The snows have melted and the sweltering heat is finally here. That means it's time to drag the grill out from under its cover and let it take its place of honor. After all, it's not a day on the calendar or the tilt of the Earth that signifies the start of summer—it's the smell of searing meat.
There's something primal about the grill, a sensory connection to our past. Back before we invented mechanical refrigeration, grilling and especially smoking were great ways to preserve food. Today, we smoke our foods for the added flavor.
Sure, there are plenty of standalone smokers you can buy, but they're mostly unnecessary. With a little know-how and a bit of determination, you can convert your everyday grill into smoker. Everyone has a different take on how it should be done, but here's the most basic recipe for DIYing your own smoker in no time flat.
What You'll Need
- A grill
- Presoaked wood chips
- One to three aluminum drip pans
- A grill lid thermometer
- Meat! (...or other foods)
What Kind of Wood?
Well, it depends on what kind of taste you're aiming for. Fruiting trees like apple and cherry tend to impart a lighter smokiness. Oaks and hickory take it a bit further, and mesquite puts you deep into flavor country.
Regardless of which kind of chips you buy, they need to be soaked for at least two hours before you start smoking. Otherwise they'll burn up far too quickly.
In addition to chips, you can also get wood chunks or small logs. With chunks and logs, there isn't an absolute need to presoak, since they won't burn as quickly as chips. But if you're just using your ordinary grill, you should stick to chips. They're easier to source and also simpler to control.
What to Do
Let's assume you have a charcoal grill, like a civilized person.
Fill the large aluminum drip pan halfway with water. Then remove the cooking grate and place the water-filled pan to one side, on the secondary grate underneath. The evaporating water will keep the food moist and help prevent anything from catching on fire. On the other side, mound your charcoal briquettes.
Now you should light the briquettes. Once they're going, place some presoaked wood chips on top of the coals. If you find they're are burning up too quickly, you can ring them around the mounded coals instead.
Replace the top grate and position the meat above the drip pans, not the coals. The smoking process thrives on indirect heat; placing the meat incorrectly will dry it out. The final step is to close the lid and the grill's bottom vents. This stifles the oxygen flow and keeps the coals smoldering rather than raging.
Use the thermometer to monitor the temperature. If the temp inside drops too much, you may need to open a vent to stoke the fire. Or you may need to add more briquettes.
Always cook meat to the recommended doneness, and use a meat thermometer to make sure it's cooked through properly. Remember, smoking is a "low and slow" cooking method: low heat, slow cooking. Have some patience, and grab a beer or two. Enjoy the afternoon, and build up an appetite.
Wait, I have a gas grill. What should I do?
No, just kidding... stay and read more articles.
The steps for a gas grill aren't too different, except that you'll need more pans. One of these (the largest) should be filled halfway with water and placed directly on the grill's flavor bars, along the front edge of the grill. The other pan(s) should be filled with presoaked wood chips and placed near the rear. Be sure not to put either the water or wood pans directly on a burner.
Fire up the burners under the wood chip pans and let them slowly bring the grill up to the ideal cooking temperature. When the chips start smoking, put your meat on the grill above the water pan and close the lid. As with charcoal, adjust grates and fuel source to maintain an ideal temperature, and keep an eye on the chips to make sure they don't flare up.
And that's it! You've built yourself a (hopefully) working smoker with nothing more than some aluminum, chips of wood, water, and the grill you already owned. Now go crack a beer and wait for the delicious results!