Those of you watching our YouTube channel know how much we enjoy smoking everything. Following our recipes is easy, but what to do if you don’t have a smoker? Well, you can use wood pellets and chips in a gas grill or a charcoal barbecue with excellent results. Today, we are going to discuss the types of woods you can use to create a delicious, smoky flavor.
The Common Types of Wood Used for Smoking
Smoking meat requires a slow-burning wood that produces flavorful smoke at a low temperature. The best woods for smoking are hardwoods, fruitwoods, and nutwoods. Soft wood, like pine, ignites and burns rather than smokes. Hardwoods treated with paint, varnish, or lacquer are not appropriate for cooking.
Hardwoods sold for smoking on a grill are sold in chunks, chips, and pellets. Chunks are obviously large chunks and chips are smaller bits. Wood pellets are a manufactured product that uses sawdust and pressure to craft a perfect little smoking pellet of hardwood. Chunks are considered to be better for smoking than chips, while pellets are the easiest to use and often the most affordable.
There are dozens of types of hardwoods on the market. The list below is merely a tiny sample of the varieties of wood available to the grill master today, including exotic hardwoods from Africa, Asia, and South America. Many regions in the world are famous for certain types of wood used to smoke meat.
Oak is a common hardwood that gives a mildly smokey flavor. Oak is a good choice for all types of protein. There are several common species of oak that can impart different flavors with red oak considered to be the best. Oak is a sustainable hardwood often originating in North America. You can find pellets, chunks, chips, and scrap oak to use in your grill. Oak is often mixed with other, stronger woods to mellow and enhance the flavor.
Hickory is another hardwood often found in North America. Hickory is the darling of woods for many professional grillmasters because of the intense, classic flavor. Hickory gives a complex sweet and spicy flavor. You are probably most familiar with the smell of frying bacon that has been cured over hickory smoke. It’s commonly available in chips and chunks, as well as pellets. Hickory can be used on most proteins, but is a stand-out star with pork and wild game.
Apple is a common American fruit wood popular for smoking. Apple gives a soft, sweet smoke reminiscent of apples. It pairs well with game birds, poultry, lamb, and is a classic smoke flavor for ham, bacon, and other pork products. Try apple smoking some beef ribs rubbed with molasses and brown sugar for a really delicious experience.
Mesquite is a wild-growing hardwood from the American Southwest. This hardwood gives a strong, deep, and spicy flavor perfect for chicken and wild game, lamb, and duck. Mesquite is sold both raw and charred, so you can use it to cook and smoke at the same time. It burns hot and fast, though, so plan on tending the fire a little more than with other hardwoods.
When you really want to try something different, try hardwoods from sources such as wine and whiskey barrels. Barrels are typically made from American white oak. Most wine barrels will be raw, bare oak soaked in wine, while whiskey barrels are often charred to add flavor to the beverage. The unique combinations of flavors from the aging process of the alcohol give a wide variety of interesting and unique flavors. Try using wood pellets or wood chips sourced from used port wine barrels on beef, pork, and lamb; or wood from whiskey barrels for poultry, chicken, and fish.
A Note on Wood Quality
Always select the highest quality hardwood for smoking you can find. You don’t have to go to the big box stores and buy a ton of wood, either. Get in touch with local furniture and cabinet makers. They might be able to hook you up with scraps and cut-offs that are untreated and perfect for smoking. You can even use scrap hardwood to make your own charcoal at home!
How to Smoke without a Smoker
We are going to share some tricks we've learned over the years to get great smoke flavor from a gas or charcoal grill. It’s a bit more work than a smoker, and you’ll want to be confident at how to accurately control the temperature of your grill. Smoking is done at low temperatures over a long period of time, so understanding how much fuel to use and how to control venting is essential. The goal is to hit a target temperature and keep the grill there for the entire time.
