Smoking on your BBQ

We have already looked at the different ways to cook on your BBQ in previous articles however there is another element that can be added to each of these methods and that is smoke! Smoking has really taken off in the UK in recent years and has become something any backyard BBQ’er can do.

I didn’t mention smoking in my previous article as it is such a wide category I felt it deserved it’s own article. So in this article we’ll look at what smoking is and why you might want to try it. We will then talk about how to use smoke on different styles of BBQ.

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What is smoking?

In the broadest sense, smoking is simply using different woods to add flavour to your food. It can include anything from grilling over lumpwood charcoal to cooking low and slow in a wood fired offset smoker.

As different woods burn, the smoke they generate adds a different flavour to your meat. Some woods such as Oak or Hickory have a strong flavour whilst woods such as Apple or Cherry have a milder flavour.

When you are starting out it is best to simply treat these different woods as ingredients in your recipe to help you achieve different flavours.

Can you smoke on any BBQ?

The short answer to this question is ‘Yes, depending on what type of smoking you want to do.’ If you want to simply cook directly over a wood fire then a simple hole in the ground and a few logs is all the gear you need to get started. Similarly, cooking directly over a quality lumpwood charcoal will give you equally tasty results on any charcoal BBQ.

Adding wood to your fuel source will ultimately generate smoke and flavour your food. If you are roasting a chicken on your Weber kettle, adding a few wood chips or a chunk of wood to the coals will add a smoky flavour to your chicken and give it a beautiful colour.

So what about gas BBQ’s? There are ways to add wood chips to your gas BBQ that will slowly generate smoke and add flavour to your meat. We will talk about the different ways to add smoke on a gas BBQ later in this series.

What is the difference between dust, chips, pellets and chunks?

I have already mentioned that cooking over a wood fire or lumpwood charcoal is the most basic way to add wood smoke to your cooking but there are 4 other common forms of wood that can be used.

Most woods used for smoking are available in dust, chips, pellets and chunks. These different forms have slightly different applications but all serve the same purpose.

Dust is most commonly used for cold smoking. As the name suggests, it is a very fine form of wood. When packed into a container tightly, it will smoulder slowly, generating very little heat and a fine trickle of smoke making if perfect for cold smoking.

Wood chips are a slightly large form of wood that are commonly soaked in water and placed directly onto the coals. As the chips are wet, they burn slowly generating smoke. Chips are also used for smoking on a gas BBQ. They are placed inside a container and placed directly above one of the burners. As the chips heat up they will start to burn and produce smoke.

Pellets are used as a fuel source for pellet grills. They can also be used for cold smoking as they are compacted tightly and will smoulder for a long period of time inside something like a smoker tube but will generate very little heat.

Wood chunks have a similar application to wood chips however they will give you a slightly longer smoke when placed into the coals. They are not really suitable for smoking on a gas BBQ but one or two chunks added to the charcoal is generally enough to give you an hour or so of smoke.

Smoking with different woods?

As I mentioned above, different woods will give you a different flavour. Some of these differences can be very subtle but matched with a certain type of meat and they can make a big difference.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that whilst most hardwoods are suitable for smoking, there are some woods you should avoid as they can be harmful. These woods are Redwood, Pine, Fir, Elm, Liquid Amber, Cypress, Spruce, Sycamore and Cedar. You should also avoid wood that has been treated with any kind of preservative.

To help you understand the different wood flavours and what food they can be used with I’ve put together a chart with some of the most common woods showing their strength and what they work well with. This list isn’t exclusive and there are many other woods out there that can be used but as a beginner this will give you a broad spectrum of flavours to play with. The chart is in A4 size so feel free to download it, print it, share it with your BBQ friends!

Smoking on a Charcoal BBQ

Smoking on a charcoal BBQ is a great way to get started and learn the basics of smoking. My first attempts at smoking were on my Weber Kettle and with a little practice, you can get great results. I mentioned above that the most basic form of adding wood smoke to your food is simply cooking over lumpwood charcoal. You can also add wood to your charcoal or briquettes for any other direct or indirect cooking method to ramp up the flavour.

Should you use wood chips or chunks?

Depending on the flavour or intensity of smoke you are aiming for, you can use chips or chunks when smoking on a charcoal BBQ. Both are placed directly onto the coals. Wood chips should be soaked for about 20-30 minutes before adding them to the coals. They are smaller in size and if you don’t soak them, they will burn quickly giving you very little smoke. When the wood chips are wet, they should give around 10-15 minutes of smoke so if you are aiming for a mild smoky flavour they are perfect. They are also perfect for shorter cooks or if you are cooking direct.

Chunks are larger and will therefore burn for a longer time. One or two chunks added to the coals can provide around 1 hour of smoke. Some people may choose to soak the chunks before adding them to the coals but in my opinion this isn’t necessary. Dry wood will produce a cleaner smoke and if they burn a little quicker, you can always add another chunk.

Tips for smoking on a Charcoal BBQ

When I talk to anyone who is interested in learning how to smoke, I always recommend they start smoking on a charcoal BBQ they already have. You can do almost any form of smoking on a Kettle BBQ and whilst they may not be as easy to manage as a dedicated smoker, you can get very similar results.

Aim to be subtle with your smoke and treat it like any other flavour you add to your food. By all means you can add a little extra if you like the flavour but too much will result in your food tasting and looking like it was in a house fire! I like to think of it this way.

