Can a regular grill work as a smoker? Advice from the experts

Your regular grill can work as a smoker with these insider tips

An image demonstrating 'can a regular grill be a smoker', a rack of ribs smoking on a Weber Kettle grill
(Image credit: Getty Images / _jure)

Grilling season is well and truly here, and if you're anything like me, you're on the hunt for ways to step up your grilling game. That usually means taking a break from grilling the same old hamburgers and hot dogs and graduating to smoked meats. 

However, before you rush off to your local big box store and drop a couple thousand on a fancy smoker, it's worth considering if you can find better results with your regular grill. 

I've tested dozens of the best grills in my career and know first-hand that you can get exceptional results without buying a brand-new smoker. I also spoke to chefs and pitmasters for their methods and advice for smoking at home. 

Can you use a charcoal grill as a smoker?

A close up of grilling sausages on a charcoal grill, with grill smoke

(Image credit: Getty Images / Sean Gladwell)

The good news is that you can use any charcoal grill as a smoker. Chef Galen Zamarra pointed out that 'Charcoal produces smoke, so most food cooked on a charcoal grill' already benefits from the smoke flavor.' Smoking in a charcoal grill is really just enhancing the smoke flavor that already exists. 

The problem is that these charcoal grills burn fast and hot. Grilling expert Barry Sorkin said: 'I find it funny that people use the terms barbecuing and grilling almost interchangeably because they are more like opposites: Grilling is typically done at high temperatures over direct heat. In contrast, barbecuing is typically done at low temperatures over indirect heat. Getting one piece of equipment to do both tasks well is a big ask.'

However, there are three simple methods you can use to make the most out of a charcoal grill. 

A headshot of chef Galen Zamarra
Galen Zamarra

Galen is the co-founder of Galen Hospitality Group . He is an experienced James Beard Award Winning Chef with a demonstrated history of working in the restaurant industry.

Barry Sorkin

Barry Sorkin is the Co-Founder and Co-Owner of Michelin Bib Gourmand-awarded restaurant Smoque BBQ and co-owner of Smoque Steak in Chicago, IL. 

Wood chunks

The first way to smoke in a charcoal grill is a method so simple that it sounds like cartoon logic: throw some wood chunks into your grill. These will burn and create thick, delicious smoke that will utterly transform whatever you're cooking. 

Barry Sorkin told me that 'Wood chunks will offer the best performance for most consumer grills and hot-smoking applications. A small chunk or two of hardwood (hickory, apple, oak, mesquite, maple, etc.) should last about 30-45 minutes in a charcoal bed with properly restricted airflow.' 

If you want to get a little more technical, try burying the wood under your charcoal. Grilling expert Allan Kiezel told me: 'I recommend burying the wood chunks under the charcoal to avoid smoldering and heavy smoke taste. The smoke particles will break down further as they pass through the hot coals, resulting in cleaner smoke.' 

While the experts differ on the best wood for smoking, the method is very simple. 

A headshot of grilling expert Allan Kiezel
Allan Kiezel

Allan runs a BBQ website, where he shares tips and recipes for smoking and grilling. 

Indirect heat

Cooking pork chops with indirect heat on a grill

(Image credit: Getty Images / pr2is)

However, the above method only works for short smoking sessions. For longer sessions - think three or four hours - you need a subtler technique. The best way of doing this is indirect cooking. 

In this method, divide your grill in half: fuel on the side closest to the wind, and food on the side furthest from the wind. Add some wood on top of your coals and then use this to slowly, delicately smoke your food. Grilling expert Brandon Roy also suggests that you 'adjust your vents on top and below the cooking surface so that the smoke travels over the meat before exiting the grill.'

Barry Sorkin's advice is that 'For smoking, it is essential to be able to restrict that air to keep the temperature lower. Most grills have a bottom vent that controls how much air can get in and a top vent that controls the velocity of the air. Air will flow from the bottom vent to the top vent. In most cases, both vents should be primarily closed for slow smoking.'

A headshot of grill expert Brandon Roy
Brandon Roy

Brandon Roy is a YouTube personality and self-taught backyard BBQer. He offers tutorials, tips, and more to help anyone become a grill master.

'The snake method'

Finally, if you're smoking serious overnight recipes for heavy meats like pork butt or brisket, former chef and recipe writer Scott Carter put me onto an ingenious, sinister-sounding technique - the snake method. 

'For this method, you line up unlit coals around the outer edge of the grill to form almost a complete circle or a “C”. Then, you’ll add lit coals at one end so they ignite the other coals as they burn around the circle, giving you a slow and steady temperature,' he says. 

