How to Turn Your Kettle Grill into a Smoker

Hank Shaw spent a day this week with my father and me, showing us how to smoke ribs on my kettle grill. As worried as I was that the ribs were going to end up dry, they weren’t, and they were the some of the best I’ve ever had. Here’s the process from Hank. ~Elise

Barbecue can be a serious business. Hard-core ‘cue mavens buy or build special smokers with custom-made rotisseries and fireboxes in order to precisely control the level of heat and smoke needed for each type of meat or fish. Most of us aren’t ready to drop several hundred – even several thousand – dollars on a special smoker. But you can ‘cue at home, even with that simplest of grills – the “egg” or kettle grill Weber made famous in the 1950s.

No, you will not get competition-class barbecue every time, because you cannot control your temperature with a kettle grill as well as you can with the expensive smokers. But you can still easily achieve the proper “slow and low” cooking so critical for barbecue.

One of my favorite things to barbecue is ribs, so I’ll use a Kentucky-style bourbon-glazed baby back rib recipe as an example. The larger St. Louis or Memphis cut ribs will work with this method, too, as will a Boston butt for when you want to make pulled pork. I’ve made perfectly barbecued “country ribs” (thick cuts from the pork shoulder) with a kettle, as well as beef ribs, brisket, tri-tip, chicken legs and thighs – even fatty fish such as salmon, sturgeon, bluefish or mackerel.

Method

1. Prep your meat and wood. I like to brine pork in a salt-sugar solution. Mine is typically 1/4 cup kosher salt with 1/2 cup brown sugar mixed with 4 cups of water. You can add any spices or herbs you want. How long? 3-6 hours for ribs or even overnight for a pork butt.

Get your smoking wood ready by soaking it in water for at least 2 hours. Overnight is better. And when you are using a kettle grill, make sure you have wood chips: Not big blocks, not sawdust. Chips.

Anywhere from an hour to a day before you start cooking – depending on how deeply spiced you want your meat – you can remove your meat from the brine and apply a dry rub to the meat. This is optional, especially if you have a full-flavored sauce. But most professional pit masters will use a rub as a base flavor with a sauce that complements it.

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2. Place water pans in the grill. Start barbecuing by getting your hands on some cheap metal pans you can fill with water. Disposable tin pans from the supermarket are great for this, and you do not have to toss them after each use. Fill these pans halfway with water and place them beneath the meat you are barbecuing. You want the pan or pans to take about half the space at the bottom of the grill.

Why water pans? Several reasons. First, it lets sauce and fat drip into something that will not wreck the bottom of your grill or cause flareups. Second, it helps keep the meat moist, which helps smoke adhere to the meat. Third, it moderates the temperature around the meat, which is vital in such a small space.

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3. Get the coals hot and put water-soaked wood chips on the coals. A chimney starter is the easiest way to get the coals lit for the grill. What kind of fuel should you use? Up to you, of course, but I would use either standard briquettes or lump hardwood charcoal. I am especially fond of lump charcoal because I get a better flavor and a cleaner smoke. Could you go all wood? Sure, but it needs to be something like oak or hickory, which burn steadily and slowly. And no logs! You must use chunks.

Your life will be easier if you have a grilltop that has hinged edges that lift up. These allow you to position one end over the coals and add more charcoal or wood as needed as you cook. If you do not have one of these grilltops, make sure you can slip briquettes through the slim opening. If you cannot, you can carefully lift the whole grate and add more when needed.

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Once the coals are good and hot, add a couple handfuls of the soaked wood on the coals. Place the top grill grate on the grill. Position the grill grate in a way that if you are using a hinged grill grate, one of the hinged areas lifts up over the coals so you can easily get to them.

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4. Put the meat on the grill away from the coals. Lay the meat over the water pans as far away from the coals as possible. Under no circumstances should you let the meat rest directly over the coals. Cook in batches if you have to, and keep the finished meat in an oven set to “warm” while you do more.

Cover the grill, positioning the vent on the cover directly over the meat. This helps direct the smoke over the meat. Close all vents (bottom one, too!) to keep the temperature as low as you can go; if you have an especially tight lid, keep the vents open just a little. You are now barbecuing.

5. Watch the temperature. This would be a good time to open a beer or drink some lemonade and sit back. Keep one eye on the grill to make sure you see some smoke coming out of it. Wander over from time to time to check the temperature if your grill lid has a thermometer. It should read no higher than 325 degrees, preferably somewhere under 300. Ideally you want the temperature at the meat level around 225-250; heat rises and a lid thermometer will show the temperature at the lid, and not at the meat level. If your kettle grill does not have a thermometer built-in (most don't), put a meat thermometer into the cover vent and check it from time to time.

If your temperature starts to soar, open the lid and let the coals burn off a bit. Then add some more soaked wood and close the lid again; you should be OK.

If your temperature begins to drop below 225 degrees, open the vents. If that doesn’t get the temperature rising, open the lid and add more coals and soaked wood.

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6. Check the coals and rotate the meat. Regardless of temperature, check your coals every hour to 90 minutes. You may need to add more. Always add more soaked wood at this point, and always turn or rotate your meat at this point, too.

7. Timing. How long should you cook things? Depends. Fish will take from 45 to 90 minutes. Chicken an hour to two hours. Baby back ribs, such as these, will take from 90 minutes to 2 hours and 15 minutes. A Boston butt, beef brisket or tri-tip can take as long as 6 hours.

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If you are using a barbecue sauce – and with everything other than a Memphis-style dry rib you probably will be – wait to brush it on until the final 30-45 minutes of cooking. You do not want it to burn, and because most barbecue sauces have a lot of sugar in them, they will burn easily. When barbecuing fish, do not sauce until the last 15 minutes.

You will be able to spot doneness with some visual cues. Meat on bones will begin to pull away. When you turn or rotate meat it will begin to fall off the bone. The flakes on fish will separate easily. The interior of a Boston butt will be somewhere around 160 degrees – this is the only meat I barbecue with a meat thermometer.

What happens if your heat was just too high and things are looking charred? Well, hopefully you did not let it go this far because you’d been checking every hour to 90 minutes. But if it looks like you have too much char and the meat is not yet done, have no fear: Finish the meat in a 225-degree oven. You will still have enough smoky taste to impress your guests.

Once your meat is done, remove it to a platter, add more sauce and let it rest for 10-15 minutes. Let a big tri-tip or Boston butt rest for 20-25 minutes. Add even more sauce right at service and enjoy! You’ll know you cooked real barbecue if everyone has sauce under their fingernails…

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