Let’s say you add a rub to a whole chicken before putting in onto the BBQ to roast. You would never dream of going back and adding more rub every 15 minutes or so until the chicken is cooked. The flavour of the chicken would be overpowered by the layers of rub and result in a rather unpleasant meal! The same rules apply to smoke. 15 minutes of smoke at the very beginning of the cook is enough to give you a great flavour but you will still be able to taste your seasoning and more importantly the meat.

The smoke will only penetrate into the meat whilst the outer surface isn’t sealed. After 20-30 minutes at normal roasting temperatures, the smoke will struggle to get into the meat so there is little point in adding more. Food that is cooking low and slow will take longer to seal so can therefore take on more smoke but remember not to be too heavy handed.

Another important factor to remember is airflow. If you are cooking indirect and want to add smoke, the position of your lid vent is crucial. The same can be said for any indirect cooking. Your lid vent should always be placed directly over your food to ensure the air is drawn in through the bottom vent, through the coals and wood then it passes over your food before exiting the BBQ through the lid vent. If the vent is placed over the coals, the airflow will be through the coals then straight up and out through the vent.

The caveat to this setup is that the hood thermometer may now be placed directly over the coals giving you a false reading as to the actual temperature at grill level where your food is placed. I would recommend you have a grill level thermometer to get accurate temperature readings.

The perfect way to start

A kettle BBQ is the ideal beginners BBQ as you can do almost any form of cooking on it including smoking. Something like the Weber 57cm Mastertouch has all the features you need to learn all aspects of BBQ. When smoking on a charcoal BBQ, a lid is essential and hinged cooking grates make it very easy to add more coals or wood chips without having to remove your cooking grate from the BBQ.

You can easily learn the basics of smoking on a kettle before moving up to a dedicated smoker. Start with adding a few wood chips or chunks to your current cooks and experimenting with different flavours before moving on to some of the bigger cooks like ribs or brisket.

By adding a little bit of smoke at the start, then building from there, you will slowly learn what wood flavours you like and how strong you like them.

Smoking on a Gas BBQ

Many of us own both Gas and Charcoal BBQ’s and whilst smoking is traditionally done using charcoal, it couldn’t be easier to get started smoking on a gas BBQ!

Before we dive into the article, I just want to mention one thing. The old Gas vs Charcoal debate has been going on for quite a few years and is sure to carry on into the future. On one hand, some people say that gas is more convenient and on the other, some say that charcoal is the only true way to BBQ. There are valid arguments for both and I’m not going to get into them right now.

All I will say is this. If you own a gas BBQ or are planning on buying one then go for it! I’ve learned a lot on my Gas Weber and all those skills have transferred over to my charcoal BBQ’s as well. My first ever brisket was smoked on a gas BBQ and it turned out great! At the end of the day, you are still outside, cooking over flame and learning how to make outstanding food.

OK, just give me a second to jump down from this soap box and we’ll crack on with the rest of the article!

How to add wood smoke on your Gas BBQ

On your gas BBQ, you would traditionally use wood chips or pellets in a heat proof container to generate smoke. If you are cooking on a Weber gas BBQ, they sell a smoker box that fits directly on top of the flavorizer bars or you can make your own using a foil drip pan covered with some foil and a few holes punched on top.

On a charcoal BBQ, wood chips will generate smoke almost instantly when placed on the coal. Smoking on a gas BBQ is a little different. It can take up to 15 minutes for the chips to start producing smoke so I would recommend putting the smoker box onto the BBQ while you are preheating it so when it is up to temperature, you should be producing smoke.

You can also add smoke using a smoker tube filled with wood pellets. By lighting one end of the tube and placing it on the cooking grate, it will slowly produce smoke.

Tips for smoking on a gas BBQ

Placement of the smoker box is crucial on a gas BBQ. The ambient temperature inside your BBQ won’t be high enough to get the wood chips smoking. The smoker box needs direct heat from the burner to get the chips smouldering so place the smoker box under your cooking grate, on top of the flavorizer bar. The burner directly below that flavorizer bar should be lit to provide enough heat.

Airflow on a gas BBQ is a little more random than on a charcoal BBQ as it doesn’t have a single vent that channels the air out of the BBQ. This means it’s a little harder to direct the flow of smoke over your meat. When smoking on a gas BBQ, it’s really important that you keep your lid down as much as possible while the chips are smoking to contain the smoke inside the hood. You may find you need to add a second batch of chips to allow your meat to take on the desired smokey flavour!

Always soak your wood chips in water for around 20 minutes before placing them in the smoker box. The idea is to get them smouldering slowly to give off the optimum amount of smoke. Dry wood chips will eventually ignite and burn away. Pellets on the other hand should be dry before placing them in a smoker tube to ensure they keep burning. As the tube will not be placed directly over a heat source, you shouldn’t have to worry about them igniting.

Low and slow BBQ is simple on a gas BBQ. On my 3 burner Spirit, The first burner on high is enough to keep the temperature around 110°C. Place your smoker box filled with wood chips over that first burner and your meat over the unlit 3rd burner and close the lid. As I said above, My first ever brisket was smoked on my gas BBQ and I’ve had some great results with pulled pork as well!

Don’t feel like you have to wait until you own a charcoal BBQ or dedicated smoker to start smoking, crack on with your gas BBQ and learn the basics now.