Even if you’re working with a gas or charcoal grill, the addition of real wood will give your food an authentic smoky quality that can’t be duplicated. You’ve probably heard of the traditional method, which involves packets of foil-wrapped chips of wood.
But can you use wood pellets instead of wood chips? After all, that’s just wood in a different form, isn’t it? Here’s everything you need to know about wood pellets vs wood chips.
It’s unclear exactly how long the practice of smoking meats has been in effect. However, it’s safe to say that the process is hundreds (if not thousands) of years old.
Exposing food to smoke does more than just add flavor. It also acts as a preservation method. This is likely the main reason why the tradition caught in the first place—to keep meat from spoiling before it could be eaten.
These days, we smoke our meat mainly to savor the indescribable taste of food that’s been cooked over an open flame. However, there’s more to the process than simply adding wood to the fire. Once you understand the difference between wood pellets vs wood chips, it will be easier to choose the right one.
About Wood Pellets
Wood pellets are made from compressed hardwood that has been transformed into sawdust, then reformed into small cylindrical pieces. They were initially produced in the 1980s as fuel for another recent invention, the pellet grill. In this type of grill, the fuel is fed from the hopper into the cooking chamber via an auger component. When the pellets ignite, the smoke and heat circulate through the chamber to cook the food and imbue it with flavor.
While it’s possible to find all-natural pellets, some brands may include additives that can subtly alter the flavor of your grilled food. These additives may also affect the consistency of the smoke. If this is a concern, take a close look at the label before making a purchase.
Pellets will create a hotter environment than wood chips. They’ll also burn more slowly, making them more cost effective. This long, slow burn will also make it easier for you to control the temperature of your grill or smoker.
Because of their unique composition, wood pellets create very little ash buildup. This is an excellent benefit for grilling aficionados who don’t want to spend a lot of time cleaning up. The consistent smoke that they provide makes them a good choice for cold smoking in addition to regular hot smoking.
Our favorite thing about wood pellets is the sheer variety of flavor choices that they provide. They can be made of various types of wood, from apple to maple to hickory. This gives you a great deal of flexibility when it comes to creating the ideal flavor profile for your smoked meats.
About Wood Chips
On the other hand, we have wood chips, which are simply pieces of hardwood that have taken a spin through the wood chipper. Unlike pellets, they aren’t uniform in shape or size, but rough and jagged around the edges. Before they’re added to the grill, wood chips are usually wrapped in a foil packet, which is then peppered with holes in order to allow the smoke to escape.
Wood chips don’t provide the same steady, continuous smoke that pellets do. Instead, they ignite and burn quickly, giving off small, intense bursts of smoky flavor. Some home chefs will soak the chips in water to keep them from catching fire too fast, but this practice actually offers very little benefit (see To Soak or Not to Soak?, below).
You can choose from different wood types when using chips as well. However, the intensity of this cooking style makes it easy to overpower the meat. If you’re planning on a long, low-and-slow cooking application, it’s a good idea to stick with milder wood flavors. If you’d like to impart a dose of stronger flavor, add a packet of hickory or mesquite toward the end of the cook.
It’s important to allow wood chips to smolder gently, rather than going up in a single burst of flame. If they burn too fast and too hot, they’ll impart a bitter flavor, rather than the mellow smoky taste that you crave.
To Soak or Not to Soak?
As we mentioned, we don’t recommend soaking wood chips before putting them on the grill. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, it would take at least 24 hours for the water to permeate the meat enough to make any difference in the burn rate. Since most recipes call for just an hour or two of soaking time, the process is a waste of time.
Second, even if you did decide to soak the chips for a day or more, all that moisture would need to be eliminated before the wood could produce any smoke. That means that the chips would just be sitting there generating steam while the water boils off.
Finally, the resulting steam will lower the temperature of your grill or smoker. When it comes to smoking meats, you want to keep the temperature as consistent as possible. Soaking the wood chips will do nothing except contradict the effect you’re trying to achieve.
A Note About Sawdust
Raw sawdust represents a third option, one that’s sometimes used to smoke sausage and various types of fish. In addition to being inexpensive, it burns at a slower pace than wood chips (but more quickly than pellets). You can use sawdust for either hot or cold smoking, which is another plus.
At the end of the day, however, we prefer not to use sawdust because it doesn’t deliver the heat consistency that we’re looking for. Worse still, it needs to be replenished more often than either wood chips or pellets, which translates into more time hovering over the grill.
When To Use Wood Pellets
If you have a pellet grill, then you’ve already made your choice. However, even if you’re using a different type of grill or smoker, there are several instances in which you might want to use pellets anyway.
If you’re cold smoking your meats, then you should definitely choose wood pellets over chips. The slow burn and consistent smoke that they provide give them the clear edge for this type of smoking. They’re also a good option if you’re using a gas grill, rather than a charcoal-fired unit. Be aware that you’ll need a pellet tube smoker in these cases; take a look at this video tutorial to learn more about this handy device.
When To Use Wood Chips
Because wood chips won’t affect the temperature of your grill, they work well when you need a burst of flavor without the heat. They’ll also give the food a bolder taste, especially if you use strong woods like mesquite. For these reasons, we like to use wood chips when grilling hearty meats that can stand toe to toe with the smoke. Bone-in pork chops and porterhouse steaks are two fine choices.
It’s also suitable to use wood chips for chicken or seafood, as long as you use a milder wood. For these meats, we prefer the mellowness of woods such as apple or alder. Use maple if you prefer a sweeter flavor profile.
Wood Pellets vs Wood Chips: Final Thoughts
In the great wood pellets vs wood chips debate, the main question that most people have is simple: Can you use wood pellets instead of wood chips?
The short answer is yes, as long as you have the proper equipment. A pellet tube smoker is no substitute for an actual pellet grill, but it will do in a pinch. If you plan on using pellets to flavor your food on a regular basis, it might be a good idea to invest in a pellet grill when you’re ready for an upgrade.
Whichever method you choose, you’re in for a real treat. Using real wood is a wonderful and natural way to boost the flavor of your grilled meats.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!