Some of the products reviewed here are country specific and may not be available in the Amazon US store
With a charcoal barbecue grill, you already get the smoky flavor from the charcoal alone. But you can enhance it with a liberal scattering of woodchips. Different types of wood chip impart different types of flavor to the food.
When it comes to gas cooking, the news is even better, because you can use the wood chips to get the smoky flavor that is lacking from gas alone. See our Tips and Tricks article: Getting that smoky flavor from a gas Barbecue. But for that you must either wrap the wood chips in foil and poke holes in the foil or else get a proper metal wood chip box (also reviewed here in this article).
This comparison review also looks at lava rocks for gas barbecues and charcoal for charcoal barbecues and grills.
While wood chips can be thrown directly onto hot charcoal, when they’re used to provide smoke for a gas barbecue, they must either be placed in aluminium foil and holes poked in the foil (the poor man’s solution) or they must be put into a smoker box. Obviously, if one can afford a gas barbecue - which is already more expensive that a charcoal barbecue of equivalent size, one should be able to cough up a bit extra for a smoker box. Even the best smoker boxes are hardly going to break the bank.
So here we take a look at some of the best smoker boxes on the market
Kitchen Craft Home Made Stainless Steel BBQ Smoker Box
This heavy-duty, stainless steel smoker box measures 22.5 x 9 x 4 cm and has eight smoke holes. It can take wood chips of various sizes and carries a twelve month warranty. It is made to last, but it will discolor over time. Stainless steel is never completely stainless, especially when subjected to the high temperatures of a barbecue - with or without humidity. But it discolors slowly. In the real world, stainless steel actually means stain-resistant steel.
The makers recommend soaking the wood chips in things like beer, wine or lemon juice to add flavor to the barbecue. They even suggest adding some soaked herbs to the chips. This can work, but that means you will initially be cooking the food with flavored steam. There is actually some debate as to whether one should soak wood chips at all. Wet wood doesn’t smoke, so all you’re doing is delaying the start of the process. The theory is that the irregularly-shaped wood chips don’t all absorb the liquid at the same rate or in the same quantity, so some will smoke before others. This means that it won’t all smoke at once and you won’t have to keep topping up with more chips.
In our experience, the chips dry and catch the heat more quickly on charcoal than gas and more when thrown directly onto the charcoal than when put in a box. In fact on a gas grill - even at the hottest settings with the hood down, it takes ages to start smoking when the chips have been smoked.
So our advice when using a smoker box like this is not to soak the chips. But you can try both ways and decide for yourselves. If you use the chips unsoaked, it is best to fill the box entirely, that means there is less air and that in turn means that it will generate more smoke rather than catch fire. (Remember smoke is simply incomplete combustion in an oxygen-starved environment.) Also, when using it on a gas barbecue, make sure that you put it on the flame tamers or on the food grate, not down there on the flame itself. (It is all right to do this on a charcoal grill, however, if the chips have been soaked.)
We found this smoker box easy to use and the price was eminently reasonable.
This stainless steel, V-shaped smoker box is designed to sit between the flame tamers of a gas barbecue. In addition to being able to hold wood chips, it also has a v-shaped water reservoir. The idea is that while the wood chips heat up and infuse the food with smoke, the water reservoir gives off steam that doesn’t actually cook the food (that is done by the heat of the gas flame) but adds humidity to the closed environment that settles on the surface of the food and stops it drying out.
That at least is the theory. The question is does the moisture and steam block the effect of the smoke. For if so, it would be better not to use the water reservoir.
However, before we even got to that stage, we hit another problem. The holes at the top, to let the steam out, also let air in. Of course this is always the case with any smoker box, but these holes are quite big and that allows in too much oxygen, causing the chips to burn instead of smolder. However, when we tried a second time, this time packing in the chips to the brim, we were able to avoid this problem.
At 13¾ inches long, this smoker box is a respectable size. And with a hinged lid it is easily accessible and convenient to use. Once you know how to use it, this smoker box is a useful addition to your gas BBQ kit.
We all know the old saying about a square peg in a round hole. And the way in which the astronauts in the ill-fated Apollo 13 had to jury-rig a connection between the square CO2 scrubber filter of the Command Module and the round filtration hole of the Lunar Module's interface. It was called the “mother of all hacks.” And it saved the lives of three very brave men.
Well we can’t claim that this solution address a problem of quite such significance. But it does help to address a problem that has been largely ignored until now: making smoker boxes of a suitable shape for round, kettle-type BBQs.
Made of stainless steel, this set of two smoker boxes are curved just right to fit around pizza stones. They have removable lids with holes to allow easy access and free escape of the smoke from the wood chips.
