Learn how to use a smoker box on a gas grill or charcoal grill.
We also explore how a smoker box works, the best way to use one, and how to make your own!
If you want try adding some smoke flavor the next time you fire up the grill, but you don't own a typical meat smoker, you may still be in luck.
For a very small price, you can start adding smoke flavor to your food at home right now!
The result could be a smoky, delicious tasting meat cooked right on your current gas or charcoal grill.
That’s right, we’re talking about the smoker box.
Let’s learn some more about how they work, how to use one, and even how to make your own DIY smoker box at home.
What is a Smoker Box?
A smoker box, or smoking box, is essentially a small rectangular box with slots cut in the top. The box is typically made out of stainless steel or cast iron and the top part flips back or comes completely off.
You’ll put your favorite kind of wood chips in this box and then close it before putting it in your grill.
Another option for adding smoke flavor to your food is to use a firebox with charcoal and real wood chunks. Head over to How to Get More Smoke Flavor on a Pellet Grill for more information on how to set this up.
What Does a Smoker Box Do?
The idea is pretty simple. You fill the small box with wood chips to heat up on the grill and add smoke flavor to whatever you are cooking.
As the grill heats up the box, the wood starts to smoke. The small slits in the box limit the amount of oxygen that reaches the wood, allowing it to smolder and smoke rather than ignite and catch fire.
Using a wood chip smoker box is kind of like adding an additional layer of seasoning.
How much wood you put in the box and how long you leave it in with the food will determine how much smoky flavor you get in the meat you’re cooking.
How Does a Smoker Box Work?
If you ever try throwing chips of wood directly into your grill (we don't recommend this), you'll see that they will simply catch fire, burn up quickly, and make a huge mess.
Larger, slow burning wood chunks work great for smoking, but only in an actual smoker where you can limit the airflow to the entire cooking chamber.
A smoker box gives you the ability to apply smoke to food on a conventional grill where you can't easily limit the airflow. (Notice the large open vent on the back of your typical propane gas grill).
The smoker box keeps the wood contained and allows it to heat up to the 500 degree range where smoke begins to occur.
Contrary to popular advice:
YOU DO NOT NEED TO SOAK THE WOOD CHIPS prior to adding them to your smoker box.
It will not hurt to do it, but it is an unnecessary step and it will just end up taking longer for the wood to smoke as you wait for all that water to evaporate.
The smoke is created by the lack of oxygen in the smoker box, not by soaking the wood chips in water.
If you place the smoker box down in the coals or near the burners under the meat you are cooking, the smoke will gently rise out of the box and begin the flavor your food above it.
Types of Wood to Use in a Smoker Box
The type of wood you select will greatly determine the type of flavor you add to your meal.
It is important to make sure the wood chips you use are not treated with any chemicals. Use natural wood chips made specifically for smoking food.
Let’s quickly look at some of the more popular smoking wood chips and their corresponding flavors.
It's always better to go easy the first time you experiment with smoking your food so as not to overdo it and ruin your entire meal.
- Hickory – One of the most popular smoking woods used by restaurants and professionals. Strong and heavy distinct smoke flavor that some say adds a bacon like flavor.
- Oak – Heavy smoke taste. Red or White Oak are both good options. Similar taste to Hickory.
- Mesquite – Very strong, distinct flavor. Earthy, and especially good with chicken. A little goes a long way with mesquite so don't overdo it the first time, especially with fish or poultry.
- Cherry/Apple/Peach – These fruit woods give off a mild flavor that may not be as strong or off putting to your guests if you accidentally overdo it. Very favorable among professional BBQ competitors and probably your best bet the first time you try smoking meat.
- Maple – Another mellow sweet flavor. Works best with pork.
- Alder – Gentle flavor with a little sweetness. Pretty subtle.
How to Use a Smoker Box on a Charcoal Grill
The first step is to get your grill going.
Light the charcoal using a chimney and wait for the grill to heat up.
While the charcoal is lighting, let’s load up that smoker box. Fill it about ¾ full of your favorite wood chips.
If you’re going to be slow cooking your meat (like pork butt or ribs), set up your grill for indirect cooking by putting your smoker box in a corner along with the coals so that the meat is not right above them.
If you’re grilling your meat (like burgers, chicken, or steak), put the smoker box and coals right below the meat for direct cooking. Wait until the smoke is actively coming out of the box before you put your meat on so that it doesn't cook before it absorbs any smoke flavor.
Once the charcoal is lit, place the smoker box, with the lid closed, on top of the charcoals and then place your cooking grate on top.
If you do not have space to put the smoker box on top of the charcoal and still get your grill grate on, that's ok. Just position the smoker box somewhere up against the lit coals so that it is still touching them and it will heat up.
How to Use a Smoker Box on a Gas Grill
Setting up on a gas grill will be a little different.
First, preheat your grill. Turn all the burners on the highest setting and let it get nice and hot. Make sure to always clean your grates with a good grill brush after it preheats.
While you’re waiting, fill up your smoker box.
Now it’s time to throw that smoker box in there. The ideal placement is resting on the burners but below the grill. Again, depending on the size and style of your grill you may need to play with this setup.
If you have a grill with flame deflector bars, we like this design of smoker box for positioning the box securely under the grill grate.
DO NOT turn the gas burner the smoker box is sitting on up to HIGH.
Even with limited oxygen inside the box the chips may still ignite at these high direct temperatures.
If you need to cook your food at a very high direct temperature, use the burners next to the smoker box burner to actually cook the food.
Its OK to put the smoker box on the grill grates next to the meat, you just may lose a lot of smoke out the rear air vent before it ever reaches the meat, so below the grate is a better option.
How to Make Your Own DIY Smoker Box
We just couldn't finish a Mad Backyard article without showing you a few DIY smoker box options too, so here it goes.
If you understand the idea behind how a smoking box works, creating an oxygen limiting container for wood chips and then exposing that container to heat, you can get pretty creative with making your own smoker box at home.
Try using a small disposable aluminum pan and covering the top with aluminum foil. Make sure to crimp the edges to limit the airflow.
Poke some holes in the top with a toothpick to let the smoke out and you've got yourself a pretty quick solution.
Or, make a small pouch out of just aluminum foil, fill it with wood chips, close it up and poke some holes in it.
Toss that sucker on the hot coals and you'll start seeing smoke come out in no time. Make sure to wear some quality BBQ gloves or use tongs if you need to move it around.
However, if you want a convenient go-to option that you can easily re-open during the cook and add more wood chips if needed, we recommend just going out and picking up the real thing.
How to Use a Smoker Box
- Smoker Box
- Gas or charcoal grill
- Smoking wood chips
- Light the gas burners or charcoal and wait for the gill t heat up
- Fill the smoker box with DRY wood chips. You do not need to soak the in water first.
- When the grill has heated up, place the smoker box over the hot coals or lit gas burner.
- After about 10 minutes, the smoker box will start to produce smoke. At this time, put your food on the opposite side of the grill from the smoker box and the direct heat.
- Close the lid to your grill.
- The smoke will last for about 20-30 minutes, if you require more, safely empty the burnt wood chips from the smoker box, refill with fresh wood chips, and repeat.