All you need to do is add chunks of wood around the circle to create smoke as they fire makes its way around the circle. 'Finally, you’ll need a foil pan filled with water in the middle to help regulate the temperature, and the food is placed on a grate right above the water pan.' Done correctly, the snake method will give you 10-12 hours of cooking time.

A headshot of recipe writer Scott Carter
Scott Carter

Scott's a former professional chef and long-time home cook and followed this passion to food blogging in 2019. He has two young children and focuses on family-friendly dishes, weeknight dinners, and grilling.

How can you use a Kamado grill as a smoker?

Smoking meats in a Kamado Joe III

(Image credit: Kamado Joe)

Kamado grills are really just fancy charcoal grills, and they excel at smoking. Because they use ceramic plates and seal tight, they can maintain the perfect smoking temperature for up to 14 hours, which is perfect for brisket or tenderloin. You don't even need to use indirect smoke or the snake method - wood chunks on top of your coals would do the trick. 

On top of that, Brandon Roy pointed out that most Kamado grills have a wide range of accessories to help you grill. 'Almost all Kamado companies also sell a heat deflector, a large circular plate that you place in between the coals and your food. This is the easiest way to smoke on your Kamado-style grill.'

Some companies even make specialized grill inserts to improve the distribution of smoke, such as Kamado Joe's SlōRoller, which claims to distribute smoke in 'rolling, recirculating waves'. I'm not entirely convinced by that, but the option is there if you need it. 

Can you use a gas grill as a smoker?

A white propane tank next to a gas grill

(Image credit: Getty Images / tab1962)

Gas grills are tricky because you can't really use them as smokers. You can approximate some smoke, but it isn't quite right. If you have a gas grill, there's a simple method you can try -  a 'smoke bomb'. 

Pitmaster Shannon Snell gave me a clever method for this. 'Cut a long, rectangular piece of tinfoil and grab a handful of woodchips. Place a handful of woodchips inside the tinfoil, and fold the tinfoil right over the top, creating a pocket out of the foil. Grab a toothpick and poke some holes in the tinfoil, because you want the smoke to escape. When cooking on your grill, place the wrapped wood chips directly on the grill grate next to the meat, and allow the 'smoke bomb' to work its magic.'

Scott Carter gave me another method for quick smoking, which is to grill whatever you want to smoke on a plank of wood. Cedar is 'often used to smoke hot and fast dishes such as cedar plank salmon.'

However, neither of these methods entirely work. Barry Sokin told me that 'If you’re grilling a burger or chicken and want to impart a light wisp of smoke to it, these smoke boxes and chip pouches are fine. But they won’t produce anything resembling smoked barbecue.'

A headshot of pitmaster Shannon Snell
Shannon Snell

Shannon is a pitmaster and ambassador at Sonny's BBQ in Orlando, FL. 

Can you use an electric grill as a smoker?

Unfortunately, electric grills can't be used as smokers. Hypothetically, the 'smoke bomb' technique would work, but I don't like the idea of wet wood chips near an electrical appliance. 

However, you can buy electric grills which double as smokers. We were pleasantly surprised by the Ninja Woodfire last year. I suspected it would be a gimmick, but this little tabletop smoker does a great job at smoking meat. 

Are any of these methods better than a pellet smoker?

person cooking on a large wood pellet smoker grill

(Image credit: Traeger)

A gas or electric grill cannot beat a pellet smoker for smoking, so it's an obvious choice between the three methods. A trickier comparison is between charcoal smoking and pellet smoking.

That's because all of the charcoal methods outlined above actually make for stronger smoke. Because they use solid wood rather than pellets, smoking on charcoal with wood chunks makes for a much more intense flavor. In fact, Brandon Roy told me that 'If I had a choice, I would smoke on a charcoal or kamado-style grill every time.'

However, all those methods need a lot of maintenance. Brandon said 'Most people love pellet smokers for the convenience factor. All you have to do is "set it and forget it". As long as you have power and a good supply of pellets, you're usually good.'

Chef Galen Zamarra agrees, saying that 'Pellet smokers are better smokers than grills. They generally do not get hot enough to sear a steak or get those good char marks on food like a hot grill would. You can control the heat easily and the pellets produce good smoke.' 

Grilling FAQs

Can I smoke with a tabletop grill?

There's no reason why you can't smoke with a tabletop charcoal grill. Just make sure that it has a lid. 

For more help with smoking, check out my reviews of the best grills and smokers. 

Alex David
Head of eCommerce

As Head of eCommerce, Alex makes sure our readers find the right information to help them make the best purchase. After graduating from Cambridge University, Alex got his start in reviewing at the iconic Good Housekeeping Institute, testing a wide range of household products and appliances. He then moved to BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, assessing gardening tools, machinery, and wildlife products. Helping people find true quality and genuine value is a real passion.