A common problem facing BBQ beginners is choosing between the myriad forms of smoking wood that are commercially available. Knowing the various forms of wood available and understanding which form is ideal for which cook is of supreme importance if you want to do smoking right. Be it wood pellets, discs, chips, or chunks, each size of wood is best suited for specific types of smoking sessions, and making the right choice can deliver the most flavorful results.
Wood chips and chunks are the two most commonly used sizes of smoking wood, and though they may seem similar at first glance, they differ quite a bit when it comes to burning properties and use cases. Choosing between the two is a dilemma that presented itself when we first started smoking meat. Each of these two sizes has its pros over the other, and choosing the wrong size for the wrong cook will deliver mediocre results at best.
It is, therefore, crucial to know the inherent features of these two forms of smoking wood and which cooks they are best suited for. In this article, we take a look at the difference between the two along with when and how to use them and some popular types of chips and chunks.
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Explaining the Difference Between Chunks and Chips
Also known as smoking chips, wood chips are typically around ¼ inch thick and up to 1 inch in width and length. They come in the form of scraps and shavings from hardwood trees such as oak, hickory, cherry, and mesquite. Wood chips, due to their small size, tend to ignite quickly but burn out very fast. This makes them ideal for short cooks of thin cuts of meat and fish. If you are looking for quick bursts of smoke and a subtle smoky flavor, wood chips can be just the thing.
One of their biggest advantages is that they are readily available. You can pick up a prepackaged bag of chips from your nearest BBQ specialty store or even a hardware store, or simply order one online. They can also be conveniently stored because of their compact shape and size.
Often regarded as the best smoke source by BBQ aficionados, wood chunks are up to 4 inches in size. Once again, they are made from hardwood trees like hickory and mesquite. The main point of difference between wood chips and chunks is their burn times. While wood chips burn out fast, wood chunks take their time and can last up to an hour in a grill and even longer in a smoker. They also take longer to ignite completely but are the best choice for those long, low, and slow smoking sessions.
Smoking chunks are also very easy to get your hands on. They are sold all over the internet and at hardware stores as well as BBQ specialty stores. A common question we here is, “Should I soak my wood chunks before smoking?” There is absolutely no need to soak wood chunks before smoking as their burn time is perfect as is. We get into this in more detail in our Smoking with Wood Explained article. Overall, wood chunks impart the ultimate smoky flavor and aroma to your meat that cannot be replicated with chips or any other form of wood. This gastronomic meat could even turn a vegetarian into a meat eater.
While wood chunks are effectively cut to size from logs, wood chips are essentially bi-products of the cutting process. If you are new to smoking, it is important to note that understanding how and when to use chunks and chips will reap far greater rewards than focusing on which species of wood goes with which meat. Once you get the hang of using the correct size for each smoking session, you can then proceed to experiment with different species of wood.
Let us now take an in-depth look at when and how to use wood chunks and chips.
When and How to use Wood Chunks
Wood chunks can be used both as a standalone heat source as well as the smoke source when smoking. They give a long burn time without having to constantly add new wood to the smoker, making them the most efficient choice for long cooks. If you are looking to prepare delectable smoked brisket or ribs, using wood chunks for a low and slow cook can yield the best results.
Chunks also produce more smoke in comparison to wood chips. While chips turn to ash before they can impart much of the desired smoky flavor, wood chunks burn and smolder for a long time. Most pitmasters will agree that smoke produced by wood chunks is more flavorful.
Using Wood Chunks with Kettles
The Weber kettle is a popular choice for smoking a few racks of meat at a time. Using wood chunks with this grill is fairly simple. If you are looking to use the wood chunks in combination with charcoal, add two or three chunks directly to the coals or set them near the coals to let them smolder and smoke. This will give you a steady, long-term source of smoke, preventing the need to open the grill lid to replenish the wood repeatedly.
In case you want to use your wood chunks as a standalone fuel source in your kettle, first build the fire with charcoal as you typically would. For lighting the chunks, it is recommended that you use a charcoal chimney. Put some crumpled newspaper in the shallow bottom compartment of the chimney and make sure they are packed loosely to facilitate airflow around the paper. Next, place the wood chunks in the larger top compartment and slowly light the newspaper at the bottom using a long match or utility lighter. Wait for about 15 to 20 minutes after the chunks are lit to allow the flames to die down and the chunks to start smoldering. At this stage, carefully pour the wood chunks into the kettle. Keep the kettle lid open because using wood as the smoke and heat source will create a lot more smoke. We got this tip from our BBQ friend Steven Raichlen at Barbecuebible.com
Placing an aluminum foil pan with a small amount of water in it at the bottom of the kettle directly below the meat is also a good practice. This will catch any drippings from your meat and keep them from burning.
Using Wood Chunks with Smokey Mountains
The Weber Smokey Mountain is a bullet-shaped charcoal smoker best suited for smoking at low and slow temperatures around 225F. It is commonly used with wood chunks paired with charcoal briquettes. To do so, remove the lid and the center of the smoker, and ensure that all vents are fully open. Place about four wood chunks inside the charcoal ring on the charcoal grate in the north, south, west, and east positions. Then stack the recommended amount of unlit briquettes around the charcoal ring.
Separately light the recommended quantity of briquettes in a chimney starter and wait for it to ash over. Once ashed over, carefully pour the lit briquettes into the charcoal ring, ensuring that it makes contact with the unlit fuel. Next, put the center ring back in place and carefully fill the water pan inside it with warm water.
Secure the cooking grills in their position and allow the smoker to preheat up to 225-235 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjust the vents accordingly to optimize the temperature.
Once the smoker has reached the desired temperature, you can place your food on the grill and start smoking.
