A BBQ pitmaster takes years – decades even – to master the art of smoking meat. The interplay between different types of woods, different heat sources and cuts of meat, is a complex one, requiring ample real-world knowledge and experience. It’s an area of grilling that lends itself to tireless self-betterment, endless fine-tuning and exploration. Those who succeed find their establishments lined up with hungry customers each day, and they line their walls with blue ribbons from tournaments across the country.
But where does that leave the home cook, the common griller? Do you really need to devote decades of your life to smoking meat just to serve a good rack of ribs? The short answer is: no. While those experienced pitmasters may have a subtle edge in terms of flavour and texture, the first-time home cook can still get 95% of the way there, delivering a smoked meat that will even the fussiest BBQ fan.
In this post, let’s discuss how you, the backyard cooker, can achieve similar results on your home grill as the pros. The sections below will detail how to smoke meats on a charcoal “kettle” grill (although any charcoal grill will suffice) as well as a quick note on gas grill smoking (a harder prospect, but not impossible!) Finally, you’ll find an easy recipe to start you on your grill-smoking journey: Smoked “Pastrami-Style” Chicken Wings With Russian Dressing Dip, a poultry take on the classic Reuben sandwich that’s perfect for a backyard party.
Fire up your grills, grab your tongs and crack yourself a cold drink, because it’s time to smoke.
Smoking on a Charcoal Kettle Grill
Smoking meats of any kind is about managing two things: smoke and temperature. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a $1,500 smoker or a $70 kettle grill, if you control those two variables, you’ll get a fantastic outcome.
Meats for smoking are very often (read: nearly always) tougher cuts of meat that require low and slow cooking. An important part of smoking, therefore, is maintaining a low temperature, usually between 200° and 300° Fahrenheit. You also want to be mindful of how your wood is burning – too hot, and you’ll get an acrid, sooty kind of smoke, but just right and you’ll get that classic BBQ flavour.
Temperature and smoke, together with a good piece of meat that’s been treated right will surely result in good eats. Let’s take a closer look at the steps you need to follow.
Chips Vs. Chunks
A lot of home cooks use wood chips to smoke – after all, they’re readily available and you can stick them in a foil pouch to smoke. Do not do this. Because of their increased surface area, wood chips burn far too quickly, imparting unwanted liquid gases and tars to your food, in a process known as “pyrolysis”. They work in a pinch for shorter cooks (like salmon, for instance) but break down in longer cooks.
Wood chunks, on the other had, burn much longer, meaning you can just wait out the pyrolysis phase before putting your meat on the grill – after the chunk is finished pyrolysing, a sweet, thin, blue type of smoke will begin to burn, which imparts the complex aromatic compounds you associate with BBQ. It is this wispy blue smoke that pitmasters look for.
To Soak Or Not to Soak
If you’re using chips (which, as established above, is ill-advised) then soaking makes a modicum of sense: you want to delay their burning for a while to get any and all aromatic compounds from the wood. Chunks, however, should not be soaked. All that soaking does is produce steam from the wood that looks like smoke, and it delays the eventual production of good blue smoke. This is one instance in grilling where you can skip a time-consuming step and actually get better results!
Maintaining a Low and Slow Temperature
Let’s talk temperature. In order to get in the sweet spot for smoking – which is around 250° for ribs, 225° for pulled pork, and a variance of temperatures for chicken – you have to consider your coals and vents. How many coals are you using, how many lit coals are you using, and where are your coals in the grill? Then, how open are your vents?
As far as coal placement, you absolutely need to build what is called a “two-zone fire”, meaning that your coals are pushed to one side of the grill, leaving the other side heated by only indirect heat. Cooking your meat in indirect heat helps you avoid searing or charring your food when slow cooking.
In general, the more lit coals you add to the pile, the hotter the grill will run, so air on the side of restraint when adding coals for a low and slow cook. For longer cooks, it’s recommended that you dump unlit coals on one side, and then dump half the amount of lit coals overtop of them; as the lit coals burn, they ignite the unlit coals directly underneath to them, causing a long, sustained and moderate heat source.
