Like many of you, I first learned how to smoke meat on a basic gas grill. I used it to smoke foods like ribs, chicken, and even Boston butt. It was all I had, and at the time it was perfect.
Is it easy to smoke on a gas grill? The short answer is yes, but you plan to cook a lot of barbecue we recommend having a dedicated smoker.
Gas grills are not designed to smoke meat. The gaps around the lid allows heat and smoke to easily escape. While the food will still be very good, it won’t be the same as food cooked on a smoker.
However, if all you have is a gas grill, don’t think that delicious barbecue is out of reach. Follow the steps in this article and you’ll be impressing family and friends in no time.
Basics of Smoking on a Gas Grill
While easier than managing a charcoal or wood burning fire, there is more to smoking on a gas grill than turning the dials up and down. Malcolm Reed is the award-winning Pitmaster of the competition barbecue team Killer Hogs.
He’s been traveling the competition barbecue circuit since 2001 cooking in over 20 contests per year, he teaches a two-day comprehensive barbecue class and even has his own line of rubs and sauces.
In the video below, he breaks down smoking on a gas grill, step by step.
While Malcom uses a 4 burner Napoleon Gas Grill you can use any old gas / propane grill to follow these steps.
Two-Zone Indirect Setup
The key to your smoking success (no matter what type of grill you’re using) is to master the ability to control your temperature for a long period of time. You’re not going to want your temperature to go above 300°F or expose your meat to direct flame.
The best way to avoid both is to use the two-zone indirect setup on your grill. In short, you’ll have a “hot zone” and a “cool zone” on your grill, hence the name. To do this you will have at least one burner turned on providing heat while your food is cooking on the opposite side.
Then you need to place an aluminum pan of water between the gas burner and your food. As Meathead explains over at Amazingribs.com, the water pan helps to keep temps inside your grill stable by absorbing heat.
Don’t worry it doesn’t steam your meat! Because it’s not hot enough to boil it acts more as a temperature regulator.
Meathead Goldwyn, The Best Setups for Gas Grills
“The water absorbs heat, and helps minimize fluctuations in temp. The moisture also mixes with the smoke and propane combustion gases and creates flavors you cannot get with smoke alone.
But this is important to note: You are not steaming the meat! Steam can make the meat mushy and destroy meat flavors. If you keep the oven temp at 225°F, the water should not boil because the surface area will allow evaporation that will cool the water keeping it below 212°F.
Hard to believe, but true. If the water is boiling, you are running hot. Turn it down.”
Correct Burner Configuration
If you have a two burner grill, obviously you can only have one burner on and the other off. If you have more burners, you have different options to get the right temperature. Here are some configurations you may have available to yourself if you are using a four-burner grill:
The idea here is to experiment with the heat controls and the number of burners, while measuring the ambient air temperature on the other side where your food will sit. Once you’ve found a configuration that can hold steady between 225 – 250°F you can go back to that setup time and again.
It’s important to remember that there are other variables to consider. Your grill will act differently in the summer than what it will in the winter, if it is windy outside, or even if it is raining.
Bottom line, you really do need to experiment with your grill and try different options before you can understand how to maintain your desired cooking temperature.
Monitoring Grill Temperature
Unfortunately, the bi-metal thermometers that come standard on most gas grills are not known for being accurate. It may surprise you to know that they are commonly off by as much as 100°F! That’s a fat lot of good when we’re trying to maintain a steady low temperature for barbecue.
To make monitoring temps easier on yourself, we recommend using a quality digital thermometer like the Thermoworks Smoke to monitor your temp. If your thermometer has a probe clip, simply clip the probe on the grill grate close to the food so you know the actual temperature you’re cooking with.
If you don’t have a probe clip, you can ball up some tinfoil and place the probe through it, then place the ball on the grill grate. This way your probe doesn’t fall through the grate.
All good thermometers will come with at least 2 probes. One to monitor the temperature inside your grill, and the other to keep track of your meats temperature so you know when it’s ready.
