I see that there’s a lot of interest in using the WPG to BBQ and otherwise smoke food using propane as the main fuel. I really like to use this combination, propane grill with wood smoke. It gives pretty darn good results with a fraction of the hassle of “burning trees”. I’m going to explain and illustrate what I know about getting real wood smoke going in a propane grill, focusing on the Weber Propane Grill.
Wood smoke makes a nice flavor addition to most things that come off the grill. And wood smoke is mandatory to achieve anything resembling “BBQ”. As you can see, the topic of wood smoke in a propane grill gets a bit complicated because of the different cooking methods. Grilling, suitably for naturally tender cuts, is fast cooking over high heat. Whereas BBQing, the method of choice for cooking tougher, fattier cuts, is slow cooking over low heat. So the methods you use for introducing wood smoke will have to be suited to the cooking method. And as with everything regarding propane grills, the wood smoke solutions I will offer will not be perfection, but they’ll be pretty darn good.
I’m assuming you have a propane grill, these tips will be optimized for my old “Genesis Silver” grill. A favorite feature of this model is that it has three burners that run across the grill: front, middle, and back. From watching grills, it appears there’s a natural air, heat, and smoke flow from bottom/front toward the back/top. Using the front burner only, I can put whatever I’m BBQing all the way to the back and it gets even saturation in heat and smoke. If your burners run front to back (left, middle, right), simply adjust accordingly.
Above, grill with grates removed. Two chip burner trays and the water tray in the middle.
Next, you’ll need a chip burner box, which you can buy most anywhere they sell grills, or you can cut the bottom off of an old fashioned tin can. Leave the sides about an inch high and smooth the cut edges to prevent unnecessary bloodletting. Commercial chip burner boxes come in cast iron or stainless and have a slotted top. I have no preference, but I never use the top because it doesn’t do anything and just gets in the way. As a cheaper and handier alternative, you can make a packet of wood chips in aluminum foil and poke a few holes to let the smoke out. The chip burner or foil packet goes right on top of the flavorizer bar (or equivalent in non-Weber grills).
You’ll also need chips to produce the smoke. These are also available just about everywhere. I favor food tree wood (apple, cherry, pecan, walnut, etc) for their mild flavor. Hardwoods like oak and hickory are more strongly flavored and suited to specific purposes (eg; hickory smoked ribs). Mesquite can be good in specific situations, but be careful because it’s easy to overdo it with this wood. Finally, there are specialty woods like alder, which is spectacular with salmon. Whichever wood you choose, you want beefier chunks, not the sawdusty stuff they sell for electric smokers.
Because wood is typically about 20% water, when it burns it gives off a lot of water vapor, which maintains some humidity in a wood-fired smoker. Propane burns much drier, and the wood chips add very little humidity to the cooking box. So you’ll need a water tray if you’re doing prolonged cooking as in BBQ. For grilling, 20 minutes or less over high heat, I don’t think it really matters.
Finally, you’ll need the usual assortment of grilling tools, including tools for handling your cooking surface (grates or whatever).
This is pretty easy, just remove your cooking grates and put the chip burner box, or boxes, on the flavorizer bar toward the front of the grill. The water tray goes on the same flavorizer bar, this will have chips and water sitting right on top of the heat source. As the picture shows, I use two chip boxes and one water tray, but suit yourself! For grilling with added smoke, I’ll generally use just one chip tray.
Dry chips on the left, water tray (dyed green for visibility) in the middle, wet chips on the right.
There is the question of to soak, or to not soak the wood chips. My answer is, both. If I’m grilling on high heat with added smoke, I always soak the wood chips because otherwise they will burst into flames over the high heat (unless in a foil packet, which is another story). For BBQing over low heat, I do both dry chips and wet chips. The heat settings for BBQing are so low that wet chips will take 30 minutes to begin smoking, so I load the chip burner box(es) with half dry and half wet chips. This gets the smoke going faster, and keeps it going longer.
For this traditional American cooking method, you will be using low heat for a long period of time. I like to simply use 225F degrees for BBQing, it’s easy to maintain with one burner and works well enough for everything. Always keep the meat as far away from the heat source as possible. There are greater experts than me, but as a rough estimate, cooking at 225F degrees:
- salmon fillets, 45 min – 1 hour
- half chickens, 90 minutes – 2 hours (180F internal temp)
- pork ribs, 4 1/2 – 6 hours
- pork shoulder, 10 hours (approx 195F internal temp)
- beef brisket 10+ hours
For the pork and beef, plan on spending the last 1/3rd of cooking time wrapped in aluminum foil or tightly covered pan with beer, juice, stock, etc to maintain moisture.
Baby back ribs, removing membrane on back. A spoon and paper towel can help. If the membrane simply won’t come off (I’ve seen this happen), don’t worry about it…
You only need smoke while the meat is cooking “in the open”. Once it is wrapped, smoke is irrelevant. Using two burner boxes with wet and dry chips, I can get an hour to maybe an hour and fifteen minutes of smoke. At that point, I have to replenish the system, which causes a break in cooking, putting the whole process into “pause” mode. On the up side, four hours of smoke is enough for most anything, beyond that point there’s not much smoke absorption going on.
