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Smoking Basics

Want to know more about the great smoked flavor? Our tips will get your fire started whether you’re using a charcoal grill, a gas barbecue, or a traditional smoker.

Getting Started


Start by soaking wood chunks in water for at least one hour. Chips (including wine barrel chips) and aromatic twigs (grape vines or fruit wood twigs) need only 30 minutes of soaking. Shake all excess water off woods before adding them to your fire or smoker box. (See our chart on page 12 for wood types information.)

You can find smoking woods in hardware stores and home centers – or if you’re lucky, in your own backyard! Wine barrel chips are available in specialty food stores and gift shops, and some hardware stores.


Water adds dampness to the smoking process so meats come out tasty and tender. If you are using a traditional smoker with a water pan, try adding barbecue sauce, marinades, wine, beer, fruit juices, or herbs and spices to the water pan for additional flavor. Be sure to keep the water pan full. For large roasts and turkeys, you may have to add water to the pan a couple of times throughout grilling. Check, the water pan when you add charcoal – a watering can makes replenishing easy. (Reminder: When smoking cheese, add ice to the water pan so the cheese does not melt above it.) You can use a water pan with charcoal and gas grills, too.


Place food in the center of the cooking grate above the water pan (if you are using one). Remember that smoke and heat escape every time you peek into the grill, so add 15 minutes to cooking time for each peek (more if you are smoking in cold weather). Boneless meats, such as beef brisket and pork shoulder, will shrink considerably during smoke-cooking, unless they have a heavy layering of fat. Simply cut off the fat before serving. (Reminder: Consider cooking your menu up to two days before serving. The smoke flavor becomes richer after a day or two in the refrigerator. That’s why smoked foods make great leftovers.)


Preparing your Charcoal Grill, Gas Barbecue, or Traditional Smoker

Charcoal Grill

Use the Indirect method by arranging charcoal briquets on each side of the charcoal grate. Place a heavy aluminum foil pan between the piles of briquets and add 2 cups water and any flavorings. Allow 30 minutes for coals to heat up (they should have a light coating of gray ash). Place soaked wood chunks or chips/twigs directly on prepared coals and allow to smoke fully before beginning cooking. Place food on top cooking grate over the water pan. Cover grill. Add 5 to 7 briquets to each side every hour and refill water and seasonings as needed.

Gas Barbecue

Most gas barbecues can be equipped with or are sold with a smoker attachment. The smoker attachment makes it easy to turn your barbecue grill into a hot smoker. You can also devise with a foil pan. Before preheating your grill, simply fill the water pan on the smoker attachment with hot tap water. Place presoaked wood chunks or chips/twigs in the other compartment, or in a foil pan directly on the bars over the lit burner. (Use a separate pan for water if you are using a foil pan for the wood pieces.) Begin cooking after preheating and when grill is fully smoking.


Always position smoker on a level, heatproof surface away from buildings and out of traffic patterns. It is best to find a place away from the house, since smoke aromas can linger for hours.

Place soaked woods on the coals through the door on the front of the smoker. Keep all vents partially closed for smoke-cooking. Place food on the top and/or middle cooking grate, depending on recipe and food quantity. Arrange food in a single layer on each grate, leaving space for smoke to circulate around each piece. Add 12 to 14 briquets and as many wood chunks as needed to fire, and replenish water and seasonings.


Beginners Tips

Use a meat thermometer to make sure smoke - cooked foods are done but not overcooked.

Smoke-cooked foods look different than other grilled or oven-prepared foods. They may be pink or red when completely cooked (apple wood especially will make chicken look red, for example).

Use tongs and barbecue mitts.

Use them to add charcoal, turn meats, refill the water pan, or adjust vents.

Do not use charcoal infused with starter fluid.

It can add an unpleasant taste to your smoked foods.

Experiment with different woods and meats.

Do this until you find the right combination for your tastes.

Start with a small amount of wood.

Do this to see how you like the flavor, and then add more for more intense smoky taste. (Just do not overdo it; too much wood smoke over long periods can make food taste bitter.)

Try combining woods.

Try doing this, as you get more experienced for unique and flavorful results.

Keep a smoker’s notebook while experimenting.

Write down ingredients, wood amounts and combinations, and results so you can repeat successes.


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