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how to turn a charcoal grill into a smoker

How to Turn a Charcoal Grill into a Smoker in 6 Easy Steps

Smoking is by far one of the best methods for making a juicy, tastier and distinctively tender barbecues. Even much better, you don’t need a charcoal smoker to do it as we’re going to share exactly how to turn a charcoal grill into a smoker in this article and you won’t even have to dig dip into your pocket.

Therefore, if you own a charcoal grill and you are wondering how to add that smoky yet delicious flavor to all your barbecues, then we’ve got you covered. All it takes is a little effort, a bit of DIY ingenuity, and some guidelines, and you are good to go.

Aside from our simplified method, you will find some useful additional information below that will help you reap the most out of your grill so that you can always create those perfectly smoked barbecues.

This guide is intended for standing charcoal grills, but would also work for those with kettle grills that have a fitted lid. So, without any further delays, let’s get started.


how to turn a charcoal grill into a smoker

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6 Easy Steps on How To Turn a Charcoal Grill into a Smoker

Before you get started, it’s important to ensure you have everything ready to go. Apart from your charcoal grill, you will need the following items for your set up:

  • Charcoal
  • Wood chunks (apple, hickory, mesquite, etc.)
  • Chimney starter
  • Thermometer (optional)
  • Two disposable foil pans or metal pie pans
  • Smoking liquid (water, apple juice or beer)
  • The food


how to turn a charcoal grill into a smoker


1. Prep Your Meat and Grill

With all the necessary things available, the first thing you should do is to thoroughly clean out all the debris and ash from the bottom of your charcoal grill.

You would also want to ensure you have the food ready. If it’s meat or poultry, then have it cut to your desired size, rubbed and marinated. Just prep it the way you need so that it’s ready for smoking.

2. Soak the Wood Chunks

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The next thing you should do is to soak at least two cups of wood chunks for about 15 to 30 minutes before using them.

Soaking causes the wood to generate more smoke rather than heat. You can use cherry woods, mesquite, hickory, cherry, cedarwood, apple or any other wood that can flavor. Always use chunks, not chips.

3. Set Up the Grill

While your wood is soaking, you can start to set up your grill prior to lighting it. Take some unlit charcoal about 1/3 of the grill and place them on one side. Now take the soaked wood chunks, about one cup, and set them on the unlit charcoal.

Ensure that you shake off the water well because they can smother and extinguish the burning charcoal if they are too wet rather than causing them to burn slower.


charcoal grill starting


4. Get the Charcoals Hot

From there, the next step is to heat another cup of charcoal just as you would when grilling and place that on top of the damp wood chunks and the unlit charcoal mixture. The best and easiest way to do it is using a chimney starter.

Once you’ve done that, you are going to take some of the damp wood chunks, just a handful, and put them on top of the burning charcoal then add a few more pieces of unlit charcoal right on top of the chunks.

5. Place the Pans in the Grill

As I mentioned earlier, you will need two pans when turning your grill into a smoker. You can use either. You can use, aluminum foil pans or metal pie pans.

One of them will serve as the drip pan which you are going to place it next to the charcoal on the bottom grate, just beneath the food.

Once you’ve done that, then put the grate over the drip pan and the burning charcoal-wood mixture. Next, fill the other pan with the smoking liquid of your choice and then carefully place it above the charcoal mixture.

Make sure you fill at most ¾ of the pan and you can fill it with water, wine, juice, beer and/or other aromatic ingredients like fruit peels, onion chunks, fresh herbs, etc.

This is going to give the smoke a bit more flavor while at the same time help to keep the temperature inside the grill down to around 250 to 300° F preventing it from getting up to 400 or 500° F.

Ensure that both pans take around half the space of the grill. Disposable aluminum foil pans are ideal for this but if you have metal pans, cover them with foil to protect them a bit and make cleanup easier.

6. Preheat and then Put the Meat

With all that set, add the top grill or cover and let it preheat. You can place a thermometer in one of the top vents to monitor the temperature.

When it reaches around 250° F, then it’s hot enough. So place your meat on the grate away from the heat. Lay it above the drip pan to catch drippings. It should as far away from the charcoal as possible.

Close the lid while positioning the vents directly over the meat and open. This will help direct all the smoke over the meat. If the vents are over the fire, then all the smoke will just go up and out.

Ensure also that you close all the bottom vents if there are any to keep the temperature as low as possible. You will have to turn the meat occasionally, but not as often as when you’re grilling.

You will also need to check the charcoal after at least every 30 minutes to add more damp wood chunks to ensure they continue to smolder.

The smoking time will depend on the type of food you are preparing because if it’s fish, then it will take much less time than smoking a beef brisket or chicken.

Check out this video on how to turn a charcoal grill into a smoker to learn more…

If you anyway prefer to go for a charcoal smoker, we have the best ones reviewed here.

