Using Your Gas Grill to Smoke Meats
If you’re new to gas grilling, check out our “Beginner’s Guide to Gas Grilling.” If you’ve got a Weber grill or other charcoal burner, you can find tips and tricks for smoking over coals in our “Beginner’s Guide to Charcoal Grilling” article.
What is Smoking?
The results are worth the effort, however. Wood chips impart the smokey quality that seasons the meat with flavors that just can’t be replicated with spices. Like other low and slow forms of cooking including braising, barbecue is usually moist and fall-off-the-bone tender.
Using Traditional Smokers Versus Gas Grills
A gas grill is designed from the outset to be a multifunction device. Their specialty is cooking directly at high heat, and we all know that they can get really hot. Grills with multiple burners allow you the option of setting up indirect cooking on one side of the grill. By experimenting and playing around with your grill, you can figure out how to keep your indirect cooking area steady at 250℉ or so. Once you’ve established a technique to do that, the rest is easy.
Since you’re making a grill double as a meat smoker, a lot of the cooking process will be trial and error or problem solving in the beginning. Don’t lose hope. Many people learn how to BBQ right over their gas grills. You will be rewarded for your perseverance and patience. The most common problem with smoking on gas grills is the poor fitting lid, which lets out a lot of smoke and heat. If you have a high-quality grill with a tight-fitting lid, you’ll have fewer problems.
Accessories You Might Need
The absolute key to getting your make-shift smoker up and running is knowing the exact temperature on the grill grate. Whatever you do, you cannot rely on the simple thermometer that came on the lid of your grill. They are notoriously inaccurate, sometimes with more than a 100° error! They are also in the wrong place since no one cares how hot the lid is.
The second temperature you need is the internal temperature of the meat. You don’t want to be lifting the lid constantly to check, so having a remote probe really pays off. Again, many fancy digital units feature alarm features so that you will get an alert when your meat is ready. That’s important since we are talking in terms of hours, not minutes. You’re going to get distracted, and you’re going to be doing other things while you cook.
The smoker box you use is going to depend on your grill. Some nicer examples of propane grill feature a built-in smoker box. This is usually off to the side of the cooking grate, and it allows you to fill it with wood chips to add smoky flavors to your food. The grill manufacturer may or may not have intended you to use this as a true, low-temp smoker. If that’s the case, you might have to play with the burner settings to figure out how to keep it working at low temperatures.
If your grill doesn’t have a smoker box, fear not. You can purchase after-market accessories for smoking meat that will make it work on nearly any grill. Removable smoker boxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they’re usually made out of heavy stainless steel or cast iron. These boxes sit directly on the burner covers or the cooking grate over your lit flame. They have hinged lids, so adding more wood chips is a breeze.
If you want to give it a go without any of these fancy tools, many people have luck making their own smoke packets out of aluminum foil. You can also use a disposable tin baking tray, covered with foil. Just like a smoker box, fill the tray with soaked wood chips or dry wood chunks. Be sure to punch some holes in the top to let the smoke out.
You’re also going to want a pan underneath your meat to catch drippings and to make your clean up faster. The trick here is to find something that will fit under the grates without putting pressure on the actual grill burners. Look in your local supermarket for disposable aluminum tins and trays that roughly match the size and shape you need. If necessary, you might have to modify it slightly with scissors to get it to sit neatly below the grate.
All About Wood Smoke and Meat
What Type of Wood Should You Use?
You’ve decided you want to smoke something, and now you’re looking for more information about what type of wood you should use. Like all things in barbecue, it’s a matter of taste. Different wood smokes produce different flavor profiles. It’s up to you to decide what you like and how much of it.
When comparing types of wood for smoking, knowing how strong the flavor will be is an integral part of your decision. You don’t want to use a robust-flavored smoke that will overpower a delicate dish like seafood. Likewise, using a light flavor on dense red meat like beef might not make it shine.
Light flavored woods include alder, apple, cherry, and maple, just to name a few. These are good for seafood, pork, and poultry. In general, fruitwoods, like apple, peach, and cherry, have mild and slightly sweet flavors. They’re best when used on white or pink meats.
