How to Use Your Charcoal Grill as a Smoker

charcoal grill grates with smoke

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You can smoke the most amazing meat, even if you don’t have a fancy offset smoker. Learn how to use your charcoal grill as a smoker, plus get my tried and true hack for keeping your temperatures consistent while smoking meat on the charcoal grill.

Smoked turkey, smoked whole chicken, smoked pork butt… you may think you can’t cook these on your back deck because you don’t have a smoker. But if you’ve got a simple charcoal grill, that’s all you need to make delicious and juicy smoked meats.

Here’s how to do it…

Setting up Your Charcoal Grill as a Smoker

Once you know HOW to use your charcoal grill as a smoker, you’ll be able to smoke any meat that you want. Here are the basics of smoking on a charcoal grill:

Cleaning Out the Ash

The first step to setting up your grill like a smoker is to clean out the ash from the bottom of your kettle. Your charcoal grill should have a lever underneath it that you can move back and forth to open and close the vents and allow the ash to fall through and collect in the ash cup.

ash in the bottom of a kettle charcoal grill

If you have too much ash and debris in the bottom of your kettle, then your airflow will be blocked and your fire won’t get the proper amount of oxygen, so it’s very important to make sure that you clean out excess ash before smoking.

Where to Put Your Charcoal

I prefer to mound my charcoal on the left side of my kettle, but that’s just personal preference. The important thing is that you pick ONE side of your grill for your charcoal, then mound up your briquettes on that side.

This is what it should look like:

charcoal briquettes on one side of a kettle grill

How Much Charcoal to Use

The amount of charcoal you need will depend on WHAT you are cooking and the QUALITY of your grill. Remember, the thickness of the metal on your grill determines the level of heat insulation. If your grill is a thicker gauge of metal, it will hold the heat better and you’ll need less charcoal.

The grill that I am using in these photos is a Weber Summit Charcoal Grill. This grill is basically the original Weber Kettle on steroids. It is double-wall insulated, so it’s built for those long, low and slow cooks.

Also, cooking a whole 6 lb chicken obviously would take less charcoal than a 20 lb brisket. For reference, the photo above shows how much charcoal I used to smoke a whole chicken for 2 1/2 hours. And remember, if you don’t use all of the charcoal, you can leave it in your grill and use it for your next cook, or you can add more charcoal as needed.

The MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember about smoking with charcoal is that you DON’T need to light a ton of charcoal to get started. You only want to light about 5 to 8 briquettes and then allow the unlit charcoal to act as additional fuel for the long haulI’ll talk more about that down below!

The Placement of the Thermometer

To insure that your meat is always cooking at the proper temp, I recommend a wireless probe 2-way thermometer. A 2-way thermometer gives you 2 temperature readings at the same time – one for your grill temp and one for the internal temp of your meat.

You want to place the probe that reads your grill temp right next to where you will put your meat. That way you get an accurate reading of the temperature WHERE your meat will be. Here’s my 2-way thermometer in action when I was smoking a whole chicken recently:

whole chicken on a charcoal grill

See the thermometer probe stuck to the grill grate near the bottom of the chicken?

You should also try to ovoid placing the wire of your thermometer directly over the coals. Yes, it is heat resistant, but it will wear out faster, because the heat from the coals is just too hot to handle over an extended period of time.

Why does my built-in grill thermometer say a different temp than my wireless 2-way thermometer?

Great question…

The built-in thermometer of your grill is probably located somewhere near the middle of the cooking area, which is going to be CLOSER to your heat source and therefore read a higher temp. The grill probe of your 2-way thermometer is going to be right next to your meat, which is as far away as possible from your heat source.

Also, when you put raw meat on the grill right next to your probe, it creates a cool spot because the meat is colder. As your meat cooks and heats up, the temperature readings on your built-in grill thermometer and your 2-way thermometer will get closer together.

Can I add a water pan?

Yes, adding a water pan is a great trick for how to use your charcoal grill as a smoker. Using a water pan in your smoker does a few things:

  • Helps add moisture when needed
  • Can be used as a dripping pan to keep your grill cleaner
  • Helps absorb heat to regulate temperature
  • Makes your meat wetter and allows the smoke to adhere more to help create that smoke ring

I don’t use a water pan too often, because I’m not a fan of the INTENSE smoke flavor, and I don’t think it’s necessary. If you DO decide to use a water pan, you should place your pan under your meat, on the opposite side of your kettle than your charcoals.

Don’t worry about adding stock or juices to your water pan, because you won’t be able to reuse the cooking liquid for sauces, etc. The liquid in the pan will absorb SO much smoke taste, that the juices will be inedible.

What Temp to Smoke Meat at?

250 degrees! That’s the “sweet spot” temperature when smoking meat, whether it’s ribs, pork butt, brisket, or a whole chicken.

grill thermometer with reading of 250 degrees

Using Your Air Vents

The air vents are your best friend when smoking on a charcoal grill. The top and bottom vents allow you to easily regulate the temperature of your grill to stay in the optimal smoker temp range. If you open the vents more, more oxygen will get to your fire which will raise the temperature. Closing the vents more will lessen the oxygen levels in your grill and decrease the temperature, because oxygen is fuel for fire.

