So you've heard about the great things you can do by cooking low and slow with smoke, but you don't own a smoker. You are tempted by the idea of the meat being so tender it falls apart with a taste that is impossible to resist—and duplicate. But you think you will never be able to make your own smoked barbecue.
Don't despair, if you have a charcoal grill, you're in luck. An average-size charcoal grill can make some great barbecue similar to what a smoker will produce. The secret is keeping a close eye on the fire and having plenty of patience.
Smoker vs. Charcoal Grill
The main difference between a smoker and a charcoal grill is that a smoker contains the fire in a separate space and keeps the heat low enough to cook meats at temperatures around 225 F to 250 F/110 C to120 C. A grill, on the other hand, is designed to cook hot and fast and keeps the heat in an open space, directly under the food. That being said, the average charcoal grill can actually do both. If you keep the fire small and to one side of the grill, you can generate the low temperatures that are the secret of real barbecue.
What You Need
To start off, you need a charcoal grill, fuel (hardwood or charcoal), a way to light the fuel outside of the grill (such as a charcoal chimney), an oven-safe thermometer, a drip pan, and a water pan. These pans can be simple aluminum pans you can get at most grocery stores and should be a little smaller than half the size of the cooking grate. You also will need plenty of time and, of course, something to cook.
Build the Fire
Once you have all of your supplies, you are ready to build the fire. Begin by removing the cooking grate from the grill and make a fire on one half of the grill. If there is any wind, it is important that the fire is on the windward side, the direction from which the wind is blowing. This is crucial because airflow is everything when it comes to smoking; you want the wind to blow the flavorful smoke toward the food, not in the opposite direction.
Assemble the Smoker
Now the grill is ready to turn into a smoker. Place the drip pan on the other side of the grill, directly opposite the fire. There should be no charcoal beneath this pan. Put the cooking grate back onto the grill. When the coals are good and hot you are ready to cook. Place the water pan directly over the burning coals and fill about two-thirds full with hot water; this will add moisture to the air inside the grill. Place the meat on the other side of the grill over the drip pan. Put the thermometer next to the meat, and then cover the grill with the lid, arranging it so the top vent is directly over the food (or as close as it can be).
Adjust the Vents
Now, this is the important part. Depending on the kind of charcoal grill you have, you need to set the vents so that the airflow comes in under the fire and out through a vent over the meat. This will draw the air through the fire, over the water pan, and over the meat before it leaves the grill. What you need to do is adjust the vents to maintain the ideal smoking temperature of 225 F to 250 F/110 C to 120 C.
Maintain the Smoker
While the food is cooking, you need to keep the lid closed as much as possible, but you also need to keep an eye on the fire and the temperature as you will have to add more burning charcoal to the fire periodically. Once you get the hang of it, you shouldn't have any trouble keeping the temperature in the right range.