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All grillers and smokers will know about the debate over soaking wood chips before using them for smoking.
It is one of the most common things that grilling enthusiasts will quabble over. Some avid pit masters take the stance that it helps the smoking process, whilst others find it a futile step that actually lengthens the overall smoking time and does not add anything to the end result.
We decided to put the fight to bed once and for all by addressing the issue in this article. Does soaking wood chips actually help? Or is it all one big myth? Keep reading to find out…
What Is Meant By ‘Soaking’ Wood Chips?
Depending on the source of the information, wood chips can be soaked in a variety of different ways at different times.
Some websites – even some grill manufacturers – recommend that you soak them for just 30 minutes before using them. Other sites state that wood chips should be soaked for 12 or even 24 hours before using. Most websites state that the wood chips should simply be soaked in water.
There are also some methods that include soaking wood chips in a big bowl of water and then placing that bowl in your microwave for 4 to 5 minutes to boil the water, this eliminates the need to wait for 30 minutes or longer.
With all of the methods, you should drain the water from the wood chips before placing them in your smoker or grill.
What Does Soaking Wood Chips Actually Do?
The reason that soaking wood chips has become such a debate is that some people are super passionate about the supposed results that it brings.
Lots of people believe that by soaking wood chips, you can help to regulate the temperature inside your smoker. It is also thought that wet wood chips will smoke for longer rather than catching fire quickly and burning away.
As well as this, many people believe that soaking the wood chips first will mean that you will need to add fewer wood chips whilst your meat is smoking.
Soaking Wood Chips – Nice Hack or Total Myth?
Now that you know how to soak wood chips and what the process is meant to do, it’s time to explore whether there is a benefit to doing it.
Before we answer this, we are going to look at a few different factors.
Does the Wood Absorb Water?
The first thing to consider is whether the wood absorbs any of the water in the first place. The wood chips used for smoking typically come from hardwood, fruitwood, and nut wood trees.
These woods are different from your softwoods like pine, cedar, and spruce. They tend to be much more solid, and therefore water finds it harder to penetrate these types of wood.
They have a tighter grain compared to softer woods and tend to only have about 10 to 20 percent moisture inside them. There is an argument, then, that if the wood will barely absorb any water, is there any point in soaking them in the first place?
For many people, the answer is no. There is no point as it is a futile step that takes up unnecessary time.
Steam or Smoke?
Another factor to consider is that water gives off steam when it gets warm. Even though the temperatures inside your smoker will be relatively low, they will still certainly be high enough to produce steam from any moisture inside there. This steam will counteract the smoke coming off the wood chips.
Now, this steam may look like smoke, and so you may well think that it is a good thing and that the water has helped the chips to produce even more delicious smoke. This is not the case, though.
In fact, the wood chips will only start to smoke properly once all the moisture has been evaporated. This adds even more time onto the clock for your smoking.
What’s Going On Inside the Smoker?
The last factor to consider is the conditions inside your smoker. This is where it counts the most.
The first thing to note is that most smokers and grills these days come with built in temperature regulators so you can keep track of the temperature inside more proficiently, rendering the soaked wood chips redundant in the purpose of regulating the temperature.
As well as this, wood chips need to be changed every 2 to 3 hours or so, regardless of whether they have been soaked or not. This is particularly important if the piece of meat you are smoking is a big one.
This makes the idea that soaking wood chips means you need to add less of them completely redundant. Lastly, you should consider smoke quality.
The ideal smoke for smoking meat is thin and almost transparent blue smoke. White smoke will not be adequate, and grey or black smoke is not suitable either. To get the ideal smoke color of thin and blue, the wood chips need to be dry as a bone. This means that soaking your wood chips is not recommended for meat smoking.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, we are sure you can see that when it comes to soaking your wood chips, you don’t have to do it. In fact, it is probably going to be more beneficial if you don’t smoke them, especially if you will be smoking meat.
Of course, it is a personal preference. Soaking them will not cause you harm. It really depends on what results you desire from the smoking process. Generally, we think that dry wood chips are the best for meat smoking.
So, to answer the original question, you don’t need to soak wood chips in order to use them in your smoker.
In fact, if you are smoking meat it is actually better that you use as dry wood chips as possible.
That being said, it is a personal choice, and if you still wanted to smoke them, go ahead, just be aware that you may not get the results you desire.