It’s grilling season, and this year, we want more out of our grill than just burgers and hot dogs. Of course, Texas is the smoking capital of the world (maybe self-appointed, but it still counts), and so we know all about low and slow briskets and beef ribs. But did you know that you can smoke nearly anything, and you can use your everyday grill to do it?
Smoking is often associated with long, overnight cooking for large cuts of meat. But smoke adds a unique flavor profile to every food, not just rich meats, and you can build big flavor with a little effort.
If you have a charcoal grill, adding smoke to your food is as easy as throwing a handful of wood chips on your hot coals. On a gas grill, there are plenty of gadgets you can buy to hold wood pellets or chips, but a tinfoil pouch poked with holes or an aluminum pan set on the grill grates is just as effective.
Smoke goes a long way, and just a light stream can make enchilada-perfect shrimp, smoky eggplant that is begging to blended into baba ghanoush, or chicken thighs for the best-ever picnic chicken salad. Cook your foods the way you would without smoke—medium to high heat until they’re browned and cooked through, or at a lower temperature for foods that benefit from gentle heat, like salmon. Think of the smoke like a marinade. It changes the flavor, but it doesn’t impact how you cook it.
For a stronger smoke flavor, grilling at lower temperature or over indirect heat gives your food more time on the grill and more time to take on the properties of the wood.
Not all wood is created equal, so you don’t want to throw your yard scraps into the grill. Look for commercial-grade wood chips at your grilling supply store, online, or even at most big-box home and garden stores.
The most popular woods that are available will generally be all-purpose, like cherry, maple, apple, hickory, and mesquite. Each imparts a unique flavor, and experimentation will help you decide which you like. Some, like hickory and mesquite, are particularly strong and bold; they are most commonly used for grilled meats and traditional barbecue, and they may not be ideal for mild ingredients.
Don’t forget to keep the grill hot for dessert. Lots of fruits, like peaches, cherries, and even bananas, are enhanced by a subtle smoke flavor. You can even smoke ingredients like cream or butter to blend into ice cream, smoky chocolate chip cookies, or smoked caramel sauce. Place your ingredients in a heat-safe container and keep the temperature low—about 200°F.