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While the flavor that a regular charcoal fire gives food is fabulous in and of itself, you can totally amp up the volume when you start utilizing wood on the fire. I discuss this option briefly in this article, but I think most people can benefit for a more in-depth description.
First of all, you need to decide in advance what type of meat you will be cooking. For things that cook quickly, such as burgers or steaks, wood chips will be fine.
Once the chips catch fire, you will have smoke for cooking for 10-15 minutes, which is plenty of time to cook a regular hamburger.
However, if you’ll need the smoke to last a little longer, for a pork loin for example, you need to purchase wood chunks instead. These larger pieces of hardwood will smoke for up to an hour.
To soak or not to soak?
I feel like most people are under the impression that when you use wood on top of charcoal, you have to soak it in water first. While doing so may prolong the life of the chips or chunks and give you a little more smoking time, this step is actually not necessary.
If you’ll be grilling an absolute ton of burgers, you could soak some wood chips for an hour or so and get enough smoking time to grill them in two batches if necessary, so that’s one time when you would find soaking the wood beneficial.
Jack Daniel’s Wood BBQ Smoking Chips, available on Amazon, are a new twist – these are made from old whiskey barrels.
Another application that I just stumbled upon myself is to add more depth of flavor by soaking the wood in liquids other than water. You can use apple juice for a little bit of a fruity flavor, which would be yummy if you’re grilling pork. You can also use wine, whiskey, brandy, or any number of other alcohols which would all go great with beef, chicken, or pork.
Using Wood with Charcoal
So, how exactly do you grill with wood chips and chunks? The process actually could not be any easier. Like I said, soaking isn’t even required, so all you have to do is throw a handful of chips or a few pieces of the larger chunks right on top of your charcoal after it’s turned gray.
I’ve talked before about utilizing a chimney starter for getting your charcoal ready for use, so in that case, right after you pour the charcoal into the bottom of the grill, toss in some wood. As soon as you start to smell that yummy wood smoke, you are ready to grill.
With most quick meats cooking method, you would normally grill with the lid off. In the case of grilling with wood smoke, however, you will want to seal in the flavor by cooking with the lid closed. Just keep the air vents open to maintain the right cooking temperature.
Most larger models designed for cooking in the backyard or on the patio or deck have plenty of vent controls – although some are better than others.
However, most portable charcoal grills are harder to control than full sized units so make sure that you choose a good one with adequate vents and coal wells.
Using Wood with Gas
You might not think that you can grill with wood if you have a gas grill, especially knowing that with charcoal you put the wood directly onto the fire.
You’d be mistaken, though, because you certainly can use both wood chips and wood chunks with your gas model – proving that some of the taste differences in the often hotly debated (at least in BBQ circles) gas vs charcoal grill argument may not have to be as wide as one would image.
The easiest method in this case is to use the wood chunks. All you do is arrange a few of the pieces of hardwood all around the perimeter of the cooking surface and close the lid to lock in the heat and get the wood to start smoking. Again, just as with charcoal, once you start to smell the wood smoke, you are good to go.
GrillPro Cast Iron Smoker Box on Amazon
Surprisingly, you can even use wood chips, but you would need to make a special purchase in that case, which is why I’d just go the chunk route myself. They sell these little smoker boxes that you can place the wood chips into, and then you put the box on the grill grates or even directly onto the cooking element itself.
The smaller boxes sell for as little as $10, but I would suggest going for a bigger box myself to get a smokier flavor. The larger sizes will run you around $20 and the Foodal staff consensus is that the GrillPro Cast Iron Box pictured above is the way to go.
Cooking with Wood Planks
One of these days, I am going to have a dinner party where I serve salmon on a cedar plank. Never mind the fact that I can’t eat salmon myself (allergic!), but the presentation is simply stunning. I’m sure the flavor is amazing as well. Happily, salmon isn’t the only thing that can benefit from cooking on a wood plank, and it’s really easy to grill on one.
This cooking method does require soaking for at least two hours, so keep that in mind when you’re planning for your meal. In fact, the longer you can soak the plank, the better. With wood chips and chunks, the object is for the wood to actually catch fire and start to smoke.
With wood planks, however, the object is to keep the wood from catching; rather, all you are looking for is to have the heat of the fire release the sap from the wood, which is where all the flavor comes from in this cooking process.
In fact, I recommend placing the wood plank on top of a cookie sheet to further protect it from the flames. Read more about planking now.
Smoking Meat without a Smoker
While an actual smoker isn’t all the pricey (normally around $50 for a basic model), not everyone has the room for one as well as a grill. Also, unless you plan on smoking a lot, it may not make much sense to spend the extra money for something you won’t use all that much.
Isn’t it good to know, then, that you can actually turn your charcoal grill into a smoker with just a little effort and a lot of patience?
First, you need to set up your charcoal for indirect cooking by placing all of it just on one side of the cooking chamber. Make sure that the air vent on the lid of the grill will be over the side with no charcoal.
