Your Guide to Smoking Food on a Gas or Charcoal Grill

How to Turn your Gas or Charcoal Grill into a Smoker

Nothing says summer like the smell of meat on the grill. But if you’re simply grilling your food instead of smoking it, you’re missing out on the unique flavor that different types of woods can impart on your food: as wood smolders, some of the smoke it produces sticks to the food, leaving behind some of its flavor. Because you can use a wide variety of woods to smoke your food, you can give your food a different flavor or texture each time you cook it.

Light up your grill – and your taste buds – with new flavors this summer. Here’s everything you need to know about smoking your food.

how to smoke food on a grill, select meats for smoking, and choose the right wood

How Smoking is Different to Barbecuing and Grilling

First, smoking is different from other types of cooking mostly thanks to temperature and cooking time. Food is smoked at a low temperature (52-140 degree Fahrenheit) and for a longer amount of time, from as little as an hour to as much as two weeks. What this means is that while you may not be able to turn your at-home grill into a full blown, low-and-slow smoker, you can still dial the heat back and cover your grill to do a pretty good imitation.

Smoking is best suited to ribs, beef brisket, sausages, bacon, turkey, and Boston Butt. On the flip side, lean cuts of meat aren’t well-suited to smoking because the lack of fat and connective tissue can dry out the meat during the long cooking process; keep pork tenderloin and beef steaks out of your smoker.

When smoking on a charcoal grill start with a small amount of natural hardwood charcoal to keep the heat low; don’t use lighter fluid to start your fire, because that will give the meat a chemical flavor. Use the wood sparingly; you can always add more, but you can’t take away wood that’s already been added. Feel free to experiment with mixing different woods for unique, signature flavor combinations, and use free ingredients for rubs, sauces, and mops (throw out ingredients after six months).

If you’re using wood chips, soak them before using them. This will allow them to smolder and create smoke rather than generate heat. When you’re not using them, store your woods in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight, and allow your wood to breathe by not sealing it in bags or other containers. Make sure not to use woods with the bark on, because bark absorbs all of the impurities in wood (such as resin, mold spores, insect larva, and more). Also, don’t overuse woods that are high in lignin content (such as hickory, mahogany, ironwood, locust, oaks, and persimmon); these woods tend to burn high, unless you’re very careful about soaking the wood and managing oxygen flow to keep the temperature low.

Gas vs. Charcoal Grills

As for what kind of grill to smoke your meat on, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. A gas grill is useful when you’re trying to achieve a dark sear, since gas grills are capable of achieving higher temperatures more quickly when it’s necessary. Gas is also good when you need steady heat because it’s easier to control than charcoal-based heat. Many gas grills come with chambers for smoking wood chips, but those that don’t come with the chambers require foil packets or inserted pans of wood. Often, these grills don’t have lids that seal well, which can cause lots smoke and difficult to control temperatures.

Charcoal, meanwhile, produces a much higher amount of smoke, with a broader range of the molecules that produce smoke’s unique tastes. It does take longer to achieve high heat on a charcoal grill, but the potential peak heat is much higher, and the only limitation is the amount of wood you have to burn. Charcoal grills do have a higher risk of fire, and some apartment buildings or building codes ban them.

For proof that your meat has achieved its ideal flavor, look for a “smoke ring,” a pink discoloration of meat (especially brisket) just beneath the “bark” or surface crust that develops during the smoking process. The ideal smoke ring is about ¼ in. in thickness, and it’s caused by nitric acid building up in the surface of the meat, formed when nitrogen dioxide from combustion mixes with water in meat. Generally, you can achieve a smoke ring by soaking your wood in water- or, you can cheat a little bit by coating your meat with a salt tenderizer, which loads the surface with nitrogen dioxide. In fact, this method is so effective that smoke rings are no longer a judgment factor in barbeque competitions.

When choosing a wood, decide what kind of flavor you’re trying to achieve and what meat you’re cooking, and use this information to determine what type of wood is best-suited to your smoking goals. For example, oak provides a medium to heavy flavor and is best for smoking lamb, beef, briskets, and sausages. Meanwhile, maple gives poultry and pork a sweet, light, mildly smoky flavor.

Grilling is a summer tradition, but smoking your meats takes your backyard barbeque game to the next level by giving your meat a unique, mouth-watering taste. Even better? There’s an endless combination of flavors and meats just waiting to be discovered. Go forth and smoke, grillmasters.