Using Wood Chunks with Charcoal Smokers
When using a charcoal smoker for smoking with chunks, it is first important to decide whether you will be using direct or indirect heat. If using direct heat, place 2 to 3 wood chunks directly on the bed of coals and smoke the food right over the heat. When smoking with indirect heat, place 2 to 3 chunks on each mound of charcoal, that is, 4 to 6 chunks in total, and smoke the food right next to the heat.
While vegetables, hamburgers, seafood, and hot dogs are best cooked over direct heat, baked potatoes and bigger cuts of meat attain the ideal level of smokiness when cooked indirectly, low and slow style. You can also use a combination of direct and indirect smoking to achieve a medium smoky flavor that is not too strong or subtle.
Fill your water pan about three-quarters with cold water and then light your charcoal briquettes using a charcoal chimney starter. Allow the coal to burn till it is coated with a layer of white ash and then add the lit coals to your smoker. Slowly place the meat on the grates and start smoking. Adjust the vents or dampers to maintain the optimal temperature of 220 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Using Wood Chunks with Offset Smokers
Ensure that the chimney vent and air intake vent are fully open and then start your charcoal in a chimney starter. Once smoldering, carefully pour it into the charcoal rack at the bottom of the firebox. Ensure all lids are closed and then preheat the smoker to the optimal temperature. Arrange the food on the grate in the cooking chamber and then add 3 to 4 chunks to the fire. Replenish the wood and adjust the vents accordingly to maintain the temperature.
When and How to Use Wood Chips
Wood chips ignite almost instantaneously and burn out very quickly owing to their small size and shape. If you are looking to cook thin cuts of meat fast, wood chips are the perfect choice.
Using Wood Chips with Gas Grills
Begin by preheating the grill for approximately 10 to 15 minutes on high and brush the cooking grates clean using a stainless steel grill brush. Use tongs to grab some soaked wood chips, let the excess water drain off, and add them to the smoker box. Spread them to cover the bottom of the box so that they are directly exposed to the heat below.
Close the lid and wait for the smoke. Once the smoke starts pouring out of the grill, lower the heat to medium or low to allow the chips to gradually smolder. Arrange the food towards the middle of the cooking grates over the unlit burner(s), close the lid, and let the food smoke. Adjust the burner knobs to control the temperature.
If your grill does not have a built-in smoker box, you can make your own by placing soaked and drained wood chips in a foil pan and covering it with aluminum foil. Poke some holes in the foil to facilitate the flow of smoke. Place this directly on the grate over an unlit burner towards the back of the grill.
Using Wood Chips with Electric Grills
Most electric smokers require coating the inner racks and surfaces with cooking oil before smoking. Turning on the machine and allowing it to run for around two hours will burn off all dust, solvents, and other residues inside the smoker. Next, add about four cups of wood chips to the area dedicated to fuel under the heat source.
If your electric smoker comes with a water pan, you can fill the water pan and add aromatic flavorings such as orange peel or wine to it to help tenderize your meat and infuse it with a subtle flavor. Preheat the smoker to the desired temperature, arrange your meat on the smoking racks, and start smoking.
Types of Wood Chips and Chunks
Depending on the smoke flavor profile that you are looking for, you can choose from among a large variety of hardwood chips and chunks.
One of the most popular choices for smoking, oakwood is a great place to start if you want your meat to carry the quintessential smoky flavor and aroma. It imparts a mild smokiness to the meat while keeping its natural flavors intact. Oak is most commonly used to smoke brisket, beef, lamb, and sausages.
This hardwood is packed with intense flavor that can be bold and earthy if used in the right amount. It imparts a savory, somewhat sweet flavor to the meat and is slightly milder than hickory smoke. Mesquite is the perfect choice for cooking red meat.
Hickory is easily one of the most versatile smoking woods. Its intense savory and hearty flavor is reminiscent of bacon and can easily overpower the meat, giving it a bitter aftertaste. If used properly, however, hickory can deliver near-perfect results quite easily. It goes well with red meat, poultry, larger cuts of ribs, and pork shoulders.
Pecan lends a rich sweet and nutty flavor to the meat that is signature to fruitwoods. It comes in both chips and chunks and is strong enough to stand up to pork, beef, and game meats.
Some popular brands that sell quality wood chips and chunks include Weber, Cameron’s, Jack Daniel’s, Western BBQ, and Fruita Wood.
You Only Live Once
Determining whether to use wood chips or chunks for each smoking session is essentially the first and most important step to achieving mouthwatering smoked food. While wood chips are perfect for a quick smoke, wood chunks can be your best friend during those long low and slow smoking sessions. We hope that the information provided in this article can help you transform the smoked foods of your dreams into a reality.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)
Q: Can you soak wood chunks?
A: The quick answer is no. Wood chunks will absorb very little water when submerged. Wood chunks burn slow and provide smoke for longer durations than wood chips so soaking is unnecessary.
Q: Can you use wood chunks in a gas smoker?
A: Yes you can use wood chunks in a gas smoker as long as the smoker is designed to hold this size of wood. A lot of gas smokers use a short depth tray to hold your smoking wood and they typically recommend wood chips.
Q: Can you use wood chunks in an electric smoker?
A: Electric smokers work in a similar fashion to gas smokers so it is possible to use wood chunks but typically these smokers are designed to use wood chips or if it is a Bradley smoker, they use the wood bisquettes. Unless your specific models states that you can use wood chunks, play it safe and use wood chips.
Q: Can you put wood chips directly on charcoal?
A: Yes, that is the beauty of charcoal grills and smokers. When you want to add wood, simply put it right on top of the charcoal. I use wood chunks with my charcoal grills for smoke. Wood chips are too thin and will burn to quickly on top of charcoal.
Any other questions? Comment below.