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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

3 Answers 3

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

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 at 22:26
One layperson's conclusions from an experiment do not constitute a scientific consensus. –  Jeff Axelrod Oct 24 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 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 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. –  Curtis Nelson Nov 2 at 8:15

Soaking wood chips accomplishes almost nothing, as proven here.

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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: youtube.com/watch?v=rv7y1TWyKEw, 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

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