A regular charcoal grill is one of the most traditional ways of cooking anything from burgers and steaks to hot dogs and chicken wings. But the charcoal alone doesn’t always give out enough of the smoky flavor that you are looking for.
That’s when you might want to consider adding wood chips to your grill.
This guide will explain all you need to know about using wood chips on your charcoal grill. I will give you clear step-by-step instructions with images so you know exactly how to do it!
Instructions for Using Wood Chips on a Charcoal Grill
There are two different purposes for using wood chips on your charcoal grill:
- You want to cook barbecue food with proper smoky taste
- You want to add some smoky flavor to your grilled dishes
Most of the time you don’t want to put the wood chips directly on the hot charcoals because they will burn out too fast. Instead, it’s better to soak the wood chips and wrap them in aluminum foil.
How to Cook Smoked Foods on a Charcoal Grill
Follow these step-by-step instructions and you can basically cook any smoked food on your regular charcoal grill.
In this example I’m using my portable Weber Go-Anywhere grill.
Step 1: Create the Smoke Bombs
First, you can soak the wood chips in water for about 15 to 20 minutes. This is not necessary but it will make them last for a longer time.
Then it’s time to make the “smoke bombs”. It’s very simple, just put wood chips on a sheet of aluminum foil (image 1 above) and then wrap them in the foil (image 2). You should also cut some holes on top of the package so that the smoke can come out.
I recommend making two smoke bombs. You can also make more of them if you have a recipe that requires a long cooking time (more about this later).
Alternative Option — Use a Smoker Box
If you are going to use your charcoal grill for smoking frequently, you might want to buy a smoker box so you don’t have to make the smoke bombs each time.
My recommendation is this affordable smoker box by Cave Tools available on Amazon.
Step 2. Light Up the Charcoal
There are many ways to light charcoal without lighter fluid. For example, you can use a chimney starter.
However, this time piled the charcoal in the middle of the grill and used a butane torch to light them up.
No matter which method you are using, wait until the charcoals have turned mostly gray before moving on to the next step.
Step 3: Add the Smoke Bombs
Move the hot charcoal on both sides of the grill so that there are none in the middle. This will allow you to cook the meat low and slow in the middle by using indirect heat from the charcoals. Then place the smoke bombs on top of the charcoals on both sides.
You could also just put all the charcoal on one side of the grill. Then you will only need one smoke bomb.
The advantage of putting the charcoal on both sides is that heat will be more evenly distributed inside the grill and the meat will cook more evenly on each side.
TIP: Start Creating Smoke Right Away
When you soak the wood chips and wrap them in foil, it will take a while before they start smoking properly.
If you want to get some smoke right away you can some wood chips right on top of the charcoal (under the smoke bombs) without soaking them. They will start smoking almost immediately but will only smoke for about 10 minutes or so.
Step 4: Put the Meat on the Grill
Now you can put the meat on the grill. In this example, I’m cooking a 4-pound pork shoulder.
Smoking a big piece of pork shoulder takes about 3 to 5 hours depending on how hot your grill is and what is your desired doneness.
TIP: Making Additional Smoke Bombs
If you are going to smoke the meat for more than 90 minutes you probably want to create some additional smoke bombs. Then the first ones stop creating smoke, you can add new ones to the grill.
Another option is to simply open the aluminum packages and refill them with more wood chips.
Step 5: Cover and Cook
After putting the meat in the grill, put the lid on and leave the top vents open just a bit so that the charcoal can get some air.
The cooking time depends entirely on the temperature of the grill and the recipe that you are cooking.
If you are cooking for more than 90 minutes, you probably have to add some more charcoal and wood chips every 60 to 90 minutes.
Below you can see my pork shoulder after smoking it for three hours:
I added wood charcoal and wood chips once in the middle of the smoking session.
Maybe you are wondering how was the result? Was there enough smokiness in the meat?
Everyone who was eating this pork thought it was delicious and the taste was very smoky indeed!
I actually cut the pork shoulder into steaks and grilled them over hot charcoal for a few minutes before serving them. If you want more details, check out my complete recipe for smoked pork steaks.
Adding Wood Chips Directly on Charcoal
When you are grilling something like steaks or burgers, you don’t necessarily need aluminum foil or a smoker box. Since the cooking time for these foods is fast, you can just add the wood chips directly on the hot charcoals to get some additional smoky flavor to your meat.
If the wood chips start burning, you can put the lid on the grill and close the top air vents. After the flames go out you can remove the lid. Soaking the wood chips may help prevent them from catching fire — at least for a few minutes.
Types of Wood Chips
There are many types of wood chips available and some of them give strong and savory flavors while others produce milder and sweeter taste.
Here are some of the most popular options:
Mesquite gives out a very strong and savory taste and is great for smoking a Texas-style beef brisket.
Hickory is a popular choice for smoking beef and pork. Its flavor is best described as bold, sweet and nutty.
Oak has a nice smoky flavor that is milder than hickory and doesn’t easily overpower the meat. It can also be used with smoking fish.
Cherry produces mild and fruity flavors that work well for almost anything from chicken and pork, to different types of fish.
Apple is somewhat similar to cherry and works well with chicken and pork as well as lamb, seafood, and even cheese.
Beechwood chips give a light and slightly nutty flavor to your food. They are great for smoking delicate foods like poultry and fish but can also be used with pork and other meats.
Remember that you can also mix different wood chips together for a perfect blend.
How About Using Wood Chunks on a Charcoal Grill?
You can also use wood chunks instead of wood chips for smoking.
The main difference is that you don’t need a smoker box or aluminum foil — you can just put the chunks directly on hot charcoals.
Wood Chips on Charcoal Grill FAQ
Can I smoke meat on a charcoal grill?
Yes, you can definitely cook some tasty smoked barbecue foods on a regular charcoal grill. It just takes some effort to maintain low temperatures and constant smoke. This can be best achieved by indirect heat cooking and using wood chips or chunks for creating more smoke.
Can I put wood chips directly on charcoal?
Yes, you can put wood chips directly on the charcoal. This works quite well when grilling something that doesn’t take long to cook.
If you are cooking smoked barbecue foods that take longer, it’s better to put the wood chips inside an aluminum foil or a smoker box so they don’t burn out too fast.
Do I have to soak wood chips for a charcoal grill?
Whether to soak or not soak wood chips is a constant topic of discussion among barbecue experts. The simple answer is that you don’t have to soak them.
I have tried smoking with both soaked and dry wood chips. The main difference is that the dry wood chips start smoking almost immediately and catch fire quite easily.
But even when you soak the chips they will eventually dry out and might catch fire anyways. What you are really doing is just delaying things when you soak them.