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Is There A Need To Soak Wood Chips In Water Before Smoking And Why

Updated on July 9, 2012
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I have been a cooking enthusiast my entire life: managed/owned several restaurants, specializing in smoked foods and wild game preparation.

Soaking Real Wood Chips before Smoking

Being well into the grilling season many of you may have experimented with various ways of cooking your favorite meats on the grill or in the smoker. Television chefs, grilling experts and smoker aficionados are everywhere on cable and each have their own technique. After watching, you still may be scratching your head on whether you should soak your wood chips in water or not.

Offset Cooking and Smoking or Direct Heat Grilling and Smoking

Offset smokers typically use larger chunks of wood, with a damper between the food and the fire. If you are using an offset method to smoke or even slow cook a roast you would not typically soak the wood. Soaking large chunks of wood is neither practical nor effective.

The reason you soak smaller chips or chunks of wood is to slow the burning and to produce more smoke. Dry wood chips placed on hot coals simply flame up and burn away quickly without producing any smoke. However, many electric smokers in their operating manuals state that soaking wood chips in water is not necessary for smoking in an electric smoker. One reason for this is that the wood chips are not placed on hot coals but are placed in a tray that is heated indirectly by electrical heating elements. The chips are also deprived of oxygen, which slows the burning, thus producing more smoke. The wood simply smolders without bursting into flames.

Smoking your food using a typical direct heating grill can be accomplished in several ways. The definition of direct heating is cooking food directly over the heat source. Soaking wood chips for 15 or 20 minutes is usually more than adequate if you plan to wrap the wood chips in foil. Ensure the foil has holes in it to allow the smoke to escape. You can place your soaked wood chips in a small can and place the can right on the grill grates, as well. The moisture in the wood, along with somewhat depriving the wood of oxygen, will cause the wood to burn slower therefore, producing more smoke.

If you plan to use larger chunks of wood where it would be impractical to place in foil or cans, you can place the soaked chunks directly on the coals. To prevent the wood from burning to fast you can soak the chunks up to 24 hours before smoking. Be sure and drain the wood well before placing on the coals. The wood will produce steam the first few minutes, this helps to dampen the fire and slow the burn.

You may be wondering by now that if all it takes to produce good smoke flavor is to add moisture to the wood then why not use green or unseasoned wood to begin with. Green wood is full of sap and once heated will leave in most cases, an undesirable bitter flavor on the meat.

Tip: Food after it has cooked for a few hours absorbs less smoke. Being aware of this experts usually wait until the last 30 minutes of cooking before adding any sauces to the meat. Sauces added early on in the cooking process inhibit the smoke's ability to penetrate the food. Stop adding wood chips or chunks after the first few hours for best results.

Tip: To spice things up soak wood chips or wood chunks in apple juice, cider or even beer for a mild sweet flavor.


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