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Should I Soak Wood Chips For Smoking?

When I first started using wood chips on my grill, I heard that I was supposed to soak them. But is that the best way to use wood chips? Let’s talk about it.

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By Jeremy Pike

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Have you ever heard that you should soak wood chips for at least 30 minutes before putting them on a charcoal or gas grill? I know I have, and when I first started using them, that’s exactly what I did. The theory is that it will help the wood chips burn longer, producing even more smoke than if you add them dry.

But if you stop and think about it, doesn’t the idea of adding water to your grill in the form of wet wood seem counterintuitive to the smoking process? That’s what I thought. So after doing some research, I found that soaking chips doesn’t typically do anything to help the smoking process and can in fact hinder it especially on charcoal grills.

So let’s dive into whether soaking wood chips is the proper procedure.

To Soak Wood Chips Or Not To Soak Wood Chips, That Is The Question

To answer this question, I had to look at the arguments for why people say we need to soak wood chips. One of the biggest arguments is that soaking prevents them from burning up quickly and you get a longer period of smoking.

The thing is, there’s a kernel of truth to this statement. Soaking wood chips will prolong their burning time. However, this occurs because the wood chips simply take longer to produce smoke, not produce more.

All that water has to evaporate off before the wood can start smoking. So despite thinking that the wood chips are producing smoke for more time, we see steam from the water boiling off. It’s not light smoke, it’s simply steam.

Rather than the wood chips burning longer, it takes them longer to burn. Before the wood chips can reach the temperature of wood combustion (anywhere between 450°-575°F), all that water needs to boil off. That means the wood chips will simply sit at 212°F (boiling point of water at sea level, your elevation will affect that boiling point) until the wood is dry enough to burn.

So all I accomplished by soaking wood chips for at least half an hour was I delayed the wood chips from catching fire.

Other Problems From Soaking Wood Chips

As I said in the introduction, adding water in the form of soaked wood chips seems counterintuitive. Well, adding wet wood to a charcoal grill isn’t good for smoking meat. Those water-soaked wood chips can (and likely will) cause the temperature of your grill to drop.

When it comes to smoking meat, one of the most important parts of the process is keeping stable temperatures. It’s why a lot of people love the simplicity and convenience of a pellet grill versus using an offset smoker. Having the grill itself manage the temperatures is a lot easier than managing a fire yourself.

However, when you’re trying to smoke on a charcoal grill, the temperature control is a lot different. If you put wet wood chips on burning charcoal, it’s going to adversely affect your temperatures. It’s going to cause those hot coals to get colder and not burn as well.

Speaking of not burn as well, when we’re smoking, we’re looking for thin, blue smoke. It gives us the best flavor and cleanest smoke. That good smoke is produced by a hot fire, plenty of air flow, and dry wood. Wood soaked in water isn’t going to produce that same smoke, at least not until the wood has completely dried up.

Is It Okay To Soak Wood Chips?

Here’s the deal: I personally don’t think soaking wood chips is necessary at all, and I’m not alone. However, that doesn’t mean that soaking wood chips is going to ruin your experience because it typically won’t. It just isn’t ideal in my opinion (and others’ opinions as well).

The flip side? There are times when it’s useful. You can actually use the fact that it takes longer for soaked wood chips to burn to your advantage. It all comes back to wood chips burning so quickly. So if you’re looking to use these chips as your primary source of smoke, you have to replenish them pretty often.

Two handfuls of wood chips. Should I soak wood chips for smoking?

Rather than having to put a new load of wood in every so often, you can double that time. Instead of adding one aluminum foil packet of chips every time, add one packet of dry wood chips and one packet of chips that have been soaked. So by the time the first packet has burned off and created smoke, the second packet is ready to actually start burning.

FAQs:

Question: Can Wood Chips Be Soaked For Too Long?

Answer: Yes, but it’s pretty darn hard to do. Most places recommend soaking them for half an hour or so. Honestly, the water barely penetrates the wood. Some people will soak the chips up to 24 hours and they will be perfectly fine. You would have to keep the chips in water for a very long time to actually start breaking down the wood in order to ruin the chips. So while it is possible, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to have that happen in normal circumstances.

Question: What Liquid Is Best To Soak Wood Chips In?

Answer: The most commonly-used liquid is simply water. However, there are those who see it as an opportunity to add even more flavor by soaking their chips in beer or different juices. However, due to the heat and flames, this doesn’t really add a whole lot of flavor. It can also create a mess because of the sugars caramelizing. For my money, just stick with your preferred flavor of wood and focus on seasoning your meat well.

Question: When Should I Use Wood Chips Vs Wood Chunks

Answer: Most electric or propane smokers for backyard use are designed for wood chips. I’ve used wood chips on my charcoal grill as well as gas grills. Wood chunks are ideal for longer smoking times on a charcoal grill. For more information, check our breakdown of these two forms of wood.

Difference Between Wood Chips and Chunks

Final Thoughts

So should you or I be soaking wood chips before putting them on to smoke? It’s a completely unnecessary step in my opinion, outside of using the delayed smoke tactic I described above. The chips won’t give you more smoke, just a delayed start to smoking.

Are you a fan of soaking wood chips? Let me know your tips and tricks for using them to smoke on the grill!

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