The design concepts were clever and the results pleasing. We managed to get some excellent wood-smoked pizza from a gas barbecue.
This was a more traditional stainless steel smoker box measuring 21 x 13 x 3.5 cm. Suitable for both gas and charcoal barbecues, the sellers claim that it can be placed on the food rack or directly onto the coal bed.
Well I say more traditional. That is to say it’s rectangular box shape is traditional. It’s long slits on top instead of round air holes is anything but! I mention this because big holes are always a problem. Obviously one needs enough holes to let the smoke escape. But big holes are a liability because they also allow air in. And too much air means flame and fire instead of smoke. One can reduce this by packing the box full, so as to minimize the air flow and also by soaking the wood chips for at least an hour. But if you put it on a coal bed, then the chips are still likely to go up in flames at some point. We recommend putting in only on the food grate.
What you can do, for added flavor, is soak the chips in beer or wine and add some soaked herbs or tea leaves to the box.
If you do decide to brave it and put it directly onto a coal bed, the box itself has very good heat resistant properties. Obviously it gets hot. But it does not damage easily in the heat. It is also dishwasher safe and can also be cleaned in the sink once it has cooled off.
At 9 x 4 inches this is a respectable size smoker box with a lid that can be lifted off and put back easily. It is also easy to clean and dishwasher safe. We had no problem with the lid, even when moving it around. In fact the ease with which we could remove the lid was good because it meant that we could top up the chips after about an hour when they were depleted. It worked fine and the price was reasonable.
Lava rocks are used in some gas barbecues to help mimic the smoky effect that one gets in a charcoal barbecue or grill.
Almost all gas grills have either flame tamers or lava rocks to mimic the smoky flavor of charcoal burning grills and barbecues. Basically, they are the intermediate elements that heat the food, instead of it being heated directly by the gas flame itself. In both cases, the mechanism is that the fat from the meat seeps out and drips onto either the flame tamer or the lava rocks. In either case, when they hit the hot intermediate element, the turn to vapor and smoke rising up again into the food. If the hood is down the smoke is also trapped and so it permeates the meat from the other side.
But there are several key differences in the way they work. Flame tamers, because of their positioning, offer better protection to the gas burners against dripping. Aside from the greater cleanliness of the burners, this also prevents the flame from flaring up when hot grease lands on it. Furthermore, they are easy to clean because they can be removed and taken over to the sink or dishwasher. And last but not least, they spread the heat evenly. Lava rocks, in that respect, are more capricious.
However lava rocks have their strengths and advantages too. For example, they porous, which means they capture more of the dripping fat, instead of it sliding off as it sometimes does with flame tamers. This means they produce more smoke, because they have more “fuel” from which to produce it. Also lava rock cover the entire surface, in contrast to flame tamers that only cover the gas burners. Lava rocks also score higher when it comes to containing flare-ups. With flame tamers once a, flare-up starts it tends to spread.
But the best thing about lava rocks is that they are easily replaced, because they are generic. Lava rocks need to be replaced about once every 12 months, depending on how much you use your gas barbecue. The good news is that you can buy them in many places and one size fits all. With flame tamers each appliance has its own and possibly only one supplier.
For this reason, we are going to take a look at lava rocks in this review.
These 4kg bags from Black Rock Grill were very nice bags of highly porous rocks. We needed two bags to completely cover a 4 burner grill. They showed good heat retention and grease absorption and enhanced the flavors of the food very well, by surrendering their smoke freely and graciously.
They also showed no sign of flare-ups even when we cooked very fatty food like duck and lamb. We can’t say how long they’ll last but they didn’t seem to have accumulated much grease from a single use, so we are hopeful.
These 3 kg bags come in various sets. X1 (1 bag), X2, X4 and X8. The unit prices (at the time of this review) are £9.99, £7.00, £5.25 and £4.75 respectively as one goes up in volume. We bought two bags to try out for the purpose of this review. They gave good results, holding the fat and releasing it as smoke when the grill got hotter.
Seemed a trifle expensive for the quantity, but these are good quality lava rocks with good heat retention and absorbance. And Outback has a good reputation for a reason.
There was some dust in the box, that must have broken off from the rocks, but not too much. Also the packaging enables you to store what you don’t use immediately, so if you just want to top up or replace part of the lava rocks on your gas barbecue, you can do so with these.
These lava rocks are suitable for a wide variety of gas grills makes and models. Our tests gave consistently good results.