My Hack for Adjusting Your Air Vents for Smoking on a Charcoal Grill

Once you have dialed in your air vents and learned how to control your temps on your grill, you will want to remember the position of the air vents. There’s nothing worse than smoking the perfect rack of ribs on your grill, and then not being able to replicate that again. You brag to your friends about your awesome smoked meat, and they come over to try it and it’s not near as good. So what do I do?

charcoal grill vents marked with black marker

See those black marker marks on the vents of my grill? Those are the marks of perfection!

I know that my grill stays at the perfect temperature for smoking when the top and bottom vents are in those positions. So I just used a Sharpie marker as a “placeholder”. Whenever I smoke meats on my charcoal grill, I turn the vents to line up with those black marks and I’m good to go.

Once you know how to set up your charcoal grill as a smoker and to maintain the temperature of your grill, you can smoke ANY type of meat. And if you aren’t so nervous about the temp of your grill, then you’ll feel more comfortable experimenting with different rubs, seasonings, or meats. Sure, you’re a smoking master now… you know how to keep your grill dialed in at the perfect temp (because you’ve got Sharpie marks to help you!), so why not try that smoked turkey for Christmas or a rib cook-off in your backyard?!

Remember, though, the position of your air vents will vary from summer to winter. The outside weather can play a big part in both air flow and internal temp. So, if it’s 7 degrees outside you might want to open your bottom vent just a bit more to allow more air flow to offset the extreme cold. When it’s hot outside the opposite would apply.

Wood Chips vs. Wood Chunks

Let’s talk about wood chips vs. wood chunks. There are benefits of both, and what you need will depend on what you’re grilling or smoking. Here are some of the pros and cons of both:

Pros of Wood Chips

  • Great for quick smokes – like pork chops, chicken breasts, or salmon
  • Add some flame if needed
  • Can add mixes of flavor
  • Usually cheaper
  • Soaks in water faster

Cons of Wood Chips

  • Does not smoke long
  • Will likely flame up
  • Less smoke flavor
  • Can not reuse

Pros of Wood Chunks

  • Best wood flavor
  • Can be reused
  • Great for low and slow smokes – smoked pork butts, ribs, brisket, etc.
  • Will smoke for longer period of time

Cons of Wood Chunks

  • Not really versatile
  • Depending on grill size, one chunk might be too much – I keep a small hatchet at my grilling station to cut my wood chunks into smaller pieces.
  • More expensive than wood chips

Trying this Grilling Method for the First Time

If you’re a bit nervous about using your charcoal grill as a smoker, I suggest smoking a whole chicken (see How to Smoke a Whole Chicken HERE!). Chicken is cheap, and it won’t require as long of a smoking time. Plus, you can experiment with different wood flavors to see what you like best.

Then, once you feel comfortable with your grill, you can move on to those Big Daddy briskets and butts!

The 3 Pillars of Smoking on a Charcoal Grill

Using your charcoal grill as a smoker comes down to how well you follow these 3 main points… call them the “holy grail” must-do’s of smoking on a charcoal grill:

1. Don’t Over-Light Your Charcoal

Smoking on a charcoal grill is much different than grilling a meat that cooks quickly, like steak or hamburgers. Grilling at hot and fast temps requires you to light more charcoal. If you want to maintain a lower temp for smoking, you only need to light about 5-8 briquettes when you start your grill.

2. Get Your Meat as Far Away as Possible from the Charcoal

To create a smoking effect on a charcoal grill, you need to create a two zone system – one hot zone and one cool zone. The great thing about a two zone system is it allows you to move your meat around the grill, depending on if it needs a hotter or cooler zone. With smoking, you want to move your meat to the cool zone and position it away from your heat source, in this case charcoal and wood chunks.

A two zone system on your charcoal grill is basically an oven with extra flavor.
Neal @TheCharcoalKing
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By getting your meat away from your heat, you allow the smoke to completely surround your meat with just a hint of heat. Your meat will cook more slowly and the fat will render out leaving you with a nice, crispy outer layer on your meat. If your meat was directly over the heat, it could flare up from the fat dripping down and catching on fire. That would raise your temperature inside your gill. Plus, directly over top of the coals is the hottest part of your grill, which defeats the point of the two zone set up.

The low and slow method also makes it really difficult to over-cook your meat. So while it does take a little bit of patience in the set up process, smoking on a charcoal grill is basically foolproof once you learn how to set it up and dial in your grill temp.

3. Control Your Temperature

Which brings me to the 3rd rule of smoking with a charcoal grill… You have to control your temperature.

Using your charcoal grill as a smoker is NOT a set it and forget it method. You will need to continuously monitor the temperature of your grill and make sure that it stays within the “smoke” range. Whether you’re cooking ribs, pork butt, or a whole smoked chicken, you want your grill to stay right around 250 degrees. That’s the golden number… plus or minus 25 degrees and you should be good.

That is why I swear by the 2 way remote thermometer. It allows you the freedom to do other things (like make some killer side dishes), and not to be constantly glued to the grill.

Final thoughts…

This is NO DOUBT one of the MOST IMPORTANT grilling methods to have in your repertoire. Once you know how to set your grill up like a smoker, and use your air vents to maintain the temperature, you’ll be a smoking master in no time!

Want to Watch Me Cook?

Click here to visit The Flat Top King on YouTube! Watch me cook some of my favorite charcoal grill, flat top grill, and cast iron recipes, and get helpful tips for how to use and care for your cooking equipment!

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