Now We’re Cooking with Gas
Gas grills pushed charcoal to the backseat for decades! The speed a gas grill gets up to temperature at the push of a button and the control it gives at maintaining temperatures are the ultimate in outdoor cooking convenience. By itself, you get very little smoke flavor from a gas grill, but if you are trying to sear off a juicy steak, it’s hard to beat gas. Propane is the most popular, but homes that have natural gas have that option and it is frequently used in the mega-outdoor kitchens. You can use a smoke box filled with hardwood chips or pellets to add some smoke flavor, and this helps, but it’s not going to get you the same smokiness as charcoal or pellet grills.
Smoke it up with Charcoal
Charcoal was the backyard grill fuel of choice prior to gas, and it has continued to reign as the go-to choice for consistent quality smoke flavor on the competition BBQ circuit. With the advancement in grills and accessories by Weber, Green Egg, and others, and the more recent rise in popularity of drum cookers (like our favorite the Pit Barrel Cooker) charcoal has made a major resurgence in backyard grilling and smoking as well. If you want the best quality and consistent smokey flavor at a budget friendly price point, your best options will probably be charcoal fueled–and you can enhance charcoal even more with hardwood chips or chunks. If you want maximum smokiness, charcoal with added hardwood is your best choice!
The most important considerations in choosing a charcoal is how long, and how hot, and how consistent does it burn? Cheaper brands generally don’t produce much flavor, they can be difficult to get burning, and once you do, they burn hot and don’t last very long—this is probably fine for burgers and dogs on the grill, but not the best choice for long-duration smoking. Some people like the idea of the more authentic lump charcoal, which looks cool and has a good flavor, but again, it burns hot and is inconsistent–which is fine for grilling but not so much for smoking. I prefer Kingsford Original, it burns consistently and has a good flavor. Red Oak is another popular choice that gives similar results. Bottom line, for grilling you just need good flavor from your charcoal, but for smoking, consistent and predictable performance is equally important.
Hardwood Smoke Flavors in Convenient Pellets
Electric pellet smokers have been around for awhile, but pellet grills are relatively new to the game and the improvements are happening at a blistering pace! Pellet grills have a number of drawbacks that you need to consider, but don’t be deterred, they have some really great benefits as well! Pellet grills offer much of the convenience you would find in a gas grill, with the added benefit of stronger smoke flavor than gas. You can buy pellets in all different wood-types and blends. Traeger took this design mainstream, but were quickly followed by a whole host of competitors including Pit Boss, Camp Chef, and even Weber has jumped into the game! We’ll look closely at the Camp Chef as they’ve come up with some really useful innovations that address many of the drawbacks pellet smokers present.
Wood as a lone fuel source is generally only used by professionals, many of whom are on the competition circuit. So you will see it a lot on TV when they’re visiting BBQ restaurants or you’ll see some ginormous iron pig-shaped smoker with flames pouring out of the snout being pulled behind an even more massive F-10,000 pickup truck at a national BBQ competition. But you won’t see it much in Joe’s backyard. Why? Because it’s just too much fuel for most people’s needs. If you’re cooking for 50 or 100 or more people on a regular basis, you may need one of these colossal machines! But for most of us, it just isn’t very practical. That said, different woods have very distinct flavors, and you WILL want to experiment! You don’t need a whole log, you can supplement gas with wood chips in a smoker box, or supplement charcoal by tossing some wood chips or chunks right in the charcoal basket. Chips burn faster and are better for grilling, chunks burn slower and longer and are better for smoking.
Choosing the right wood(s) for your cook is important. Mesquite has a VERY powerful and distinct flavor. I love Mesquite smoked chicken with a sloppy BBQ sauce, but that’s pretty much the only thing I’ll use it for. Hickory is great for beef, pork, or chicken, but it can overpower fish, veggies, or cheese. Fruit woods have softer flavors and work well universally–Apple and Cherry are the easiest to find, and Peach-wood is fairly popular too if you can find it. Pecan wood is similar in intensity to fruit woods, but has a nuttier flavor that works really well in blends. For most cooks, I use a blend of Hickory, Cherry, and Pecan, and if I’m smoking veggies, fish or cheese, I leave out the Hickory. Maple and Oak are also pretty common, and the Jack Daniels soaked Oak chips can add some variety. The key here is you want to match the intensity of the wood(s) you choose to the flavor of the food you’re smoking. Packaged hardwood chips and chunks are fairly inexpensive, Amazon carries all of these and will deliver them right to your door!