Grill cooking with smoking woods with or without a smoking box can enhance your barbecue foods tremendously! The aromatic wood smoke flavors embrace and permeate your food, adding nuances of aroma and flavor which just can’t be found without real wood smoke. Different types of smoking wood impart different types of smoke flavors, some of which are better for specific types of foods.
What is the Advantage of Cooking with Smoking Wood and a Smoking Box?
One of my favorite aspects of cooking with fire is the wood smoke flavors and aromas that are imparted to food by the aromatic woods. Each wood has its own distinct personality, allowing you to create unique dishes with smoke flavors that compliment the other ingredients. Cooking in your oven, stovetop or even your outdoor gas or natural gas grill does not impart any wood smoke flavor on its own. Cooking over charcoal (especially if you use good hardwood lump charcoal) gives you some nice smoke flavor but the ultimate way to add rich wood flavor to your cooking is to cook over a real hardwood fire or embers. This is possible with fire pit cooking, but is not always feasible or possible with a standard grill or barbecue. The solution? Smoking woods, either directly on the coals or in a smoking box! These chips or chunks of aromatic hardwoods emit a thick, rich smoke when heated on your grill which surrounds and permeates your grilling food. Even on a gas grill you can impart rich smoked flavors to your recipes.
Types of Smoking Woods
By far the most common and widespread smoking wood types you can find for use in a smoking box are mesquite and hickory. While these two great hardwoods impart distinct and delicious aromas and flavors to your food, they are not the only options! If you search a bit, either in your local grill and barbecue supplier shops or online, you can find a whole host of different and delicious smoking woods to enhance your outdoor cooking, from alder and almond to pecan and apple. You can read more about all the common types of smoking wood on my Smoking Wood page. Generally, smoking woods are available both in chips (small broken-up pieces and shards of wood) and chunks (large solid pieces of the hardwood). While either can be used for smoking, only the smaller chips can fit in a standard smoking box while the large chunks can be used in a charcoal or fire pit grill.
How to Use a Smoking Box with a Gas or Natural Gas Grill
Gas grills are not made to accommodate wood and ash within the grill. Therefore, you cannot, or should not, put smoking wood chunks or chips directly in your grill or on the burners. Instead you will need to use a smoking box. These can be found most places where grills and grill accessories are sold. If you don’t have one, you can substitute aluminum foil (see below).
- To Soak or Not to Soak – Some people soak their smoking wood chunks or chips before adding to their grill or smoking box. The theory is that if you add dry wood, they will simply burn quickly, releasing some smoke in the process but will be gone before long. If you soak them, they do not ignite quickly and will release savory thick smoke for a longer period of time before burning up. Either way is fine but I prefer to soak them, particularly if I am smoking or cooking for a prolonged period of time. Another option is simply to add additional dry wood periodically as the previous wood burns up to keep up your steady supply of smoke.
To soak your smoking wood chips or chunks, simply submerge in water for about 30 minutes or so before use. Because most pieces of wood float, you may need to place a plate or cup on top to keep the wood completely submerged.
Fill You Smoker Box – After soaking, simply fill your smoker box with smoking wood and close the lid if there is one. It’s that simple! If You Don’t Have a Smoking Box – If a smoking box is not available, you can substitute aluminum foil. Use a couple sheets to wrap up a handful of smoking wood. Wrap it up tightly so that the wood is not exposed in any large areas. Then poke several large holes in the top with a fork or skewer to allow the smoke to escape.
- Add to the Grill Before Starting to Cook – You are now ready to add your smoker box to your gas or natural gas grill. Simply add your smoker box between your cooking grate and the burners or heat briquets/stones. The box does not need to be surrounded by flames, in fact it is better if it is not. Just make sure it is close enough to the source of the heat to begin smoking. I prefer to place my smoking wood toward the side of the grill, away from the center of the grill, so that if it ignites and burns the flames will not burn my food. The wood should be added to your grill early before your food. Most wood takes 10 to 20 minutes to start smoking maximally. This varies depending on whether the wood was soaked, the size of the pieces and the heat the wood is exposed to.
- Cooking your food – You can now cook your grilled food recipes as you normally would. However, one tip I recommend is to keep the lid of your grill or barbecue closed as much as possible throughout the cooking process. This allows hot, aromatic smoke to accumulate under the lid, swirling around your food. This literally bathes your food in rich wood smoke aromas which permeate the food as completely as possible. Quickly seared foods with an open lid will not acquire as much wood smoke flavor as food which is slow cooked with the lid closed for most of the cooking time. If you are cooking for a prolonged period of time, such as when cooking a larger roast or rack of ribs over indirect heat, periodically add some smoking wood if you notice the supply of smoke diminishing. This can be difficult with most gas grills as it requires removing the hot grill grate with food on it, taking out the smoker box to refill it and then replacing everything. One way to expedite this process is to have a spare smoker box already filled with wood ready, so that you can simply lift the cooking grate a bit and slide the new box in.
How to Use Smoking Wood with a Charcoal Grill
Using smoking wood with a charcoal grill or barbecue is easy. The process is basically the same as that above for a gas grill (read about soaking and adding the wood to your grill above). However, you do not need to use a smoking box to hold the wood. You certainly can use a box or foil if you prefer, some people feel it helps keep the wood smoking longer, but most people simply add the smoking wood directly to the coals. Spread your pieces of wood evenly over the hot coals and they should start smoking in 10 to 20 minutes if they have been soaked. Simply add more as needed if the smoke subsides. Because you do not need to use a box, you can use larger chunks of smoking woods, if they are available, which will burn and smoke for longer. As above, I prefer to place most of my wood peripherally, around the edges of the charcoal, so that if they ignite the flames will not burn my food. Also, remember to keep your lid closed as much as possible to keep the smoke where you want it, around your food!
That’s it! Enjoy your delicious smoked food!