Think you can’t get smoky flavors from a gas grill? Try this

The Weber Q2200 Gas Grill.
The Weber Q2200 Gas Grill. PHOTO: WEBER

(THE WASHINGTON POST) - Gas grilling is to barbecue what two-hand touch is to actual football: fun, but certainly not as serious.

As interest in true low-and-slow smoking grows, though, backyard cooks who own gas grills (approximately two-thirds of the grill owners in America) want options: How do you add smoke flavour to foods without cooking over wood or charcoal?

To barbecue gurus such as Steven Raichlen, it is a non-starter. (“My advice: don’t,” he writes in his book Project Smoke.)

Others are more open to the idea.

“Most people think of smoke and believe it’s something handled by pitmasters with these giant rigs, and that’s the stereotypical image,” says Jamie Purviance, author of several grilling books, including Weber’s Smoke. “But you can use a gas grill to get that smoky flavour.”

It is possible, but not easy.

Frankly, the gas grill is not ideal for smoking. Unlike smokers, which are designed to provide a deeply smoked flavour through wood smouldering over long periods, or even charcoal grills, which allow for the use of big hardwood chunks to swaddle food in vapours, gas does not provide that charred flavour. Plus, as Raichlen points out, wide venting in many gas grills allows smoke to escape. The grills are designed to handle a diaphanous, ephemeral smoke, not a penetrating one.

Grill manufacturers, though, have taken notice of an increase in interest in true barbecue.

Mike Kempster, former global chief marketing officer for Weber-Stephen Products, says that over the past decade, the company has seen an uptick in the number of people calling and e-mailing with questions about smoking. Weber responded by manufacturing, among other things, perforated metal smoker boxes designed to be put inside a gas grill.

The average gas grill, which can cost from US$200 (S$270) to US$1,000, has come a long way since the days when ceramic briquettes or lava rocks provided the heat. Now, it is more common to find angled steel heat shields over the burners. “Heat tents protect the burner,” says Mr Clark Turner, a spokesman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association and director of product management for Char-Broil. “They reduce flare ups and even out the heat.”

Although they sre still not as good for smoking as charcoal, today’s gas grills can achieve some pretty good smoking results – if you understand their limitations. Here is how to start: 

  • Get a receptacle for wood chips or chunks. They will smoulder and create the smoke that wafts across the food. (If you have a high-end grill, it may have a built-in smoker box, set directly above a burner.) Most free-standing smoker boxes are rectangular and cost about US$20. Make sure to get a heavy-gauge stainless steel one that can stand up to the grill’s heat. These are set on the cooking grate or on the angled metal plates beneath the grate. There are also V-shaped boxes for placement between the plates. You can also jury-rig a smoker pouch by placing wood chips in the center of a 30.5cm-by-40.5cm sheet of aluminum foil, closing it up and poking a few holes in it to allow smoke to escape. Like the rectangular box, it can be set on the cooking grate or on the angled metal plates.
  • Put the smoker box onto the cooking grate before starting your grill. The distance from the fire will help keep the wood chips from flaming and, because they will take a little longer to catch, the grill will be fully preheated by the time smoke appears.
  • Soak chips or chunks of oak, hickory, pecan, apple or some other fruitwood or hardwood in water for an hour, then drain and add them to the box or pouch. Place the box back on the grill and turn all the burners to high to preheat.
  • Cook with indirect heat: fire on one side, no fire on the other. When you see smoke, turn off the side of the grill that is not under the smoker box. Set the knobs on the hot side (where you have placed the box or pouch) to the desired temperature. Put the food on the cool side, close the lid and wait until the food is done.

This is where the limitations come in.

It is possible to smoke large meats such as a pork shoulder or a brisket on a gas grill, but it is unlikely that they will come out as deeply flavourful as you want. Why? One, wood chips in smoker boxes do not last very long and you would have to replace the pouch every half-hour for eight or 12 or even 18 hours. Two, wood chips provide more of a wisp than a plume of smoke, so your food will not have that brawny, outdoorsy flavor. You can use chunks for longer-lasting smoke, but even they are inadequate to the task because there is the aforementioned problem with smoke escaping out the vents.

Better, then, to use the gas grill for daintier foods that will take smoke more easily and quickly. Focus on these:

  • Appetisers, such as spiced mixed nuts. Sprinkled with brown sugar and cayenne, the nuts take on a classic sweet-hot flavor and are imbued with an earthiness when hickory-smoked. They take only 30 minutes to cook, are addictive and keep well in a sealed jar.
  • Fish, particularly fillets and steaks. Like the mixed nuts, they quickly absorb the smoke, and because the waft of smoke is gentle, there is little fear of oversmoking, a concern with fish. Meaty fish, such as bluefish, mackerel and swordfish, work particularly well. One of my favorites is the buttery and juicy Chilean sea bass, which is dense yet moist, inviting the smoke to imbue the flesh with a light campfire fragrance.
  • Sausages. They can gently roast, which keeps the meat moist, but cooks it through. (Sausage is often grilled or fried, which tends to burn the outside while leaving the interior underdone.) They take only about 40 minutes, making for an easy weekday meal.

In Project Smoke, Raichlen offers a bratwurst recipe that comes out juicy inside and snappy outside. He calls for you to hot-smoke it over hardwood. But it comes out so well on a gas grill that it might make even him a believer.


