This has always been an interesting topic. I get this question quite often and the problem with the answer is that it is always “it depends”. Are you converting your grill into a smoker full time or just when you want something to smoke every once in awhile?
Usually the people that ask this question don’t smoke enough meat to warrant the purchase/maintenance of a smoker, but want the option to smoke. Pellet smokers have tried to answer this need, claiming you can use it to grill and as a smoker. But that’s not the question here.
The question is, how can I turn my existing grill into a temporary smoker?
General Gas Grills
One of the most common backyard grills is the gas grill. Unfortunately, these grills come in so many shapes, sizes, and configurations that a one size fits all approach can’t simply be made, and not all gas grills are suitable for being used as a temporary smoker.
Can you turn your gas grill into a smoker? Next Steps
There are a few easy steps that can be taken to determine if your grill can be used as a smoker. We need to determine your grill’s possible cook area and minimum maintained temperature.
The cook area is not simply the grill area. The surface area we are looking to identify is the area that is indirect heat. This means that there is an abstract area around the hot burner that is a no-go zone. How do we identify that area?
Gas grills have linear gas burners that run forward and back or side to side. Most grills are rectangular in shape. The ideal gas grill for temporary conversion have burners that run forward and back; They are smaller, put off less heat, and often are off to one side of the grill maximizing the possible cook area.
I propose that since the hot burner will always be the farthest to the side or back, we measure the distance from that burner to the edge of the grill. Then, multiply that number by 1.5, and measure to the other side of the grill. That will mark the beginning of your “smoker area”.
Do not rely on the analog thermometer on the grill hood. These are notoriously inaccurate (+/- 15 degrees) and most importantly they aren’t measuring the cook area, they are measuring the top of the hood where no meat ever ventures…
Make sure you take notes!
Turn on one burner to the lowest setting – Turn on the burner farthest from the cook area, or the one you measured from.
Add Temperature Measurement – Setup the temperature probe or oven dial in the center of the proposed cook area.
Take note of the external temperature – This will be your baseline. If the outside temperature is on the lower end for your area, then the minimum temperature your grill can achieve will also be on the lower end. Higher outside temperature will equate to a higher minimum grill temperature.
Let grill temperature level out – Once the internal temperature of the grill levels out, take note. This is your grill’s minimum temperature.
Determine multiple temperature points – Raise the temperature in 25% increments, and let the temperature level out at each increment. Take note of the internal temperature at each increment.
As noted, your baseline external temperature should be your reference. If you did this experiment at 75 degrees outside temperature and your grill was 225 degrees at 25%, and now the outside temperature is 85 degrees, then you will need to set your grill to be less than 25%… and vice versa.
So what can we smoke?
Now that you have your grills temp profile and cook area, what can we smoke? Typical hot smoking temperatures are between 225-350 degrees F. So lets go through some typical smokes and temps that I recommend:
As you’ll notice, there is quite a range. But the important range is 225-275 degrees F! If your grill can maintain that, and you have room to put on some meat… YOU HAVE A SMOKER!
You may find that you can’t get down to 225, but you can stabilize at ~300ish. I wouldn’t smoke a pork butt with that temp, but that’s great for poultry!
Regardless, lets talk about how to make this work. You’ve determined you have a grill that can maintain a temperature that you can dial in and room to add meat. Now lets add the smoke.
Well wait… What if my grill doesn’t meet temp requirements?
I’m sorry to say, that if your outdoor grill can not meet the temperature requirements or large enough cook area, it is not suitable to be a smoker.
But wait!! You can still impart smoke flavor by getting something that makes smoke inside your grill. The key to success here is the right temperature and placement of the smoke generator.
It doesn’t matter if your grill is suitable to be a small smoker or not, adding smoke to the grill is the same. You will want to add whatever smoker generator of your choosing to the direct heat side of the grill.
In order to use most of the following correctly, you will need a torch of some kind. The grill or a lighter just won’t cut it. For those that don’t have the large butane torches in their garage/shed, I recommend a small cooking torch. You will find it has many more uses!
Pellet Smoke Tube
The hands down best way to get smoke is a Pellet Smoking Tube. If you have a pellet smoker, which are notorious for not putting a lot of smoke flavor into cooks, you can add a smoke tube to that as well.
To fill the smoke tube, you’ll need to get a bag of pellets, which can come in multiple flavors. Since you are likely not using it often, I recommend the smaller variety bags instead of the large 40+ lb bags. Heck, you can even experiment with wood flavor profiles by combining a Hickory with an Apple for example.
Aluminum Foil + Wood Chips
You can pick up some wood chips at your local hardware store and place them in some heavy duty aluminum foil with poked holes. It’ll take some time to heat up, but place on direct heat, typically right on top of a burner (but don’t cover the burner holes!). The best smoke is thin whisky blue smoke… and this is best generated from maximum burn efficiency.
Wood Chip Tube or Box
If you are looking for a solution a bit more upscale than aluminum foil, you can look at purchasing a tube or box. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the aluminum foil route, it has the easy cleanup appeal.
Placing some chips in a tube or box is pretty simple and efficient, and you can use the butane torch to get started.
Water pans are excellent heat sinks that provide humidity to the cooking chamber.
The heat sink is there to minimize the inevitable temperature fluctuations in the cooking chamber by acting as a large thermal mass. The hot water evaporating in the chamber also provides humidity which helps smoke stick to the meat.
Water pans are not required, but if you find that your are struggling to keep the temperature to within +/- 15 degrees of your target, a water pan placed on the direct heat side would be a good option.
Always use hot or boiling water to fill a water pan, with a minimum of 2 cups of water at all times. Cold water will drop the internal temperature like a stone. The water pan should be an oven safe pan, Ceramic or Metal.
The Weber Charcoal
The classic Weber is the easiest and most common grill to smoker conversion. Since nearly all smoking requires indirect heat, adding a feature to bias the coals to one side of the grill is incredibly easy and there are a plethora of products out there just for this purpose like the Weber Char-baskets.
Once you have the coals biased to one side, you have room to add a water pan. The water bowl really helps to manage the temperature by acting as a large heat sink for charcoal cooks, not as helpful for gas cooks.
An awesome product, the Slow n’ Sear, solves both coal management and water basin in a single easy to add/remove product. I highly recommend.
For those that want more of a “set and forget” type Weber style conversion, and have a few bucks to spare, you can buy an inlet fan system that manages the air flow into the smoker. These systems utilize a temp probe inside the chamber and increase the air when the temperature drops and decreases the air when the temperature rises. Be warned though, these systems are generally very cheap and over priced.
I highly recommend using chunk wood directly on the coals. Chips and pellets will burn to fast.
Conclusion – Is your grill a smoker?
At the end of the day, any enclosed box with a heat source capable of maintaining a lower temperature with room for meat and smoke generation is a smoker. The key is the right temperature and reliability.
Shown here is my little Charbroil Infrared Grill with a little 17″ x 18″ grill area that is comfortably smoking a 5 pound half pork butt at 225 degrees F for delicious pulled pork sandwiches.
If you have a grill and are looking to get into smoking, I highly encourage getting a smoke tube and adding the flavor to your cooks. When you get hooked like I did and want to get into the bigger cuts, get yourself a smoker!