Baby back ribs with mustard wash and dry rub, ready to wrap in plastic wrap. I believe you could do this the night before, or at least early the morning of your big BBQ….
I do wish that some grill manufacturer would come up with a sliding drawer type system that would allow replenishing wood chips and water without opening the grill!!!
Ready to close the lid, set a 90 minute timer, and adjust the temperature to 225. You can see some smoke coming off the dry chips on the left, the wet chips won’t start to smoke for a while.
End of the first 90 minutes. Working as quickly as possible, replenish the wet and dry wood chips, top up the water, mop the ribs with a mixture of the leftover mustard wash, dry rub, vinegar, and canola oil.
Ready for another 90 minutes at 225.
After 3 hours at 225 with smoke, notice the ribs are not done cooking. You can judge that by the “pull back” on the rib tips. Notice we don’t have the 1/4”-1/2” of pull back that we’re looking for. So these guys go into a pan with apple juice in the bottom (rack to hold the ribs out of the liquid). Cover tight with aluminum foil and give them another 90 minutes of hot juicy goodness at 225.
I’ve moved the ribs to the oven (no smoke at this point, anyway) so I can start the chicken. 90 minutes at 225 will get this really close.
Adding some sausages with 45 minutes left. Notice the temperature probe in the chicken leg (I wrap the wire in aluminum foil to keep it from burning, not a problem at 225 but can cost you a lot of probes when grilling at 4-500 degrees). You want to see 180 degrees for “no worries”.
The ribs are done and out, wrapped in aluminum foil and a clean towel to keep them warm. Add the liquid, any leftover mopping sauce, some maple syrup, and some hot sauce and cook to reduce until you have a glazing sauce.
For some BBQd meats, it’s a nice touch to finish them on the grill. If you wrapped the meat with a liquid, then defat and reserve that liquid. Add some flavoring (maple syrup and hot sauce, etc) and reduce that liquid until it begins to thicken. Use that as the glaze, brush the BBQd meat and grill over high heat for just a couple of minutes (‘till the glaze sauce just begins to char, but before it turns to a blackened mess). Or you can just use a commercial or home made “BBQ sauce”.
Secret tip: looking at the picture below, you see the ribs fully smoked and cooked, just awaiting the finishing glaze. If you’re feeding a bunch of people, you can stop the process right here, wrapping the meat in foil and refrigerating overnight or even a couple of days. A half hour before you’re ready to feed, break out the ribs and get them on the grill, give them a good glaze, grilling until heated through. I don’t know about freezing them, never tried that…
The ribs are done cooking, notice the pull back on the rib ends. All the meat as actually smoked and cooked at this point, we’re just going to use the glazing sauce over high heat to add a final layer of flavor and texture. This grillful of food fed eight people very nicely.
If your BBQd meat is ready ahead of time, you can hold it in a regular old outdoor cooler. Wrap the meat in aluminum foil, wrap that in a towel, and put the whole thing in the cooler. It will hold for an hour like this, maybe more.
When your pork BBQ is “right”, it will have a bark on the outside, it will be tender and moist on the inside yet still have texture (ie; not “pressure cooked”), it will have a distinct, clean, natural wood smoke flavor, and the meat will come off the bone with just a slight tug. With these techniques, you can produce some very dang fine BBQd meat on your propane grill, with no other equipment necessary.
Grilling with smoke
In comparison to BBQing, grilling with smoke is a very simple process. You are going to get the hottest grill you can possibly achieve, and I strongly recommend GrillGrates (www.grillgrate.com). There is nothing else like the GrillGrate product and I’ll go so far as to say, if you’re grilling on propane without GrillGrates, you’re not doing the kind of work you could be.
Get the smoke going, using wet chips (water tray not necessary) in a burner box. When the grill is hot and smoke is rolling, slam the meat on the grill. Cook the meat for half the needed time on one side with the cover of your grill down, then flip it and finish on the second side, again covered. I know that it’s hard to resist flipping and reflipping, but you will be very pleased with the result. If you really want the crosshatched pattern grill marks, rotate the meat 90 degrees halfway through cooking.
With grilling, it is mandatory to let the meat rest, to redistribute the juices. Let the meat rest until it’s just nicely warm before serving, hot meat bleeds all its juice onto the plate. I don’t like to cover with aluminum foil, I’d rather use a just barely warm oven, or simply put on the counter inside and out of the wind. With propane grills, we work so hard to get a decent crusty char on meat, wrapping in aluminum foil only seems to turn that to mush.
Final smoke tip for grilling: you can also use herbs for seasoning smoke. I find rosemary sprigs work really well for chicken breasts or lamb. Bay leaves are also nice.
There are other interesting ways to cook meat with smoke. Although not strictly “smoke” cooking, the cedar plank technique works nicely for fish, especially salmon. Soak the cedar plank for a few hours, place over heat until the upper “cooking” surface is hot, then place the fish on the plank and cook 15 minutes or so, until done.
Rotisserie is another interesting alternative for whole chunks of meat. A rotisserie fitting for the Weber Propane Grill is $80 and a well worthwhile investment. With rotisserie, you can use the same wood chip burner and water tray arrangement to add as much or little smoke as you like.
Good luck and good eating!