How to Smoke on a Charcoal Grill? Your Guide to a Makeshift Smoker

September 14, 2023

Any charcoal kettle grill can be converted into a makeshift smoker. Simply pile the hot coals to one side and throw a handful of wood chips or wood chunks on them. Next, place the food on the grill grates on the side with no coals. That’s indirect cooking, and it’s how you smoke meat (and other foods)! It’s easy, affordable, and simple to smoke on a charcoal grill.

Before I “graduated” to pellet smokers and a Kamado grill, I used my Weber kettle grill to smoke food all the time. I was able to smoke more meals than I could count using this makeshift method.

In this article, I’ll be filling you in on all the tips and tricks I used. Like how to get those charcoal briquettes lit, the types of wood to use, how to keep a consistent temperature and more! Get your kettle ready. It’s time to smoke.

how to smoke on a charcoal grill

Step-by-Step Instructions for How to Smoke on a Charcoal Grill

Yes, you can convert your grill into a smoker, and I’ll walk you through every step in the process. You’re going to make a barbecue that’s world-class. Let’s go!

Light Your Coals

Use a chimney starter to light the charcoal. To use a chimney starter, stick some paper towel in the bottom and pour unlit charcoal in the top. You can use lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. Light the paper towel and let the coals get good and hot. It takes about 15 minutes. When there’s a flame coming out of the starter, and the bottom coals are ashed over, the coals are ready.

Don’t buy “match light” or “easy light” charcoal briquettes – they have lighter fluid on them. Lump charcoal is more expensive than regular charcoal, and I don’t use it in my smoking process. But plenty of folks do.

Pour the Lit Coals on One Side of the Kettle

Grab the chimney starter by the handle (they are usually insulated, but I use heat-resistant gloves) and add lit coals to one side of the grill. Use a grill shovel or other tool to get them in a nice pile.

Some grill grates (like Weber’s) are hinged on the side, which makes refilling them with additional wood chips or more charcoal a snap. You’ll place the food you’re smoking on the other side of the coals when using this setup. This is called a two-zone fire or indirect cooking.

Another popular option is using charcoal baskets, which go on both sides of the grill. Weber (and other companies) produce these baskets. If you use baskets, place the food you’re smoking in the center of the grill grate.

Sausages and Burger Patties on the Charcoal Grill

Use a Water Pan

If I’m smoking something on a charcoal grill, I use a water pan. Fill a pan halfway with water. Then stick it in the cooking chamber directly below the food. The hot water creates a moist environment that steams the meat, so your brisket/pork/chicken will be more tender! If your meat is turning out dry, try a water pan – they add moisture to the smoker.

As a bonus, the pan will act as a drip pan and catch the drippings from your food.

You can use a disposable aluminum pan, but if you do enough smoking, the cost can add up in a hurry. I recommend buying a cheap pan (it needs to be 100% metal) and using it as a dedicated pan.

Cooking with water pans is so popular and advantageous that some smokers, like the Weber Smokey Mountain, come with one.

Add Wood Chips or Chunks to the Cooker

Use a handful of chips or 3 or 4 good-sized chunks. Place them directly onto the hot coals. Now, put your cooking grate on.

I prefer wood chunks to chips because they burn slowly on the lit charcoal. I think they produce superior smoke, too. If you’re using chips, some people soak them in water for 30 minutes beforehand – I use unsoaked chips.

The type of wood you choose will vary by what you’re cooking. Hickory and oak are BBQ staples for a reason – they’re my two go-to’s, and I think they work with everything. Pecan, apple, cherry, and other fruit woods are fantastic when paired with poultry and smoked desserts. Play around with different woods to find your favorite flavors.

Just use hardwood. Never smoke with softwoods because they’re full of sap and produce smoke that will give your food a foul taste. I’m also not a fan of Mesquite (it’s got a very bold flavor), but you do you.

Close the Vents Most of the Way

To create a cooking environment that’s low and slow, you’ll need to close the vents most of the way. How far the vents need to be shut will depend on your cooking temperature, the outdoor temperature, and other factors. Monitor the grill’s temperature with the dome thermometer or invest in a quality smoking thermometer.

On a standard kettle grill, there is one vent on the bottom cooking chamber and one top vent on the lid. Keep the lid closed when smoking. For conventional smoking temperatures (225°F-250°F – think pork butt for pulled pork, ribs, and brisket), the vents should be almost completely shut. You’re really trying to restrict airflow. Less air inside means less oxygen, which gets you those low temperatures you want.

For smoking at higher temperatures (300°F-350°F for whole chicken, wings, etc.), the vents should be about one-half to three-quarters closed. Open vents will bring in more oxygen, which will increase temperatures. Temperature control is one of the keys to a good BBQ. Once you master regulating the temperature of your smoker, you’re on your way to becoming a pit boss.

Note: These vent positionings are approximate. Experiment with your setup to find the right range for your kettle grill.

Grilling Meat Burger Patties on the Charcoal Grill

Position the Dome Vent Over the Food

I like to put the dome vent right on top of the food that I’m smoking. As the smoke exits the kettle, it’s goes right past the meat. You’re maximizing the amount of delicious smoke that goes into the meat.

Alternative Method: The Charcoal Snake Method

Instead of piling the coals to the side, many pit bosses like to use the charcoal snake method. To use the snake method, arrange charcoal around the bottom ring of your cooking chamber in a circle. Unlit chunks of wood are scattered on top of the unlit charcoal snake.

Then, a couple of lit coals are placed on one side of the charcoal snake. This method helps regulate temperature since only a handful of coals are burning at a time.

I prefer to pile hot coals on the side, but the snake method is another great way to smoke meat.

Final Thoughts

Go ahead, use your kettle charcoal grill as a smoker! Just set all the coals on one side, and put the food you’re smoking on the side with no coals on it. Toss some wood chunks on the hot coals, and you’ve got a two-zone fire going. You’re smoking!

By John Smits
John bought his first home in 2012 and bought his first grill shortly afterward: the ubiquitous Weber kettle grill. He’s been hooked since the first time he fired up some coals. Now, after over a decade spent making countless delicious meals, John is a passionate advocate for live-fire cooking.
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