Another nice thing about these lava rocks is the aesthetics of the them. They come in a mixture of red, brown and gray, creating a display that is pleasing to the eye. And they even out the heat very well, avoiding hot spots.
Landmann is another very reputable name in the BBQ world - probably second only to Weber. This 3 kg box provides a nice supplied of rocks in various hues and shades. However not all of them are genuine lava rocks. Some are plain rocks which are actually heavier than true lava rock. This means that the volume and quantity of rocks is less than one might otherwise expect. Also some of these rocks were quite small and are therefore unsuitable.
That said, one box was somewhat better than the other and the results were very much hit and miss.
These lava rocks from Holland Plastics were our favourite. They were well boxed up and the sizes were consistent, about the size of charcoal briquettes but slightly thicker. These lava rocks are quarried in Iceland under license according to very strict environmental standard, in vegetation-free areas.
And when you taste meat that has been cooked over these lava rocks, you realize that even volcanoes have their uses. We can highly recommend this product.
Charcoal for barbecues and open outdoor grills is usually divided into standard size briquettes and “lump wood”. Lump wood charcoal is “true” charcoal and is made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen. It burns at a high temperature and is almost entirely used up when burnt, leaving very little ash. Briquettes are a manufactured product. They also contain charred wood, but they also contain additives, both to hold them together (they are molded into standard sizes) and to help them ignite easily. These chemicals are not necessarily what you want on your food.
However even within the definition of lumpwood there are differences. One obvious factor is that lump wood pieces are irregularly sized. What many people don’t know is that although the average bag of lump wood charcoal that you buy may contain a mixture, there are actually two grades of lumpwood: domestic and premium or restaurant grade.
The main difference is that in the domestic grade, most if not all the pieces of lumpwood are small. Whereas with restaurant grade, most of the pieces are large. The significance of this is that the longevity of the charcoal (i.e. how long it burns for) is directly related to the size of the piece. And the reason for restaurants using the larger pieces is because they are cooking for a long time continuously and they don’t want to have to keep changing or replenishing.
For domestic cooking, where you are unlikely to need to the barbecue for more than about two hours, domestic grade might seem like the more logical choice. However if you are going to smoke food for many hours, then you would be well-advised to buy restaurant grade.
You can also get greater longevity from briquettes. This is because when you burn them, ash forms on the surface (remember the old adage: “start cooking when they turn white”) and cools them slightly. This in turn causes them to last longer. (The net energy density is about the same for lump wood and briquettes, but the power density for lump wood is higher, meaning it gives out more power in less time.)
Briquettes also have the advantage of being more consistent in their heat because of their size. We at mybbq.life however feel that the importance of this consistency is exaggerated. All cooking is after all about judgement. Every cut of meat is different and marinades can also affect the rate at which it cooks. If you are cooking on an open grill, or even a closed barbecue for an hour or two, you can monitor the food to see how it is getting done. You don’t need kitchen over accuracy for a barbecue.
And when you’re doing a long smoke, a few fluctuations from an odd piece of lump wood charcoal here or there isn’t really going to spoil the taste. What matters more to us is those additives. We don’t like them. In many cases we can’t even be sure what they are. Therefore in this review we will not be covering any briquettes. But we will cover both domestic and restaurant grade lump wood.
This charcoal, from Holland Plastics, is a perfect example of the difference between restaurant grade and domestic. These lumps are big without being light (i.e. in other words, they are of high physical density) which means they burn slow and long. Smaller pieces burn hotter but for less time. The same goes for large light pieces.
Now you might think that charcoal is better when it burns hot. But the problem with smaller pieces and low density pieces is that they burn too hot. The heat is too much for the meat, so you have to set the food grate higher and let some of the heat escape. And it you are cooking in a closed grill, you have to regulate the heat by closing some of the air holes and starving the charcoal of oxygen to slow down the burn rate. Of course that can give you a nice smoky flavor, but it is very much a guessing game.
Now this restaurant grade charcoal on the other hand is low in power density. That means - as explained above - it doesn’t burn too hot and it doesn’t burn up too quickly. It is exactly what you want for a slow cook in a closed barbecue or smoker, but somewhat too slow for a quick and dirty afternoon grill on an open food rack.
Of course, if you only use your barbecue or grill to cook burgers, sausages, kebabs and thin-cut steaks, then this is not the right charcoal for you. Get a fast-burning domestic grade. However, if you are into smoking meat, fish or cheese and want something that will burn not-too-hot and not-too-quick, this is the perfect charcoal for you!
