The best thing about grilling is that smokey flavor we can’t get from cooking in the oven or on the stovetop. Charcoal grills naturally offer more of that smokey flavor inherently, but there are things we can do to add to that smokey flavor, both on the charcoal grill and on a gas grill.
Wood Chips and Planks. First and foremost is adding wood chips, woody herb stems, or wood planks to your grilling process. You will want to choose a wood that will complement the food you are gilling, as various different woods have specific flavors just as different herbs do. For barbecues, mesquite and hickory are popular choices. For fish, cedar and alder are good choices. Pecan wood offers a sweet, nutty taste, while Applewood and cherry wood offer more delicate, fruity aromas. Other popular aromatics for grilling are grape vine trimmings and the dry stems of some of the woody herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano. Some people even use wine barrel staves to impart flavor in their grilling. When using aromatics, it is important to grill with the cover closed to keep the smoke in. Other popular woods to use for grilling and smoking are locust, maple and oak. Avoid resinous soft woods like pine and fir, as these woods produce too much soot, and can leave the food with unpleasant residues.
Wood Chips on Charcoal Grill. Before adding wood chips and herbs to your charcoal, first soak the chips and/or herbs in water for 30 to 60 minutes. This will prevent them from just burning up straight away, and they will instead smoke slowly as your food cooks. Just before you place your food on the grill, scatter the wood or herbs directly on the hot coals and let them start to smoke.
Wood Chips on Gas Grill. Some gas grills come equipped with a vented smoker box to put wood chips and/or herbs in. If your grill doesn’t have a smoker box, no worries! Soak a handful of wood chips and/or herbs in water (as mentioned above) and place them on a sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Fold the foil over and create a sealed packet for the chips. Poke holes in the top of the packet to ventilate and place directly on top of one of the heating elements on the gas grill (below the grate), with the vent holes facing up. Wait until the smoke starts to pour out of the holes and add your food to the grill.
Wood Plank Grilling. Plank grilling is a versatile cooking method that is most commonly used for grilling fish. Wood planks can also be used for grilling other meats, vegetables, and even pizza.
The first step is to choose your planks. A good size for a wood grill plank is 12 inches in length, which will fit most grills. If you are cooking something that will have a longer cooking time (like 1-2 hours) such as roasts, prime rib or whole fish, you will want to choose a plank that is 1 inch or thicker. For things like chicken, chops, steaks, etc., that will have a medium cooking time (like 30-60 minutes), a 3/4 inch thick plank should be fine. For faster cooking foods like burgers, fish fillets, hot dogs, vegetables, etc., that will need 20-30 minutes or less cooking time, 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness should suffice. Make sure you use only natural wood, approved grill planking wood, or wood from another source that you can be certain is natural, untreated wood. Treated wood will have chemical preservatives that are harmful to your health and will negatively affect the wood flavor and aroma.
Next step is to season your planks. The first part of seasoning your grill planks is to soak them in water for one to four hours, or even over night, in a container, with some kind of weight to place on top of the planks to keep them fully submerged during the soak. (Bonus tip: You can add beer, wine, onion, garlic, woody herbs, lemon or lime, etc., to the soaking water to add to the flavor imparted by your grill planks.)
After you season your planks, the next step is to toast your planks. Have the food you are grilling with the planks ready to go when you start to toast the planks. Heat the grill to 350-450 degrees (Fahrenheit). Toast your planks over indirect heat on the grill (turn one burner off and place the planks over that part of the grill) for approximately 2 to 5 minutes (with the grill cover closed), and then flip to toast the other side. When you hear a crackling sound (and you may get some smoke at this point), you are ready to grill. Sprinkle some coarse sea salt or kosher salt on the planks, place the food on the planks, and cover with foil. If you are grilling fish, place the fish skin side down on the planks. With ribs, place the fat side up, and chicken should be skinless. For safety, keep a spray bottle of water nearby in case the plank catches fire.
Lapsang Souchong Tea. If you want to get a smoky flavor without using wood chips or planks, you can also use lapsang souchong tea in your rub, marinade or brine, or add a few tablespoons to your favorite barbecue sauce recipe. Lapsang souchong tea is a unique Chinese tea in which lapsang leaves are smoke dried over fires fueled by pine wood, which gives the tea a very smoky taste.