I love my kettle grill. Like, a lot. I own six different types of grills and smokers, but if I ever had to choose just one grill for life, it would definitely be my faithful kettle.
The kettle grill is able to quickly cook the standard backyard foods like burgers, steaks, and chops with ease; but it is also great for smoking meat. I first learned how to smoke foods like ribs and pork shoulder on my kettle.
Later I invested in a dedicated smoker only to find I preferred the simplicity of the kettle. Now my smoker sits in the shed mostly unused while the kettle is used a couple of times a week.
Click to jump straight to each topic
The Basics of Smoking on a Grill
There are countless households that have a kettle grill on the back patio that has never been used to its full potential. Many kettle owners do not know they can use their grill as a smoker and create delicious smoked meats with just a little know-how and some patience.
Instead, the kettle is used much like a typical gas grill. It gets fired up once or twice a week to cook hot dogs and hamburgers. The careless owner simply dumps some charcoal in, douses the briquettes in lighter fluid, and flicks a match. Pity.
It is incredibly easy to perfect low and slow smoking on the kettle. With some practice, you can easily achieve 12+ hour burn times. In this article, I’ll go into great detail about how you can do the same.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on gadgets (but there are some neat toys out there that we’ll talk about later), but the basics like a charcoal chimney starter and a quality digital thermometer will help you out in the long run.
While this guide focuses on converting a Weber Kettle style grill for smoking, the advice applies to most types of charcoal grills.
There are lots of different ways you can smoke on a kettle style grill. Each approach has it’s pros and cons. We’ll go through some of the best methods and help you find what will work best for you.
A 2-zone setup is when you have charcoal to one side (a “hot zone”) and you cook your meat opposite (on a “cool zone”). This way the meat is able to slowly come up in temperature without ever being exposed to high direct heat.
This is definitely the most basic way to smoke meat on your kettle grill, and in the video below, Malcolm Reed of Killer Hogs Competition BBQ Team does a great job of explaining how to do it.
What You’ll Need
You won’t need much to set your grill up to cook with 2-zone fire. You’ll need your kettle, charcoal, a charcoal chimney to light your charcoal, some hardwood chunks, and a disposable tinfoil water pan can be helpful but is not necessary.
How to Prepare Your Grill for 2-Zone Cooking
- You can use your charcoal chimney to light your charcoal, then once it’s ashed over simply dump the coals to the one side of your Kettle.
- Adding chunks of hardwood like cherry or hickory will smolder and smoke your food as it cooks, giving it a delicious flavor. Wood chips can work as well, but I find that chunks work better as they continue to give off smoke for much longer.
- We have a detailed guide to smoke woods if you want to learn more about what types of wood work best for flavoring your food.
- A water pan opposite your charcoal is helpful for several reasons. Meathead Goldwyn from AmazingRibs.com explains that a water pan helps protect the meat from direct heat, help stabilize temps, and will add humidity.
- The area on your grill grate above the water pan is where you place your food. This should give you enough space to smoke a chicken or small turkey, or 1-2 racks of ribs. If you want to smoke more racks of ribs at once in your Kettle you can invest in a rib rack.
The Snake Method
While the 2-zone setup is great, it tends to lend itself better to short cooks – less than 3-4 hours. If you have a pork shoulder or a brisket that you know is going to take all day to cook, another easy option is the snake method (also known as the fuse method).
What You’ll Need
Similar to the 2-zone setup, all you’ll really need is your kettle and some charcoal. In my experience briquettes work best. A water pan is also helpful for the same reason as with the 2-zone method. Finally you’ll need some wood chunks of your smoking wood of choice.
How to Prepare for the Snake Method
- Dump a pile of unlit briquettes into your kettle and stack them 2×2 along the outer edge of your kettle until you have what looks like a big “C”.
- You’ll need to experiment with different snake setups. In warm weather the 2×2 snake should suffice. If it’s cold or you need to smoke hotter try adding another single row of briquettes on top.
- Next, you’ll light 6-10 briquettes and place them near one end of the “C”, causing it to burn like a candle wick. This method will allow up to 16 hours burn at a steady temp between 225° – 250°F.
- Place 2-3 chunks of wood spaced out along the snake to provide continuous smoke.
- Place the largest aluminum pan you can fit into the space inside the “C” and fill it with water.
- Leave your vents fully open to begin with, then adjust as required.
Placing the wood closer to the start of the “C” is a good idea, as explained below.
Now you’re ready to smoke. Simply place your meat on the grill racks above the water pan you should be good to go for the next 12-15 hours.
Accessories for turning your grill into a smoker
There are some neat gadgets on the market that make smoking on a kettle grill easier by removing any guesswork. While they are not necessary, they do have their place and anyone would be wise to consider them.
The design is simple, a bent piece of stainless steel that is designed to hold as many briquettes as possible to only one side of your kettle. To use it, you remove your grill grate and insert the Smokenator. Next, add about 45 briquettes until the unit is full. Remove approx. 7=8 briquettes and light them and add once ashed over.
The Smokenator comes with a stainless steel water pan that can then be inserted on top of the lit briquettes. Similar to the Snake Method, the Smokenator allows charcoal to slowly burn down inside it, like a wick.
I myself own a Smokenator, and while it is a great invention I find it is better used for shorter cooks that are less than 6 hours long. Once all the charcoal burns out it can be a bit of a chore to add more charcoal.
The Slow ‘N Sear
The Slow ‘N Sear may look similar to the Smokenator, but it is a totally different machine. Its design is simple, a concave holder that fits perfectly inside your kettle and can hold a full chimney load of charcoal.
To set it up for a long low and slow cook simply load the Slow ‘N Sear with unlit charcoal, then light a fire started in the corner. It will slowly burn like a wick.
I also own this attachment, but unlike the Smokenator, the Slow ‘N Sear can easily reach 10+ hours on a single load of charcoal.
Controlling your grill temperature
Let’s make this simple: for the fire to burn you need oxygen, so the less oxygen you allow into your kettle, the lower the temp will be, and the more oxygen you allow into your kettle, the higher the temp will be.
Your kettle will come with two vents: one on the bottom and one on top. Position your top vent so it is over your meat. This will force the oxygen to enter from the bottom of the kettle, then move over the food and up through the vent. If you have your vent over your fire you would simply be sending your warmed air up and out of the kettle.
To learn how to control your temps though will require some experimenting. I like to recommend that you start by leaving your bottom and top vents 100% open at first. Then as your temp rises, you can begin to close one of your vents until it is in your desired temp.
If you want to be really want to work on managing your temp, a quality digital thermometer that sits on the cooking grate will monitor your temp right next to your food.
How Long to Smoke Your Food
There is no easy solution or quick answer to the question of “how long will it take?” A wise man once told me “barbecue is done, when it’s done.”
One thing I can tell you is that the deciding factor most of the time will be the internal temperature of the meat. The amount of time it takes for the food to get to that temp will depend many factors, including the weight and thickness of the meat and the temperature you are cooking at.
We have a handy times and temperature chart to help you estimate.
Wrapping it up
Slow smoking meat is one of the greatest pleasures in the world – in my opinion anyway. Yes, it takes a long time, and yes it does require a lot of patience and tending to a fire, but once you’ve tasted that first bite of smoked ribs or pulled pork, you’ll know the work and time was worth the payoff.
What did you think of this article? Do you think we’ve nailed down the best ways to smoke meat with a kettle grill?
Do you think you have a better method? Leave us a comment down below letting us know. If you liked this article, or think your family and friends could benefit from it, please share it on social media!
Last update on 2019-11-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API