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Hack Your Grill: Turn it into a Smoker

Growing up in Colorado, I never really understood the true meaning of barbecue. For my family, it basically meant throwing a few burgers and dogs on the grill, dusting off the lawn chairs, and enjoying summer evenings with neighbors and friends. I know now that this was, in fact, grilling, not barbecuing.

It wasn’t until I moved to Tennessee that I got a taste of true barbecue — Southern barbecue, that is — food prepared using a low ‘n slow cooking method over indirect heat, sometimes with dry rubs and sauces, and most importantly with lots of smoke!

Back in the time of primitive cavemen, smoking was a way of preserving food. As modern transportation and technology for safely storing food came into play, smoking was less used for preserving and more for bringing flavor to the party.

A basic barbecue smoker is much like a large grill with a small cylindrical shaped firebox attached to one end. A fire is started in the firebox, and airflow allows heat and smoke to enter into the grill, cooking and flavoring the meat (or any food, for that matter) before leaving the smoker through an exhaust vent.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t want to shell out hundreds of bucks on a large barbecue smoker if there’s a shortcut way to get the same results. If you have a grill, you’re half way there. Just follow these steps to hack your grill and turn it into a smoker!

Soak your wood chips for 30 minutes. The type of wood you use will greatly affect the flavor of your finished product. My absolute favorite is hickory — a classic in the South that adds a forward and distinct smokiness to food.

While your woodchips are taking a dip, fire up the grill. Remember, barbecuing focuses on low heat for a long period of time. You want your grill temperature to be around 225 °F (lower for some recipes) for some nice barbecue action.

Even if you’re using a gas grill, this 30 minute warm-up period allows the grill to fully come up to temperature. Think of it like pre-heating your oven for a nice roast.

For the food nerds out there, a barbecue thermometer is a nice tool to help maintain consistent temperatures.  


Next, drain your wood chips and distribute evenly over top of the hot coals if using a charcoal grill.

If you have a gas grill, wrap the wood chips in foil, poke holes in the foil packet, and place on top of the grill grate over a flame. Now you’re ready to smoke!

When it comes to recipes, the sky’s the limit. Homemade Bacon with Brown Sugar and Black Pepper? Yes, please! Or, try this Homemade Smoked Salmon recipe.

My personal favorite is one that’s sure to please everyone: Smoked Mashed Potatoes.

Start with your favorite mashed potato recipe – here’s a recipe for Classic Mashed Potatoes. After you’ve boiled the potatoes, drain them and place in a steamer basket or vented foil pouch in your heated smoker for 30 to 40 minutes. This will infuse just the right amount smoky goodness into the potatoes. Return them to their original pot and continue with remaining steps of the recipe. You’ll never make mashed potatoes the same way again!

For a fun instructional video on turning your grill into a smoker, Alton Brown explains this process nicely.

Do you have any favorite recipes or tips for smoking food at home? Join the conversation below.

Special thanks to my creative partners in crime and fellow Team Members at the Franklin store in San Francisco, Nate Chavez and Erin Mitchell, for the wonderful photography and graphic design.

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Helen Syfie says …

I have never used this method before, but I would love to try smoking a chicken, either whole or cut in half. How long would I need to cook this chicken. I have a gas grill, which has a low setting. Will that work? Will I need to place the chicken in a pan or something of the sort. Thanks so much for replying to my question. Helen

Chris says …

Nice start, but you forgot to mention indirect heat. Whether using a gas or charcoal grill, you want the heat (and wood) on one side and the food on the other. Another tip for longer cooking times on a charcoal grill is to light only 1/2 the charcoal you plan to use to start, and place it on top of the unlit briquettes. This is called the Minion method after the man who popularized it).

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@HELEN - Great question! There are a few specific instructions above if you plan to use a gas grill, such as, wrapping the wood chips in foil, poking holes in the foil packet, and placing them on top of the grill grate over a flame. I would suggest following the recipe for the cook time based on the temp mentioned above!

valkires jorgenes gueno says …

I get out of bed this morning at 5;15 am and I went to Whole foods page and I start to read everything , till I came to the barbeque, page. I have a gas grill ., and I was reading about the wet wood chips and the foil. I didn't know that. My husband loves salmon cook in the grill. Now I know how to do it. We use our gas grill even in the winter. Our friends think (we must be crazy) when we invite then for a barbeque in February or March. thank you so much for the "tip". I learn a lot this morning . I will use it tonight !! Kay