Grilling is America’s favorite summertime activity. Whether it’s in the backyard with family, round a fire in the woods with friends, or with everyone at the beach, there’s nothing like the smell of juicy burgers and golden buns.
The colors are vivid. The sound of sizzling is music to the ears. The smell is so delicious, it makes your mouth water. But as much as you, the griller, enjoy the process, for many the smoke from the grill is a turn-off. It gets in the eyes and forms a haze that can make it hard to breathe.
This raises the question: Can you grill without smoke? And, if the answer is “yes,” then how? Take a gander below as we round up our best advice for a smoke-free, or at least low-smoke, cookout.
To grill without smoke, close the lid and try not to peek. Cook fatty, juicy meats over indirect heat to prevent flare-ups. Make sure your grill is clean because grease, soot, and creosote can cause smoke that makes your food bitter.
Close the Lid, Don’t Peek
Your grill’s lid serves several purposes. Above all, it keeps the hot air and smoke confined in the cooking chamber. This not only cooks your food evenly, but also gives it that smoky, charred flavor you and the family crave.
One of the best ways to grill without smoke, it turns out, is also the most obvious: simply close the lid and try not to peek until it’s either time to flip the food or take it off the heat.
This applies to all gas, charcoal, and pellet grills, as well as all makes and models. Try it and see if it solves your problem; nine times out of ten, it will.
Cook With Indirect Heat
Generally speaking, smoke is produced when the meat drippings come in contact with the red-hot coals or the heat deflectors of the gas burners. When this happens, the drippings burn, vaporize, and rise to the top—flavoring the food and smoking up the entire block.
Now, there are times when this isn’t sought after. Fret not as, for these times, there is a fuss-free solution: don’t grill fatty, juicy foods directly over coals or a lit burner. Cook ’em up over indirect heat instead.
Getting Indirect Heat on a Gas Grill
To get two cooking zones on a gas grill, one with direct and the other with indirect heat, preheat the appliance by setting half the burners to medium-high and leaving the rest of them turned off.
The zone with the lit burners provides you with high, direct heat for searing foods. The zone with the unlit burners provides you with moderate, indirect heat for cooking foods fully through. Some place a foil pan under the indirect-heat zone to catch the drippings and make cleanup easier.
To minimize smoke, sear your steaks, burgers, and sausages for 1-2 minutes per side with direct heat and the lid off. Then, move them over to the side with indirect heat and let them finish cooking with the lid on. (Just remember, don’t peek.)
Getting Indirect Heat on a Charcoal Grill
To get two zones on a charcoal grill, light the coals, wait 20-30 minutes for them to ashen over, then pile them on one side of the pit, leaving the other side free of coals. Place a disposable aluminum drip pan under the grate in the charcoal-free zone to collect the drippings.
The side with the coals gives you high, direct heat to crisp meats up and give them a golden-brown color on the surface. The coal-free side gives you gentle, indirect heat for cooking them through without flaring up the charcoal all the time.
Sear the meats briefly with direct heat and the lid off, then move them over to indirect heat and close the lid to finish cooking them to the desired level of doneness.
What About Pellet Grills?
If you own a pellet grill, you are already cooking with indirect heat by default because the firebox is separate and insulated from the cooking chamber.
In case you’re having problems with the grill giving off too much smoke, read on; you will probably find the cause of the problem in the rest of our list.
Keep Your Grill Clean
You know as well as I do that grilling is dirty business. And that the good griller nevertheless keeps his or her appliance spick and span. A dirty grill—whether we’re talking charcoal, gas, or pellets—is a grill that smokes when heated.
There’s more than one reason for this, and neither should be taken lightly:
Bits and pieces of steak, sausage casings, and burger patties stick to and bake on the grates. Fats and juices splatter and drip off the meat, building up on the walls and pooling in the grease tray. Ash remains in the pit and soot settles on the lid or in the chimney.
All of this gunk has to be cleaned up regularly, and not just for sanitary reasons (I mean, who wants this Sunday’s T-bone to smell like last Sunday’s salmon, with an acrid twist?). The buildup of grease and soot pose a fire hazard and should be dealt with in a timely manner.
Cleaning Your Gas Grill
Clean your gas grill after every use.
Burn off the food residue by cranking up all of the burner control knobs to the highest setting, closing the lid, and letting the grill run empty for 15-20 minutes. Shut down the grill, open the lid, then brush your grates thoroughly with a stainless steel bristle brush.
Wait for the grill to cool down, which will take another 15-20 minutes. Open the cabinet, slide out the grease tray, wipe it down real good with a few paper towels, degrease it with soapy water or oven cleaner, then rinse. Never let grease pool in the drip cup or pan underneath the tray; it’s flammable.
Clean the heat deflectors every 3-4 uses. Once every month or two, especially in late summer and early fall when spiders are the most active, do a complete disassembly, cleanup, and assembly of the unit, making sure the burner tubes and ports are clear and clean.
Cleaning Your Charcoal Grill
Keep your kettle clean, and you will be rewarded with evenly cooked meats and vegetables that are free from off-flavors and tastes that shouldn’t be there.
When you’re finished grilling the last piece of meat, close the vents on the bottom of the kettle and the damper on the lid. Charcoal needs oxygen to burn. By cutting off the air supply to the coals, they will slowly but surely go out.
Once the coals are out, open the lid so that the kettle can cool down. You will want to wait 20-30 minutes before you can remove the leftover ashes and old coals from the pit.
It is important that you keep the inside of your kettle in mint condition. This is where grease and soot can, and often do, accumulate—both of which can catch fire and cause a nasty surprise. The next thing you know, you will have to explain the absence of your eyebrows to the missus.
Brush off the grease and soot on the interior of the kettle with a stainless steel wire brush. Then give it a good wipe down with a few paper towels until it looks pristine once again.
Cleaning Your Pellet Grill
When you’re done grilling, crank up the heat to high, close the lid, and let the high heat burn off the food residue. Scrape the grate with a spatula or brush it with a stainless steel bristle brush.
Clean the grease tray, grease trough, and grease tubes accordingly. Don’t let grease build up as it can flare up and smoke during cooking. (In extreme cases, excess grease and soot can cause a fire inside your grill.)
Check the chimney once or twice a season for soot and creosote deposits. To do this, take it apart and shine a light through the chimney; if you find black slime, it must be scraped off with a wire brush.
The Bottom Line
And so, we come to the end of our list. Smoke is a byproduct of grilling, no doubt about it, but that doesn’t mean you have to smoke up the whole block to get a steak or two on the grill every Sunday.
If you keep the grill clean, cook with the lid closed, and let the food sizzle low and slow over indirect heat, you probably will not have this problem again. Ain’t it ironic how the simplest solutions almost always work the best?