The biggest difference between gas grills and charcoal grills? The ones powered by gas don't impart any smoky flavor to the food that is cooked on them.
That smoky flavor is one of the many reasons food cooked on a charcoal grill is so appetizing and appealing.
So what can you do if you own a gas grill and don't want to get a wood one? Here are a few tips and guidelines for hacking your current set up.
Grilling With Smoke Vs. Smoking
First of all, smoking is a distinct cooking technique from grilling with smoke. Smoking involves cooking bigger cuts of meat for long times at low temperatures by using chunks of hardwood to generate hot smoke. With smoking, the heat of the smoke itself cooks the food.
The technique we're discussing here, on the other hand, is grilling, which calls for cooking food quickly at a much higher temperature using hot air generated by the coals.
How to Grill With Wood Chips
The primary way of getting smoky flavor on a gas grill is by using wood chips. These are available at the supermarket, hardware or barbecue stores, as well as online. Different woods produce different flavors of smoke, but the most common types (especially in chip form) that produce the most moderate smoke flavors are hickory, oak and maple. These are good all-purpose woods for everything from poultry, beef and pork, as well as game birds and other wild game.
To Soak or Not to Soak?
Some backyard grillers like to soak their wood chips before using them because they think it produces more smoke. And while it's true that burning unseasoned (aka "green") wood in your fireplace will produce more smoke, the same is not true for cooking with wood chips.
Whole logs are larger and denser, so moisture trapped deep inside will indeed cause the wood to burn at a lower temperature, thus producing more smoke.
But wood chips are small, and the amount of water they can absorb is quickly boiled off by the heat of the grill, so it's merely producing a small amount of steam prior to smoking. In other words, whether you soak your wood chips or not makes no difference whatsoever.
What Meats Work Best?
Grilling with wood chips works best with foods that have longer cooking times. With a grilled steak, your goal is to get the meat on and off as quickly as possible. And because it takes time for smoke to penetrate a piece of meat, trying to use smoke while cooking a steak is actually counterproductive.
This is also (though to a lesser extent) true for cooking burgers, which you should cook all the way through (as opposed to steaks which are best cooked medium-rare or at most medium), but which still have a fairly sort cooking time.
But chicken (especially whole chickens or bone-in chicken pieces), as well as larger cuts of beef and pork offer the best opportunity for cooking with smoke.
It is possible to add too much smoke, however, which can cause the flavor to overpower the flavor of the food itself, and this is not what you want. To avoid this, stick to this basic rule of thumb, which is to use smoke only for half of the cooking time. So if your item takes 30 minutes on the grill, use smoke for 15 minutes.
Methods for Grilling With Wood Chips
The main methods for grilling with wood chips on a gas grill are to use a foil pouch or a smoker box. Some gas grills are already equipped with a smoker box, so if yours has one, use it.
Otherwise, the easiest method is to wrap your wood chips loosely in aluminum foil, creating a small pouch. Punch a few holes at the top of the pouch to let the smoke out and place the packet directly on the grill grate above a burner. It might take 15 minutes for it to start smoking, so you should get it started before you add the food. And then remember to remove it halfway through the cooking time.
A smoker box is basically a perforated box that you can use over and over. Some types sit on the grill grate and others go below. Other than that, they work the same way (although the below-grate kind are harder to remove during cooking).
And while it should go without saying, remember to keep the lid of your grill closed to hold the smoke in!
So there you have it. With these simple techniques, you'll find it easy to get delicious smoky flavor on your gas grill.