A gas grill typically has the goal of applying high heat for brief periods of time to cook food directly over the heat source. A smoker has the goal of applying low controlled heat, infused with smoke, over an extended period of time. Just to offer the scale of difference, a pork chop can grill hot for six minutes per side and be enjoyed, pork ribs will smoke for 6 hours before its time to eat. Sadly, not all of us can build a palatial outdoor kitchen with every device we may ever want to use. So, that creates a need to cross utilize what we do have.
Smoking on a gas grill is less than ideal, but it can be done. When it comes to smoking on a gas grill some grills are designed better than others to perform smoking duties.
Some gas grills are designed with slow-cooking and smoking in mind, others not so much. To see how the design of gas grills affect their capability to smoke, see the results of our gas grill research and reviews.
Yes, you can effectively smoke food using a propane or natural gas grill that encloses the food. It will take time, perseverance and attending to some details. Ultimately you will likely want to get a smoker once you have the itch (naturally we have some thoughts on purchasing a smoker, shared right here) but for learning and getting started, we will walk through the process of getting an excellent smoked meat result from a gas grill.
The first order of business is understanding dual zone cooking techniques. Fortunately almost all gas grills have individual controls for each burner, starting you off with zonal controls of temperature. We even took the time to round up our favorite grills, with a view toward cross utilizing, read our results here.
The dual zone aspect lets you put the meat to be smoked away from the direct heat. The coloration and flavor in the smoking process comes from indirect hot air with smoke encompassing the meat. By igniting just one side of your grill, and keeping the meat on the opposite side, you have taken the baby step toward smoking meats.
One of the advantages to a gas grill is that you can precisely control the flame. The down side is getting this to translate into controlled temperature. Smoking meats is best done at 225 degrees, with an acceptable range being 225-250. If you can hold your device at this temp on a continuous basis, success is not far away.
On a four burner grill, our experience is that one outside burner on high will keep the chamber temperature pretty close to 225 degrees. Firing up two burners on one side should get you a comfortable 250 for extended period of time.
How do you know? Well there is that handy round thermometer on the lid of most grills. Sadly, those can be notoriously inaccurate. We highly recommend getting a digital temperature monitoring system. Don’t worry, that is not the expensive extravagance it may sound like, we’ve researched these too over the years, and here are some favorites, in detail, that will definitely not break the bank.
BBQ with a Propane Grill
We may have mentioned that this is not your typical model for using a gas grill. With this approach comes another unique issue. The same tank of gas that will easily pre-heat then grill a batch of steaks for a total of 30 minutes cooking, may not suffice for a six hour batch of baby back ribs.
The science says that one gallon of propane contains about 92,000 BTUs. Your tank is typically a 5 gallon, or twenty pound, tank. So, you have 460,000 available BTUs at the very best. One average burner burns at 10-12,000 BTUs, so a tank could get you as much as 40 hours of burn time with one burner lit. Two burners and you are down to 20 hours of use. These are extremely rough numbers, so the short version is that you will want to insure that your tank at or near full when starting. If you want to explore the details on making these calculations for yourself, go here How Long Does Propane Last? (Burn Time Calculator) (rollingfox.com).
Further Fueling The Process
So we have the device, we have the fuel, we have the basics understood. We have the fire, now we need the literal smoke that goes with it. The thing is, smoking food is a lot like wearing makeup; less is more, it should look like you are not wearing any at all. In other words, if the smoke is too visible you are not doing it right. White smoke is bad, blue smoke, those faint colored tendrils, is good.
Wood Chips And Pellets
Wood chips are the purest way to get well flavored smoke in this process. The market will offer you three basic choices; pellets, chips, chunks. Pellets use a specific mechanism for smoke cookery, so not ideal for this application. Chunks, well, are chunks. More challenging to get started, and again, not well suited for this process. So chips are the best choice for ease of combustion and pacing the burn.
Time to burn some wood. If you have a smoker box, bless you for making your life so easy. If not, don’t fret, the solution is also quite easy. You can craft a DYI smoker box out of a large piece of heavy duty aluminum foil. Place your wood chips inside and poke a bunch of holes in it.
Place the ‘box’ over the open flame of the burner you are using and wait for it to start smoking. When you see visible smoke, move the box over to sit between your heated zone and the zone that the meat will occupy. Monitor this throughout the process, and replenish or replace if needed.
Humidity And Additional Tips
Outside of the knowledgeable smoking community, the most obscure fact is how much of a role humidity plays in effective smoking. You would logically think that heat, fire, smoke; these all deplete moisture. They do, but we need the moisture for a variety of reasons. Without totally geeking out on you, the flavor components of smoke adhere better to meat when they can couple with water molecules.
The humid environment also facilitates better thermal transmission to the meat, just like we feel warmer on a hot and muggy day. The smoker’s solution is very simple; keep a pan of warmed water in your smoking area, preferably under the meat to be smoked. This gives you the added benefit of heat storage, and thereby stability, from the water itself.
Positioning can be a bit tricky. If you pull the grates, your burner, or its cover, isn’t really meant to support that kind of weight. A pan that is a couple inches deep, set on your grill, with a rack on top to hold the meat, is an ideal solution. It will need to be replenished regularly, and you will want to use pre-heated water to maintain your thermal stability.
Full tank, foil smoke box, pan and rack, time to pre-heat and start cooking. For reference, we fire up the burner on the far left of our grill and let the whole unit come up to temp while we also warm up some water. Place our smoker box over the flame, our pan of water on the right with a rack on top. We see the tendrils of smoke coming out of the box and scoot it to the gap between heat and food. Place our food on the rack and shut the lid.
As mentioned, we ideally have a thermometer in the meat and an ambient thermometer in the chamber. How long can we expect this to last? Six hours for a rack of ribs at 225 degrees is pretty common.
Rough Timings To Know
For red meats we are generally looking toward an internal temperature of 200 plus. These include the two most common smoked meats, brisket and pork shoulder or butt. We like the magic number of 203 degrees for these cuts. But a whole brisket often weighs in over 15 pounds! That means, if you pull it from the fridge a couple hours before smoking you will still need to cook it for 12-18 hours. A boned rolled and tied pork shoulder half, at 5-6 pounds, will take about 8 hours to cook.
Chicken and fowl does not get better as it gets hotter, they should max out at 165 degrees internal temperature when smoking. This is the safe internal temperature for wholesomeness, and if done correctly, for a juicy tasty product. Usually you will want to take this meat off the grill about 5 degrees before hitting the internal temperature deep in the thickest part. Carry-over heat will get you to the right level. Smoking split fryer chickens will take 2-3 hours. A Spatchcock turkey is an easy 4-6 depending on the size. Whole turkeys are longer than that.
Salmon and fish generally look for an internal temperature of 145 degrees. This is achievable in about an hour at 225. Veggies are a preference thing of how you want them cooked. Potatoes take about 2 hours. Cheese and salts and such are smoked purely for flavor, so in general about an hour for that purpose.
Beyond that, the world is your oyster. They can be smoked too!