The suppliers claimed that this charcoal burns hotter and longer than other charcoal. However I was a little bit skeptical. In general, it is unlikely to be true because a given weight can either burn hotter for less time or cooler for more. That said, if the charcoal is voluminous but light (i.e. low density) it might burn hot but for less time than this. Similarly, if it is made with filler material and not just pure charcoal (like briquettes), it might leave more non-combustible ash.
However, we decided to test it and because the pieces were big (and we mean big) and dense, it did burn for a long time with very little ash. The temperature was high but not excessive and the meat (a mixture of topside beef and a spatchcock chicken) was cooked to perfection.
It doesn’t necessarily spread the heat evenly, but one can get hung up too much on this “evenly distributed heat” thing. The reality is that uneven heat is fine if you’re cooking on a closed barbecue with the hood down, where the overall heat is trapped.
And if necessary you can always turn the meat - most of us do that in the real world, even with the kitchen oven.
Anyway, these were very good coals. Although we prefer the premium grade from Holland Plastics (above) or the Ukrainian premium from Krok Wood (below) for slow smoking, these were excellent for medium term cooking on the barbecue.
This batch from Krok Wood is premium quality restaurant grade beech wood charcoal from the Ukraine. Like the premium grade from Holland Plastics, these burnt for a long time and are perfect for smoking - well second to actual wood chunks, obviously. They produce good heat but not excessive heat and we didn’t have to do any topping up when we used them for an underground hog roast. (See our Tips and Tricks article: Cooking directly on hot coals.)
This 20 pound bag of natural, chemical-free oak and hickory charcoal comes from Big Green Egg, a well-known brand with a good reputation. That might explain the high price for what is essentially 9 kg.
The suppliers try to put some positive spin on this by pointing out that it contains no fillers or chemicals and that it burns hotter than briquettes and produces less ash. But that is true of all the charcoal we’ve included in this review.
In our judgement it burns slightly hotter but faster than the less-known brands above, making it better for medium-term cooking. Whether it is worthy of the premium price, as compared to the other offerings is a matter of choice. It does have the Big Green Egg name.
Having reviewed several brands that burn for long, we decided to review one that does the opposite. This organic, natural lumpwood charcoal from the Baltic states, ignites quickly and burns very hot. But contra to what they claim in their product description, it does not burn for a long time.
First of all, it has a low humidity content, so it lights quickly. And the chunks are large, which normally makes for a slow burn. The three-layer packaging helps to keep it moisture free, even when you store it for a long time.
Secondly, at least 80% of the charcoal is 50-100mm, 12% 20-50mm and only 8% 0-20mm, making it practically dust and crumb free. The problem is that despite the large size of the pieces, it is light because it is not very dense. This makes for hot burning and little ash, but not much longevity. Indeed this becomes immediately apparent when one considers that the whole bag only weighs 7 kg even though it is 50 liters.
Okay, so it ignites quickly, burns hot and fast, but doesn’t last long. What else? Well, another issue is that it doesn’t smoke much. That would be a problem if you were planning on using this charcoal for smoking. But if that’s what you were planning, then all I can say - in a word - is DON’T! A hot, fast burn without smoke is exactly what you don’t need in your smoker.
But what then is it good for? The answer is cooking quickly on an open grill. We all know the usual complaint that you can’t rustle up a meal quickly on a charcoal grill the way you can with a gas barbecue? Well you can with this charcoal. It’s a real game changer. And if you want to cook burgers, shish, kofte, boneless chicken or even beef steaks, on an open grill, this is the charcoal for you.
You can even cook frankfurters, viennas and other sausages on it, however for that you will have to be careful as it burns very hot and you will have to keep an eye on them and turn them quickly to stop them burning. Either that, or set the food grate higher. If you have a warming rack, you could even put them on that and let them cook slowly - but just make sure they are done through.
And if you need smoke with this charcoal, just throw on a few wood chips.
There is some debate over whether charcoal is just for cooking or also for flavor. Some people say you have to add wood chips or chunks for flavor. The truth is, good charcoal supplies some flavor. But wood chips or chunks make it better. That means that when you cook with gas, you can get similar - though not identical - results.
Lava rocks are another way to get the smoky flavor, though even flame tamers yield smoke. Lava rocks are probably better, but the increasing trend among manufacturers now is to sell gas barbecues with flame tamers rather than lava rocks. Such gas barbecues can be jury-rigged or retro-fitted with a rack for lava rocks, but it’s a chore.
The good news is that even a BBQ with flame tamers can be used in conjunction with wood chips. Indeed, as this review showed, some flame tamers are specifically designed to fit into the spaces between the flame tamers.
But we’re sure that one way or another you’ll find a way to get that smoky flavor from your gas or charcoal barbecue.
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