Is soaking wood chips an essential part of smoking food or a complete waste of time? Read on to discover the surprising truth…
When I first bought a smoker, everyone told me that soaking wood chips in water was an absolute must.
I followed their advice because I didn’t really know any better. But as I’ve gained more experience using a smoker and researched the topic I’ve learned there’s a huge debate over soaked wood chips.
I’ve read a lot of articles on the topic, talked to a bunch of BBQ experts, and experimented with both wet and dry wood chips myself. My conclusion: soaking wood chips is not just a bad idea and a waste of time. It can also be counterproductive and ruin a good smoking session.
Let’s dig a little deeper into a topic…
What Are Wood Chips?
As the name suggests, wood chips are small pieces of seasoned hardwood about a quarter inch thick and one or two inches long. When added to a hot grill or smoker they ignite and burn, producing smoke which adds a delicious flavor to food as it cooks.
There are many different varieties of wood chips to choose from including apple, cherry, oak, hickory, mesquite, and pecan. You can also find specialty wood chips made from wine or bourbon barrels.
Each variety of wood chip imparts its own flavor and you can mix different types of wood chips together to create many delicious combinations.
[snippet]You can also smoke with wood logs and chunks, which are both bigger than chips. Or you can use sawdust, wood pellets or bisquettes (both of which are forms of sawdust that have been compressed into different shapes. You certainly don’t want to soak wood pellets or bisquettes as they’ll disintegrate into a mess! [/snippet]
Why Do People Think You Need To Soak Wood Chips?
Many experts, backyard grill masters, and even wood chip manufacturers will swear you need to soak wood chips for at least 30 minutes before use.
Popular opinion is that soaking wood chips or chunks will prolong their burn (this is true, but not in a good way) and allow them to smolder instead of burn (the exact opposite of what you want).
Let me explain…
Here’s Why Soaking Wood Chips Is A Bad Idea
For starters, water soaked wood chips and chunks may get wet, but the water won’t really penetrate the surface.
Over at AmazingRibs.com, they whipped out the science and used blue ink to soak wood for 12 hours to demonstrate exactly how little water can penetrate wood. It basically stays on the surface and just a tiny amount seeps in through cracks.
Remember, we make boats out of wood. If water easily penetrated wood they’d all be at the bottom of the ocean.
Also, wood chips soaked in water will take longer to burn than dry chips. But that’s not really a good thing.
Wood chunks or chips that have been soaked in water will have to get rid of any moisture before they can ignite and produce smoke. The water will have to heat up to 212°F and stall there until all the water has evaporated. Once it’s completely dry the temperature will start to rise again until the wood ignites and starts generating smoke.
In the meantime, all that “smoke” you see coming out of the chimney is really just steam created as the water evaporates. You’re steaming your meat but not actually adding any smoky flavor to it.
Good Smoke vs Bad Smoke
Inexperienced smokers assume the more smoke the more flavor their food will absorb. They see thick smoke billowing out of their smoker’s chimney and think they’re doing a great job, but they fail to understand the difference between clean smoke and dirty smoke.
Smoldering wood lasts longer but produces dirty smoke. Your meat will end up with a sooty flavor and when you taste it you’ll feel like you licked the inside of a fireplace.
Clean smoke requires dry wood and plenty of oxygen so it can burn at a hot temperature. That’s when it really burns cleanly and produces a thin, almost transparent smoke with a slightly blue color to it.
If your smoker is billowing thick white, gray, or black smoke it’s a sure sign you’re doing something wrong.
This is why I truly don’t understand why some “experts” actually recommend soaking wood chips to help them smolder and prevent them from burning. You’re literally throwing pieces of wood into a fire…you WANT them to burn!!
When Should You Soak Wood Chips?
As with any rule in life there are a few exceptions and times when soaking wood actually makes sense.
Plank grilling is a method of cooking food on a wooden board over indirect heat on a grill. The most popular meal made this way is fish like salmon on a cedar plank. The plank shields your food from direct heat and infuses it with a smoky and delicious flavor.
But planks are made of softwoods like cedar and you don’t want them to actually ignite. If you put them on the grill without soaking them first you’ll end up with an incinerated salmon.
Skewers are a fun way to grill chicken, steak, fruit, or veggies. But the skewers are only there to hold the food together. You’re not looking to get any smoke flavor from them, and if you don’t soak them in water for at least 30 minutes before assembling your skewers you’ll be left with charred embers that fall apart before the food finishes cooking.
Soaking wood chips in water won’t add any additional flavor and they’ll only generate steam while the liquid evaporates. But you can use other liquids that actually do provide an additional layer of flavor.
Try soaking wood chips in whiskey, white wine, beer, brandy, apple juice or orange juice to experiment with different flavors.
Just remember to fully dry the chips before using them. You don’t want them dripping wet. They should be just moist enough to add that little extra flavor into the meat.