How to smoke on a barbecue?

Grilling or smoking?

Grilling and smoking are two different techniques to prepare meat or fish.

Grilling is a relatively quick way of heating (20 to 25 minutes). We place the meat or fish on a grill rack directly above the hot charcoal or briquettes, or above the flames of a gas barbecue or burning wood. This way we reach temperatures of 280°C at which the surface of the meat caramelizes and cauterizes and locks in the moisture. Steak, hamburgers and fish are therefor ideal for grilling.

Smoking on the other hand is a slow and indirect process in which, through addition of smoke chips, the food will absorb the smoke aroma’s. The dish will cook through and through and therefor smoking is best for bigger and though cuts of meat: chicken or duck breast, pork shoulder,  spare ribs or even an entire chicken. And of course, fish is also often smoked: mackerel, trout, salmon, …


Careful: If you close the lid of your barbecue while grilling, then you’re not smoking yet. The black smoke that often appears is the effect of the dripping fat getting burned which is quiet unhealthy.

Smoking on the barbecue


Indirect heating

When smoking on a barbecue, the meat or fish is still lying on the grill, but not above the heat source. If you use charcoal or briquettes, then you place them at one side of the barbecue. At the other side you place an aluminium drip tray with a thin layer of water. The fat of the food can then drip inside the tray which prevents the fat to get burned. At the same time the water in the tray generates steam which keeps the dish extra tender and juicy. While the heat source is not below your dish, you can keep temperatures as low as between 80°C and 120°C.

Smoke chips

In order to obtain the renowned smokey taste, you add smoke chips or smoke wood to your barbecue. The chips are spread out over the hot charcoal or briquettes. In case of a gas barbecue you use the smoke tray or if not available, you put the chips in an aluminium tray on the grill above the flames. To prevent them from burning too fast, you drench them first in water. The longer the wood can release its aroma’s, the better the food will absorb them.

Smoke planks

Smoke planks have a more subtle effect and are therefor very suited for fish. White fish, like sole rolls are ideal to smoke on planks. But also e.g vegetables. And at the same time, those planks are great for serving your food on. Before use, let the planks soak for some hours in water or apple juice. This way you prevent the planks to catch flame while the moisture will turn into steam and keep your fish or veggies juicy.

Catch your smoke

For smoking it is crucial that you can close your barbecue and catch the smoke within. Most of the gas barbecues have a closable lid, but also the more classic charcoal barbecues have a lid (e.g. the Weber One-Touch Kettle and the Weber Smokey Joe). Via the vents in the bottom of the barbecue and the ones in the lid, you can control the heat and the speed at at which your coals will burn.

Arrangement of a charcoal and gas barbecue

Setup charcoal barbecue for smoking
Setup gas barbecue for smoking

Cold smoking

Smoking on the barbecue is ‘warm’ smoking. But you can also smoke at lower temperatures (till 30°C), also called ‘cold’ smoking. Therefor you can use specifically designed smoke ovens. These allow you to smoke a lot slower and are build to release smoke but no steam. Therefor you can best combine them with dry smoke chips. Smoke ovens are available in various sorts and sizes, from small table models to complete smoke chambers.

Need some inspiration?

Check out our inspiration boards on Pinterest with more tips & tricksrecipes and a great shortlist of books on grilling and smoking.