It’s no secret that a charcoal grill is generally a better bet for imbuing food with rich smoky flavor than a propane-powered one. The biggest reason? For smoke to do its thing, the meat and smoke need to be in contact long enough for the smoke to condense onto the food, depositing flavor compounds. With a kettle-style charcoal grill, you can adjust the vents to keep in more smoke, as well as place the lid vent directly over the food to draw smoke right over it. But a gas grill’s vents are nonadjustable, and its design makes it more challenging to direct the smoke exactly where you want it.
That said, I know a gas grill can still deliver deep, satisfying smokiness to ribs, brisket, salmon, and more. The key is to precisely engineer the wood chip packet to get a good, steady stream of smoke.
Why Chip Packets Can Vary From Cook to Cook
The usual method is to soak a cup or more of wood chips, enclose them in foil, and poke a few holes in the foil to let out the smoke, with the goal of getting the chips to smolder slowly and consistently once you’ve placed the packet on the burner.
Not surprisingly, those vague-ish guidelines lead to inconsistent results: packets of varying sizes punctured with different-size openings, and smoke flavor that ranges from rich and balanced to basically nonexistent. In a few test kitchen trials, the chips in some packets actually caught fire, which not only made them burn up quickly, but also left the meat tasting sooty and acrid.
That’s when I realized that a very specific set of instructions for making the packets is the best way to ensure uniformity from cook to cook and, in turn, produce a consistent amount of smoke. Here’s my method.
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How to Create a Just-So Packet
1. Weigh the Chips
Since wood chips vary in size and shape, it’s best to weigh them instead of measuring by volume. For a good 45 to 60 minutes of smoke, you’ll need 4.75 ounces of chips (about 2 cups).
2. Soak Some of the Chips
Pre-soaking the chips delays the onset of smoke, since the wood can’t smolder until the water is driven off. (Some sources claim that soaking makes the wood burn cooler or more slowly, which is incorrect.) When we want smoke to stretch out over a longer period, we create two sets of chips, one soaked and the other left dry. The dry chips smoke immediately, and by the time these peter out, the soaked chips have begun to smolder.
3. Measure the Packet
We’ve found that a foil packet measuring 8 by 4½ inches is just the right size to fit under the grates of most gas grills and won’t risk blocking too much heat from the burner.
4. Don’t Use Too Much Foil
Make sure you don't use so much foil that you need to fold it in more than two layers. Air gets trapped between the layers, which in turn insulates the chips from the heat, and if there are too many layers, the chips don't get hot enough to smoke.
5. Cut Precise Slits
The slits are the key to wood chips that smolder but don’t ignite. Two 2-inch long slits should let in just enough oxygen for a steady smolder but not enough for the chips to burn. But if the chips aren't smoking, use the tip of a paring knife to gently widen the openings a little at a time, taking care not to make them too wide. (And be careful that the slits don’t get blocked by the grate’s bars when you set the packets on the burner.)
Follow these tips, and you may find yourself surprised at how closely a gas grill can rival a charcoal kettle.