How to Make Smoke
For smoke flavor, you’re going to have to add wood to your fire using wood chunks, wood chips, or wood pellets. Most grills have some type of “flavorizer” or barrier that sits on top of the burner. Simply place a wood chunk on top of this barrier and it should smolder and smoke away. If it bursts into flames, you can still use pellets or chips.
Pellets and chips can’t be simply placed on top of burner since they need to be deprived of oxygen in order to smoke. To do that there are several accessories you can use.
Create smoke with a pellet tube
While some high end gas grills come with a built in smoker box, for most of us we’ll need another option. Luckily there are some neat toys you can pick up that will help you turn your grill into a smoker. One of the more popular accessories is the A-Maze-N Pellet Tube Smoker.
Pack this bad boy with pellets, light one end with a lighter or blowtorch and lay it on the grill grate and it will burn for up to 4 hours. That’s a heck of a lot easier than replacing wood chips every 30 minutes.
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These tubes are so good at creating smoke people with dedicated smokers often add then as well to get a little extra smoke. They come in different sizes depending on how long you want to smoke for, but the 12″ is a good option for most uses.
Another popular option if you like to use wood chips is the simple Smoker Box; a stainless steel box you can fill with wood chips and place directly over the burner. Its heavy duty design means it will probably outlive your grill.
DIY options to create smoke on a gas grill
If you don’t want to shell out any money for a pellet tube, then there are a couple of simple options that are probably already kicking around in your kitchen cupboards.
You can make a pouch out of aluminum foil and fill it with either pellets or wood chips, poke a few holes to allow oxygen to get in and out, and you’re good to go. Likewise, you can try placing wood chips or pellets in a disposable aluminum pan and place it on top of your burner.
Don’t Over Smoke
If this is your first time smoking meat, one word of caution – don’t use too much wood. It may be tempting to use half a bag of wood chips, but trust me there is nothing worse than over smoked meat. You’re better off just using a half cup of wood chips or pellets, or a single small chunk of hardwood your first time around.
After you’ve cooked your meal you can decide if you would like more smoke flavor or not. If you think your meat could have been a little smokier, just remember to use a little more wood next time. I can assure you the food you cook the first time around will still be awesome.
Step by Step Instructions
Getting your gas grill setup for smoking isn’t complicated. The first time you do this I’d recommend getting everything ready before hand so you can focus on getting your grill setup.
So get your food and any sauces or rubs ready, make sure your smoking wood or pellets are handy. And lastly you want to make sure you have a good supply of propane. Nothing worse than running out and having to rush to the store half way through a 6 hour smoke.
Step 1: Light your burner to medium heat
Turn on the burner that is on the far left of your grill and set it to medium heat. If using a digital thermometer, insert it now and close the lid. Monitor your temp to your desired cooking range, typically around 225°F – 250°F.
Give your grill time to preheat and get to your desired heat. If you quickly overshoot your desired temp, turn your dial down. If after 20 minutes you are still only at 180°F, turn your dial-up. If you’re having a hard time getting your grill to 225°F – 250°F, you may have to consider turning on additional burners if you have them.
This may seem tricky, but once you’ve played with your grill a little bit you will know where you need to be to cook at your desired temp.
Step 2: Add your wood
Once your grill is preheated it’s time to add your wood. Make sure you use a pair of heavy tongs or a pair of high heat gloves to remove the grill grates to gain access to place your wood.
Place a chunk of hardwood, a tinfoil pouch or other tray of wood chips/pellets directly over your burner. Steven Raichlen has some good pictures that show how to place your wood on the grill over on his website.
If using the A-Maze-N Pellet Tube, pack it with pellets and use a lighter or blowtorch to light one end and place it on your grill grate.
Once you see wisps of smoke it’s time to place your food on the grill away from the heat.
Step 3: Get smokin!
Place your meat on the opposite side of your grill, away from your lit burner, close your lid, and you are good to go! Keep an eye on your temp and adjust your dial accordingly.
Have you smoked meat on your gas grill before? Leave us a comment down below if you have any tricks for getting the most out of a gas grill. Regardless if you are a seasoned barbecue aficionado or a first timer, we hope you have learned a thing or two and that you liked this article.
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Feature CC Image courtesy of Gavin St. Ours on Flickr