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Soaking your wood chips is a highly contested issue within the grilling community. Some people will say you need to by it while others claim that it impedes the smoking process.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to a matter of personal preference. We recommend trying out a few different options and making your own decision.
Wood chips are primarily used in the smoking or grilling process to imbibe the meat with a stronger flavor. The most commonly chosen woods are mesquite, hickory, and oak. These will need to be replaced every 2 to 3 hours to ensure the smokiness remains.
Why Should You Soak Wood Chips?
The premise behind soaking wood chips is that it will give you a longer burn time and a more heavily flavored smoke. Soaking wood chips also means that the smaller chips in the batch will burn up more slowly, instead of just combusting immediately.
It can be useful in some cases, such as when using a gas or charcoal grill. You can have 2 trays of wood chips, one soaked and one dry. You can use these to create a time-release system for the smoke, controlling it more effectively.
Many people believe that soaking the wood chips helps you to control and regulate the temperature of your grill better. This is less required nowadays as most grills have built-in adjustable temperature controls.
Soaking your wood chips is believed to further enhance their flavor profile. For this reason, many people opt to soak their wood chips in wine, beer, or apple juice. Take care to balance your soaking liquid with the natural flavor of your wood chips.
If you are smoking fish, we advise soaking your wood chips in a Chardonnay, or other white wine. If you are smoking a sweet treat for dessert or a cheese course, we recommend using brandy as a soaking liquid.
Apple juice is ideal for smoking joints of pork. We highly recommend using beer-soaked wood chips when you are next grilling Brats. Whisky soaks go perfectly with more robust cuts of meat.
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Many barbequing books will tell you to soak your wood chips for a few hours before adding them to your grill or smoker. Some people will say you need to do this for just 20 minutes, others advise a full 24 hours. Either way, the external surface of your wood chips is what is going to absorb the most moisture.
You should choose a flavored liquid to soak your wood chips in. We do not ever recommend simply soaking them in water as this will do more harm than good to the overall success of the grilling process. We like soaking our wood chips in beer, whiskey, or bourbon to give extra depth to the flavor profile.
You should allow your wood chips to dry out fully before you use them in your smoker. We recommend leaving them to air dry for a minimum of 24 hours. This allows the flavors to remain within the wood fibers but ensures the moisture content has evaporated. This means that the burning process of charcoal is not inhibited.
Why Should You NOT Soak Your Wood Chips?
So now you know all about the benefits of soaking your wood chips, let’s discover why people say not to. The first reason is that wood chips do not absorb that much liquid. Even if they are left to soak for several hours, the moisture content does not change much.
The external layers will absorb some moisture, and some will travel through cracks in the wood, but this is it. Much of the internal area of your wood chips will remain bone dry, rendering the entire process somewhat pointless.
Soaked wood chips will not smoke immediately. Until all of the moisture has evaporated, the maximum temperature that your wood chips will reach is about 212 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the temperature at which water turns into steam.
You will notice gases rising off of the wood but this is steam from the moisture evaporating. The wood will not increase in temperature past this point until the heat has dried it out completely. This can take up to 30 minutes, which increases the cooking time and can potentially lead to your meat drying out.
For grilling, you want the smoldering smoke that will only be produced once all of the moisture has been evaporated.
Any excess moisture that has collected on your wood chips is going to cool down the lumps of charcoal you are using. This is because the damp wood will smother the fire, dropping the heat and making your grill less effective.
If you are using wood pellets to smoke inside a pellet smoker, we never suggest soaking these. They will begin to disintegrate very easily which can cause lasting damage to your smoker. The moisture that evaporates off of the pellets can also collect in the auger, causing it to become clogged.
What Kind of Smoke Are You Looking For?
Damp wood chips will give off a bright white smoke when they are added to your grill. This can seem like the type you should be aiming for, but this is incorrect. You will probably be able to smell the meat aromas at this point, but we can assure you that no cooking is happening.
If you notice grey or black smoke, this usually indicates that something has gone wrong. These colors suggest that there is not enough oxygen to fuel the fire. This kind of smoke will make your food taste like a bonfire, instead of the delicate smokiness that we have all come to know and love.
You ideally want to see a smoke that is almost impossible to spot. It should be thin and light blue in color. This is the optimal smoke for cooking on, particularly if you are planning on a long cooking time.