Should You Soak Wood Chips Before Smoking? Here's Why NOT

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
August 25, 2022

In the barbecue world, there is a lot of information that is borderline misinformed - one such concept is soaking wood chips or chunks before smoking.

A lot of products, recipes, and articles will tell you to soak wood chips before before smoking. However, as someone who has physically tested this (demonstrated below), I can tell you that soaking hardwood before smoking serves absolutely no meaningful purpose.

To quickly answer this question - no, you shouldn't soak wood chips before smoking.

The Idea Behind Soaking Wood

wood chips vs chunks
Wood chunk left, wood chips right

The reason people tell you to soak wood before smoking is to prevent the wood chips from combusting into flames.

Rather than combusting, the goal is to smolder wood or burn it slowly without a flame - the idea being that the water helps to prevent combustion from occurring when you place the wood on the fire.

If you were to soak wood in water, the first thing that needs to vaporize is the water, after which the hardwood is then allowed to smolder. Meaning, all you're effectively doing is delaying how long it takes the wood to smolder, nothing more.

If you were to open the lid to peak at the food at any point after the water has vaporized, you still have the same potential for combustion as you did if you didn't soak them.

Also, the folks that believe in soaking must have had experiences where the wood chips "spontaneously combust" as soon as you add them to the fire; I've never had this happen.

In my opinion, all you need to do is put the wood chips or chunks on the fire and close the lid - that's it.

Even if the wood does catch on fire, that's fine; Closing the lid will cause them to smolder.

Testing This Theory

In order to test this theory, I took a chunk of hickory and submerged it in water. I also used several hickory wood chips and allowed those to "soak." I repeated this test twice - one for 30 minutes, the other for 24 hours.

soaking wood test setup

I also opted to buy some Royal blue dye to change the color of the water. The reason for the dye is to help when taking photos and to visually explain to You, the Reader, what's happening.

Note: Most products and websites will tell you to soak the wood chips in water for only 30 minutes to 1 hour before you smoke your food.

Apart from that I also used my hands to physically touch the wood.

30 Minute Soaking Wood Test

For all intents and purposes, this is the most commonly recommended application of this concept. Products, articles, forums, etc. will all say to soak wood chips in water for 30 minutes.

Here's a cross section of the wood chunk after being submerged for 30 minutes:

wood chunks halved after 30 minutes being submerged

Here's a cross section of the wood chips after being submerged for 30 minutes:

wood chips halved after soaking 30 minutes

Unbiased comments on the findings:

Visual inspection of the blue dye shows that no water penetrated the wood - at least not to my naked eye.

The surface of the wood felt "wet" to the touch. The cross-sections of the wood felt dry to the touch.

24 hour Soaking Wood Test

The reason I decided to soak the wood for 24 hours is because it's an extreme application of the above concept and fully shows YOU that this concept doesn't hold water - metaphorically or literally.

Here's a cross section of the wood chunk after being submerged for 24 hours:

wood chunk halved after soaking for 24 hours

Here's a cross section of the wood chips after soaking for 24 hours:

wood chips split after soaking for 24 hours

Unbiased comments on the findings:

Visual inspection of the blue dye shows that almost no water penetrated the wood - especially in the case of the wood chips. Slight ingress of moisture on the edges of wood chunks.

The surface of the wood felt "wet" to the touch. The cross-sections of the wood felt dry to the touch.

Note: The wood chips were no longer floating after 24 hours and were at the bottom of the bowl in the morning.

Takeaways from This Experiment

As I hope is painfully obvious, the above concept doesn't hold water - especially when soaking for 30 minutes.

With that said, in both cases, the surface of the wood chunks and wood chips were "wet" to the touch. Meaning, when you place them on your fire, this surface moisture will be vaporized and delay how long it takes for the wood to smolder.

Meaning, any initial "smoke" you see isn't actually smoke - it's steam.

Here are my takeaways/comments:

  • There is literally no difference in burn time if you soak wood chips. If anything, the "soaked" wood chips take longer to actually produce smoke.
  • Wood chips don't spontaneously combust. You can simply place your food on the smoker, place your wood chips on the fire, and close the lid. The wood will smolder and produce smoke.
  • If you open the lid while the soaked wood chips are smoldering/smoking, they can still combust/catch on fire as any surface water has vaporized.

Better Solutions to Soaking Wood

In my opinion, you're perfectly okay to put wood chips, chunks, and pellets on top of charcoal. As soon as you close the lid, the wood will smolder.

However, for folks that are super concerned with the wood chips catching on fire, there are other ways to prevent this from happening.

You can opt to buy a smoker tube or a smoker box. Here's my old smoker tube:

pellet smoker tube

You could also opt to wrap the wood chips in an aluminum foil packet.

Lay out a sheet of aluminum foil and put the wood chips to one side:

wood chip smoker packet

You then want to puncture holes in the packet so that smoke can escape:

tinfoil packet with holes

Then you simply place this packet on top of the lit charcoal:

tinfoil smoker packet

I've also simply crumbled foil around wood chips and wood pellets to have the same desired affect as the above:

Even in these cases, you DO NOT need to soak the wood chips in water.

Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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