Alternatively, hickory, mesquite, and oak produce intense flavors that are perfect for pork, beef, and turkey. Hickory has a strong, heavy bacon flavor that’s great for pork and ribs. Pecan has a mild sweet flavor like hickory but not as intense. Mesquite is robust and earthy. It pairs great with beef and many vegetables. Oak is strong and pairs well with red meat and big game. Cedar can be too strong if left on the fire too long, so it’s often used in quicker cooking recipes like seafood.
These are just a few of the woods that you can experiment with while smoking. If you come across an unfamiliar type of wood and want to consider cooking with it, the best thing to do is to search the internet and find out as much as you can before you start. Not all hardwoods are suitable for smoking. Some simply don’t burn well, and others will leave a nasty taste on your food.
Chips, Chunks, or Pellets?
When buying supplies at the local big-box store or chopping your wood chips from a log, you have several options of what size to get. The three main choices are chunks, chips, and pellets. Chunks are more expensive, but they have the advantage of burning down the slowest. A few chunks will last several hours, so you’ll go through a lot less of it. Since there is less wood smoldering, you may find that they make the least amount of smoke of the three. Chips are the most popular to use and can be found nearly anywhere that sells grilling supplies. Pellets are sold for a particular application, which is to fuel pellet grills. But there are specialty smoker tubes that burn pellets and can be used on any type of grill. They are an inexpensive way to make a lot of smoke.
Figuring out how to BBQ right on your particular grill requires trial and error. Depending on the type of smoker box you choose, where it’s mounted, and how hot it gets, you might have better luck with one cut of wood over another. Keep experimenting to figure out what really works for you.
What Meats are Good Smoked?
Fish is commonly smoked to add a wonderful earthy flavor. Since fish is light and delicate, it doesn’t take very long. It is easy to overpower the fish, so keep that in mind as you choose your wood. Fatty fish, like trout and salmon, are really good at soaking up the smoke flavor. Smoked fish dip, anyone?
Poultry is also another good choice. From whole game hens to chicken legs and breasts, there’s no limit. Like fish, these white and pink meats tend to absorb flavor quickly, so you don’t want to overwhelm them. Whole chickens, in particular, are great smoked.
There’s no reason to stop with proteins, either. If you search online, you will find many recipes for smoked side dishes and vegetables. Potatoes, zucchini, squash, peppers, and corn are all great smoked. Smoked macaroni and cheese might become a new family favorite.
Basic Techniques and Seasonings
Marinating your meat is the process of letting the seasonings permeate it over some time. If the marinade includes an acid, like vinegar or citrus, it may also begin breaking down the proteins and adding moisture. The amount of time meat should marinade is a factor of how hearty it is. Fish and chicken cuts should only be marinated for a few hours, while ribs and brisket should be done overnight. Remember, the marinade has touched raw meat, so once you’ve removed the meat and put it on the grill, the marinade should be discarded for safety.
An alternative to a marinade is called a brine. A brine is just a very salty solution, and soaking your meat in a brine is an excellent way to get more moisture and more salt deep into the meat. Brining is a slow process, so it’s best reserved for meats that get very dry like turkey, pork loin, or leg of lamb.
The problem with marinating and brining is that it doesn’t get into the center of thick meats, and it takes hours to accomplish. If you’re looking at a huge brisket or pork tenderloin, all that flavor and juiciness isn’t going to get into the middle. The answer is to inject a solution into the center of the meat with a giant kitchen syringe. You can inject any sort of brine solution into the meat that you like, but most recipes call for water, salt, sugar, juices, Worcestershire sauce, and a few spices. To make sure any spices you include will pass through the needle, you might have to grind them down.
A rub is a mix of spices that is applied to the outside of the meat. It bakes together with the juices coming out of the meat to make a crusty layer of deliciousness on the outside. Most rubs include things like salt and pepper, brown sugar, chili powder, and garlic powder.
