Over 75% of U.S. households own a grill. Gas is by far the most popular type of grill, but the charcoal grill continues to remain supreme. In fact, most BBQ circles and forums deem charcoal to be better based on flavor alone. We agree with this sentiment.

One of the best things about cooking with charcoal and wood chips is they impart that wonderful smoky flavor everyone’s after. Gas grills aren’t able to achieve the same level of smoke and always feel lacking.

It’s also far easier to use wood chips in a charcoal grill as opposed to gas. You can put them directly on the charcoal or separately in a smoker box.

How to Add Wood Chips to Charcoal Grill

Before adding wood chips, the first thing to do is to light the coals. There are typically two methods used; a chimney starter, or in the grill itself.

A chimney starter is the easier of the two and it’s relatively cheap. To use a chimney starter you need either lump-wood charcoal or briquettes and something to light the coals with. In my experience, firelighters are very reliable, however newspaper is more than adequate.

  1. Start by creating 5-6 “rings” of newspaper. First roll the newspaper  and then create a circular ring. Place these rings at the bottom of the chimney.
  2. Then fill up the chimney with charcoal. The amount will vary based on what you’re cooking and how long you need to smoke the meat. Obviously larger cuts of meat require more charcoal.
  3. As the charcoal starts to light, it may start to smoke. This is because of the moisture. This smoke will eventually die off.
  4. Once the coals are grey on top and it’s visibly “hot.” You can pour the coals into the barbecue.

If you don’t have a chimney, you can also make a starter of newspaper, kindling, and charcoal.

  1. Crumple 5-6 pages of newspaper and build a small pile in the middle of the pit.
  2. Next, add kindling. The kindling need to be small, dry pieces of wood like twigs. The goal is to cover the newspaper but not to smother it.
  3. Next, place your charcoal over the starter and light the paper along the perimeter of the structure.
  4. As the charcoal briquettes start to light and turn grey, use tongs to move the other charcoal pieces that aren’t lighting.

Both methods work well. A chimney is definitely a more controlled way to do it, but a “primitive” method of just newspaper and twigs works well too. Both take roughly 15-20 minutes.

Once your coals are greyish-white you can decide on your fire arrangement and add your wood chips.

However, simply adding small fragments of hardwood to hot coals is going to result in the hardwood combusting. You can avoid this by creating an aluminum foil vessel for the wood chips to sit in. This prevents the wood chips from catching fire and allows them to smoke properly.

The vessel isn’t rocket-science. It can be 2-3 sheets of aluminum foil formed into a small bowl for the wood chips to sit in. Then the bowl is enclosed with the excess tinfoil. You should create small holes that allow the smoke to escape.

It’s as simple as that. Let’s talk about the type of wood chips to use as well as some other related questions you might have.

Types of Wood Chips

Wood chips are coin-sized pieces of seasoned smoking wood. Smoking wood is often separated into three categories: mild, medium, and heavy woods.

If you’re someone who likes grilling and smoking meat, you might be interested in the types of wood and how they impact the flavoring.

Below is a quick run-down of smoking wood, however we did a full break-down of seasoned wood varieties you can read here.

Cherry – Noted for it’s all purpose nature. It’s mild and fruity, and goes especially well with poultry, pork, and even other types of wood (It’s also my personal favorite).
Alder – Has a hint of sweetness which is perfect for fish (namely salmon). However it also goes well with poultry, pork, veggies, and fruit.
Oak – Has a strong smoky flavor that doesn’t overpower the meat. It goes well with red meat, pork, fish, and game meat.
Pecan – Similar to hickory but sweeter and milder. Avoid over smoking with pecan as it leads to a bitter flavor.
Apple – The mellow and mild flavor is ideal for pork and poultry. However it also goes well with lamb, seafood, and even cheese.

You should also avoid woods from conifers like pine, fir, spruce, redwood, cedar, and cypress.

Other Wood Forms: Pellets and Chunks of Wood

While this article mainly talks about wood chips, there are also other forms of seasoned wood you might consider like chunks and pellets.

Wood pellets are highly processed and are made from compressed hardwood sawdust. They are then dried and heated to form the pellet shape. Pellets are well known for their slow burn rate. They are able to burn slow while delivering high temps which makes them great for grilling.

Unlike pellets, wood chips are simply smaller fragments of hardwood. The wood is seasoned in order to bring the moisture level down. Once the moisture level is ideal, the wood is run through a wood chipper and packaged for sale. However, wood chips tend to burn quickly but can put out decent levels of smoke.

Wood chunks are essentially large pieces of seasoned hardwood that are ideal for smoking large cuts of meat, entire chickens, brisket, or pulled pork. Essentially chunks are ideal for foods that require long cooking times.

Do You Soak the Wood Chips?

This topic is heavily debated. However, I’ve never seen any sort of benefit from doing so. According to sources like Meathead, water barely penetrates smoking chips in a 24 hour period. Which is strange because most people note to soak wood chips for 30 minutes to 2 hours.

The idea behind soaking the wood chips is to prevent them from catching on fire and combusting. By creating a small vessel as I detailed above, soaking isn’t required as the tin-foil acts a barrier and allows the wood chips to smolder and not catch fire.

Using a Smoker Box?

Smoker boxes are commonly used for Gas grills as a way to introduce smoke, however they can also be used on a charcoal grill just the same.

A smoker box is a pretty self-explanatory apparatus. It’s a metal box commonly made of stainless steel. They are usually equipped with holes on both the bottom of the box and on the lid.

Using a smoker box is fairly simple. Just add the dry wood chips to the smoker box. Place the smoker box over the heat source/coals and wait for the smoke.

Conclusion

Sometimes barbecue is about using what you have on-hand to make the most of a meal. For instance, wood chunks are the ideal size for a charcoal grill. However, using wood chips with the vessel method or a smoker box will allow for a great way to introduce smoky flavor to a charcoal grill.

Dylan Clay
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Dylan Clay

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