How to Smoke on a Gas Grill: Grill Setup & Best Technique
If you want to get into smoking foods, but only have a gas grill, fear not – you can still make it work.
Is it easy to smoke on a gas grill? The short answer is yes, but if you plan to cook a lot of barbecue we recommend having a dedicated smoker.
Gas grills are not designed to smoke meat. The gaps around the lid and burners allow heat and smoke to easily escape. While you can put out a deceent meal, it won’t be the same as food cooked on a smoker.
However, if all you have is a gas grill, don’t think that delicious barbecue is out of reach. Follow the steps in this article and you’ll be impressing family and friends in no time.
Create a two-zone indirect heat setup
Before we take you through the step-by-step instructions for smoking on a gas grill, let’s run through some of the basics.
The key to your smoking success (no matter what type of grill you’re using) is the ability to control your temperature for a long period of time.
You’re not going to want your temperature to go above 300°F or expose your meat to direct flame.
For a gas grill, that means preparing a two-zone indirect setup. The grill will have a “hot zone” and a “cool zone,” hence the name.
To do this you will have at least one burner turned on providing heat while your food is cooking on the opposite side via the ambient temperature in the cooking chamber.
In the example below the burner on the left is on, so heat and smoke are generated. The pork ribs are not exposed to any flame so they can slowly smoke and become tender without burning.
A water pan is optional but serves two purposes:
- The water acts as a heat sink, stabilizing the internal grill temperature
- Adds humidity to the cooking chamber throughout the cook
As Meathead explains over at Amazingribs.com, the water pan helps to keep temps inside your grill stable by absorbing heat.
Don’t worry it doesn’t steam your meat! Because it’s not hot enough to boil it acts more as a temperature regulator.
Meathead Goldwyn, The Best Setups for Gas Grills
“The water absorbs heat, and helps minimize fluctuations in temp. The moisture also mixes with the smoke and propane combustion gases and creates flavors you cannot get with smoke alone.
But this is important to note: You are not steaming the meat! Steam can make the meat mushy and destroy meat flavors. If you keep the oven temp at 225°F, the water should not boil because the surface area will allow evaporation that will cool the water keeping it below 212°F.
Hard to believe, but true. If the water is boiling, you are running hot. Turn it down.”
Gas grill burner configuration for low and slow
If you have a two burner grill, obviously you can only have one burner on and the other off. If you have more burners, you have different options to get the right temperature.
Here are some configurations you can try if you are using a four-burner grill:
The idea here is to experiment with the heat controls and the number of burners while measuring the ambient air temperature on the other side where your food will sit. Once you’ve found a configuration that can hold steady between 225 – 250°F you can go back to that setup time and again.
It’s important to remember that there are other variables to consider. Your grill will act differently in the summer than it will in the winter, if it is windy outside, or even if it is raining.
Bottom line, you really do need to experiment with your grill and try different options before you can understand how to maintain your desired cooking temperature.
Monitoring grill temperature
The built-in thermometers on propane grills are ok in a pinch, but they’re not always as accurate as you need them to be, especially when you are smoking and want to keep the temperature nice and stable.
It may surprise you to know that they are commonly off by as much as 100°F! That’s not very helpful when we’re trying to maintain a steady low temperature for barbecue.
To make monitoring temps easier on yourself, we recommend using a quality digital thermometer like the Thermoworks Smoke. A dual probe unit like the Smoke allows you to measure the temperature of your meat and grill on the same device.
If your thermometer has a probe clip, simply clip the probe on the grill grate close to the food so you know the actual temperature you’re cooking with.
If you don’t have a probe clip, you can ball up some aluminum foil and place the probe through it, then place the ball on the grill grate. This way your probe doesn’t fall through the grate.
How to make smoke on a propane grill
So far we’ve covered how to configure your propane grill for smoking, but how do you actually produce smoke?
For smoke flavor, you’re going to have to combust wood inside your grill using wood chunks, wood chips, or wood pellets.
While some high-end gas grills come with a built-in smoker box, most of us will need another option. Luckily there are some neat toys you can pick up that will help you turn your grill into a smoker.
Some options require a cheap accessory, but we’ll also give you a DIY approach that doesn’t require any gear.
Most grills have some type of “flavorizer” or barrier that sits on top of the burner. Simply place a wood chunk on top of this barrier and it should smolder and smoke away. If it bursts into flames, you can still use pellets or chips.
Pellets and chips can’t be simply placed on top of burner since they need to be deprived of oxygen in order to smoke. To do that there are several accessories you can use.
1. Create smoke with a pellet tube
My personal favorite way to create smoke is with a pellet tube.
Pack this bad boy with smoking pellets, light one end with a lighter or blowtorch, and lay it on the grill grate and it will burn for up to 4 hours. That’s a heck of a lot easier than replacing wood chips every 30 minutes.
I find the smoke generation is nice and steady, and they are easy to clean up.
These tubes are so good at creating smoke people with dedicated smokers often add them as well to get a little extra smoke. They come in different sizes depending on how long you want to smoke for, but the 12″ is a good option for most uses.
Check out our guide on how to smoke ribs on a gas grill to see this technique in acting.