Of course, no barbecue recipe is complete without the sauce. BBQ sauce recipes vary depending on your region and the type of dish you’re after. There’s no right or wrong way to do the sauce. If you’ve done a marinade and rub already, a sauce might be overkill. Sauces are usually made in advance and then drizzled on the final product after cooking.
Step by Step Process to Smoking on your Gas Grill
Remember that if your recipe calls for a marinade or a brine, it’s going to take a long time. You need to start thinking about it the day prior to cooking. Follow the recipe to create the marinade, and use a baking dish or pan deep enough for the meat to be submerged. Keep it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook. Remember to keep it separate from everything in the fridge to avoid any of your other food getting contaminated by the raw meat. It’s a good idea to put it on the bottom shelf so that if there are any leaks or spills, they will affect fewer items and be easier to clean.
Prepping the Grill
Setting up your grill for smoking takes a little more time than regular grilling. If you’re not used to smoking meats with your grill, take an hour or so and figure out the best combination of lit and unlit burners to give you indirect cooking at the right temperature. Set up your grill thermometer’s probe on the cooking grate, and then light one burner farthest away and set it to high. Let it preheat, and see what the temperature is on the cooking grate. The goal is to keep that cooking surface at a steady 230° to 250°. If you can’t get it hot enough, try lighting another burner. If it’s too hot, start turning the heat down until you can hit your target.
Besides the right combination of burners and the correct temperature settings, you need to have two other things ready to go before you start smoking. First, you need to have your smoker box loaded with wood chips or chunks. If using wood chips, make sure to have soaked them beforehand. If there is no problem getting them to smoke in a controlled fashion, you can try using dry chips next time. The smoker box, if not installed on your grill, should be located over or next to the lit burner. You can place it directly on the grate above, but many are built to sit on the flavor shields that cover the burner. If this is the case, remove that side of the cooking grate and set it aside.
On the other side of the grill, underneath the cooking grate you intend to use, should be a drip pan. The proteins that are best for smoking are usually large pieces of meat that are somewhat fatty, like brisket and pork butt. You’ll want to catch all the drippings to make clean up a lot easier. You also can fill this drip pan with water. This does two things for your barbecue. It provides a little extra mass so that as the grill heats up, the water will heat up too. That will help regulate the temperature, which is especially helpful since most gas grills have thin sides and too much venting when compared to proper smokers. The extra water will also add moisture to the cooking environment, which will keep the meat tender and juicy.
With your burners set, and your smoker box and drip pan loaded, it’s time to preheat the grill to cooking temperature and double-check your thermometer readings. Set up the thermometer so that you can keep an eye on the grill’s cooking temperature throughout the cooking.
At this point in the process, the meat should’ve been marinating and ready to put on the grill. If you are using a dry rub, pat the meat dry and liberally apply the rub. Press it into the meat as best you can.
Place the meat on the grate, above the drip pan. Insert your meat thermometer probe into the inner part of the meat, being careful to avoid any direct contact with bone or the grill. Close the lid, sit back, and let the magic happen.
While you certainly can wander and get distracted, you need to check in occasionally. You should see lots of smoke coming out of the grill, and if you notice it tapering off, then you might want to reload the smoker box. The most flavor is imparted in the meat during the first part of cooking, so if it tapers off a little towards the end, it will likely be fine. For delicate meats, you might want to let the smoker box run out if you are worried about the flavor overwhelming the food. When you reload the smoker box, it’s also a good time to rotate or flip the meat to ensure it cooks evenly.
Once cooked, wrap the meat in tin foil and allow it to rest for a few minutes on the cutting board. The thicker the cut, the longer you should let it rest. You can use this time to get your sauce ready if you’re using one.
Gas grilling is a great way to spend more time in your backyard and put some delicious meals on the table. But a Weber grill or a gas grill doesn’t have to be limited to high temperature, fast cooking. Once you look beyond the burgers and hot dogs, there’s a world of delicious barbecue awaiting you and your family.
Smoking meat is not a quick afternoon chore, but for a family weekend outside in the yard or by the pool, it’s a great way to make an extraordinary meal. Plus, the delicious smell of smoke coming out of your grill will draw friends in from far and wide to your backyard barbecue.