What if I told you there's a grill on the market that uses charcoal, but barely produces smoke, doesn't have an open flame, and is safe to use on your balcony. That’s right. Even if you live in a high-rise grilled steak is back on the menu—and it's all thanks to the LotusGrill ($169 from Amazon).
“No open flame allowed” is a fairly common addendum to a lease agreement, especially when you're living in an apartment complex. It isn’t an unreasonable request, either. Having lit coals that can spill or an open flame that can get out of control on your balcony can cause problems for more than just yourself. But does that really mean you have to give up on indulging in the occasional cook-out?
Until now, the easiest solution was to buy an electric grill. No flame, no problem! But, since they’re basically just electric burners with a grate on top, they don't really impart any of that delicious grill flavor. There's also the matter of needing to plug them in, which often means snaking an extension cord through your apartment. The need for electricity also means they're useless at tailgates or picnics.
Enter the LotusGrill
The LotusGrill doesn't have an open flame, so it should be fine to use on your balcony, and it also doesn't need to be plugged in or connected to propane. It uses a small amount of natural lump charcoal to generate heat, so the meat and veggies you cook on it taste just like they were grilled on classic charcoal grill. And, since the outside of the LotusGrill doesn't get very hot, it's really easy to transport.
Here's how it works. Inside the grill is a container that you fill with a small amount of natural lump charcoal (briquettes won't work). Underneath is a plate that you squirt with a bit of fire-starting gel and light. This fire-starter is basically isopropyl alcohol in gel form, which means it's odorless and tasteless, and it's really just there to get the charcoal going. Once the gel has been lit, you place the container full of charcoal on top of it.
A fan blows air up through the charcoal to get it ignited, and, once it's lit, you can adjust the fan speed to control the temperature. It doesn't get nearly as hot as a traditional gas or charcoal grill, topping out at about 450° F, but the tradeoff is that there's almost no smoke, no splattering of hot juices, and no open flame.
Here's the really wild part—while it's lit, you can pick up the entire LotusGrill and turn it upside down without any coals falling out. Because the heat is concentrated inside the charcoal container, the sides of the grill are always cool enough to touch, and as long as the grill is properly assembled, everything stays sealed and safe if it gets tipped over.
I'll be honest, when I saw someone start to invert this lit grill at a trade show, my instinct was to run away in the other direction. Not only did it not cause a disaster, but they immediately started to cook a steak on the grill once the safety demo was over. And despite it lacking the tell-tale smoke and sizzle you associate with charcoal, the steak sure tasted like it had been cooked on a traditional charcoal grill.
Since it uses so little charcoal, the LotusGrill is also fairly economical. You can buy charcoal directly from the LotusGrill folks, or supply your own natural lump charcoal (again, briquettes won't work). According to LotusGrill, a 2-pound bag of charcoal is enough for 6 grilling sessions. I probably use nearly 2-pounds of charcoal every time I start my grill in the backyard, so that's a pretty steep reduction in emissions and waste.
There are some caveats. The LotusGrill costs $169 for the 12.5" version, which is a lot of money compared to a traditional charcoal grill. Our favorite portable charcoal grill, the 14" Weber Smokey Joe, is available for $40 or less. And our top-ranked portable gas grill from Cuisinart costs around $120—still $50 cheaper than the LotusGrill.
The LotusGrill requires 4AA batteries to run its fan, so it's not entirely void of requiring electricity. It also can't get nearly as hot as a traditional charcoal grill (it tops out at around 450°F). Most importantly, the LotusGrill can't be used inside—so if you don't have a balcony this isn't the grilling solution for you.
I’m lucky enough to have a backyard where I can grill meat the traditional way, over an open flame and piping-hot coals. But if you don't have this luxury, or you're looking for a simpler grilling option, the LotusGrill is worth a look. I can personally attest that it makes a mean steak.