Here’s how to use your new smoker box, including step-by-step instructions, plus tips for care and maintenance.
All grilled food is good. I think we can agree on that?
But, I think we can also agree that grilled food with a hit of smokiness is even better.
So, what to do if your chosen cooker uses gas instead of wood or charcoal? Or your smoking dreams are hampered by a lack of space for a dedicated smoker?
Get a smoker box!
In the next few minutes, I’ll explain what a smoker box is, why you want one (you do), and how to use it step-by-step. As a bonus, I’ll share some advice for maintaining your smoker box for years to come — no extra charge!
Let’s start simple…
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 What is a Smoker Box?
- 2 Why Use a Smoker Box?
- 3 How to Use a Smoker Box — on a Gas or Charcoal Grill
- 4 Cleaning Your Smoker Box After Use
- 5 Smoker Box Care
- 6 Final Thoughts
What is a Smoker Box?
Smoker boxes are small, rectangular metal boxes, usually made of steel but sometimes cast iron, designed for use on a barbecue. Their purpose is to enable smoking, or the infusion of smoke flavor, on a standard grill — smoking without a smoker.
Wood pellets or chips go inside the smoker box, and there may be a hole in the side of the box for igniting the wood inside. The removable or hinged lid will be either perforated or slatted.
Some smoker boxes are hollow inside, while others may have interior channels to help control the burn rate.
Why Use a Smoker Box?
Propane and natural gas grills are all kinds of convenient, but they don’t give you that authentic smoky flavor you get from charcoal and wood fires.
Using a smoker box in a gas barbecue allows you to either smoke food or add some nice smoky flavor while you grill.
The only other option for smoke on a gas grill is to put wood directly on the flavorizer bars or heat deflectors. (Those are the tent-like features that stop drippings from hitting the burners.)
I know some people do this, but I can’t bring myself to recommend it — to me, the risk of damaging your grill or starting a fire is too high.
You can use a smoker box on charcoal, too, rather than putting chips or chunks right on the coals. The advantage of the smoker box is the slow release; because the chips aren’t directly exposed to the fire, they’ll smolder for longer.
If you don’t own one already, check out our review of the 5 Best Smoker Boxes — recently updated for 2023!
How to Use a Smoker Box — on a Gas or Charcoal Grill
Now I’ll walk you through using a smoker box on a grill. Most of this applies to gas and charcoal grills; I’ll give you specific instructions where necessary.
Season Before First Use
There may be residue from the manufacturing process clinging to your smoker box, like oils and other chemicals. These will burn off, but you don’t want that mingling with your smoke while you’re cooking.
Before the first use, clean your smoker box with mild dish soap and rinse thoroughly. Crank your barbecue up to high and then place the smoker box on the grate, flavorizer bars, or charcoal — wherever the manufacturer recommends. I suggest leaving the lid open, or else any chemically infused smoke emanating from the box will collect inside your grill lid.
Leave it in place for about 20-30 minutes to burn off all the industrial detritus (there’s your word of the day). To be thorough, flip the box over to be sure the lid heats up, too.
Preheat and Ready Your Grill
Prep your grill and crank up the heat — you’ll need high temperatures to get the wood to start smoldering.
For a gas grill, this means turning one burner all the way up. For charcoal, open up the vents to let in as much oxygen as possible.
Should You Soak Your Wood Chips?
Why is this still controversial in 2023? No, for the love of Pete, don’t soak your chips. All that happens is you need to boil off all that water before the chips can start smoldering. There’s no benefit to soaking.
There are no holes in the bottom of a smoker box, so the chips or smoking wood pellets are never exposed to direct flame. This means they won’t burn; they’ll smolder. So again, no soaking is necessary.
If your chips do catch fire, then it is WAY too hot in your barbecue! Remove the smoker box, put out the fire inside, and reduce the temperature in your grill before trying again.
Filling With Chips and Readying for Use
Measure out the chips you want to use for your smoking session. Do not overfill the box; packing chips tightly may reduce smoke production by preventing oxygen flow between the chips.
With the lid fully closed, you’re ready to put your smoker box on the grill.
Placing on Your Grill
Where you need to place the smoker box, depends on the fuel type of your grill.
Remove the cooking grate and place the smoker box directly on top of the charcoal. Do not surround the smoker box with charcoal or attempt to bury it; this may cause the chips to catch fire.
With the smoker box inserted, you can set your cooking grate back in place.
The best place for a smoker box on a gas grill is directly on the flavorizer bars or heat deflector above the burners. Remove the grate and place the box where you want it.
If there isn’t enough room between the flavorizer bars and the grate for your box, you can either leave that part of the grate out (if it’s a multi-piece grate) or try placing the box on the grate.
Some smoker boxes do not rely on the burners or charcoal for heat to create smoke. Instead, you light the chips or pellets with a lighter until they start to smoke. Gradually, the smoldering spreads to other chips, creating a long-lasting source of smoke. For this type of smoker box, do not place it directly over the flame.
— Mark Jenner
Smoke Your Food
Wait about 10-15 minutes for the smoker to start producing smoke. Once the smoke is present, you’ll need to reduce the temperature. Smoking usually takes place at around 250F, but for roasting with smoke, you’ll want to be more around 350F. Turn down the burner or close up the vents until you hit the target.
You’re now ready to let heat, smoke, and time work their magic on your food.
Place your food on the grate, close the lid to trap the smoke, sit back, and wait. Oh, and monitor your food with a good grill or smoker thermometer to be sure you cook it to perfection.
Refilling With Wood Chips
You may find it necessary to refill your smoker box with chips partway through your cook session. If you don’t see any smoke leaking out from under the lid, it may be time to reload!
Wearing heatproof gloves and using tongs, retrieve the smoker box and set it down on a fire-proof surface. (The grate works if there’s room.) Open the lid and refill with chips. Close the lid and, again with the tongs, return the box to its position over the coals or burner.
You’ll want to do this as quickly as possible to avoid losing too much heat and extending your smoking time.
Cleaning Your Smoker Box After Use
Allow your smoker box to cool completely before attempting to empty it or clean it. Any unused chips or pellets can be removed and stored for use another time. Dump ash into a metal can for disposal for absolute safety.
Never try to rinse the ash from a full smoker box, or you might end up with a box of very stubborn sludge on your hands. Keep ashes away from your drain to avoid clogging your pipes. Better to rinse out your mostly empty smoker box with the garden hose.
Once it’s more or less cleaned out, wash it with warm water and mild dish soap.
Smoker Box Care
Here are a few simple tips to extend the life of your smoker box:
- Thoroughly dry with a cloth after washing to prevent rusting.
- Store indoors between uses.
- Season cast iron smoker boxes with cooking oil (as you would a skillet) to inhibit rusting and stop ash from sticking.
- Use non-stick spray or a light coat of cooking oil inside stainless steel smoker boxes to make ash removal a breeze.
Now that you know how to use a smoker box, you’ll find it’s a fun way to add a new dimension to your outdoor cooking experience.
Gas grill owners, in particular, will love the ability to add real smoke flavor to their food without the need to learn about charcoal, vents, and dampers. It’s a low-cost piece of gear that gives a great return on your investment!