Q&A: Do I need to soak wood for smoking?

Do I need to soak wood before smoking?

Ahh, smoked meat.

Is there anything better that the thick, pungent flavor of a slice of fork-tender smoked brisket, or that lovely ruby ring around the inside of a juicy chunk of pork shoulder?

(Hint: the answer is no.)

Few meats cannot be improved upon with the addition of a thick (or thin) blanket of aromatic, hardwood smoke.

But…to soak, or not to soak? There’s the rub! (sorry)

Seriously, though, this is a subject I’ve kicked around, waffled on, and argued both sides of, for years now.

Many pit-masters insist that you need to soak wood to avoid those flash flare-ups that can occur when opening the smoker to add meat, or argue that soaked wood maintains a lower temperature, keeping it in the “smolder-zone” longer, before in ignites, and therefore giving you more bang (or at least smoke) for your buck.

Others preach that in order for wood to burn cleanly, it has to first be dry and “seasoned”, and why bother if you’re just going to allow the wood cells to soak up water? They offer that because the temperature is kept below the point of full combustion, the burn is incomplete and the smoke and steam carry with it unburnt components, or creosote, that you really don’t want on your food. (Creosote = a gummy, tarry compound that, which often accumulates in a chimney or in your pit) Besides, they would say, if you soak, you just have to cook off all the steam before the wood can start smoking.


Chips are small pieces of wood, typically intended for quick bursts of smoke. Even soaked in water, chips will burn up and disappear pretty quick. If you’re smoking for a short period of time, or just looking for a hint of smoke flavor, you probably want to go with chips. In fact, some electric and gas smokers are designed to only handle wood chips.

According to Weber, “It’s not necessary to soak wood chips before use if you’re putting them in an aluminum foil pouch. When placing wood chips directly on the fire, soaking them first won’t do much to keep them from bursting into flames.”

Chunks are large, irregular pieces of hardwood, typically 2-3 inches, and are best for creating a long smoke, for slow, low temperature barbecue. If it’s smokin’ all day (or all night) your want to use chunks.

http://i1.wp.com/burninlovebbq.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/2979557490_969898059c_b.jpg?resize=540%2C360 Regardless of your preference to soak or not, most of the pros seem to agree that if smoke is rolling out every seam, hole, gap around the door, etc…you have TOO MUCH smoke! Starting up you’ll probably smoke heavily for a short bit, but it should lessen and thin considerably. Your ultimate goal is a thin blue smoke that’s close to invisible (sometimes IS invisible) but you can still smell it.

In researching this post, I found some great ideas buried in the user’s comments of various articles. Here are my favorites:

  • Soak both chunks/chips for a 2-3 days. Take them out of the water and put them in Ziplock bags and freeze them. You’ll always have smoking wood on hand this way, and if you forget to soak your wood, these are ready in the freezer.
  • Use a 50/50 split of soaked chips and dry …saw some guy on the food channel do that…seemed to work great.
  • If you’re going to soak your wood chips, soak them in wine or beer get a little more flavor going. I’ve even used the flavored Jack Daniels chips with great success.

http://i2.wp.com/burninlovebbq.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/p8270012b.jpg?resize=195%2C231In my pit, I favor the no-soak approach, mostly because I’m a big proponent of the Minion Method*. I like to use few half-fist sized chunks of oak and hickory, buried at different depths in my charcoal pile, with a couple of chunk placed right on top. As the pile burns down, I get an even amount of thin blue smoke, which leads to that wonderfully deep smoke ring, and great bark on my briskets and shoulders.

So, wet or dry…what do you prefer, and why?

-Chef Perry

*The Minion Method. Bury wood chunks throughout the unlit fuel, followed by a few chunks on top. Distribute the hot coals evenly over the unlit fuel, making sure some wood touches the hot coals to start generating smoke right away. You can see a step-by-step demo, on my Minion Method post, here.

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