How To Use Smoker Wood Chips

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How To Use Smoking Wood Chips

Whether you’re new to smoking in your backyard or want to try something new, you’ve probably looked at an aisle at a big box store or hardware store and seen wood chips, wood chunks, wood pellets, and maybe even wood logs. Wood is such an integral part of barbecue. We here at Angry BBQ have already taken a birds-eye view of smoking with wood to help you figure out what type of wood to use, but in this article, we’re taking a look at how to use wood chips in a smoker specifically. 

Wood chips are a great way to add some wood smoke flavor to your meat or whatever you’re smoking. They may not offer the same level of flavor or as much smoke as wood logs in an offset smoker, but you’ll get more flavor from wood chips than cooking your food in the oven, slow cooker, or gas grill alone. 

Wood chips can be used on a gas grill or charcoal grill to add some wood flavor even if you aren’t smoking something. They also serve as the primary smoke source for the majority of electric and gas smokers. So how do you use wood chips to smoke?

How To Use Wood Chips In A Smoker

Wood chips in a smoker

Using wood chips in a smoker or grill can be broken down into a few categories. There’s using them in an electric or gas smoker where they are the main source of smoke for a low-and-slow cooking session. You can put wood chips in to add extra wood flavor on a pellet grill. You can also put wood chips on a charcoal or gas grill for just that added layer of wood smoke flavor to your grilling experience. 

One of the biggest questions regarding wood chips in a smoker is whether you’re supposed to soak your wood chips prior to putting them on the smoker or not. Some people and companies swear by soaking the chips while others maintain it doesn’t do anything except delay the start of the actual smoking process. We will give our opinion in this debate.

However, how you use the wood chips can differ greatly based on what smoker or grill you’re using and for what cooking style you’re doing. Let’s break it all down!

How Do I Decide If I Should Use Wood Chips In My Smoker Or Grill?

Smoking wood chips in foil packet
Little Smoke with our Burgers

As covered earlier, wood chips are the primary source of smoke for electric smokers and gas smokers alike. However, that isn’t the only application they can be used for. So how do you decide if wood chips are the proper smoke source for your smoker or grill?

Due to their size, wood chips are not designed to be both a heat source and a smoke source like a wood log. They burn up quickly, especially in a hotter situation. You wouldn’t load up an offset smoker with wood chips in order to smoke a brisket for 14 hours or so. However, they work well in a situation where you’re looking for a quick burst of smoke, like added to a charcoal or gas grill to add that extra layer of flavor. You could even add them in a smoker tube to a pellet grill for some extra wood flavor.

So to recap:

  1. You should be using wood chips in an electric or gas smoker.
  2. You can use them on a charcoal, gas, or even pellet grill for some extra pop of wood smoke.
  3. You would not use wood chips where they would be the primary heat source like in an offset smoker. 

How To Use Wood Chips In An Electric Smoker

Electric smokers are one of the easiest smokers to use, especially with recent technological advances. You simply set the temperature much like you would on an oven and an electric heating element heats the cooking chamber to your desired temperature. Newer models might allow you to monitor and set your electric smoker with WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity.

So how do wood chips come into play? Well, electric smokers can deliver extremely consistent temperatures, but it will largely give you an experience quite similar to cooking in an oven. So electric smokers have either a tray or a smoke box to hold wood chips that are then heated up to the smoldering point for some smoke flavor. 

How a specific electric smoker uses wood chips can vary, but by and large you’ll load a prescribed amount of wood chips into the tray or box prior to putting your food on and letting it catch. Some electric smokers have just one front door, so you need to move quickly if you need to add wood chips during the cooking session because all that built-up heat and smoke will escape. Other smokers might have a second door specifically designed for access to the wood chips and water pan. A few, including a number of Masterbuilt electric smokers, have slide-out chip trays so you don’t have to open any doors to add wood chips. 

How To Use Wood Chips On A Gas Smoker

If you’ve got a propane or natural gas smoker, it works very similarly to electric smokers. The main difference is that rather than using an electric heating element like electric smokers, gas smokers using a gas burner to heat the cooking chamber. Some higher-end gas smokers even use a second burner to cause the wood chips to smoke. Otherwise, the wood chip usage is essentially the same and depends on the specific design of the smoker itself. 

