Get Your Smoke On: How to Make a Smoker Out of Your Backyard Grill


You don’t have to invest in a thousand-dollar smoker to cook tender, flavorful smoked foods at home. It’s easy to turn your charcoal or gas grill into a smoker. With a handful of woodchips and patience, you can smoke everything from vegetables to salmon to beef ribs from your own backyard. Learn how to make a smoker with these ten easy steps and get your smoke on.

How to Make a Smoker

1. Start with soaked hardwood chips. Skip the chunks, sawdust and soft woods. Soak your chips in water for a minimum of two hours (overnight soaking is best). Woodchips come in many varieties, from mesquite and cherry to hickory and alder. You’ll find them in the grilling aisle of your local home improvement or hardware store.

2. Find a drip pan made of metal. “Disposable” aluminum cooking pans work well, but you don’t necessarily have to dispose of it after you grill (just clean it and use it again). Fill your pan halfway with water, and place it under one side of the grill. Your meat will go on the other side.

3. The key to smoking is indirect heat, so keep the flame away from your food. Build a fire on the opposite side of your charcoal grill from the drip pan (if you’re using a gas grill, just light one side). If it’s a windy day, make sure the fire is on the windward side of the grill.

4. Gently place several handfuls of soaked wood chips directly on top of your hot coals. For gas grills, first place the wood chips in a foil pouch and poke holes in the top. Put this pouch under the bottom grate, directly on top of the burner.

5. Rub your meat, chicken, pork, fish, tofu or vegetables with your favorite mix of spices. Wrap everything in heavy-duty foil, and place the package on the grill above the pan of water. Close the lid.

6. Keep an eye on your grill to stay safe. Check it at least once every 90 minutes, and see if you need to add more charcoal and/or wood chips. Be sure to keep the lid closed as much as possible.

7. Maintain an even temperature for slow, low, even cooking. The ideal smoking temperature is 200-250 degrees Fahrenheit – use a grill thermometer for best results. You may also have to adjust the vents on your grill.

8. During the last 30 to 45 minutes of cooking, baste your food with sauce. If it’s sugar-based, be extra careful that it doesn’t burn.

9. You’ll know that your meat is fully smoked when it starts to fall away from the bone. Fish is cooked when it flakes apart with ease. In general, follow these guidelines for smoking:

  • Beef Brisket: Up to 6 hours
  • Boston Butt: Up to 6 hours
  • Tri-Tip: Up to 6 hours
  • Beef Ribs: 5 hours
  • Pork Ribs: 90 minutes to 2 ½ hours
  • Chicken Breasts: 2 ½ hours
  • Chicken Thighs: 2 ½ hours
  • Vegetables: 1-3 hours
  • Pork Shoulder: 1 hour per pound
  • Fish: 45 to 90 minutes

10. If you’re cooking meat, be sure to let it rest for at least 15 minutes before eating.

If you can master the art and science of how to make a smoker out of your backyard grill, your barbeques will become the talk of the town. Start with small, inexpensive cuts of meat before you go full-hog with fancy dishes. Soon you’ll be smoking like a pro, no thousand-dollar smoker in sight.

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Image: Todd Dwyer