Getting Charcoal Flavor on an Electric Grill – How to Guide

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Not everybody can own a charcoal or wood grill. They are usually super bulky, can only be used outdoors, and are surprisingly expensive. So, the best solution is to buy and use an electric grill instead. There are truly a ton of benefits in doing so.

But how do you get that delicious smoky charcoal flavor on your food when using an electric grill instead? There are two options that are arguably the best. The first is adding a little bit of liquid smoke to your food, and the second is infusing the food with smoking wood chips.

Some other great techniques you can give a go include smoking cooked food, using smoky meaty sauces, charring food to give it a more burnt smoky flavor, or using smoked spices.

Today, we will not only explore the best alternatives to smoking food without charcoal but what not to do! Now, you can have deliciously umami food with arguably less effort!

Why Don’t Electric Grills Create a Charcoal-Like Flavor?

From the name you could have probably guessed that electric grills work with electricity. This differs massively from traditional outdoor grills.

These types of grills work mostly with gas, wood, or charcoal. Now, gas grills won’t give food that signature smoky flavor either. However, both wood and charcoal grills do.

But how does this work?

The smoky flavor literally comes from the smoke that is produced by flammable materials such as wood and charcoal. As the material burns, the structure breaks down and releases smoke which contains flavor particles. These particles are essentially “injected” into the food.

So, why doesn’t an electric grill create a smoky flavor?

It’s simple: it doesn’t work with wood or charcoal and therefore cannot release smoke or smoky flavor particles.

Is Food Still Tasty on an Electric Grill?

Now, just because you won’t get a smoky charcoal-like flavor from an electric grill doesn’t mean you won’t get tasty food. 

An electric grill still helps add some delicious caramelized flavors to your food, especially meats of all kinds. 

And depending on the type of grill plate you are using, this can range between mild (subtle grill marks) or intense (a proper sear on a flat grill plate). 

During this process, the ingredients also get a more savory flavor with a meaty undertone. The only thing missing is that earthy, smoky flavor.

Can You Infuse Food With a Smoky Flavor on an Electric Grill?

There are quite a few different ways you can still add a smoky flavor to your food when using your electric grill. But it is crucial that you understand you should NOT use wood or charcoal on an electric grill – EVER!

charcoal flavor

The entire point of an electric grill (whether it’s an indoor or outdoor model) is that you don’t use flames or anything flammable. You only use electricity. Losing some meaty smoky flavors is the sacrifice you make for the many benefits the electric grill offers.

So, if you add flames to the mix, you can just picture the disaster you will have on your hands.

But again, there are many other ways you can either add a smoky flavor or mimic it in some way. Let’s take a look at a few of our favorite options.

How to Get a Charcoal Flavor on an Electric or Indoor Grill

Some of the methods work better than others. For example, liquid smoke is an extremely effective way to add smoky flavors without having to create actual smoke.

indoor grill

HOWEVER, those methods are usually more expensive and less accessible to everyone. You usually have to order it online and mostly find it in supermarkets.

Keep this in mind when choosing an option below. But remember, regardless of which one you choose, they all will still have a fantastic result.

1. Liquid Smoke

Liquid smoke is a fascinating product that not too many people have experience with. But, it is gaining popularity quickly, especially in communities that don’t own a charcoal or wood grill.

But how can smoke be liquid?

When wood or charcoal burns, it produces smoke and steam. Through a special cooling tube, the steam is condensed and turned into a clean concentrated liquid, aka liquid smoke.

Naturally, the type of product you burn will massively affect the flavor of the liquid smoke. The most popular varieties include hickory, apple wood, pecan, and mesquite. But as you can imagine, there are many more.

Obviously, none of these are charcoal-like in flavor. But in all honestly, “charcoal flavor” is pretty much just smoky. It’s not as distinct as wood flavors. So, any of these options will work just fine. 

How to Use Liquid Smoke

You can literally brush some liquid smoke onto the item you are cooking. But be careful because a few drops goes a LONG way.

What we like to do is dilute it. This makes it easier to spread onto the item being cooked. 

Combine a couple of drops of liquid smoke with a dash of olive oil. Then, brush it onto your item. Never use more than 1/4 teaspoon or your flavor will be ruined.

Or, if you’re wanting to purchase a good liquid smoke, my favorite is this one that you can pick up on Amazon.

2. Wood Chips

Even though we just said to never burn wood or charcoal on an electric grill, this technique works differently.

Place some small wood chips inside a foil pouch. Use heavy-duty foil for this technique.

Set the wood chips alight and leave them to burn until they start creating smoke. Put out the flames and allow the chips to smoke for a minute or two. It’s crucial that there are NO flames.

wood chips

Once smoking, close the pouch and poke a couple of holes in it. Be careful because the foil will be hot at this point.

Place the smoking chips inside the grill. You can also place the food items in a heat-proof container with the smoking pouch and close the lid.

Leave the food to smoke for a couple of minutes. It’s best to not have the electric grill on at this point. But you do need a closed environment otherwise the smoke won’t infuse the food.

This is a technique that is easy and works very well. Plus, you can experiment with different smoky flavors too. 

Wood chips are a lot easier to find than liquid smoke and are often less expensive.

3. Smoker Box (Indoor or Outdoor)

If you do happen to have a smoker, it’s a better option than making one at home as we did with the foil pouch above. It’s just a lot safer.

You can place the cooked food inside the smoker before starting the smoking process. The model that you have will have specific instructions on how to do that.

Remember, it’s always best to smoke food outdoors, even if it is an indoor smoker. You should ensure that there is sufficient ventilation.

4. Charring Food Beforehand

Next, we are moving on to more creative solutions that don’t actually require the purchase of any special tool or flavoring ingredient.

By literally just charring the food properly, you can create a slightly smoky, meaty, umami flavor profile that is similar to that of charcoal. There are a couple of ways you can do this.

The first is by charring the food on a flat plate so that all the sides can evenly cook and caramelize. Once you are happy with the color and texture of your char (slight burn), you can transfer the food to the grill place and leave it to cook.

Now, this method is tricky because the cooking process already started. You have to adjust the cooking time on the grill to avoid overcooking your food.

The second method is to simply leave the food for longer on the grill. This method is often just risky because it causes burnt sections and not a uniform flavor. But, with a little bit of practice, you can perfect it.

5. Meaty Sauces

Meaty sauces are all those labeled as barbecue sauces or steak sauces. Even a meat marinade or basting sauce works for this technique. The exact type will only really affect how and when you apply it to your ingredients.

These sauces can be used as is and will add a slightly smoky, meaty undertone. However, what you are really looking for here are sauces infused with smoke or which have added liquid smoke.

Another thing to keep in mind when using sauces is that they will affect the final texture of your ingredients, especially on a grill. Keep this in mind before using this method.

6. Smoky Spices

Last but not least, you can add smoky spices like smoked paprika, smoked garlic, smoked salt, or smoked spice rubs. These are only a few examples, and today, you can find virtually any spice smoked.

Smoked chili or chili spice mixes are also really great and a fun way to experiment with spicy flavors.

When using smoked spices on your food, always try a little bit at first. You don’t want to overseason the ingredients. And for use on a grill, you likely need to add the spice mix closer to the end of the cooking. Otherwise, it may burn.

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