Gas Grill Smoking
The trick to using a gas grill for smoking is learning the two-zone method. Essentially, you want a hot section and a cool one on your grill. Light only one side of the grill. The “cold” side will soak up plenty of heat without getting too hot. If using wood chunks, you can set them on the burner covers. The chunks should smoke just fine, but if they catch fire, you will need a different plan. Put wood pellets or chips in an aluminum pan over the heat source on the grill. A pan of water set on the off burner below the grate will help regulate temperatures and prevent wild swings as the wood heats and cools. All that is left is to place your protein on the off side of the burner. Use a remote thermometer to monitor temperatures and close the lid. Don’t open it unless necessary.
Charcoal Grill Smoking
Smoking on a charcoal grill works a lot the same way as smoking on a gas grill. The trick is to set the coals up to heat one side of the grill and use the top and bottom venting to control temperature. Use an aluminum pan of water to keep the coals in place on one side of the grill. Water works again here to prevent temperature changes, absorb heat, and keep things stable over a long time. If your temperatures are climbing to high, adding cold water to the pan will lower the temperature. An aluminum tin with wood chips or pellets over the hot coals will give you a great smoke flavor even on charcoal.
A hinged grate lets you add hot coals easily. A great trick is to add chunks of hardwood directly to the coals. The chunks will add some smoke flavor and will also prolong the life of the coals. Start coals in a charcoal starter chimney to prevent causing a drop in temperature from adding cold coals.
Getting the Most From Wood Pellets
Using pellets on a gas or charcoal grill will work, but you are going to lose a lot of the flavor of the hardwood. Some people will wrap wood pellets in aluminum foil and poke holes for ventilation, but this method also has drawbacks. A better solution is to use a pellet tube. This neat little device is a great way to get a ton of smoke flavor without making a mess.
The correct way to use a pellet tube is to fill the open end with wood pellets. About ⅓ of a cup will last about 40 minutes. Once the tube is filled, you’ll use a propane torch to ignite the top section of pellets. The pellets will ignite and burn. Let them burn for 6-10 minutes, then blow out. Gently set the tube down on the grill, and let it smoke away. Combining the pellet tube with the two-zone cooking method will give you great flavor from any grill.
Probably the most revolutionary thing to happen to grilling in the modern era is the invention of remote barbecue thermometers. These things are simply amazing and take all the guesswork out of grilling. You’ll never end up with undercooked chicken or tough-as-boot leather steaks again. Low-cost models provide an easy way to monitor temps, but think about spending a little more and getting one that sends the information to your phone or tablet. Many of these programs even let you record and track cooking temperatures and times so you can perfect your skills. If you're in the market for one, make sure to check out our favorite wireless thermometer options.
Another great item to have on hand for smoking is a set of heat-resistant gloves. Gloves like these enable you to physically move and set items on and off the grill without risking lighting your hands on fire. Nothing ruins a family barbecue like a trip to the emergency room. Flame-resistant gloves are affordable and are a great safety item to have for smoking on gas or charcoal grills. You can even reach right in there and grab a smoldering chunk of mesquite if you really wanted to.
The Truth about Soaking
Many wood chip manufacturers and smoke masters will tell you that you need to soak your wood chips for anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. The truth is that hardwood chips and chunks are simply too dense to soak up water. Even after 24 hours, hardwood chunks will soak up a minimal amount of moisture.
Soaking wood chips can actually cause trouble for your cooking process. The wood will steam as the water evaporates, dropping the temperature in your grill. Once the water has evaporated, the wood will begin to smoke. A trick that can be used here is to start your grill with wet and dry wood chips. Once the dry wood chips have begun to lose smoke, the wet ones will start smoking good. You can get a really full smoke using this method without burning up all your wood chips.
Bottom Line Smoking Tips
Probably the most important thing to remember about smoking on a gas or charcoal grill is to keep temperatures low and stable. This can be a tricky task on many grills designed to hit 400 or 500 degrees easily. Using pans of water will help to regulate the temperature and keep it below 300 degrees where smoking happens.
Experiment with different types of wood, combinations, and how the various flavors work with the protein of choice. There is no reason to get stuck on just hickory or oak. With so many high-quality wood chip and wood pellet options on the market today, you can get creative without spending a fortune.