hake fillets and shell-on prawns, with consistently delicious results. The charcoal flavour, while present, was surprisingly gentle. Slow-cooked potatoes were fluffy and creamy; the roast chicken was decadently moist. It basically made everything taste like the best version of itself.

It does take a while to get the hang of using – your first few cooks might see temperatures jump around until you learn how to build and maintain heat. But given that charcoal barbecuing is as much art as science (this is fire, after all), that’s to be expected. With regular use, you iron out 90 per cent of this – the rest of the time, quirks might be down to things like weather (a sudden downpour can throw off temperature, say). And when things do go wrong, there’s one other Big Green Egg asset to hand: a strong online community of brand-dedicated ‘Eggheads’ to go to for advice. YouTube alone has hundreds of how-to videos.

Buy now £780.00, Johnlewis.com

Snaffling Pig Co pig bluey mini BBQ

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Launched in 2020, the pig bluey is a mini, portable version of a classic kamado-style barbecue. Apart from the blazing bright blue hue, it otherwise looks very similar to Big Green Egg’s MiniMax – dimpled surface, wooden handle, temperature gauge and adjustable air vents. One immediate difference, however, is size: a grilling surface of 16 inches versus MiniMax’s 13 – enough, potentially, to feed a whole extra person. It’s also a shade taller (57cm rather than 50), and heavier at 43kg (versus MiniMax’s 40kg).

On closer inspection, there are a few other differences. The temperature gauge is handily colour-coded into cooking zones – say for baking, or searing – making it immediately user-friendly for the casual barbecuer. Less ideally, however, the top ventilator is bolted on, so every time you open and close the lid the mechanism slides shut; you have to remember to reset it back to where it was, or else risk a dramatic change in temperature.

Specs aside, the performance is impressive. We threw everything at the bluey that we did the egg, with excellent results. Temperature control was easy, and with both direct grilling (prawns and steak), and a slow, indirect cook (pork shoulder), it was on par with the Egg’s efficiency and held temperature just as well. The final smoky flavour was a shade less subtle than the Big Green Egg’s, but it was very close – if the meals hadn’t been side-by-side we’re not sure we could have told the difference.

The current range of bluey accessories is limited: just a pizza stone (£20, Snafflingpig.co.uk) and rib rack (£10, Snafflingpig.co.uk), but more will launch this August, along with a larger, 19in edition (a smidge smaller than Big Green Egg’s “large”, at 22in). Unlike Big Green Egg’s included “convEGGtor”, the ceramic bluey heat “deflector” for indirect cooking is sold separately; at £30 (Snafflingpig.co.uk), though, it’s not exactly a deal-breaker. Snaffling Pig Co doesn’t currently sell charcoal, so for top results, you’ll need to purchase either Big Green Egg’s or another premium natural brand such as Whittle and Flame.

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On the whole, this is a very good ceramic barbecue for under £500. The only major unknown for the pig bluey – simply given it’s such as new brand – is its long-term durability. Unlike the egg’s limited lifetime warranty, this one comes with just two-year coverage. Some of the fittings on our sample felt a little bit loose, and we might worry about extensive year-round use. But if you’re only using it for weekly summer barbecues, we don’t foresee too many issues.

Buy now £499.00, Snafflingpig.co.uk

The verdict: Big Green Egg v Snaffling Pig Co Pig Bluey

There’s no question: both are high-quality barbecues, worthy of their price point, and given neither is cheap you would expect as much. On multiple tests, side by side, we found that the Big Green Egg just about edged it on taste – but the margin was extremely slim indeed. Both cost the same to run; either way, you need to invest in high-quality natural charcoal and firestarters to get the best results. So, whether you can justify an additional £280-plus for a Big Green Egg really comes down to what you’re looking for in a barbecue.

For card-carrying foodies who favour limitless cooking options, the Big Green Egg is a sound investment. This thing is adaptable, works consistently to the highest standard – and, like a luxury car or handbag, comes with a certain ‘status’. Saying that, don’t buy it for just the odd summer barbecue. To be worth its outlay the Big Green Egg should be considered an extension of your home kitchen, to be used with regularity year-round. Once purchased, you’ll have it for decades, and should anything eventually need replacing this long-established brand should be there to help you.

If you barbecue less often and mostly just want to make great burgers, sausages and ribs – with perhaps the occasional slow-cook or pizza – then it’s hard to see how you could go wrong with the Pig bluey. It works well, looks good and delivers great-tasting food. It may not have the same gourmet cachet as the Big Green Egg does, but remember this is a very new brand. The jury’s out on its long-term durability – only time can tell – but if you’re willing to take a punt you’ll save £280 now. And that’s not to be sniffed at.

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