The appeal of smoking meats should be apparent. While a gas grill is a relatively clean medium for cooking, most have more in common with the domestic indoor range than an outdoor cooking fire. For those looking to chase the distinct umami of barbecues past, there is only the smoker, which brings a bit of wildness back into the meat preparation process. But smokers — the ones worth buying anyway — tend to be expensive. That’s why I turned my old grill into a homemade smoker. And with the warming weather and the advent of another outdoor season, you should, too.
I’m not sharing this advice merely because I’m a man and men build things. (Some do, some don’t, and some are thrifty and don’t want to toss Weber $300.) I’m sharing my grill transformation process because I’m really fucking pleased with myself for figuring this out. There are handsomer men with fuller beards and better plaid shirts than I, but none of them can claim to have performed a more successful grill-to-smoker surgery.
My daily-use gas grill was a hand-me-down that had seen many decades of backyard cookouts. It was rusty and the handles were barely hanging on. It looked like it had spent time in Mad Max’s Bartertown, cooking up rats for concessions during Thunderdome bouts. This is maybe why my next-door neighbor offered me his old gas Weber, which he was replacing with a more modern model. I said “thank you” a bunch then stared my old cycloptic gas grill right in the thermometer and said, “It’s time to make a change.”
The grill was unresponsive, but it got where I was coming from.
Did I do extensive research before I got started? Nah. I caught some directions on the internet but was quickly disheartened by the full metal shop that had been required to modify one dude’s gas grill. I scrolled through the comments and pieced together a better plan.
The technical requirements to smoke a piece of meat are fairly simple. You need a place where your wood chips can smolder and smoke. You need a place for the meat that is both far from direct heat while also bathed in the redolent magic billowing from the wood. And you also need some way to know your temperature is low and even.
A typical gas grill is not set up this way. At least mine wasn’t. I knew that in terms of the meat, I could place it on one side of the grill with the elements under it off. I knew that the other side of the grill element could heat the chips and that the differentiation of heat between the sides would cause convection and move the smoke over the meat.
What I did not have was a temperature gauge or a “smoker box” for the chips. This is what the dude from the internet had spent his time bending and welding. But some crafty genius suggested a drywall mud pan would work just as well. I went to the hardware store.
On my trip, I also acquired a round grill thermometer, some new lava rocks to replace the filth that occupied the bottom of my grill, and some apple chips for my first out. All told? It was under $50. Try to find a smoker for that. Actually don’t. You can’t. Fuck you for even considering it.
Here are the steps for turning your old gas grill into a homemade smoker:
- Clean the inside of your grill of any fat that might flare up or cause rancid flavors while you smoke. This may require elbow grease, dirtiness, scraped knuckles, and a sour puss while getting it done.
- Add new lava rocks, but only to the meat side of the grill. Lava rocks create an even, low heat around your meat, but if you place them on the fire side, they will boost the temperature, making it unsuitable for low smoking.
- Place the drywall mud pan around the heating element. This will hold your wood chips.
- Add a temperature gauge if you don’t have one. I did this by drilling a hole through the aluminum lid of my grill and threading it in. Easy peasy.
- Replace the cooking grate you cleaned in step one.
With all this done I soaked my apple wood chips and prepped a London broil with a store-bought BBQ rub. Was I confident my design would work? Absolutely. But in the very real chance it did not, no way was I going to put any additional effort into something that could become an irrevocable failure.
An hour later, with seasoned meat and soaked chips, I put my new-old smoker to the test. The chips went into the mud pan and smoldered perfectly over the burner, which was turned to the lowest setting. The temperature held around 250 degrees, which was a bit higher than I wanted, but fine.
I monitored my homemade smoker with care normally reserved for infants for about three hours. But in the end, it wasn’t necessary: I ended up with a stupidly juicy, perfectly smoky hunk of beef.
I’ve used my “smoker” many times since. My only modification? A big hole in the lid opposite the fire side of the grill to reduce heat and draw smoke across the meat.
It’s absolutely hideous, a monster that lives in my backyard, but I don’t care because it can put a gorgeous pink smoke ring in a pork butt. Most importantly, it works.
Is it time for you to transform your old POS grill into a smoker? That’s not for me to say. But if your current gas grill is slowly oxidizing on your back porch and your partner looks at you with a skeptical glance when you mention the prospect of grilling, then you’ve got nothing to lose in 2021. It’s a personal and emotional decision. But it worked for me.