The debate around soaking wood chips for smoking has been around almost as long as barbecue itself.
Depending on who you speak to, they will either be all for it or totally against it.
But, there seems to be a myth floating around that soaking wood chips produces MORE smoke.
When in reality, if you actually take a look at what soaking wood chips actually does to the smoke and flavor, it may actually do more harm than good.
Here’s why you don’t NEED to soak wood chips, but in which situations it can still be beneficial.
Although it’s not exactly that simple, the short answer is that you do not need to soak wood chips before use.
In fact, soaking wood chips in any liquid inevitably causes the wood to retain this moisture, even if you dry them out again before smoking.
In turn, when you try to use wood chips that have been soaked, they won’t begin to smoke until that moisture has been drawn out of them again, which can make the whole process harder than it needs to be.
So you don’t need to soak wood chips before smoking at all.
In fact, the only reason you SHOULD consider soaking your wood chips is if you want to infuse a flavor into them from a liquid, such as whiskey or bourbon, OR if you want to purposely delay the smoking process.
What Happens When You Soak Wood Chips?
So the myth goes: when you soak wood chips or chunks before smoking it will slow the combustion process and create a more even smoke compared to regular dry wood chips.
Alas, this is just a myth, and in fact there are several things that happen to the wood chips that actually DO NOT help the smoking process.
If you soak the wood, and either use it wet or even dry it out again, it retains more moisture.
The moisture in the wood actually delays the combustion process. The moisture doesn’t even penetrate through the wood, and is only absorbed on the surface or through any cracks.
This means, before the damp or soaked wood starts to smoke, that excess moisture has to effectively evaporate.
The quality of the smoke produced won’t actually be enhanced at all, and because of the uneven combustion it could actually be less desirable.
What Happens When You Try Use Soaked Wood Chips?
There are two main things that occur when you try to use soaked wood chips.
Firstly, if you add wet or soaked wood chips straight onto a charcoal grill or in a gas smoker or grill, the moisture will actually bring the overall temperature down.
This can be both because the water makes contact with the coals or flame or if there is just more moisture in the smoker it can bring the temperature down too.
Secondly, by using wet or soaked wood chips, the initial “smoke” that you might see is actually steam, a completely different reaction.
This steam is essentially very moist hot air, which can add a lot of moisture to your meat, and also bring down the temperature of the whole unit, again making it harder to keep a consistent smoke and temperature going, which is critical when smoking.
So, Don’t Soak Your Wood Chips For Smoking Unless:
So it’s clear that soaking wood chips can actually do more harm to the smoking process than good.
So, its actually recommended to NOT soak your wood chips for smoking, unless:
- You’re looking to add additional flavor to the wood, such as whiskey, wine, or juice.
- You’re purposely wanting to delay the smoking process (for long smokes for example).
Note: If you’re using wood pellets in a pellet grill or even in a charcoal grill, never soak the pellets as they will fall apart more easily and the moisture can clog the auger.
Similarly, if you are using a charcoal smoker, it’s not recommended to soak your wood chunks as they won’t combust properly.
Soaking Wood Chips For Flavor
The only time you would want to be soaking your wood chips is when you want to add another flavor into the mix. As the wood chips absorb the moisture, the flavors within the liquid will be left in the wood, even after it dries.
The most popular liquids to soak wood chips in are whiskey, brandy, beer, juice, or wine.
Just to note, it’s important to fully dry the wood chips before use. This leaves the flavor within the wood, without causing combustion issues.
When these wood chips produce smoke it will also impart these added flavors into the meat, at least somewhat.
As a rule of thumb, the best liquids to use will depend on what you are smoking, similar to how you would pair a meal with the appropriate drink.
Soaking Wood Chips In Beer
Beer is one of the most popular liquids to soak chips in. For best results when in beer be sure to:
- Let them soak for 30 minutes submerged in beer.
- Take them out and let them air dry for between 4 to 24 hours depending on your patience.
- Although you can use your favorite beer, craft beers that are packed full of fruity, hoppy, and strong flavors deliver amazing results.
- Make sure to quality test your beer by drinking one yourself.
Soaking Wood Chips In Juice
Not surprisingly, some juices can really make an impact to the scent and smoke of woods chips.
The best juices to use to soak wood chips are:
- Apple juice
- Orange juice
- Cranberry juice
- Grape juice
- Carrot juice (yes, really!)
Soaking Wood Chips In Rum
Usually rum is stored in barrels to develop an earthy essence — soaking up all the wood flavor
But today, we are going to play the reverse card. Soaking wood chips in rum can also transfer those amazingly sweet, sugary, deep flavors we all love.
Try it, white rum or spiced rum works great.
Soaking Wood Chips In Whiskey
Much like other spirits, soaking wood chips in whiskey can add a real deep heat with notes of caramel and oak.
Alright, we might be using our imagination a bit here, but soaking wood chips in whiskey really does work.
Just be sure not to use too much — whiskey isn’t cheap!
Best Flavor Of Wood Chips
If you’re using wood chunks, logs, or even pellets to smoke with, you’ll find they give off a lot more smoke over the session which makes it easier to impart those amazing barbecue flavors we all love.
However, if you’re relying on wood chips, then those small pieces are the sole source of smokiness for your meat.
Therefore, although you can get most wood types in wood chip form, the best flavor of wood chips tend to be those that give off the most smokiness.
If you’ve got yourself a gas or electric smoker, or you’re new to smoking with wood chips, I would recommend using stronger smoking woods to get the feel for it first. The best flavor of wood chips to use if you want an oomph of smokiness are:
- Hickory: Hickory gives off a unique bacon-like and strong smokiness that you really taste, even by using wood chips. Hickory works it’s magic in both short or long smokes, which makes it a great wood for smoking pork butt, or even a great wood for smoking wings.
- Mesquite: Mesquite is known to be the strongest smoky wood out there, some even think it’s too potent. When using wood chips, mesquite is one of the most reliable in developing a real smoky flavor, and works particularly well. It’s certainly one of the best woods for smoking brisket.
- Oak: Oak is a medium-strong smoking wood that provides a solid smokiness without much sweetness or fruitiness you can find in other woods. Because it’s not as overpowering as hickory or mesquite, it’s better used for more subtle flavored meats (like poultry).
Barbecue really is both an art and a science. Although there are some clear techniques that help the end result, you can certainly choose your preference and style.
As a general rule to follow, you DO NOT need to soak your wood chips before smoking. It simply delays and disturbs the combustion process.
The only times it’s worth soaking your wood chips is if you are adding specific flavors to the wood itself, or if you want to purposely delay the smoking of the wood chips to last a longer time.