The debate around soaking wood chips for smoking has been around almost as long as barbecue, and depending on who you speak to, they will either be all for it or totally against it. Let’s take a look if soaking wood chips actually helps the smoke and flavor, or if it actually does more harm than good.
Do You Need To Soak Wood Chips?
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 before use even if you let them dry out again if you’re trying to infuse other flavors in them, will cause the wood to retain more moisture than before you soaked them.
When you try to then use them for smoking, 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.
The only reason you should consider soaking wood chips, is if you’re wanting to infuse a flavor in a liquid into the wood chips themselves, such as using whiskey or bourbon. For example, if you’re using hickory, one of the best woods for smoking ribs, you could infuse whiskey before use to add a depth in flavor to the smoke, which imparts on the ribs.
Note: If you’re using wood pellets for smoking in a pellet smoker, never soak the pellets as they will fall apart more easily and the moisture can clog the auger.
What Happens When You Soak Wood Chips?
It’s said that 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 woods. This is 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 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 damper or wet 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 useful.
What Happens When You Use Soaked Wood Chips
If you choose to use soaked wood chips, it’s important to understand what is actually happening when you add them to the grill or smoker.
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 the coals 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.
When Should You Soak Wood Chips?
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, or wine. Just to note, it’s important to fully dry the wood chips before use leaving just the essence behind in the wood. When smoked it will impart these added flavors into the meat.
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.
For example, after using your favourite smoking wood for brats you would pair it with an ale. So, you can actually soak your wood chips in beer before using them to smoke brats to give off that same flavor pairing, so long as you’ve dried the wood chips out!
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.
This is mainly because you can more easily rely on them to provide that traditional barbecue flavor we all smoke for. I don’t mean to say though that you can’t have an amazing smoking session using maple, apple, or pecan wood chips, you just need to be more attentive and ensure wood chips are added throughout the session.
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. For example oak is one of the best wood chips for smoking turkey.
Smoking wood 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, soaking wood chips is OK, so long as you’re only soaking them in liquids that will ADD a flavor into the wood. It’s also important to dry them off as much as possible so it doesn’t affect the combustion process as much. Otherwise you’re really just delaying the smoking process and making it harder to get a consistent smoke and temperature.