As for the type of coal, it doesn’t matter too much. Novice smokers may feel most comfortable using briquettes, because they burn consistently and are therefore easier to control. But if all you have is lump charcoal, then lump charcoal it is!
Once the coals are lit, you can dial in the temperature by closing or opening the top and bottom vents. The more you close a vent, the more you restrict the inflow of oxygen, meaning the coals will drop in temperature. Play around with the two vents, but as a rule of thumb, use the bottom vent to change the temperature drastically (+/- 50°) and the top vents to fine tune the temperature. When it’s where you want it, add the wood chunk down and it’s time to start cooking…
If there’s one piece of advice you take away from this article, it’s this: don’t trust your grill’s built-in thermometer. That thing might as well be ornamental. The only way to get a true reading of what’s happening in your kettle grill is to use a reliable, oven-safe probe thermometer, which you can rest on the indirect side of your two-zone grill.
You will also need a thermometer for reading the internal temperature of the meat. You could use the same thermometer, probing the meat every once in a while and then placing it back on the grill, or you could invest in a second probe thermometer, one that can rest in the meat the entire time, giving you real-time look at your meat’s progress throughout the cook.
And that’s that. Check out some specific recipes online to get specific time/temperatures, or just experiment on your own. And you don’t have to confine yourself to meat, either; you can smoke vegetables like peppers, eggplant, mushrooms or tomatoes, and plant-based proteins like tofu or seitan.
Smoking on a Gas Grill
This section will be relatively abridged in comparison to the kettle grill write-up above, mainly because most of the tenets are the same.
While gas grills have an advantage over charcoal when it comes to regulating temperature (you simply turn a dial to control the fire) producing quality smoke is trickier. Because you can’t rest a wood chunk on the heat source, you have to rely on wood chips. Place the chips in a foil packet, poking a few small holes for the smoke to escape, and place the packet directly over heat.
Other than that, smoking on a gas grill follows the same steps as above. You want to make a two-zone surface, turning on only one half of your burners. You want to use a probe thermometer to ensure the temperature on the indirect side stays in your preferred range. And you want to resist the urge to lift the lid too often, which can dissipate heat and cause the wood to smoulder and produce an off-taste smoke.
Easy Smoked “Pastrami Style” Chicken Wings, With Russian Dressing
Now that you have the basics down, let’s try a simple recipe. Chicken, especially dark meat like the legs and wings, is notoriously forgiving, meaning that even if your temperature range is off, you’ll still end up with a delicious and tender product. These “pastrami style” chicken wings use a rub normally found on pastrami, and pair the wings with Russian dressing to further evoke a Rueben sandwich. Enjoy!
For the Chicken:
4 pounds of chicken wings, split and wing tips removed
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorn
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon paprika (optional, for colour)
For the Russian Dressing:
½ cup of mayonnaise
¼ cup of ketchup
1 dill pickle, diced
½ a small onion, diced
½ teaspoon garlic powder
A couple dashes of hot sauce
A couple dashes of Worcestershire sauce
Salt to taste
- Combine the dry rub ingredients. Grind them together in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle until coarse. You may find you have more rub than you need for the recipe. If so, just store the rub in an airtight container.
- In a large mixing bowl, toss the chicken in enough rub that they are lightly coated.
- Light a chimney full of charcoal. When the charcoal is ready, pour to one side of a the grill and add a wood chunk (hickory works nicely here). Alternately, place a foil packet on the hot side of a two-zone gas grill.
- Meanwhile, whisk the Russian dressing ingredients together and set aside.
- Once you have dialled your temperature into around 250°F to 350°F by adjusting the top and bottom vents, and once your smoke appears bluish and clear, lay your wings on the cool side of the grill. Cover, and cook for an hour, or until a thermometer reads 160°.
- Transfer the wings to the hot side of the grill to brown for a couple minutes, and pull them off when a thermometer reads 165° or higher.
- Serve wings with a dipping cup of dressing on the side.