Pitmasters have long debated the subject of soaking wood chips in water before putting them on the grill. If you’ve decided to go ahead and soak, you may be wondering if there’s a right and wrong way to go about it. Read on to find out all you need to know about this technique, including how long to soak wood chips for smoking.
Benefits of Grilling With Wood Chips
Adding real wood to the grill will boost the authenticity of your barbecue. No matter what you’re cooking, it will be imbued with that honest-to-goodness smoke flavor that’s impossible to replicate.
Using wood chips also allows you to experiment with different flavor combinations. Because many types of wood are used in their production (see Types of Wood Chips, below), you can choose one that will pair best with your selected ingredients.
Taste and versatility aside, there’s something deeply satisfying about using real wood for cooking. In a world that has sacrificed tradition for the sake of convenience, grilling over an open flame provides us with an opportunity to get back to our roots as a species.
Chips vs. Chunks
Before we get into the details about how long to soak wood chips before grilling, let’s take a look at our options.
Wood chunks are whole pieces of hardwood that can be tossed directly on the coals to flavor your grilled meats and vegetables. Because of their size, they take a while to burn down, which is convenient for low-and-slow cooking applications like smoking. On a similar note, they’re also great for larger ingredients, such as whole rib racks and beer can chicken.
Wood chips, meanwhile, are made of smaller pieces. The chips that are used for grilling are usually scraps that were left behind when the trees or larger pieces of wood were processed. They burn more quickly than wood chunks, making them a better option when you only plan on grilling for a short period of time. If you’re cooking up a batch of burgers or hot dogs, wood chips are a good bet.
One thing to be aware of: Many gas and electric smokers are incompatible with wood chunks, leaving wood chips as the only option. If you have one of these units, be sure to read the instruction manual before attempting to use wood when grilling.
A Word About Plank Grilling
Wood planks are another option, and one that’s favored by many professional chefs. For this method, a simple wooden board is placed over indirect heat, with the food set right on top. The direct contact imbues the food with a rich, smoky taste.
Cedar is the preferred wood for plank grilling, but alder, hickory, and maple planks are available as well. No matter which type of plank you use, make sure the wood is untreated, as treated wood can contain dangerous toxins.
When using this technique, it’s imperative to soak the wood beforehand so it doesn’t ignite and char the food before it’s had a chance to cook through. Just place the planks in water or your desired soaking liquid (see Alternatives to Water, below) for 8 to 12 hours. To witness plank grilling in action, take a look at this video demonstration.
Why Should You Soak Wood Chips?
Because wood doesn’t burn as quickly when it’s wet, soaking the chips before adding them to the grill will make them last longer. The damp wood will smolder as it ignites, giving you a slow, steady stream of smoke.
If you opt not to soak the chips, they’ll probably catch fire right away. This means that they could burn up before they can impart any real smoke flavor. Although you can always keep adding more chips, soaking them may save you a lot of time and money in the long run.
Once you’ve added the chips to the grill, look closely at the smoke that’s being produced. If it’s white, it means that there’s plenty of water vapor in the wood. Dry wood will produce smoke that has a bluish tint to it. When you see that white cloud, it’s a sign that the wood chips have been soaking for the appropriate amount of time.
Is It Possible To Soak The Wood Chips For Too Long?
It is possible—but in truth, you should leave the chips in the soaking liquid for up to 24 hours before adding them to the grill. Here’s why.
While some grillers claim that they only need to be placed in the liquid for 30 minutes or so, this doesn’t give the wood a chance to absorb the moisture. That pretty much defeats the purpose of soaking them to begin with.
Whenever possible, soak the chips a day ahead. Good planning will save you a ton of hassle and provide you with satisfying results. If the wood chips are particularly small—say, smaller than a quarter—they should be ready for the grill in 8 to 12 hours.
Larger pieces can stay in the soaking liquid for up to 24 hours. If you leave them in any longer, more minerals will leach out of the wood, which can have a negative effect on the flavor you’re working so hard to achieve. It may also give the liquid a scummy appearance.
One important note: For shorter cooking applications, there’s no need to soak the chips for the maximum recommended period. For example, if you’re cooking a batch of bratwurst and you just want a burst of smoke flavor, it’s fine if you’ve only soaked the chips for an hour or so. The sausages are precooked, so they won’t be spending that much time on the grill anyway. Conversely, if you’re smoking a whole packer brisket, you should definitely soak the chips for at least 12 hours.
