Are you ready to take your grilling game to a new level? Follow this step-by-step method to turn your regular charcoal grill into a full-fledged barbecue smoker.
If you know anything about good BBQ smoking, then you’ve probably heard of “low and slow” cooking.
New to grilling? See my guide to using a charcoal grill
It’s a nice way to prepare meat in a way that cooks it for a long time at a very low temperature. This melts the fat from the meat and makes it incredibly tender and outrageously delicious.
If you don’t have a smoker, you may feel frustrated that you can’t get the most out of this style of cooking.
The good news, however, is that you can mimic this cooking technique at your regular outdoor grilling. Any good charcoal grill with a big enough chamber can be set up to mimic the food you would cook in a smoker.
If you are new to smoking, be sure to keep an eye on the temperature and be very patient.
The differences between smoker and charcoal grill
These two types of grilling items are distinctly different, which makes their cooking styles so unique.
Charcoal grills tend to have their cooking grates directly above the flames or embers in their user’s chamber. This allows foods to be cooked at a relatively high temperature, giving you the opportunity to brown them as well.
Most of the time you have the grill lid open to allow the fire to breathe and continue. Average grill surface temperatures can vary, but temperatures in excess of 400°F (200°C) are not uncommon.
However, smokers position their heat source farther from the food, which helps to keep the heat low and even. Target smoking temperatures are around 110°C (225°F).
Contrary to popular belief, charcoal grills can perform both styles of cooking. We can reproduce these smoking conditions using a technique called indirect grilling .
Regularly the technique that. You create 2 zones, one zone containing the burning embers on one side, while the other zone on the other side places the food. This creates a lower temperature on your grill without directly exposing your food to flames or high temperatures.
Set up your charcoal grill too
To start, you will need the fuel you have chosen. I would use charcoal for this as it doesn’t burn as fast as hardwood which means you don’t have to open the chamber and change the ambient temperature in the pit as often.
If you’re not sure where to start, be sure to check out my guide to the best charcoal in chunks.
You’ll also need a means of lighting your charcoal grill. I tend to find a chimney starter much easier, but also lighting the embers directly. However, I advise against using lighter fluid.
Check out my full guide to using a charcoal fireplace here
Be sure to invest in a grill surface thermometer. The best types are dual- probe thermometers , meaning they can simultaneously monitor the internal temperature of the meat and the ambient temperature of the chamber.
If you can’t decide, I personally use the Ivation Dual Probe. It’s inexpensive, but known for being extremely accurate and capable of remotely controlling the temperature of meat.
Available to get no grill thermometer with pointer. They’re cheap, but you get what you pay for and have been known to be at least 50°F cheaper. Accuracy is really crucial.
Finally, get a drip tray and a water pan. These pans serve two slightly different functions.
A drip tray helps catch leftover meat while cooking. This is particularly important when smoking, as some of the meat’s fat content drains away. A drip tray will help catch these and help us quickly remove them from your fountain chamber.
A pan of water creates steam in the cookbox, which will keep the meat from drying out. A problem that many smokers encounter is that meat loses moisture when exposed to relatively high temperatures for long periods of time. A tray of water helps retain more moisture in the air, which causes the meat to stay moist longer.
Water bowls are a great addition to the kitchen environment. They absorb heat and radiate it back evenly, mitigating temperature fluctuations and adding humidity to reduce food evaporation. The moisture also mixes with the smoke and exhaust fumes to create wonderful bacon flavors.
For both water pans and drip pans, you can buy custom made ones or just use small aluminum pans that are available at many stores or online.
How to set up 2 zone grilling
I’ve written extensively about setting up indirect grilling and 2-zone cooking before, but here’s a pretty quick summary.
Remove the cooking grates from your grill. If you look down, you visually divide your grilling area into two halves. Create a heat zone on a half die. Do this by lighting the coals and stacking them to one side to create a constant but not high heat. This may take some practice.
Airflow is key to temperature control, so make sure your grill isn’t exposed to wind or rain. You may need to close the lid of your powered one after turning it on to allow the chamber to warm up before adding food.
Fill your water pan two-thirds full with water. Place both trays in the other area of your chamber, making sure there aren’t any coals under either tray. RE-INSERT THE COOKING GRIDS.
Use your thermometer to assess the ambient temperature inside the cookbox. Once it hits 225F, you’re good to go.
Place the meat of your choice on the racks in the non-heat zone of your cooking environment. Also, be sure to place the meat on the drip tray.
If you have a dual-probe thermometer, insert the meat probe into the food and place the other probe on the grates. Make sure you’re both in the non-heat zone of the grill.
Close the grill lid and try to ensure the meat is fairly close to the top opening.
Control the dampers on your grills to regulate the temperature
The key to smoking is maintaining a constant temperature throughout the process. The best way to control the temperature is to learn how to use the grill’s vents, or flaps.
These flaps can be opened or closed to control the amount of air going in and out of your grill. This is important because oxygen fuels the heat in a grill.
Your grill should have two dampers. One at the bottom of the chamber called the inlet muffler. As the name suggests, this is where the oxygen enters the boxing area. The other vent is at the top of the chamber and is called the exhaust damper.
This is where heat and smoke escape, depressurizing the cookbox and creating a vacuum to allow more oxygen to enter through the inlet regulator.
Maintain the temperature at 225°F
The ideal setting is with both doors partially open to allow the grill’s ambient temperature to be set at 225°F.
You also need to keep track of your coals so you can replace them when they start burning.
This inevitably means you have to open the grill lid to see them, which disrupts the heat inside the grill.
The flames get brighter, so you’ll need to close the vents slightly to compensate. However, it’s very easy to overdo it, which is why I recommend considering an automatic temperature controller.
This can help regulate the internal temperature of your chamber by using a built-in fan to control the flow of air into the grill. They are especially good at rebalancing that heat after opening the grill.
They are usually intended for smokers but can work on grill steamers as well.