Then, on the free side, underneath where you’ll be cooking the meat, you need to place a disposable aluminum pan half full of water.
The purpose of the pan is threefold: it will catch all the drippings from the meat as it cooks, it helps to regulate the cooking temperature, and it adds moisture to the cooking environment as the water evaporates, keeping your meat moist.
Just like when you do any regular grilling with wood, throw some chips or chunks on top of the charcoal when it’s uniformly gray. Once you smell the smoke, you are ready to go.
Close the lid and close the bottom air vent completely. The top air vent should only be open about a third of the way.
This is the fastest way to lower the fire to the right temperature for smoking (225-250°F). If your grill didn’t come with its own temperature gauge, I highly recommend you buy one if you plan smoking meat. You really need to be able to see that the temperature is correct at all times.
Once you are in the low-and-slow temperature range, you’re ready for smoking. Place the meat on the coal-free side of the grill directly over the aluminum pan and close the lid.
Having only the top air vent open ensures that the wood smoke from the fire-side of the grill drifts over the meat as it escapes through the vent, giving you all of that great smoky flavor.
Here’s where a temperature gauge is a necessity, because you need to check the heat level every 15 minutes or so. If you see that the temperature is close to or has dropped under 225°F, you will need to open the bottom air vent to get more oxygen to the fire to revive it.
At some point, the fire will stop responding to that change in air flow, and you will need to add more charcoal and wood. Use a chimney starter to get 12-15 coals burning.
Throw those on top of the ones in the grill along with a little more wood. This is also when you can rotate the meat to ensure even cooking.
And that’s all there is to smoking with a charcoal grill. It definitely takes a good bit of time though. It takes 4-5 hours to smoke baby back ribs, 6-7 hours for spare ribs, 12-16 hours for a pork butt, and 14-18 hours for brisket. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness.
To sum it up, you can use wood in your grill in a myriad of ways to add a ton more flavor to your food, and it’s easy as can be. I hope some of you will give it a try once grilling season rolls around.
About Ashley Martell
Ashley has enjoyed creative writing since she was six years old, when she wrote her first short story. She majored in English literature at the University of Montevallo. After years of professional work, she is now a stay-at-home mom of three, who uses her craft to write about her life and adventures in and out of the kitchen.
26 thoughts on “Use Smoke to Add Flavor to Your Grilling”
I usually dislike the taste of smoked meat, but I am starting to think I might be wrong about this, since I cannot think of something that sounds more delicious than smoked spare ribs! I guess I have my mother-in-law to blame, she makes smoked ham and other dishes with her smoker, but it somehow ends up tasting very weird. You give very clear instructions, but I’d still be afraid to try it, lest it comes out like hers…!
My husband loves to cook out. He is pretty good at it too. He adds wood usually peacan to the firebox on his grill. He slow cooks pork ribs, and Boston Butt to a wonderful masterpiece it is so good. The meat smells heavenly, and it falls right off the bone. The wood gives it a awesome taste, and the smell speaks for its self.
I’ve never seen anyone cook with wooden planks before. That’s an interesting technique. Does the taste differ a lot than ordinary smoking?
I love grilled foods. I haven’t been doing much of it myself lately, but I find that whenever smoke (naturally) or smoke flavoring is added, the foods have such a wonderful taste, and even better aroma.
Thanks for this post. It is very helpful indeed, as warmer weather is coming and it’s time to pull out the old smoker or grill.
Smoking is a really good way to bring out and compliment the flavors of just about any grill-appropriate meat out there. I like the way it tastes with pork chops the best, but I’ve also tried it with fish and it’s just as good. I’m going to try the soaked chips and see what all the fuss is about.
There isn’t one idea on here I don’t try… tonight. My mouth is watering so bad right now! I have to narrow it down to one or my husband won’t grill it for me. I can’t grill until this weekend anyway so I have some time to consider this…
I have no clue how grilling is done… i leave that to the man… besides its a man’s job…right?! I have no problem with smoked meat but please… let me be far from the smoke itself…otherwise i’ll have horrible sneezing flares and coughs 🙁
I won’t be able to do this with my current set up, since my hibachi doesn’t have a cover, but, eventually, I will upgrade, and try out the methods you describe. I love the idea of soaking the wood ahead of time, to infuse flavors into the cooked meat/veggies.
What’s the general opinion on liquid smoke? I have a really hard time with it. Is it just me or does anyone else feel it has quite a chemical taste to it? I can easily figure out where the ‘smoke’ element is coming from when it’s from liquid smoke. I will admit I do use it but in connection to my slow cooker. I’ve phased it out over time by charring my veggies & meat before throwing them in but there was a time when it was my go to.
My husband and I had hamburgers off the grill the other night and we used the Jack Daniel wood chips. We always thought you had to soak the chips in water, but on the back of the package for the JD chips it says just to add them to the charcoal as is. We thought is was odd, but after reading your article I see that it is not odd. Although I am seeing this a couple days too late it will help the next time we want to smoke our meat.
