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I wanted to prepare for a long day of cooking and get the wood chip soak out of the way. My barbequed brisket recipe calls for soaking the (hickory) wood chips for 30 minutes.

If I soak the wood chips longer, is it possible that they would become so saturated that they wouldn't smoke or would take so long to dry out as to become impractical? Or should they already be fully saturated after 30 minutes?

My gut says that it shouldn't matter--given that one of the batches of chips actually sits in water on the grill.

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What are you trying to achieve by soaking the wood? This seems a pointless step –  TFD Mar 26 '13 at 1:27

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

No, it isn't possible to over soak wood chips, chunks, planks, or any other size that you want to throw on the grill (within reason, I wouldn't soak them for weeks because the water would get scummy). In fact, the directions given often grossly underestimate optimal soaking time. I assume this is because the manufacturer doesn't want to scare people off by saying "soak for 12-24 hours before use."

Wood smokes better when it's wet. If it's dry, it catches on fire and produces less smoke for a shorter period of time. What you really want is for the wood to be thoroughly wet so that it smolders rather than flames and produces lots of smoke for a long time.

As you would expect, the larger the piece of wood, the longer it will smoke and the longer you need to soak it. My general soak times are as follows:

  • Small Chips - These are very small, coin sized. Generally get totally saturated in 2-3 hours.
  • Large Chips - Between Small Chips and Chunks. Soak for 12 - 24 hours.
  • Chunks - These tend to be about 1/2 to a whole fist sized. These want to soak for at least 24 hours.
  • Planks - For plank smoking. Soak for 8 - 12 hours.

You can always soak for less time, you just won't get quite as much smoke production. Judge the need based on what you're cooking. If you want a little smoke on a steak that you're only cooking for 5-8 mins, then you don't need to worry about it. If you're trying to smoke salmon, it matters more. If you want to smoke a butt for 12 hours, it matters a lot.

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I agree with @yossarian, 30 minutes is not nearly enough time to soak even small wood chips. With only 30 minutes they'll start to burn almost immediately. –  GdD Mar 25 '13 at 13:53
There's no need to soak wood prior to smoking. It does not take long for the wood to dry and catch fire, so hours of soaking really brings little value. It is better to limit the supply of oxygen to the smoke wood. This will lead to the wood smoldering and not catching fire. –  Sean Hart Mar 25 '13 at 18:46
Sean, that doesn't work in a lot of cases, particularly if you're using chips or planks, a gas grill, or a cheap charcoal grill. –  yossarian Mar 25 '13 at 20:17
Sure it does. If you wrap the wood in foil, and poke one or two holes in it, that will allow for the offgassing of the wood without full ignition. –  Sean Hart Mar 26 '13 at 18:03

Soaking wood chips accomplishes almost nothing, as proven here.

Summary from amazing ribs link: Soaking wood does not work, as it takes more than days to saturate wood. And temperature measurements from wood soaked for a day show little change

Their recommendation: have two containers of wood, one dry, and one covered with water (steam is required as well). The water filled container of wood will boil dry by the time the first lot of dry wood has smoked out, and it will then smoke away too

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Interesting. My personal experience (at least with chips and planks) doesn't jive with this at all. Here's a video making the same claim, but only addressing wood chunks:, if you got that much penetration in smaller chips, they would be soaked through completely. Definitely warrants some experimentation at home. –  yossarian Mar 26 '13 at 13:22
I think it does delay the smoking in the sense that a wet log takes time to start burning. Proximity of the chips to the hot flame may be more important than them being soaked. Nice link @carey Gregory –  MandoMando Mar 27 '13 at 22:15
The smoking chapter in "Modernist Cuisine" makes the same conclusion. The book does note that high (70-80%) humidity is essential for full smoke absorption, so the evaporation off the wet chips probably helps from that respect. –  Didgeridrew Mar 29 '13 at 2:02
Been smoking food 30 years.. Definitely soak the wood.. Unless you're using the wood to cook the food! –  user21334 Nov 17 '13 at 5:06
@BillRabourn - Did you read the link? He proved it makes no difference. –  Carey Gregory Nov 18 '13 at 15:32

I agree soak the wood. The larger the piece (pieces) the longer you soak...just don't go overboard; water does become stagnant.

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Read the link in my answer. He proved scientifically that soaking accomplishes almost nothing. –  Carey Gregory Oct 23 '14 at 22:26
One layperson's conclusions from an experiment do not constitute a scientific consensus. –  Jeff Axelrod Oct 24 '14 at 0:11
@JeffAxelrod One doesn't need to be the scientific community to read an experiment and make a fairly sound judgement of its results when it comes to something as simple as soaking wood chips. If soaking them accomplished anything, it would increase their weight significantly. It does not. I can't imagine what magical properties you think might otherwise exist. –  Carey Gregory Oct 29 '14 at 0:55
I'm not suggesting that an individual can't perform science, only that a single person's investigation shouldn't be considered conclusive, let alone "proof." –  Jeff Axelrod Oct 30 '14 at 14:00
I've never soaked my wood chunks before smoking my meat. They catch fire fast and I end up using a lot of wood. This time I soaked them for a few hours prior and they seem to smoke a lot longer therefore, I'm using less wood.. getting more for my money. –  user29035 Nov 2 '14 at 8:15

What I've found though a great deal of research and trial and error is that soaking, not soaking to get the best condition is dependent on many factors. If you think about it if the moister of the wood was critical, why wouldn't you smoke with green wood. Though some green woods give off a more acrid smoke.

First is the type of smoker you're using. What you use will change how you smoke things. If you have an indirect smoker, like a barrel with a side fire box you can run a hotter fire because you are not applying direct heat as you are with say a grill, vertical barrel or electric smokers. In my view it's useless to soak the wood for indirect smoking. The quality of the smoker is also a factor. A poorly made smoker which air flow control is inconsistent will make the job of controlling temperature more difficult. Soaking might help initially, but as it's been mentioned the wood can dry out fairly quickly and flare up causing inconsistent temps and inconsistent cooking. If you are having this problem, you have to tend the smoker more frequently. I like to keep a spray bottle nearby to quiet any flare ups.

Then there's the format of the wood. Logs and large chunks will not absorb much water unless you soak them for a long time, days even weeks. Don't forget, this is wood which has been dried and is quite hard. The cell structures have been fundamentally destroyed and are less able to take on water. Construction lumber is dried to make it more durable.

Now chips and small chunks on the other hand almost have to be soaked. Chips have a great deal more surface area per volume, meaning more of the surface is exposed to heat as compared to logs or chunks. This makes them burn very fast and hot making it harder to control by airflow alone. Chips, because of the increased surface area will absorb more water which keeps them from burning up.

In the end, when smoking you have to adjust the processes based on the equipment, the smoke medium and the desired result. This is why professionals that prepare smoked foods will seldom vary the recipe and the method.

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