How To Use Wood Chips On A Charcoal Grill

Smoking wood chips in foil packet

Charcoal grills are iconic grills, whether it’s a kettle or barrel grill. Food cooked over a charcoal fire just has a great flavor, but sometimes you want to add to that with wood smoke. However, the majority of charcoal grills do not have a tray or smoke box built into them for wood chips. So how do you use wood chips on a charcoal grill?

There are a couple of solutions, one that only requires what you’ve already got in your kitchen and another that requires an extra piece of cooking equipment. 

The easiest and most inexpensive way to use wood chips on a charcoal grill is to create an aluminum foil pouch to hold the wood chips. You’ll want to use a double layer of foil to ensure that the chips don’t tear through and fall all over the grill. Unroll enough foil to form a pouch big enough to hold a handful or two of wood chips. Drop those chips in the middle of the foil then wrap it tightly. Take a knife and poke holes throughout the pouch small enough to let air in and smoke out without letting the wood chips fall out. The pictures below show you how Mike makes a foil pouch.

You’ll want to put your pouch over the charcoal fire close enough to cause the wood chips to smoke without burning quickly. Wood chips will typically begin smoking around 570°F, so you need them to reach a high temperature. So if your cooking grates are further away from your charcoal, you’ll want to put that foil pouch on the coals. It will take some experimentation, but hey, you’ll be cooking and serving delicious food throughout the journey. It could be worse!

The other way you can use wood chips on a charcoal grill is by using a smoker box. These boxes are capable of withstanding high heat and have holes drilled in them to allow airflow in and smoke out from the burning wood chips. It’s another piece of equipment to purchase, but it is reusable unlike the layers of aluminum foil that will just be balled up and thrown away after your cooking session.

Smoking Wood Chip Pipe Tip: Below Mike is using the Napoleon wood chip/pellet smoke tube. Take note of your temps and do not subject the tube or the foil pouch method to searing heat. If it gets too hot, it will start burning the wood chips quickly and you’ll need to replace them prematurely. Keep the temps around low/medium and wait for the smoke to start exhausting, then start your cooking.

Wood chip tube on gas grill.

Napoleon sells their smoking pipe for a really reasonable price and Napoleon always makes quality grills and grilling accessories.

If you’re trying to truly smoke on a charcoal grill, you’ll likely want to look into wood chunks rather than wood chips. A wood chunk lasts longer and therefore will give you more of the desired smoke you’re looking for.

Using Wood Chips On A Gas Grill

Using wood chips on gas grill
Wood pellet or chips tube on Mikes gas grill

Gas grills use wood chips in a very similar manner to charcoal grills to add some extra wood smoke flavor to the cooking process. You can use the same foil packet strategy or invest in a good smoker box and place it on the cooking grates right over a burner. The same goes for putting wood chips on a pellet smoker.

What Flavor Of Wood Chips Should I Use?

In this earlier article I referenced from a birds-eye view of smoking with wood, there’s a breakdown of what flavors of wood to use with different types of meat. The chart demonstrates the different flavors contrasted against the different types of food and cuts of meat is a great way to give you a basic understanding and idea of what woods go with different foods. 

If you’re into smoking beef, you’ll want a stronger smoky flavor. If you’re big into brisket specifically, you might want to use mesquite, oak, or hickory. Same for pork ribs. You enjoy smoking poultry like chicken or turkey? Try hickory, cherry, or even maple wood. 

However, like a lot of barbecuing decisions, it truly comes down to personal preference. Get a selection of wood chips and experiment. You might find that you like the taste of oak-smoked pork even though it’s not on the list. 

Can You Mix Wood Chips For Smoking?

As part of that experimentation, you might find out that you like a blend of different flavors of wood chips (blending a hardwood with a fruit wood is a great idea in my book.) Go for it! That’s the beauty of all of this. You’ll find out through trial and error what you and the people you’re feeding like the most. That chart is a guide, not a series of hard rules. 

How Many Wood Chips Should I Use?

Two handfuls of wood chips.
Two handfuls for a foil envelope or Napoleon smoker pipe.

