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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.
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.