How to Turn Your Grill Into a Smoker

No smoker? No problem! With a few modifications, your grill can do double duty.

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Illustration by Michael Tabie.

You don't need a fancy, expensive contraption to smoke meats and veggies this summer. In fact, you probably already have everything you need! Read on for the best tips for how to use your backyard grill as a smoker.

Days Before

Review recipes for any advance steps. Smoked foods may require a rub or brine well ahead of time. You also may need to thaw large cuts of frozen meat. Now's a good time to check your fuel supply, too. You may need a backup tank of propane or an extra bag of charcoal to avoid running out.

Hours to Days Before

Brine or rub according to your recipe. Always refrigerate meat during this period. After brining, pat meat dry. If time allows, let it air-dry, uncovered, in the fridge another 6 to 24 hours. This creates a tackier surface that attracts smoke and makes poultry skin crispier.

More: Marinades, brines, and rubs for grilled food

One Hour Before

Put a generous handful (1 cup) of wood chips in water to soak. Adjust grill grate heights to fit large meat cuts if necessary. You'll be using indirect heat here, so start only one burner or bank charcoal off to the sides. Set a heatproof pan of hot water either directly over the heat source or nestled next to the coals. (The pan helps prevent flare-ups. The hot water holds and radiates heat, keeping your grill temp more consistent. And the steam created inhibits bacterial growth during low-and-slow cooking.) Heat grill to a consistent 225 degrees F to 300 degrees F (110 degrees C to 150 degrees C) . Note: Wind and cold weather can put a dent in your temps.

Go Time

  1. Drain wood chips and place them on an 18-inch length of foil, folding it over and crimping edges to make a sealed packet.
  2. Poke several small holes in the top of the packet.
  3. Put on your oven mitts and place packet directly on lit burner or heat deflector (or directly on coals if using charcoal), under the cooking grate. Make additional packets if you're smoking for a long time. You'll want to replace the packet about every 3 hours.
  4. Lightly oil grate and place food on grate on the unlit side of the grill.
  5. Cover and cook, maintaining heat, replenishing charcoal and refilling the water pan as needed, until food reaches the desired degree of doneness. If you're using charcoal and need to increase the temperature, adjust the vents (oxygen helps fan flames), preheat additional charcoal in a charcoal chimney, and use tongs to add coals.
smoked meats, seafood, and vegetables on a baking sheet

No Peeking!

Opening the grill releases heat, so keep the lid closed as much as possible, and use a thermometer. Smoking can give meat a pink tint beneath the surface (called a "smoke ring") or even all the way through smaller cuts, so rely on a meat thermometer rather than your eye to know when food is cooked. Bear in mind, meat should rest before slicing, and temps will rise another 5 to 10 degrees during resting. Here's what you're aiming for:

  • For fish and beef and pork steaks, chops, and roasts: minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F (63 degrees C).
  • For poultry: minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F (75 degrees C).
  • For brisket and ribs: minimum internal temperature of 180 degrees F to 200 degrees F (82 degrees C to 95 degrees C).


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