So you’ve figured out that either you’re supposed to use wood chips because you’ve got an electric or gas smoker, or you want to use wood chips to add some smoky flavor on your charcoal or gas grill. You’ve also decided what flavor of wood chips you want to use. Now the question becomes how many wood chips should I use? 

If you have an electric or gas smoker, the instruction manual should tell you approximately how many chips you should use. That may be a half-cup of wood chips at a time like with some Masterbuilt smokers. Just go with what the recommendation is at first then alter as needed for your personal flavor preferences.

As for making a foil pouch, you’ve probably ran into references of handfuls. Not very scientific, but that should be something that decreases your stress level, not increase. The lack of specificity means you can adjust to your preferences. However, the most likely equivalent of a handful is, not surprisingly considering the above paragraph, half a cup. So if you’re particular about measurements, start with either a half-cup or a full cup of wood chips based off the wood chip manufacturer’s recommendation.

Whether you’re using a smoker designed for wood chips or improvising on a gas or charcoal grill, half a cup of wood chips will last approximately 45 minutes, give or take. So you will want to have more on hand to replenish as you cook, especially when cooking low and slow. If you’re grilling and just want some extra smoke flavor, then one handful should be all you need. If you’re actually smoking, you’ll want to refill three or four times as food takes on most smoke in the first three hours or so of the cooking process.

To Soak Or Not To Soak? That Is The Question

To soak or not to soak wood chips? Don't
Soaking your wood chips. Don’t bother wasting your time.

Yes, I left this for last. This might be the most hotly-debated question when it comes to smoking with wood chips. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using a smoker designed for wood chips or putting wood chips on a grill, you’ve ran into this question. Some companies who produce wood chips say you can soak them, like Cowboy Charcoal. Some grill companies, like Napoleon, may not say you shouldn’t but do state it is unnecessary.

So which is it? Should you soak wood chips before smoking? Does soaking make the wood last longer and therefore smoke longer?

The short answer is no, it is not necessary or beneficial to soak wood chips. Just like on an offset smoker, you want dried wood because it burns better. If you add soaked wood chips, it can lower the temperature of your smoker. You want a consistent temperature, so major temperature fluctuations can negatively impact your cooking experience.

What about how long wood chips will smoke for? Soaking wood chips does make them last longer, but it doesn’t equal more smoke. All that water has to boil off before the wood chips begin to smoke, so it simply delays the start of the smoking process. 

Now, you can use that to your advantage though. Rather than soaking all the wood chips you’re planning on using, you could create two batches of wood chips, one soaked and the other dry. You put both on the smoker at the same time (but separated!) and the dry bunch will start smoking shortly. The soaked bunch of wood chips will act like a delayed-release batch since the water has to boil off first. That can help you in terms of not needing to add wood chips as often. 

Wrapping It Up Like A Pouch Of Aluminum Foil

Wood chips are a versatile way to add some wood smoke flavor to your food. Whether you’re using them in a smoker designed for wood chips or just to add some quick flavor to whatever you’re grilling, wood chips are useful. It’s easy to answer the question of how to use wood chips, but just like everything in grilling or barbecuing, it’s the details that can trip us up. 

If you’re considering looking at a new smoker that uses wood chips, check out our roundups of the best electric smokers for 2023 and the best propane smokers for 2023

FAQs: 

Question: Can A Pellet Smoker Use Wood Chips?

Answer: Standard pellet smokers use wood pellets for generating heat and smoke and wood chips would not run through the auger properly, causing jams and other issues. However, you could use a foil packet of wood chips or a smoker box loaded with wood chips to add more wood smoke.

Question: Do You Keep Adding Wood Chips When Smoking?

Answer: The majority of electric and gas smokers will need replenishing over time during the smoking process. A half-cup of wood chips typically lasts about 45 minutes, so you’ll want to refill a few times. You don’t need to use wood chips for the entire time since the heating element or burner is providing the main heat source, but you’ll want a few hours of time in the smoke for your food.

Question: Can You Use Any Wood Chips For Smoking?

Answer: You need to make sure you’re purchasing wood chips made for smoking. If you aren’t paying attention when searching for wood chips online, you might accidentally find wood chips that have been treated with chemicals for use as mulch. As long as you’re finding wood chips made for smoking, you can experiment with all those flavors to find the best fit. 

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