Smoked Chilean Sea Bass With Ponzu Sauce


PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Thick, meaty fish such as Chilean sea bass takes well to a light smoke. To accompany it, this version of a Japanese ponzu sauce is tart with lime and lemon, brightening the smoke flavour. 

You will need to soak 1 cup of apple or alder wood chips for an hour.

Makes four servings 

Ingredients

For the sauce
2 Tbs plain rice vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)
1/4 cup fresh lime juice, (from 2 limes)
1/2 cup low-sodium soya sauce
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 cup dried bonito flakes (about 7g)
One 7.5cm piece of kelp (kombu; about 28g)

For the fish
1 Tbs fine sea salt
1 tsp powdered or granulated garlic
1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper
900g Chilean sea bass fillets, pinbones removed (may substitute swordfish, halibut or haddock)

Method

For the sauce
Whisk together the rice vinegar, lemon and lime juices, soya sauce, mirin, dried bonito flakes and kombu in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours, and preferably overnight.

For the fish
Prepare the gas grill for indirect heat. Turn the heat to high. Drain the chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it on the cooking grate, between the grate and the ceramic briquettes, or atop the angled metal heat plates, close to the flame. When you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium (190 to 205 deg C). Turn off the burners on one side.

Lightly oil the cooking grates on the indirect-heat side of the grill.

Combine the salt, powdered or granulated garlic and the cayenne pepper in a small bowl, then use some of it to season the fish (to taste). Place the Chilean sea bass on the indirect-heat side of the grill, close the lid and smoke for about 15 minutes, or until the fish is lightly bronzed and the thickest part of the fillet is barely firm to the touch. It should be moist inside.

Transfer to a cutting board and cut into four equal portions, dividing them among individual plates. Strain the sauce, discarding the solids; the yield is about 1 1/2 cups. Spoon 2 Tbs of the ponzu sauce over each piece of fish. Serve the remaining sauce in a bowl on the table for use as desired. Serve.

Variation
For a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hand 15cm above the coals for six or seven seconds. Drain the chips and scatter them over the coals. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.


Smoked Bratwurst


PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Bratwurst is commonly grilled over flames or fried on the stovetop. But smoking them adds a flavour dimension, helps retain their moisture and helps prevent the brats from getting too done on the outside before they are cooked through.

You will need an instant-read thermometer and to soak one cup of hickory, oak or cherry wood chips for an hour. If you choose to serve sauerkraut, consider placing it with its juices in a disposable aluminum foil pan in your grill and smoke it alongside the brats.

Serve with potato salad or potato chips and ice-cold beer.

Adapted from “Project Smoke,” by Steven Raichlen (Workman, 2016).

Makes four servings 

Ingredients
4 bratwurst links (450g to 680g total)
2 Tbs canola or other neutral oil
1/2 large sweet onion, peeled and cut into 1.2cm slices
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1.2cm-thick slices
Coarse kosher salt
4 hot dog buns, for serving
Prepared mustard, preferably horseradish, for serving
1 cup sauerkraut, for serving (optional)

Method
Prepare the gas grill for indirect heat. Turn the heat to high. Drain the wood chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it between the grate and the ceramic briquettes, atop the angled metal heat plates, or on the cooking grate at the far end of the hot side. Once you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium-low (150 to 175 deg C). Turn off the burners on one side.

Lightly oil the cooking grate. Place the links on the indirect-heat side of the grill and close the lid. Smoke for 30 to 40 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the centre of each brat should register 70 deg C. Even though you are cooking indirect, you may get grill marks, so turn the brats after 15 or so minutes.

While the brats are smoking, heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat (stove-top). Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and pepper. Season lightly with a salt; cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, then transfer to a bowl.

Once the brats are done, transfer them to a plate for serving at the table, along with the bowl of onion and pepper. Serve each brat in a hot dog bun and top with the mustard, onion and pepper, and, if desired, sauerkraut.

Variation
If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium-low fire, you should be able to hold your hand 15cm above the coals for eight to 10 seconds. Drain the chips and scatter them over the coals. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.


Wood-Smoked Mixed Nuts


PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

With their rich flavour and crunchy texture, nuts take naturally to smoke.

Buy packaged or canned salted mixed nuts or select your own and mix them. Either way, the slightly sweet, savory spicy seasoning blend mates well with the smoke to create a handy snack or appetiser.

You will need to soak one cup of hickory or pecan wood chips for an hour before smoking.

Makes eight servings or two cups

Ingredients
1 tsp packed light brown sugar
1
tsp dried thyme
1/2
tsp ground cinnamon
1/4
tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/4
tsp powdered mustard
1/4
tsp chipotle powder
2 cups mixed salted nuts, such as almonds, pecans, cashews and macadamias
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Method
Prepare the gas grill for indirect heat. Turn the heat to high. Drain the chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it on the cooking grate, between the grate and the ceramic briquettes, or atop the angled metal heat plates, close to the flame. When you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium (190 to 205 deg C). Turn off the burners on one side.

Whisk together the brown sugar, thyme, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, powdered mustard and chipotle powder in a medium bowl. Pour the nuts into a baking pan, then add the brown sugar mixture and the oil, stirring to coat evenly. Spread the nuts in a single layer.

Place the pan on the cool side of the grill, close the lid and smoke for 30 to 40 minutes.

Serve the nuts warm or at room temperature.

Variation
For a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hand 15cm above the coals for six or seven seconds. Drain the chips and scatter them over the coals. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.