A gas grill is hard to beat for speed and convenience. But when it comes to flavor, grilling over wood or charcoal has the edge, with quintessential barbecue smokiness that makes everything taste better.
This woodsy smoke is a “seasoning” you can use just like salt, pepper, marinades, spice rubs, and barbecue sauce. It enhances all types of meats, fish, and vegetables, and even adds a delectable nuance to cheeses, nuts, fruit, desserts, tofu, tempeh, and other non-meat proteins.
Fortunately, there are ways to boost the smoke flavor of foods cooked on a gas grill. Here’s how:
A Smoker Tray Accessory
Wood chips can deliver the smoke, but since you can’t throw them directly on the grill – the ashes they generate might clog the gas burners – you’ll need something to contain them.
The best option is a smoker box or tray, a grilling accessory designed to burn wood chips on a gas grill.
A smoker tray, like this one from Renaissance Cooking Systems, has a solid, rectangular base to hold the chips and capture ashes, and a perforated lid with dozens of holes that allow smoke to escape into the grill and season the food.
It installs quickly; just remove one of the grill’s cooking-grid panels and set the tray in place directly over the burner, so the lid sits flush with the remaining cooking grids. Don’t want smoke on your next cookout? Simply lift out the smoker tray and reinsert the cooking grid.
A smoker tray is easy to use. The hardest part is remembering to plan ahead to soak the wood chips in water for 30 to 60 minutes prior to cooking. Pre-soaking allows the wood to smolder slowly so the smoke can swirl throughout the grill. Dry wood chips burn off too quickly to deliver much smoke benefit.
Once the wood is thoroughly soaked, install the empty smoker tray to heat up with the grill. Just before putting food on the grill, fill the base with soaked chips and cover it with the perforated lid. When you start to see and smell wisps of smoke, place the food on the grill, closing the grill cover to trap the smoke inside. As smoke swirls around the food, it imparts delicious flavor.
What’s What with Woods
There’s a veritable forest of all-natural hardwoods available for grilling and smoking, and each species imparts its own unique flavor to food. There are no hard and fast rules about which type of wood to use with specific foods, but here’s a general guideline:
- Oak, hickory, maple, and pecan are great all-purpose woods that lend a moderate, classic smoke flavor to pork, poultry, beef, veggies, nuts, and cheeses.
- Fruitwoods, like apple and cherry, produce mild and slightly sweet smoke that complements pork, poultry and fruit.
- Alder creates delicate smoke, perfect for fish and vegetables.
- Mesquite has a strong smoke flavor that goes best with steak and other cuts of beef and lamb.
Experiment by pairing woods with different foods, or mixing and matching two wood varieties in combination, to see what you like best.
Two cautions: Avoid softwoods like pine and spruce; their resins produce an acrid smoke that tastes terrible. And, make sure all wood chips are food-grade safe – don’t use wood from a felled tree or construction debris unless you’re certain it hasn’t been treated with pesticides, varnish or other toxins.
Other Seasoning Options
Look beyond wood chips to enhance the flavor of gas-grilled foods. The following seasonings can be used in a smoker tray, exactly the same way as wood chips:
- Grapevine cuttings, and wine-, bourbon- and whiskey-barrel chips, available by the bag, create smoke that’s subtly enhanced with their respective spirits.
- Wood pellets, made of compressed hardwood sawdust, come in numerous single-species varieties, as well as blends of different woods. They burn slowly and evenly to impart delicious smoky flavor.
- Sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme, sage, and other sturdy herbs create fragrant, herbaceous smoke.
- Peels from oranges, grapefruit and lemons imbue lovely citrus flavor to grilled fish, seafood, fruit, and desserts.
- Woody cinnamon sticks might pair nicely with grilled pound cake and grilled peach halves.
A Few More Tips
Remember, a little smoke goes a long way. Too much and dinner will taste like an ash tray. A Smoker Tray full of wood chips is usually plenty to add subtle smoke flavor to steaks, chicken, pork chops and other quick-grilling foods.
If you’re cooking thicker cuts that take longer, you can always add more chips after the initial smoke dissipates. Just lift the perforated lid of the smoker tray and place another handful of presoaked chips inside.
And finally, according to barbecue and grilling expert Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com, smoke adheres better to a cold, wet surface. So, to maximize your smoke-flavor-boosting efforts, he recommends grilling meat straight from the refrigerator, moistened with a spritz of water, fruit juice, beer, wine, vinegar, or other liquid.