Most of the time when we want to cook something like beef brisket or a pork roast, we use a pellet smoker to get the flavor and texture we are after. We also realize that not everyone has a pellet smoker, so we want to talk about the best ways to cook low and slow on a charcoal grill. The common way to use a charcoal grill is to light some lump charcoal or briquettes, toss on some burgers or chicken, flip a couple of times, and pull it off. That's the fast and hot method. What we are going to discuss today is cooking low and slow on a charcoal or gas grill.
Low and Slow Cooking
Low and slow means what it sounds like. You'll be shooting for a grill temperature of between 200 and 250 degrees. You also want to be able to place the meat on the grill without coals underneath. For smaller charcoal grills, this means you'll have only a limited amount of space to cook with. Don't despair, we've got a solution that will turn even a portable charcoal kettle grill into a low and slow BBQ tool.
How to Set Up Your Grill
Regardless of the size of your grill, start with high-quality lump charcoal. We've had good success with Blues Hog. Most off the shelf charcoal will offer an excellent, smoky flavor that enhances pork, beef, and chicken. We use a chimney starter to get things going. The first thing we do is fill the chimney up then add it to the charcoal grill unlit, moving it off to one side. Then, we refill the chimney and light the charcoal using fire starters.
While the charcoal is lighting, we place an aluminum drip tray next to the unlit charcoal. We fill the tray about one inch with water, cider, or beer depending on the recipe we are using. Once the top layer of charcoal is burning, we add the chimney to the grill on top of the unlit lump charcoal.
Creating Indirect Heat
You'll want to move all of the charcoal to one side of the charcoal grate. A slick trick we learned that works great on small grills is to use a couple of fire bricks to create an offset firebox inside the charcoal grill. The bricks insulate the charcoal and help to keep the water tray from getting too hot. The key is that you don't want burning charcoal under the area where the meat is cooking.
Venting Your Charcoal Grill
Start with the top and bottom vents at least 50-percent open and keep an eye on the temperature. The temp will rapidly rise and as it does, start to close the vents so that it starts to slow down around 230 degrees. Try to stabilize the temperature around 275 to 300 degrees.
The reason we always overshoot the ideal temperature is because the grill temp will drop significantly when you open the lid and add your meat. It takes time for the temperature to come back up, particularly when you've just added meat to it. One way to minimize the temperature drop is to set your meat on the counter about half an hour before it is ready to cook. You don't want to let it sit too long because the meat is at risk of harmful bacteria once it reaches about 40-degrees. But letting the meat warm slightly before putting it on the grill will help to keep the temperature from dropping too far and from taking too long to get back up to the proper temperature.
When you place the meat on the grill, make sure that you place it only on the indirect side, that is the side where there is no charcoal. If you place the meat over the coals, you'll be grilling, not barbecuing. The goal here is to replicate the effects of an offset smoker, not simply grill a steak.
Using a Meat Thermometer
A meat thermometer is an essential tool for getting great, consistent results. You'll want the meat probe in the thickest part of the meat and at least one-inch deep. Avoid getting the probe too close to bones or between muscle groups because you'll get inaccurate temperatures. We also use an instant-read thermometer toward the end of our cook to ensure that we've hit our target internal temperature.
How Long Does it Take?
Depending on the thickness and toughness of the cut of meat you are working with, you'll be at the barbecue for three to ten hours – sometimes longer. Since the goal is to cook low and slow, trying to rush the process will only give you disastrous results.
Low and slow cooking on a barbecue will mean that you are going to need to add charcoal throughout the process to keep your temperatures stable. The trick is to wait until the coals are starting to crumble, but haven't burned out. You should watch your grill temperature and when you see it starting to drop steadily, that is a sure sign it's time for more coals. Always start coals in a chimney before adding them to the grill. Unlit charcoal will give off a broad range of toxins that can cause health problems and make your meat taste oily.
Using a grill that has a two-part cooking grate is the easiest way to ensure that you can add coals when you want without having to move the meat. If you are using a one-piece grill grate, have a tray handy and move the meat off the grill grate while adding coals, then move it back as soon as you can to keep the temperature from dropping.
The Benefits of Low and Slow Cooking
The biggest benefit that you'll get from low and slow cooking is that you'll add tons of smoky flavor that makes even the blandest beef taste amazing. The smoke will penetrate the surface of the meat, giving you a rosy pink smoke ring and a crisp bark, while trapping the moisture and flavor of the meat inside.
When you cook low and slow, the combination of temperature and time work to break down tough connective tissue and render fat that turns into flavor. Low and slow cooking is the reason why even an average BBQ joint can make a brisket that is tender and tasty.
Low and Slow BBQ on a Gas Grill
Gas grills offer the utmost in convenience because all you've got to do is open your propane tank, light the burners, and you are ready for grilling. The downside of course is that you don't get the unique flavors and texture that you'll get when cooking on a smoker. We've got a few tips here that'll get you the kind of results you want when you are using a gas grill.
Indirect Heat on a Gas Grill
Gas grills that have at least two banks of burners can be set up to cook on indirect heat. Light only one side of the burners and start out with the temperature very high. Then, start to bring the burner flame down until you notice the indirect heating side beginning to drop. Adding a water tray on top of the unlit burners will also help to stabilize the temperatures and reduce sudden spikes and drops.
Smoking on a Gas Grill
There are a variety of options for getting the smoke flavor you want. The low-tech way to do it is simply to use heavy-duty aluminum foil to create an envelope or pouch that you'll add smoking chips or pellets to, then place over the fire. The goal is to get the chips or pellets to smolder, not burn. You might need to experiment a little to find the perfect spot, but it's an easy lesson for getting the perfect results you are after.
One of our favorite tools is a cast iron pellet box. These are small metal boxes with a removable, vented lid. You just add pellets or chips to the box, put on the lid, and set it on the hot side of the grill. In some cases, you might even be able to place the smoker box directly on the coals.
Using these simple techniques, you can transform even the smallest of charcoal kettle grills into a smoker to cook your favorite meat low and slow. You'll be able to cook a massive pork shoulder or a rack of ribs and get that amazing smoky flavor that you only find at the local BBQ spot right from your simple charcoal grill. Some of our favorite low and slow recipes include smoked brisket, prime rib, and pork butt. These are excellent cuts of meat for smoking and low and slow BBQ cooking.
If you try it out, make sure to let us know how it went!
The Bearded Butchers are dedicated to providing as much information as we possibly can to help you understand how to best process and prepare meats of all kinds. To help you, we maintain a blog and Youtube channel with lots of free, high-quality information. The Bearded Butchers and Beardedbutchers.com are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This means that The Bearded Butchers may receive a commission if you click on a link above and make a purchase on Amazon.com.