My brother smoked grilled chicken with apple juice-soaked wood chips. The smokey, fruity flavor provided an excellent twist on a barbecue chicken recipe. The recipe needed a little more modern twist and feel, so he decided to get a bit creative. We also have a cousin who works for a restaurant in Chicago and does some amazing work. He has also gave some tips in smoking tips and the cheap ways to invest in smoking meat.
Wow, I am simply stunned at the little details that have been included here. Points like changing the soaking liquids for different flavors and proper vent placement when using indirect heat are elite tips to kick up anyone’s grilling game. I’d add that planks also keep small or fragile food from falling through the grates. Tofu, veggies, mushrooms, fish, kabobs, and even hot dogs work very well on flat wood.
One thing I would urge all home cooks to do is try smoking your Thanksgiving turkey. Put your turkey in a pan of mirepoix, broth, and herbs to catch the drippings. The amazing smoky gravy that you make from these drippings is just heavenly and at my Thanksgiving Day feast it is the most talked about item.
You always give such clear and concise directions! The few times I’ve tried smoking it didn’t end up so well, and now I know why. I had no idea there was a method to smoking on a small charcoal grill, and you’ve outlined it perfectly!
I’m with you on the planked cooking. I had it once at a restaurant and always wanted to try it, but I didn’t want to have half salmon/half wood for dinner. Haha
Smoking meat really adds a unique flavor to the whole meal! My brother has often smoked chicken in apple wood and it’s by far the sweetest and most delicious chicken I’ve ever had in my life!
I always love to make grill, and the taste the meat gets from being on the grill is something really unique. Adding smoke to that makes the meat really, really flavored. Apple wood is really recommended for chicken or fish since it’s a sweet wood.
Cedar Plank salmon is phenomenal. They used to serve it at a restaurant I worked at. Definitely something I recommend for entertaining.
One trick to use in regards to soaking wood chips is to only soak half the chips and leave the other half dry. That way if you are smoking for awhile you can add more dry chips and bulk up the flavor while leaving the wet ones for slow release. I loved the flavor of mesquite wood when I lived in Texas, but it can be bit more difficult to find on the East Coast.
If I keep reading tips like these, I will sound like a BBQ master! Well not really since I don’t do any of the BBQ cooking. Though I could share something like this to my uncles. I can definitely see people getting creative with the flavors by soaking the chips in different flavors of alcohol. I love smoked meats like bacon.
I’m very excited to try some smoked meat!! I’m not the one who does the grilling so I wrote this down for my husband to do, but it looks and sounds delicious! I could probably even try doing this myself with such clear instructions. Thanks for sharing!
This article has some wonderfully delicious ideas that I can’t wait to try someday when I have a house and the ability to grill! We are currently limited by apartment living and are not able to grill due to property restrictions. We did find a wonderful alternative though – a stove top smoker! The name is a bit misleading because it can actually be used on any heat source including a grill or open fire, but we use ours right on the burners of our stove. It amazes me every time how quickly it cooks and how thoroughly the smoke flavor penetrates the meat. We have tried it on all kinds of things – pork tenderloin, ribs, Cornish hens, fish, bacon wrapped beef tenderloin – and each one has been delicious! So even if you’re stuck in an apartment, you can still enjoy smoked foods!
My family loves grilling out during every season. Recent we’ve been mixing up how we grill, so far our favorites is using wood from apple trees. This artical will come in handy during our next cookout!
A handful of terrific ideas to get the best out of your meat. The next time i am about to have a barbecue i will try out your suggestions. And grilling with wooden planks really does enhance the flavor in my opinion i absolutely am a big fan of doing that. The smokiness it adds to especially chicken is just absolutely DIVINE.
I love grilled meat and this is a great advice article on grilling but one thing one should note is that grilling does produce carcinogens and it’s definitely harmful to your health. Don’t let that get in your way of grilling though, marinating your meat before grilling significantly decreases the carcinogens produced and would definitely help!
Just thought it was something great to know, keep grilling (but marinade first)!
I was actually interested in getting a smoker but I talked to someone who said they are very time consuming and difficult to use. He said whenever he puts something in, he has to make sure he is around all day to tend to it. I love the taste of smoked foods so I have to look for another way to get the same flavor. This article provides excellent tips.
Thank you for this article! I’ve always been quite bored of your typical BBQs. It does not take a lot of effort to put meet onto a grill and let it cook, but it takes a bit more skill to make it tastier than normal. It’s still boxing week, so I might add a wood smoker to my shopping list, and hopefully I’ll have time to make some delicious dishes for 2016!
I have never tried to smoke my own meat. My fiance loves smoked ham and other smoked meats. This may be just the ticket. We have an old propane grill that has seen it’s better days, and this may be how we can find a use for it again. We also have a charcoal grill that I want to try this on. Thank you for the idea. I never would have thought to try this before reading this article. I look forward to some new flavors in our meals now.
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