How To Turn Your Grill Into A Smoker

Smoking your favorite foods couldn’t be simpler—just look as far as your backyard.

by Virginia Pinkston
PHOTO: Virginia Pinkston

Grilling out is one of America’s favorite ways of cooking in the summer, but you can take that same gas or charcoal grill and turn it into a smoker.

If you only think of smoking foods as an old-fashioned alternative to preserving food, used before proper refrigeration was established, think again. Smoking foods is a great way to add unique flavor to meats, fish, vegetables and even cheeses. The recipe ideas are endless, and best of all, it’s easier than you think. By following these simple steps, you’ll be enjoying authentic smoked flavor in all your favorite foods right from your own grill.

Getting Started

Whether you use a gas grill or a charcoal grill, you’ll need to understand the concept of indirect heat is and why you use it to smoke foods. Simply put, indirect heat is like a convection oven, where the heat circulates as it cooks the food. Direct heat is the opposite: The flame (i.e. the heat source) is directly under the food being cooked. Using indirect heat for smoking foods such as briskets, whole hams and ribs, for example, will help these tougher cuts of meat become more tender while retaining the flavor, whereas a direct flame might burn them.

Before setting up your smoker, decide what type of wood chips to use. There are dozens of different flavors to choose from, such as hickory, cherry, apple, alder and mesquite, and each imparts a distinct flavor to your foods as it smokes. Wood chips can be found in the grilling area of your local home-improvement store. For a wider variety, check online suppliers that specialize in making smoking chips. Depending on your taste or what foods you’re smoking, you might prefer one flavor over another. Generally, several handfuls of chips are recommended for most recipes—whatever is necessary to continually produce smoke.

Smoking with a Charcoal Grill


  • Charcoal grill
  • Wood chips, pre-soaked
  • About 20 charcoal briquettes, depending on your grill size
  • At least two small, disposable aluminum drip pans, approximately 8½ inches by 6 inches, filled halfway with water
  • Grill lid Thermometer
  • Food to be smoked


Setting up a charcoal grill as a smoker is simple. Once you gather your supplies, remove the cooking grate and place the aluminum drip pans on one side of the grill’s charcoal grate. These water pans will be under the food as it smokes, keeping the food moist as it cooks slowly and preventing flare-ups.

On the other side of the charcoal grate, arrange your charcoal briquettes and light them. Once they are hot, add several handfuls of the pre-soaked wood chips directly on top of the briquettes to create the smoke. For slower smoking, place the wood chips along the edges of the hot charcoal.

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Next, place your cooking grate back on the grill and add your food. Be sure to keep the food over the water pans, which causes the indirect heat, and not over the coals.

Cover the grill, close all bottom vents, and do not open except to rotate food or to add more soaked wood chips and charcoal as needed to regulate the temperature. Monitor the temperature using a grill lid thermometer.  If you have trouble maintaining the proper heat indicated in your recipe, you might need to open a bottom vent slightly.

Smoking with a Gas Grill

If you have a gas grill, it’s just as easy to smoke foods. Plus, because many gas grills have a built-in thermometer, it will be easier to regulate the temperature than with a charcoal grill.


  • Gas grill with at least three burners (Smoking food is not recommended on less than three burners, as you will lack the proper spacing between wood chips, burners, water pan and food.)
  • Wood chips, pre-soaked
  • 1 disposable aluminum pan, approximately 9 inches by 13 inches, filled half way with water. Pan size will vary depending on the size of your gas grill.
  • At least two or three small disposable aluminum drip pans, approximately 8½ inches by 6 inches
  • Food to be smoked


Begin by removing the cooking grate and placing the 9- by 13-inch pan directly on the flavor bars or lava rocks (these should come with your grill) toward the front half of the grill. Next, fill two or three of the smaller drip pans with wood chips, and place them in a row along the far-back flavor bar. Do not place either pan directly on the burners themselves, only on the flavor bars or lava rocks.

Replace the cooking grate, and light only the far-back burner where the wood chips are located in order to produce smoke. Allow the temperature to rise to the ideal heat indicated in your recipe. Then place the food on the cooking grate above the 9- by 13-inch pan of water, which creates the indirect heat source.

Helpful Hints for Smoking

  • Soak the wood chips in water for at least two hours, or overnight, prior to smoking to prevent burning. Depending on the length of time your food will be smoking, you may need to add more soaked chips during cooking.
  • Follow the recipe directions for the correct temperatures. Most often it requires you to keep the indirect heat at less than 300 degrees F because smoking the food slowly, especially meats, makes it more tender.  While this tends to be easier to do with a gas grill that has a built-in temperature gauge, it can be fairly simple with a charcoal grill.  There are several types of external thermometers you can purchase at home improvement stores.
  • Keep the grill cover on as much as possible, and make sure it fits tightly. Taking the cover off during smoking will cause a fluctuation in temperature and loss of smoke.
  • Never attempt to use your outdoor grill as an indoor smoker, and always make sure you have proper ventilation.
  • Different foods may require different preparation before smoking. For example, fattier meat cuts generally smoke better because they are more tender. For other foods, like pork, a recipe may use a brine soak prior to smoking along with a flavorful rub.
  • Dry chips can be used to create a sweeter smoke, but do so with a watchful eye to avoid flare-ups. Avoid using dry chips on gas grills because they can scorch easily and ruin the flavor.
  • Check smoked meats with a thermometer to ensure doneness.

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