Types of Wood Chips
As we mentioned, you should always choose wood with a flavor profile that will complement your chosen ingredients.
Light woods, such as alder, cherry, and apple, will impart a delicate smoke flavor and a hint of sweetness. They work best for chicken breasts or firm-fleshed fish.
If you can find pear or peach wood, feel free to give them a try when grilling chicken or vegetables. These have a fresh, almost floral taste that goes well with lighter ingredients.
Maple and pecan represent a step up on the intensity scale. Each one has a unique flavor that can be overshadowed by more robust meats. We like to pair these with pork, chicken thighs, or salmon.
Kick things up another notch with medium-intensity woods like oak or hickory. Bold and intensely fragrant, they’ll give smoked ribs and pork butt a well-rounded smoke flavor.
For the ultimate smokehouse experience, give mesquite a try. This wood will give your food the strongest flavor by far, but be careful. Mesquite is intense enough to leave behind a bitter aftertaste when it’s overused. This is why many pitmasters prefer to combine small amounts of mesquite with a milder wood.
Speaking of which, it’s a fine idea to combine any of the woods we’ve mentioned. Doing so will allow you to customize your recipes to reflect your personal tastes.
Alternatives to Water
Now that you know how long to soak wood chips for smoking, let’s talk about the soaking liquid itself.
While it’s perfectly fine to soak the chips in water, that’s not your only option. Using apple juice, beer, or even whiskey will take your flavor combinations to a whole new level.
For best results, make sure the soaking liquid complements the ingredients you’ve chosen. For example, we would recommend using apple juice for pork chops, whiskey for steak, or chardonnay for fish. Soaking your wood chips gives you great flexibility in terms of flavor, so feel free to get creative.
No matter what you use for liquid, try to soak the chips in a large glass bowl. When you’re ready to start cooking, drain the chips well, but don’t rinse them.
Where to Buy Wood Chips
You can purchase wood chips at many big-box hardware stores, such as Lowe’s. They may also be available at larger supermarket chains. Look for them near the charcoal and other grilling supplies.
Online shopping is another alternative, and one that might give you a broader range of options. Walmart and Amazon are two good places to start. Because wood chips have a fairly long shelf life as long as they’re stored properly (see below), don’t be afraid to purchase a generous supply.
Make sure to store wood chips in a sealed container to keep out mice and other rodents. If you have to keep them in a garage or woodshed, keep the container away from areas that are prone to dampness, as this can encourage mold growth. Also, when you buy a new batch, don’t be tempted to pour them on top of the old ones. You’ll want to rotate your supply to ensure that you use up the oldest ones first.
The Cooking Process
If you have a gas grill, a smoker box is your best bet. Some models are already equipped with these compartments, which are essentially metal boxes peppered with holes. If you have to purchase one separately, they’re inexpensive and generally easy to find.
When you’re ready to cook, fill the chamber with drained wood chips before lighting the burners. Most smoker boxes will hold about 2-3 cups of chips, so you won’t need to replenish them unless you’re planning a long smoking session.
For Charcoal Grills
Smoker boxes are also available for charcoal grills, but when you’re dealing with a real charcoal fire, it’s just as easy to use the foil pouch method. Take a square of aluminum foil, place 2-3 handfuls of chips in the center, and seal up the edges to create a pouch. Use a fork to pierce holes in the top of the pouch to allow the smoke to escape, and set the pouch directly on the hot coals.
You can also use the foil pouch technique on a gas grill, placing the packet on the burner you plan to use. Just remember that you’ll have to replace the pouches every hour or so.
One last note: When cooking with wood chips, keep the lid of the grill closed as much as possible to seal in the smoke flavor. If you need to adjust the temperature, use the vents located on the bottom of the grill.
If you’ve ever wondered how long to soak wood chips before grilling, now you have your answer. While the soaking process isn’t strictly necessary, it does allow you to explore bold new flavor combinations that might not have occurred to you otherwise. Because that sense of adventure is what led us to the grill in the first place, we would advise you to experiment and see where the road takes you.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!