Grilling vs Smoking, what’s the difference?

Smoking, otherwise known as barbecuing is quite different from just grilling. Smoking utilizes an indirect cooking method which involves setting up a two-zone fire while grilling is over direct heat like when grilling fish, burger or chicken.

The goal of smoking is to keep whatever food you are smoking as far away as possible from direct contact with the heat source.

There are many ways you can set up the two-zone cooking method but the two common ones are: Putting the charcoal to one side which would make the hot side and the food plus the drip pan below it on the other side which is the unlit side.

You can also put the charcoal-wood mixture on either side of the grill with the food and the drip pan going in the middle.


how to turn a charcoal grill into a smoker


Why add a water/liquid pan?

Why the liquid pan? You may ask. Well, there are several reasons. First, water keeps everything moist, therefore, it helps ensure the meat remains moist and tender. That’s why it’s essential to include the water pan in the setup.

Second, it helps moderate the temperature within the grill and around the meat. This is vital for such a small space. For the best results, the interior temperature needs to be around 225 to 250°F.

Third, you can as well fill the drip pan that’s directly below the food with water so as to better stabilize the heat. This will also help prevent flareups and protect your grill from getting wrecked by the sauce and fat stains.

The size and shape of the pans will depend on your actual grill and remember, you will have to occasionally check the water level as the water will be evaporating in the process.

You should have additional water around in case it depletes before the food is smoked properly. Warm water is much ideal as the grill won’t utilize much energy to heat the water, which tends to reduce the heat within the unit.

How long should you smoke the food?

One of the key tricks to turning out a nicely smoked meat or vegetable is timing. Knowing how long whatever kind of food you want to smoke will take to become tender, juicy, and well cooked.

With this in mind, you will be able to adjust the amount of charcoal accordingly and guarantee great results.  Smoking fish, vegetables and other foods like nuts and cheese take less time. A fish can take as little as forty minutes.

As for the chicken, if you are smoking a whole chicken, then it should take around one to two hours if you maintain a consistent medium-low temperature. For racks of ribs, a beef brisket, or a boston butt, it can take anywhere from 3 to 6 hours to cook properly.


charcoal grill


Controlling the Temperature

Another key thing when it comes to smoking is maintaining the temperature. Although the charcoal and the water pan can aide in temperature control, you have to keep an eye on the grill to ensure the temperature is right.

There are kettle grills with lids that have a thermometer (most don’t). if you have such a grill then it’s much easier. However, if your grill doesn’t come with a built-in thermometer, then you may want to get a grill thermometer and/or a meat thermometer.

The trick here is to closely monitor not just the grill temperature, but also the internal temperature of the meat, so a good dual-probe thermometer would be much ideal.

Most built-in lid thermometers will only show you the grill temperature but not up to the meat level which is quite essential.

The temperature of the meat should be preferably around 225 to 250°F, while the overall internal temperature of the grid should be somewhere under 300°F.

You will have to regulate the temperature occasionally. If it gets too hot, then close the top vent and if it soars below 225°F, then open the top vents.

If this doesn’t lead to a rise in temperature, open the lid and add few pieces of the unlit charcoal and let them burn off a bit.

Picking Your Wood Chunks

Wood chunks or chips are an incredibly essential part of the smoking process. Charcoal will generate the smokiness, but the wood chunks will add that extra layer of depth when it comes to flavor.

Therefore, you would want to ensure you pick your wood wisely. Both softwood and hardwood chunks can be used to produce sufficient smoke that can flavor the food.

However, it’s much better to pick a flavor that would complement the type of meat or dish you are cooking. For instance, hickory and other woods like oak, maple, mesquite, and walnut work well for beef and lamp.

They produce an unmistakable pungent smokiness that gives the food a quite heavy smoke or bacon flavor. Both mesquite and hickory can give a bitter flavor if not well soaked. They have to be soaked in water for more than 20 minutes.

Pecan is a good choice for pork due to its medium amount of smoky essence as well as oak, hickory, mesquite, and walnut. If you want that gentle, fruity sweetness in your meat, then you can go with cherry or applewood chunks. They are good for poultry,  seafood, and lamb.

Why soak the wood chunks?

The easiest method of creating smoke is adding damp wood chunks or chips directly on to the hot charcoals. Soaking them not only allows them to burn slower but the smolder cause them to cream more smoke rather than generating heat.

Large chunks are often much better and effective as opposed to chips. However, you need to ensure you’ve squeezed out or shaken off the water pretty well so that they are too wet as they would creat steam rather than smoke.


If you love the delicious flavor and aroma of smokey meat, fish or fresh vegetables, but you only have a charcoal grill, then with our simple how to turn a charcoal grill into a smoker guide above, you will be able to quickly transform your grill into a great smoker. It’s a pretty easy and convenient process.

How to Turn a Charcoal Grill into a Smoker in 6 Easy Steps