Soaking wood chips – yes or no?
Asking the question is likely to spark off a passionate argument in backyards worldwide.
The common train of thought is that soaking wood chips and wood chunks for 30 minutes to an hour before using, is advantageous in slowing down cooking time.
Moisture prevents the chips from burning off too quickly, thus creating a smoky flavor that infuses through the meat better than dry chips can. But is that really the case?
Let’s break it down and lay out some of the facts.
A Little Background
Wood chips for smoking are made of a wide blend of fruity flavor and nut timbers, such as apple, mulberry or cherry, hickory, maple, or beech among many.
There’s a smoking chip blend to match every type of food or personal preference.
You can also use smoking chips on all types of BBQs – gas smoker, electric smoker, or charcoal grills.
They Can Affect The Temperature
Wet chips can impact the effectiveness of your barbeque.
Whether you are using a gas grill, electric smoker, or fuel-fired, the heat will be dramatically reduced by the addition of a damp product.
When you add wood chips or wood chunks that have been soaked in water onto hot coals, the temperature will fluctuate and dip until all the moisture has steamed off. The evaporating water absorbs the cooking heat, drawing it away much faster.
This also means the meat is steaming, rather than cooking. The steam process also tends to draw the moisture out of the meat and this combined with a slow cook will dry out the cut of meat.
The aim and advantage of wood chip smoker cooking is to maintain a consistent, controllable temperature.
Wet chips impact the stability unfavorably, as the temperature will change constantly until the moisture burns off. The secret to a successful barbeque cook-up is reaching a temperature level and holding it there.
What may appear as smoke is actually steam. The moisture needs to burn off before any real smoke can begin. This can be used to the benefit of a long cook if used in combination with dry wood chips.
The dry chips will burn and smoke, with the wet chips kicking in as the dry ones start to ease out.
Soaking wood chips before barbequing is a decades-old practice, thought to enhance flavors through the extra smoke produced.
More often than not though, what appears to be smoke is actually steam, which has very few flavor benefits at all.
The initial ‘smoke’ appears as bright white as you put the wet wood chips on the grill.
It may even smell great, as the meat smells are carried out on the steam cloud. But it’s not creating any improvement to the smoke flavor.
The ideal smoke you’re looking for is a thin, blue smoke, that’s almost translucent. White, black, and gray smoke are all signs something is wrong.
Soaking wood chips in water is no real advantage, but you can play with flavors by soaking in other liquids such as white wine, beer, whisky, or apple juice.
Actual Absorption of Water
Most timbers used for smoking are hardwoods.
Hardwoods have a tight grain, making them a naturally water-resistant material – that’s why homes and boats are made of hardwood timbers like ash, teak, or oak.
Even soaking for a 24-hour period has very little impact on the timber, past the first few millimeters. Regardless of the size of the pieces of wood, the absorption will be minimal.
Any internet search will produce numerous experiments involving soaking timbers.
They tend to produce the same results – the water just doesn’t penetrate past the surface, regardless of size or shape. The interior of the wood is bone dry.
Loose grain woods used in outdoor furniture, like pine, can absorb water but tend to burn off quickly.
Quality of Smoke
Not all smoke is created equal and it’s absolutely quality over quantity when it comes to a glorious tasting meal.
A thin stream of bluish, almost translucent smoke is the ideal smoke to strive for.
This means a good clean smoke is being produced and a great indicator that the smoker is at optimal performance for delivering great smoky flavored food.
Any other color points to dirty smoke – white smoke is made up of mostly water steam and more show than usefulness, black or gray could indicate a lack of oxygen, an instability of flame, or tainted fuel.
While these may still give you some wood flavors by default, it is really only the blue smoke that is going to produce the same delicious results.
Wet wood chips will also take a lot longer to start to smoke, as the actual smoke doesn’t tend to kick in until the moisture has burnt away., meaning the majority of the smoke is tainted, to begin with.
Blue smoke requires dry, good quality types of wood, a stable source of oxygen, and a fire with a stable flame. Throwing wet wood chips onto this setup will naturally diminish the flame, and the heat will disperse with the steam.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are several instances when soaking your wood beforehand can be a great advantage.
Creating a long slow all-day cook is ideal for cuts such as a prime rib roast or a nice big piece of brisket. This is one of the exceptional times pre-soaking the wood chips is a handy preparation step.
Start with two equal trays of the preferred flavored wood chips, one of soaked wood and one of the dry wood chips.
Place side-by-side in your grill and light up as usual. The dry wood chips will burn off first, infusing the meat with gorgeous, clean smoke.
Then, as the first load is burning down the second wet tray of wood chips will have burnt dry and started smoking (hopefully!). The overall smoke time will be extended allowing a perfect longer, slower smoking time.
While not as commonly used, softwood chips are ideal to be pre-soaked when required, just to slow down the burn time.
Lightwoods and softwoods, such as cedar, have a looser grain so tend to burn off a lot faster, potentially leaving your food charred on the outside and raw in the middle.
The water also penetrates the timber much more effectively, so it’s worth doing.
The End Result
Overall, there isn’t any real benefit in taking the time to soak the wood chips before cooking. It’s not necessary and may make getting consistent results a bigger challenge.
The instability of the steam and slowness to burn clean smoke is more a hindrance than a help.
Whilst some may see the excess of white smoke as a success, it’s not the best meat smoking technique. Smoke volume is not always a sign of accomplishment.
It’s much more beneficial to master the art of controlling the temperatures with airflow and fuel loads.
Adjusting the air vents and setting up the heat beads is an individual choice and practice makes perfect for your particular style and preferences.
As for the flavor, it’s debatable whether soaking adds to the process or not. Soaking may result in the loss of some of the flavor in the timber as it leaches into the water.
While the smoking process may be impressive, it’s not producing any extra flavor. If you do want to soak the chips, try using a flavored liquid, such as whiskey or juice, that has its own distinct flavor profile.
The verdict is in….relax for another half an hour and skip soaking the wood chips!
Author: Charlie Reeves
Hi, I’m Charlie, I am head taste tester at Simply Meat Smoking! I love it grilling, smoking, and getting out in the yard with the kids! The family also love to test all my recipes (especially my EXTRA CRISPY pulled pork, smoky pork loin, and ANY SEAFOOD I grill)
You will usually find me playing with the kids, perfecting my brisket bark, or sipping beers with boys around the fire. Can’t wait to share all my delicious smoking and grilling adventures with you!
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