If you want your grilled meat to pack a powerful punch of wood flavor, then you should consider all of the available options. Can you put wood chips directly on charcoal, or do you need to invest in a smoker box? We’re here to discuss the ins and outs of each method.
Why You Should Use Wood Chips on the Grill
When you’re grilling, there’s nothing better than that authentic smoky taste–and there’s no better way to achieve those results than to use real wood. The technique also allows you to experiment with different flavors, since each type of wood that’s available for these purposes (see Flavor Profiles, below) carries its own subtle characteristics.
Better yet, it’s easy to add wood chips to your fire, even if the grill isn’t outfitted with a separate smoker attachment. All you need are some wood chips, a square of aluminum foil, and a few extra minutes. Because charcoal fires take a while to heat up anyway, you should have plenty of time to prepare.
How to Add Wood Chips to a Charcoal Fire
1. The Foil Pan Method
This is the preferred method for larger grills. Disposable aluminum pans are inexpensive, easy to find, and invaluable if you’re serious about grilling.
To use this technique, light the grill and wait until the coals are finely coated with a layer of white-gray ash. To start the fire, you can use either lighter fluid or a chimney starter, or a small pile of newspaper crumpled beneath the coals.
Next, fill the pan at least halfway with the wood chips of your choice. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and poke several holes in the foil before adding it to the hot coals. Replace the cooking grates, apply a thin coating of neutral oil, and grill your food as you normally would.
2. The Foil Packet Method
Can you put wood chips directly on charcoal? Yes, but we wouldn’t recommend it. The wood will burn up before it can impart any real smoke flavor to the food, which would defeat the entire purpose of the exercise.
Instead, it’s a good idea to create a foil packet to prevent the chips from combusting too quickly. Just place a few handfuls of wood chips in the center of a generously-sized sheet of aluminum foil, fold up the edges so that the wood is fully enclosed, and poke holes in the foil to permit the smoke to escape. Here’s a video tutorial to give you an idea of what the process looks like.
When the coals are ready, carefully set the packet on top of the pile before you start to cook.
3. The Smoker Box Method
This is the method to use if your grill already has a smoker box in place for these purposes, or if you’re willing to buy one instead of resorting to do-it-yourself techniques.
Fill the smoker box with wood chips and place it on top of the hot coals. Wait until you start to see smoke coming out of the holes, about 10 minutes. At this point, you can add the food to the grill right away, or whenever the coals have reached the desired temperature.
To Soak or Not To Soak?
You might have noticed that none of the techniques listed above include the initial step of soaking the wood chips in water beforehand. That’s because we don’t think this step is necessary. In fact, it could actually hinder your progress.
Why do some people recommend soaking the wood chips in the first place? They believe that when the wood is wet, it will take longer to burn, so you won’t have to replenish the supply as often. While they’re technically correct, all of the water in the wood will have to evaporate before the wood will actually ignite. That means that any vapor you see before that is actually steam, not smoke. This won’t make the food taste better, and it could even lower the temperature of your coals, leading to inconsistent results.
What’s more, wood chips don’t absorb that much water to begin with. In order for the moisture to penetrate the wood, the chips would need to soak for at least a day. Most people only soak them for 30 minutes to an hour, which isn’t long enough to do anything except slow down the cooking process.
To help you understand your options, here’s a guide to the most popular types of wood used for grilling. We’ve also included information about which foods pair best with each type.
A great all-purpose smoking wood, apple gives off a mild flavor that pairs excellently with poultry and pork. It doesn’t hold up as well to red meat, but it can still be used on steak and lamb chops if you’re more interested in showcasing the seasonings rather than the smoke itself.
This is another mild option with a subtle sweetness. Many pitmasters swear by alder when it comes to smoked salmon and other seafood.
If you’ve ever had maple syrup, you’ll have a basic idea of the flavors that this wood imparts. Try it with salmon, poultry, or vegetables. Be aware that the smoke from maple will tint the food a darker shade.
This fruitwood delivers a gentle smoke flavor and a deep reddish hue. It’s suitable for pork and beef, but the color might be too off-putting for poultry.
