You might have heard that you should soak your wood chips for at least 30 minutes before you put them on your smoker. In theory, the idea is to prevent premature combustion of the wood chips and to encourage the chips to produce smoke. This is one of those myths that has a kernel of truth, but fact and fiction have gotten so muddled up, it can be a struggle to even know what is real. Today, we're going to get off the cutting floor and step into the laboratory to discuss the truth behind how and when you should soak wood to use on your smoker or grill.
Let's start by looking at one simple fact – pellet smokers are among the most effective and popular devices for smoking meat in the US. One thing you can't do is get pellets wet. They fall apart and won't burn. If the rule is that you "have" to soak wood chips which are large, why wouldn't you have to soak small pellets?
The Reasons You Shouldn't Soak Wood
Despite decades of professionals and even wood chip manufacturers saying you should soak wood chips before use, there isn't any real reason to do so in all but a few situations. The truth is that soaking your wood chips can actually prevent your grill or smoker from working correctly, leading to longer cook times and potentially drying your meat out. In many instances, wood chips that are soaked can impart off flavors and lead to disappointing results.
Let's talk chemistry for a minute. When you add wood that has soaked in water, the maximum temperature it will reach is going to be just about 212 degrees, the temperature that water becomes steam. Until the moisture has steamed off, the wood won't increase in temperature. It can take 30 minutes to an hour for wet wood to dry enough to begin smoking. Before the wood is hot enough to smoke, it produces steam. Steaming your meat isn't what you are after, and in many instances, the steam action will draw moisture out of your meat, increasing the chance of overcooking.
While the wood is steaming, you will notice the temperature of your smoker fluctuating. That is because the evaporating water is absorbing heat and carrying it away much faster than if there was no water. One thing we all know about cooking meat on a smoker is you want consistent temperatures. It doesn't make much sense to add wet wood only to see the temperature jump up and down erratically.
More Smoke Means More Flavor, Right?
When you put wet wood on your grill or smoker, it begins to steam, which can look like bright white smoke. You will likely smell the flavor of the meat being carried off by the water vapor, but the "smoke" you see isn't adding anything. When you're smoking meat, you are actually looking for thin, bluish-hued smoke that is nearly invisible. Black, gray, and white smoke are all indications of something going wrong. In all but the luckiest of situations, smoking meat with billowing clouds rolling from the grill is going to result in some very weird flavors. Remember, chips or chunks of soaked wood will take longer to smoke.
Why Soaking Doesn't Work
Over at SmokingRibs.com, they did some real science-y stuff to look at the effects of soaking wood chips. They even got a professor with degrees from MIT and Harvard to help solve the issue of why soaking wood doesn't accomplish much.
The easy answer to why soaking wood chips or chunks doesn't accomplish anything is right there in front of us, even if we don't notice. You see, the only woods you use for smoking are hardwoods like hickory or fruit wood like cherry and nut woods including pecan. These types have, by definition, a tight grain that doesn't absorb water. That's why boats are made of oak and teak, not pine. The test was to soak pieces of wood in blue-dyed water for 24 hours. After the wood soaked, it was cut and examined for penetration. The results show that even after a 24 hour soak, the only places water penetrated the surface of the wood were cracks. It didn't matter if it was planks of wood, chunks of wood, or chips, the water simply doesn't penetrate.
Does Soaking Wood Chips Have any Benefits?
There aren't any real benefits for most people to soaking wood chips. In fact, you may even lose some of the wood flavor by soaking. If you are worried the wood chips will burn in your gas grill or charcoal barbecue, you're better off learning to control temperatures rather than trying to prevent burning by soaking. The smoke point of wood chips and chunks is lower than the combustion temperature. Try moving the wood chips farther from the heat, placing them in aluminum foil, or using a two-zone cooking method to prevent burning wood chips on your barbecue.
When Should You Soak Wood Chips?
Now, let's have some fun. There are some times when soaking your wood chips is actually not a bad idea. This has nothing to do with reducing the likelihood of fires, but rather is a method of adding unique and interesting flavors. Instead of soaking wood chips or chunks in water, use something that will add flavor.
- White Wine: If you are grilling a nice piece of fish, you can soak lightly flavorful wood chips like alder in a white wine like Chardonnay. The fish will take on the delicate, aromatics of the wine while the wood drys, and then finish with subtle smoky flavors.
- Whiskey: Soak some oak or hickory chips in whiskey before grilling beef to add intense, smokiness and rich, warm flavors. In fact, this is one of the most popular soaks, and you'll even find wood chips from companies like Jack Daniels that impart whiskey flavors when grilling or smoking on a barbecue.
- Beer: You can take your German-style brats to a whole new level by soaking a mild wood chip in a pint of good beer. This is a delicious way to add some really unique flavors to smoked sausages.
- Brandy: One of the best ways to pump up the flavor of smoked dessert items and cheeses uses light woods soaked in brandy. The brandy adds dimension to the smoke you can't get any other way.
- Apple Juice: Smoked pork chops go together with apples so well, it should almost seem like a natural decision to soak a medium-flavor wood with apple juice to kick up the fruity flavor.
The One Time You Should Soak Wood
There is one particular instance when you need to soak wood – cooking with softwood. Usually, you will use a cedar plank which is a softwood. If you don't soak a cedar plank, you are likely to watch that beautiful wild-caught salmon fillet burn away to nothing in a blaze of unfortunate glory.
Skewers are typically made from bamboo, which isn't even wood. Bamboo is a type of grass, and if you don't soak your skewers before they go on the grill, you'll be picking charred bell pepper out of your gas bbq for weeks. You need to soak skewers for at least 30 minutes before you use them.
One More Time Soaking May Help You
There is one, unique time that the properties of soaking wood can actually help you. We are talking long smokes – like when you are tackling a prime rib roast or a brisket that is going to take all day. You can start with two trays of wood chips for smoking, one that has been soaked and one that is dry wood. The dry wood tray will start smoking first, while the wet wood will take a while to steam off before it begins smoking. This lets you keep the wood chips smoking for a longer period of time.
Conclusion: Skip the Soak
When you are getting ready to smoke something on your grill or smoker, skip the soak. It isn't necessary and probably does more harm than good. It certainly makes getting consistent and delicious results more challenging, and that's not something anyone is trying to achieve when smoking. If you are going to soak wood chips, try using juice, beer, or whiskey to add flavor. Hopefully, we can all learn to ignore the "experts" that have been telling us to ignore science for far too long and stop soaking wood chips in water when we are cooking on our smoker.