Soaking wood chunks for barbecue is a popular stage of electric smoker preparation for many outdoor cooks. Is it just a BBQ myth, or is there some logic to the approach? Here’s everything you need to know about soaking wood chips for smoking.
One of the best things about smoking wood is being able to match your chosen meat with the perfect wood. When you know that you’ve paired a strong wood like maple with a beautiful slow-cooked meat like pork then you know you’ve become an accomplished BBQ smoking master.
New to barbecue? Learn how to use an electric smoker in our guide
But it might strike you as odd that a lot of smoker recipes instruct you to soak your wood chips prior to chucking them in your smoker. After all, you wouldn’t expect wet chunks to catch fire, would you?
Despite this, it’s become conventional wisdom that soaked wood chips help enhance smoked meat flavors. But there is a lot of debate about wet wood vs dry.
Conventional wisdom can be unreliable though so let’s see how it stacks up.
Pre-soaking wood chips has become popular because it’s seen as a way of tempering the high potential burning temperatures of wood, while smoking is intended to be a barbecue method that requires low temperatures maintained over a long time. Because electric smokers often have inbuilt temperature controls, soaking wood chips isn’t really necessary.
However, soaking wood chips can do much more than help regulate the temperature in your smoker. Let’s take a look at why you might not want to prepare your chips for electric smoking.
Why do we soak wood chips?
In traditional charcoal smokers, it’s recommended that you soak wood chips to help dampen (literally) the likelihood of them burning up. Smoking is a cooking discipline that requires exposing meat to low temperatures over a long period of time. The thought is that dampening them will help them last longer, at a lower heat.
However, even for charcoal smokers, this is a debatable practice. Some people might say it helps the chips generate more smoke, but more often than not they’re confusing steam for the smoke. The higher water content in the chips will evaporate, leading to high amounts of steam billowing out of your smoker.
Even if it did help more smoke bellow out the smoker, it does also present the risk that it’ll let water drip onto the hot coals in the smoker chamber, potentially cooling or even extinguishing them.
Conventional wisdom often dictates that soaked wood can help contribute more smoke, but personally I think this comes down to the type of wood you use. For example, oak and hickory are well-known for producing lots of smoke.
Should you soak wood chips for electric smokers?
While electric smokers don’t generally need wood chips, many are designed to accommodate them. Wood chips aren’t just a fuel source, but they can also help enhance the aromas of the smoke, which in turn can improve the flavors of your meat.
If your electric smoker doesn’t have an obvious receptacle for wood chips, then you can get around this by putting them in a metal can or in some tin foil, and then placing it carefully around the bottom of the chamber of your smoker.
You can even use a smoker box, which is designed with good smoke ventilation and durability in mind.
When it comes to soaking the chips, the truth is that it’s not entirely necessary. I love adding wood chips to an electric smoker, to help generate more flavor. But much like with charcoal smoking, soaked or not soaked, you’ll need to replace the chips every two or three hours anyway, so if the motivation is to improve the longevity of the chips then it doesn’t make a huge difference.
However, if you want to infuse the wood chips with a greater and richer flavor, then it’s a great way to go. Wood chips often come flavored anyway, for example in flavors like oak, hickory and mesquite, but we can take this to an even stronger level by soaking them in liquids like beer, apple juice or even wine.
It can be a balancing act however. If you’re using a flavored wood, then you want to be sure that the liquid you are using doesn’t overpower the wood. You also want to be sure that it complements it well.
Are there any reasons not to soak wood chips?
I’ve discussed the importance of taking into consideration the flavor profiles you’re mixing together. However, another key consideration is the quality of smoke that you want to generate in your smoker.
There are different types of smoke, and not all are good to use for meat smoking. White smoke is often in essence steam, which is ineffective for most forms of cooking, while gray and black are often dirty and rich in carcinogens.
What we really want to achieve is a very thin, pale blue smoke.
In order to achieve this, we need plenty of oxygen and dry wood, which we just won’t achieve with soaked wood.
Further to all of the above, one of the best things about meat smoking is that it’s a ‘less is more‘ approach to cooking. It’s all about being stripped back and nuanced. If we generate too much smoke, then it will overwhelm the meat and make it inedible. Any added flavors from rubs, brines, or flavored wood chips will be completely lost if you let smoke run riot in your smoker chamber.
Whether or not you should soak wood chips prior to using your electric smoker largely comes down to what flavors you’re aiming for. If you want to tweak your wood chips by soaking them in a liquid-like apple juice, beer, or wine, then it can be a great approach to take.
However, if you’re considering just soaking them in water then I wouldn’t bother. Electric smokers are easy to control the temperature on, so trying to dampen the heat impact of the wood chips just isn’t necessary.