Using Your Gas Grill as a Smoker

I have been on an outdoor cooking kick lately, thanks to our beautiful spring weather. It all started with a side of local king salmon, which needed to be cooked within a day since it can spoil very quickly. My husband and I both love smoked salmon, so I became determined to figure out how to do it on my own.

As I was perusing the interwebs for electric smokers, I became discouraged by the high prices of well-reviewed models. $300 for an appliance that I will probably only use a couple times per year seemed unreasonable… I am not a fan of “one-trick pony” appliances or gadgets, and as a rule I don’t buy them (my kitchen is very small, and I don’t like clutter). I began to wonder if I could use my existing gas grill to smoke, and a few hours of googling around both confirmed my suspicions and made me feel confident that I could do it on my own.

Smoking is pretty straightforward. You are basically cooking food at very low temperatures with indirect heat while inundating it with flavorful smoke. There are two types of smoking: hot smoking and cold smoking. Cold smoking is not something most home chefs should take up – it requires long periods of smoke time at low temperatures, which could put your food safety at risk. Hot smoking is a different story, as it occurs at a higher temperature and is therefore safe to do at home – that’s what we are doing here.

So how does one hot-smoke on a gas grill? It’s pretty simple, though time consuming. A lot of it depends on the type of gas grill you have. Mine is pretty big and has two grill levels (a main grill over the burners, and a second narrow grill about 6 inches above the main grill towards the back). It also has three burners with individual controls, which makes it much easier to use for smoking. If your gas grill only has one burner, it can be a bit more complicated – more on that later.

So let’s assume you have a gas grill with multiple burners and individual temperature controls for each burner. You need to use indirect heat to smoke, so you can turn on a burner to the far right or far left, and put your food on the opposite side of the grill. Every grill is different, so you will have to figure out the perfect spot to cook your foods. For example: If I am using my grill to smoke, the grill surface adjacent to the flame doesn’t get very hot at all, and I have to use the raised grill surface to smoke my food. I assume this is because heat rises, and the heat all gets trapped in the dome of the grill. It works perfectly for me, but you might have to move your food around to find the perfect spot. The cooler grill surface in my grill is perfect for smoking foods that don’t need to get hot in the middle, such as tofu.

Here’s how I do it. You will probably have to tweak this process a bit to make it work for your grill.

Gas grill with multiple burners that have individual temperature controls
Wood chips for smoking (I used applewood), available at places like Home Depot & Lowes
Large bowl
Aluminum foil
External read-out meat thermometer (If smoking meat or fish, this is very handy. I didn’t use one this time because I was smoking ribs, and I know when they’re done. I did use it for my smoked salmon.)

Process (for a multi-burner gas grill):

1. Soak your wood chips in a bowl of water for about an hour.
2. Remove a large handful of wood chips and place onto a large square of aluminum foil, mounding in the middle.
3. Place another similar sized square of aluminum foil on top of the mound of wood chips and fold the edges to seal it into a square packet.
4. Poke holes in the top of the packet, which will allow the smoke to escape (I took the photo below before poking my holes).
5. Place the packet of wood chips on top of a grill burner off to the side, in a spot that will get hot enough to create smoke. For my grill, I had to remove the grate and place the packet directly on top of the v-shaped heat diffuser. Gently folding it over increased the surface area in contact with heat and gave me a steady smoke. Depending on your grill, you may be able to just place the packet over the burner, but that did not work for me.
6. Turn the burner up to high until your packet begins to smoke, then turn it down to low to maintain the cooking temperature you would like. (I was doing pork baby back ribs, so I got my grill at a steady 220F, which is the lowest mine seems to want to go. Fortunately this is the perfect temperature for slow-cooking pork.)
7. Move your meat/tofu/whatever to the grill, placing it in an area where it’s not in direct contact with the heat.
8. Close your grill and keep a close eye on it to make sure your packet continues to smoke. (You want a little bit of smoke, not a lot. If it’s smoking like crazy, your temperature is too high or your wood chips are too dry.)
9. Add new wood chip packets as the old ones burn out (every 1-2 hours).

*Side note: Do not block off the vents on your grill. They are there for a reason and ensure the burners function properly.

That’s it! It is a total hack, but it works just fine. I am sure electric smokers are easier to use and maintain the proper temperature, and maybe one day I will buy one. For now, this works fine for me, as I am always experimenting with new cooking methods. I ended up smoking this side of baby back ribs for about 6 hours. They could have gone a little longer, but we were hungry and it was 9pm, so we ended up eating them as they were. Although they were not quite falling off the bone, they were still fantastic. Next time I’ll start smoking earlier in the day, or cut them into smaller pieces.

Now, if you have a gas grill with only one burner, you can still use it to smoke. The process involves putting a pan of water over the burner to temper the heat, but I didn’t have to do this. Just do a little research online like I did, and I’m sure you can find a process that will work for your grill.