Another popular option if you like to use wood chips is the simple Smoker Box; a stainless steel box you can fill with wood chips and place directly over the burner.
Smoker boxes take dry wood chips vs. soaked wood chips causing a more natural and even smoke.
People soak wood chips for DIY smoker packets so they don’t catch fire and give off dirty smoke, but a smoker box doesn’t have holes in the bottom which prevents proper oxygen flow for ignition causing the chips to smolder steadily in the box.
2. Make a aluminum foil pouch
If you don’t want to shell out any money for a pellet tube or smoker box then there are a couple of simple options that are probably already kicking around in your kitchen cupboards.
You can make a pouch out of heavy duty aluminum foil and fill it with either pellets or wood chips, poke holes to allow oxygen to get in and out, and you’re good to go. Likewise, you can try placing wood chips or pellets in a disposable aluminum pan and place it on top of your burner.
This is controversial but you’ll most likely want to soak your chips for 30 minutes beforehand to prevent them from catching fire. They’ll start to smoke on the burner after 15 – 20 minutes.
3. Place hard wood chunks directly on the burner
This is about as simple as you can get. Get a chunk of hardwood set right above the burner and let it smoke away.
The placement can be a little tricky as you don’t want it to be in direct contact with the flame causing full ignition, but if it’s not close enough it won’t burn.
You can wrap the bottom in heavy duty aluminum foil and set it closer to the burner flame to get good, steady smoke, but just be sure the chunk doesn’t come to full flame which would overheat the cooking chamber and cause possible damage.
How to smoke on a gas grill: step by step instructions
Getting your gas grill set up for smoking isn’t complicated. The first time you do this I recommend getting everything ready beforehand and cooking something simple like chicken wings, ribs or pulled pork so you can focus on nailing your grill setup.
So get your food and any sauces or rubs ready, make sure your smoking wood or pellets are handy. And lastly, you want to make sure you have a good supply of propane. Nothing worse than running out and having to rush to the store halfway through a 6-hour smoke.
Have at least half a tank of propane for shorter cooking times like ribs or chicken. For longer cooks like brisket or pork butt, having at least one full tank is highly recommended, if not having multiple on hand just to be safe.
Step 1: Light your propane burner to medium heat
Turn on the burner that is on the far left of your grill and set it to medium heat. If using a digital thermometer, insert it now and close the lid. Monitor your temp until you reach your desired cooking range, typically around 225°F – 250°F.
Give your grill time to preheat and get to your desired heat. If you quickly overshoot your desired temp, turn your dial down. If after 20 minutes you are still only at 180°F, turn your dial-up. If you’re having a hard time getting your grill to 225°F – 250°F, you may have to consider turning on additional burners if you have them.
This may seem tricky, but once you’ve played with your grill a little bit you will know where you need to be to cook at your desired temp.
Step 2: Add your wood
Once your grill is preheated it’s time to add your wood. Make sure you use a pair of heavy tongs or a pair of high heat gloves to remove the grill grates to gain access to place your wood.
Place a chunk of hardwood, a tinfoil pouch, or a tray of wood chips/pellets directly over your burner.
If using a pellet tube, pack it with pellets and use a lighter or blowtorch to light one end and place it on your grill grate.
Once you see wisps of smoke it’s time to place your food on the grill away from the heat.
Step 3: Get smokin!
Place your meat on the opposite side of your grill, away from your lit burner, close your lid, and you are good to go! Keep an eye on your temp and adjust your dial accordingly.
Depending on what you’re cooking, you may need to add more wood before the meat is done, especially if using chips. Check periodically as add more accordingly.
These ribs were smoked on a
Tips for smoking on a gas grill
1. Don’t over smoke
If this is your first time smoking meat, one word of caution – don’t use too much wood. It may be tempting to use half a bag of wood chips, but trust me there is nothing worse than over smoked meat. You’re better off just using a half cup of wood chips or pellets, or a single small chunk of hardwood your first time around.
After you’ve cooked your meal you can decide if you would like more smoke flavor or not. If you think your meat could have been a little smokier, just remember to use a little more wood next time. I can assure you the food you cook the first time around will still be awesome.
2. Use the right type of wood
Anytime you’re cooking with wood, it’s good to keep the types of wood in mind. The same goes for smoking on a gas grill.
Whether using pellets, chips or chunks you’ll want to experiment with different types of wood depending on what you are cooking.
While the importance of matching the wood type with certain types of meat is overexaggerated, there are some good principles to keep in mind.
Use the tips in our best woods for smoking guide to help narrow down your decision.
3. Plan how much space you will need
Remember that you will have significantly less grill surface to work with then you are used to.
Depending on the size of your grill and the number of burners you might be limited to 50% or less of your total grill surface.
Now you know how to set up your gas grill for smoking, you’ve got no excuse not to go and make some delicious barbecue.
If you’re looking for some inspiration on what to smoke, why not try our can’t fail 3-2-1 BBQ pork ribs, or Pulled Pork.
And when you are ready to take your smoking to the next level with a dedicated smoker, head over to our guide to the best beginner smokers to continue your journey.