Pecan has a sweet, fruity taste that serves as a nice counterpoint to pork roasts and chops. It can also be used with poultry and seafood. Note that pecan wood chips burn at a slightly lower temperature than the others.
Slightly stronger than the options listed above, oak is ideal for steaks and pork chops. It can be blended with apple or cherry to deliver an extra boost of flavor.
One of the go-to options for traditional barbecue, hickory has a strong, sweet flavor that can be bitter if you’re not careful. This wood works especially well with beef brisket.
The strongest of them all, mesquite is best when combined with milder woods to impart its bold flavor without overpowering the meat. We wouldn’t recommend using mesquite for anything except hearty cuts of red meat.
Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Smoke?
While you want the wood flavor to be noticeable, it isn’t really necessary to create a billowing cloud of smoke. A thin stream of light blue-gray smoke should issue regularly from the holes in your foil packet or smoker box. If the smoke is thick and white or black and sooty-looking, the fire is either suffocating from lack of oxygen, or it’s simply not hot enough.
Also, make sure your air vents are open at least partway to allow some of the smoke to escape. You don’t want to trap too much smoke in the grill, or it will give your food an acrid, bitter aftertaste. On the other hand, don’t be tempted to lift the lid too often, or the smoke won’t have a chance to penetrate the meat.
Finally, as we mentioned above, stronger woods like hickory and mesquite should be used sparingly to avoid overwhelming the other flavors.
If you choose to make your own wood chips instead of relying on commercially prepared ones, make sure they’re made of hardwood and not softwood like pine or spruce. Softwood contains too much resin, which will create an unpredictable fire and make the food taste bitter. Finally, when buying commercially prepared chips, look for all-natural brands with no chemicals or other additives.
Alternatives to Wood Chips
The only difference between wood chips and wood chunks is the size. Chunks are larger and take longer to burn, so they work well when you’re cooking large cuts of meat like whole chickens, beef brisket, or pork shoulder.
These ingenious inventions are small cylinders of compressed hardwood sawdust. They can burn slowly while maintaining a high temperature, which makes them an ideal choice for grilling as well as smoking. If you’re interested in cooking with wood pellets, we would recommend investing in a pellet grill.
Some chefs rely on this condiment to impart smoke flavor to their food, even when they’re not cooking outdoors. It’s been around since the 19th century, and the technique for making it has remained largely the same.
To make liquid smoke, the manufacturers burn hardwood sawdust and allow the smoke to condense until it’s in liquid form. The resulting liquid is then processed to eliminate any residual ash or other impurities. Usually, there are other ingredients added to act as preservatives and round out the flavor. Some common additives include vinegar, molasses, sugar, and salt.
If you’re grilling the food anyway, we would recommend staying away from liquid smoke. It’s just not an adequate substitute for the real thing, no matter how much thought goes into its production.
How Many Wood Chips Do You Need?
When using the foil method, use about 2-3 handfuls of chips per packet. Each packet should smoke for about one hour, which may be enough, depending on what you’re cooking. For longer cooking applications, add an additional packet every half hour or so to keep the smoke flowing at a steady pace.
Techniques for Smoking Meat
Depending on how serious you are about grilled and smoked foods, you may have heard about the different ways of smoking meat. There are three basic options: cold smoking, warm smoking, and hot smoking. Here’s what you need to know about each one.
Cold smoking doesn’t cook the food, but imbues it with that unmistakable woodsy flavor. The process takes place at temperatures of 66 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and is the go-to technique for smoked cheeses and pre-cooked meats.
Warm smoking is perhaps the least common, but it’s often used on bacon and other smoked meat products. To achieve the proper results, the fire needs to be kept between 80 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
The last method, hot smoking, is the most prevalent. This technique actually cooks the food in addition to improving the flavor. Once the temperature is in the range of 150 to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ve entered hot-smoking territory.
Can you put wood chips directly on charcoal when grilling? It depends on what you mean by directly.
Using a foil packet or some other type of barrier will slow the combustion and allow the wood to smoke at a slow, even pace. Since you’re looking for flavor rather than flame, this is the technique we would recommend.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!