How to Turn Your Charcoal Grill into a Great Smoker Grill

If you love the intoxicating aroma and flavor of smoked turkey, chicken, ham, baby-back ribs, or fresh vegetables, but all you have is a charcoal grill — no problem. You don’t have to go down to the local smoke shack or settle for warmed-over, pre-smoked foods from the supermarket. Your own grill makes a great smoker too, and no special equipment is required.

The Problem with “Real” Smoker Grills

Several years ago, I invested in an official “smoker” grill for outdoor cooking, and set it up on the patio alongside the tried-and-true Weber that I’d grilled on for years. I was excited about finally enjoying freshly smoked meats and vegetables at home—both the preparation and the eating. But the preparation soon became not so exciting. More like a drag.

The problems were inconvenience and poor heat control. The pan for the coals and wood chips was set at the bottom of the smoke cylinder (almost on the ground, actually), and once it was in place, there was no easy way to add coals, if needed, or to move hot coals around to cool them a bit, if needed. As a result, the temperature usually started out too high to smoke the food gently, then cooled too quickly to smoke it at all.

Maybe I simply purchased the wrong smoker, but after using the Weber for the same purpose, I’ve been enjoying the convenience and ease of smoking everything from salmon to salsa on my good ol’ charcoal grill.

Low and Slow with Plenty of Coal (and Wood Chips)

The key to turning out great smoked meats and vegetables is to know how long the food will need to smoke in order to be tender, juicy, and properly cooked, then adjusting the amount of coals accordingly. Smoking a whole chicken or racks of ribs can take 2 1/2 to 3 hours with a consistent medium-low temperature, and you should start with plenty of charcoal (80-100 briquettes) to keep the fire going as long as needed. Smoking fish, however, can take only an hour or less, depending on the kind and weight, so you can use less coals and still maintain the heat long enough. Smoking vegetables—as in the Smoked Tomato and Jalapeno Salsa below—takes even less time, so 30-40 briquettes will do the job.

Easy Steps to Turn Your Charcoal Grill into a Smoker Grill

Everything you’ll need:

  • charcoal grill
  • charcoal
  • propane igniter, chimney starter, or lighter fluid
  • aluminum foil (optional)
  • 2 metal pie pans or disposable aluminum pans
  • wood chips (hickory, apple, mesquite, etc.)
  • 1 quart beer or apple juice, plus water to replenish the smoking-liquid pan as needed
It’s important to have everything ready to go when the coals are just right, including the wood chips, pans, and food:
  • The wood chips need to soak in water about 30 minutes, so get those started before lighting the grill. I place about 1 1/2 cups of chips (less for quick-smoking fish and vegetables) in a measuring cup, fill it with water, and set a large drinking glass on top to keep the chips submerged.
  • You’ll also want to have your pans and aromatic ingredients ready. If you’re using metal pans, you may want to cover them with foil to make cleanup easier and to protect them a bit. One of the pans will be the “drip pan,” which you’ll place on the bottom grate beneath the food. The other will hold the smoking liquid and other aromatic ingredients, such as fresh herbs, onion chunks, smashed garlic cloves, fruit peels, etc. (or you can use just the liquid by itself).
  • Finally, make sure the food is ready. If you’re smoking meat or poultry, have it cut, trimmed, rubbed, marinated—whatever you need to do so that it’s ready to place on the grill as is. Let it sit out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before starting to smoke it.
If your grill has vents on the bottom that you can close, close the one on the side of the grill where you’ll place the food above it (the “off-heat” side). If you’re unable to close the vents, place a small square of aluminum foil over this vent.

Place the bottom grate in the grill and mound the charcoal against the wall opposite the off-heat side. When the coals are completely gray, place the drip pan on the bottom grate over the closed vent. Drain about 3/4 (all, if you’re quick-smoking fish or vegetables) of the soaked wood chips and scatter them over the hot coals. Put the top (cooking) grate on the grill and set the smoking-liquid pan on it to pour in the liquid. (Vegetable chunks, herbs, or any other aromatics should already be in the pan.) Make sure the liquid fills about 3/4 of the pan, then carefully slide it to the side above the coals.

The smoke should be rolling at this point, so place your food on the grate above the drip pan and close the lid, leaving the lid vents open. For smoking times longer than an hour, drain and scatter the remaining wood chips over the coals 15-20 minutes before the food is done. Tip: If your cooking grate is not hinged to allow access to the coals, use a pair of tongs to carefully push larger chips through the bars of the grate.

As with grilling, you need to turn the meat or vegetables occasionally when you’re smoking, but not as often. Remember, it’s low-and-slow, and each time you remove the lid to turn the food, you lose a lot of heat. That doesn’t matter as much in high-temperature grilling, but maintaining as consistent a temperature as possible is important for smoking.

That’s it. Turning your charcoal grill into a smoker grill is easy and convenient. Try it out for some of the most succulent ribs, juiciest chicken, smokiest salmon — and best salsa! — you’ve ever tasted.

Smoked Tomato and Jalapeno Salsa

You don’t need many ingredients in this salsa because the smoky flavor of the tomatoes and peppers should steal the show. And remember this: homemade salsa is one of the most healthful dishes you can eat: no fats or processed foods included. It’s a simple dish that’s simply delicious. (To make this salsa, you don’t need a drip pan since the tomatoes and peppers are contained in a pan themselves.)
  • 12 oz cherry, grape, or small campari tomatoes, halved
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded, and quartered (keep some of the seeds with the peppers for a little extra heat, if desired)
  • 12 oz beer or apple juice
  • 2 scallions, white parts only (throw the green parts in the smoking liquid)
  • 2-3 tbsp chopped cilantro leaves (stems in the smoking liquid)
  • 1 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 1 tsp chile powder
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
Place the tomatoes and peppers in a foil-lined metal pie pan or disposable aluminum pan. Prepare a charcoal grill for smoking. When the coals are ready and the wood chips are smoking, place the pan of tomatoes and peppers on the off-heat side of the grate and close the lid, leaving the lid-vents open. Smoke the tomatoes and jalapenos 30 minutes, shaking the pan once about halfway through. Remove the pan from the grill and let cool completely. Place the smoked tomatoes and jalapenos in a food processor. Add the scallions, cilantro, lime juice, and chile powder and process until chunky-smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

For more cooking tips and recipes from Pamela Steed Hill, check out

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.