Smoking food uses a wood-fire technique that combines long cooking times with low temperatures (usually between 180 and 220°F). The result is a deeply aromatic, smoky flavor that enhances meats, fish, and veggies. Here are some tips.
Smoking relies on patience and a low-and-slow approach. In most home-smoking scenarios, water-soaked wood chips are added to outdoor charcoal or gas grills, which are then covered and allowed to heat, smoking slowly in order to fully infuse the food with a natural smoke flavor.
Dry or wet?
There are two distinct approaches to smoking food: dry and wet. The dry-smoking method uses a low, smoldering wood fire to slowly cook the food. Most home smoking, however, utilizes a wet-smoking or water-smoking technique, with a pan full of water placed on a rack above the heat source. This keeps the air under the grill cover moist and results in tender food.
The size of the wood you use when smoking affects the taste of your food. Wood chunks, for instance, smoke less and add a more delicate flavor, while wood chips burn faster and create a smokier taste. The kind of wood matters as well. If you want a subtle flavor that works with white meats, pork, and fish, try alder or a fruitwood, such as cherry or apple. If you’re smoking beef, ribs, or brisket, go with bolder woods, like hickory, pecan, or oak. Mesquite is another classic smoking wood that works well with nearly all meats and vegetables.
Six steps to making a smokin’ hot meal
- Start by soaking a handful of wood chips or wood chunks in water for an hour or more. Use this time to start your charcoal (preferably only natural rather than the “match light” variety). Heat the charcoal long enough to allow the coals to become hot and ash covered.
- Fill a foil-lined baking pan with an inch of water and place it on a rack directly above the charcoal fire. Using tongs, add a few of your wood chips onto the charcoal. Remember, the more chips you use, the smokier your food will be.
- Place your food onto the grill above the pan of water. Cover (and try not to peek!) for at least an hour. Keep in mind that every time you open the lid, you’re sacrificing heat and smoke. Check only at hourly intervals, gauging temperature and adding charcoal briquettes. Lift the lid as needed to keep the temperature at a consistent 200°F, or thereabouts.
- Keep a full inch of water in the pan throughout the smoking process. You can also add herbs and fruit peels, or even apple cider vinegar, to the pan of water to add greater flavor depth to your smoke. Rosemary stems work nicely with lamb and chicken. Bay leaves or orange peels also create a fragrant taste.
- Smoking times vary greatly depending on the kind of food you’re smoking, whether a cut of meat or a whole fish, as well as exactly how much food you have on the smoker. Research this in advance. For a rough idea, a whole chicken takes around four hours to smoke at 250°F, while a large salmon steak takes approximately five to seven hours at 140 to 160°F. For sliced brisket smoked at 225°F, you should calculate one and a half hours per pound of meat. We also recommend purchasing a digital meat thermometer to track temps as you smoke. To prevent your food from tasting too smoky, stop adding wood for the last half of the cooking time.
- Once smoking is complete, remove the food from the heat and allow it to rest for around 15 minutes before digging in and enjoying your home-smoked feast.
Note: If you’re using a gas grill and it has a smoker box attached, fill the water pan and place the wood in the designated compartment before lighting the grill. If you don’t have an attachment, place a foil pan directly on a rack over the heat source and follow the directions above.
Keep the BBQ fires burning
The minion method is a way to set up your charcoal so that it will burn for longer and at a more consistent rate. The easiest option for the home smoker is to first fill up the bottom of the grill with charcoal and a few fist-size lumps of wood. Now, fill a charcoal chimney about halfway and light the charcoal. When the coals are glowing, pour them on top of the unlit charcoal in the bottom of the grill. Adjust your vents to the desired smoking temperature (usually between 225 and 275°F). As the lit charcoal burns down, it will ignite the unlit coals, keeping the temperature steady and ensuring that you won’t run out of coals before you’re done cooking. Depending on the size of your grill and the amount of charcoal used, you can smoke up to 18 hours without having to replenish the coals.