How to Use Wood Chips for Smoking – On Charcoal or Gas Grills

Barbecuing and smoking are just like sports; it takes practice. No one does it perfectly the first time.

There’re so many variables such as fire control, cooking temperatures and times, smoking times, type of wood, dry rub recipes, and sauces that affect the meat.

Different heat sources, either from charcoal, gas, electricity or wood can also make a difference to the end result of your cook.

But once you master these techniques, you’ll be treated like a celebrity. Friends and family can’t wait to be invited over to your next backyard party. That irresistible aroma and flavor of classic smoky barbecue can be intoxicating.

But you can’t achieve that smoky barbecue flavor without wood. So, choosing the right type of wood, and the right size to burn is essential too.

A close of wood chips
© Сергей Барабашев – stock.adobe.com

There are three sizes of smoking wood you can choose from:

  1. Wood chips
  2. Chunks
  3. Logs

Fortunately, you can get them pre-packaged from your local stores such as Home Depot, Lowes or even online, so they’re very easy to source, readily sized and packaged for use.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at just one type of wood specifically and concentrate on just how to use wood chips for smoking.

Wood Chips, Chunks or Logs?

The answer depends on how long you plan to smoke. For short cooking time such as steak, fish or chicken, the wood chips work best because they are small pieces of wood that ignite quickly but burn out pretty fast.

If you are doing a long, slow smoke for barbecue brisket, ribs or pork butt, then chunks will be a better choice. These fist-size pieces will burn steadily for hours in a smoker.

Now, if you’re planning on barbecuing in a pit or using an offset smoker, you should use logs. These full-sized pieces of wood are suitable for larger areas. Logs produce smoke, but they are also part of the fuel source, creating heat from burning.

The size of the wood matters and this article will focus on how to smoke using wood chips. We will follow up with the articles on smoking with chunks and logs soon.

Now that we are talking about wood chips, and before getting into step-by-step of smoking with wood chips, we should first tackle the most common topic that comes up in discussions of smoking with wood chips:

You’ve probably heard of people soaking their wood chips before barbecuing. But, is it necessary? Let’s see.

Should You Soak Wood Chips or Leave Them Dry?

There’s plenty of debate on this matter, and it comes down to personal preference.

Because wood chips burn out quickly, soaking chips will naturally slow down the process. As you know, water boils at 212°F (100°C). All the water must evaporate before the wood can ignite at around 356°F (180°C). Soaking wood chips merely delays when the chips start to smoke.

Meathead Goldwyn from AmazingRibs.com did some testing and claimed that wood chips only absorb about 6% weight in water.

According to him, when you toss dripping wet wood on hot coals, the water just cools off the coals. He said:

The key to good smoking is to control your temperature. The goal is to get to a target temp and hold there. Nice and steady.

Therefore, it’s not such a good idea. However, soak or dry, it’s up to you.

My suggestion, experiment for yourself and see what works best for you. If your meat turns out smoky and delicious, just keep doing what you’re doing. The right way is the one that works for you. But we would recommend NOT to soak your wood chips; it is entirely unnecessary.

Reduce Oxygen to Make Wood Chips Smoke Instead of Burn

Wood smokes when it reaches temperatures between 570 and 750°F (299 and 399°C) depending on the type of wood.

Smoke is a complex mixture of compounds that create the aroma and flavors we love so much. One group of compounds, Phenol, and other phenolic compounds impart antioxidant characteristics which slow bacterial growth and rancidification of animal fats.

As you know, burning wood produces mostly heat and a little smoke. To reduce the flame, you need to lower the oxygen level so that the wood merely smolders releasing more smoke.

One of the best ways to restrict the oxygen is to put the wood chips in a metal smoker box, a wire mesh smoking bag or make a smoker pouch. These containers restrict the flow of oxygen so the wood cannot burst into flames.

You can easily make your own smoking pouch using aluminum foil.

Making A Smoking Pouch For Wood Chips

Take two layers of foil and put a handful of chips in the center. Wrap up the pouch nice, tight and neat like you would a birthday present so that the chips won’t fall out.

Now poke holes all over to allow some air in and the smoke out.

The foil will restrict the oxygen, turning the wood into charcoal while giving off maximum smoke, instead of burning the chips and tuning them to ash.

Place the pouch on the fire the same way you do with the wood chips. Your smoke will last longer and use less wood.

You Can Experiment with These Types of Wood

Wood chips come from different kinds of trees. Pairing the right kind of chips and food will further enhance the flavor of your barbecue smoked meat. You’ll have fun playing “Mad Food Scientist” by mixing and matching these endless combinations.

Here are some examples for you to compare:

Wood NameSmoke StrengthFlavorUses
AppleMildFruityPoultry/Pork
PecanNuttyBeef/Pork/Poultry
MapleSweetPoultry/Pork
CherrySweetPoultry
HickoryMediumSmokyPork/Beef
OakSmokyPork/beef
MesquiteStrongSmokyRed Meat

There are many more wood types. Sometimes less is better especially if you choose medium or strong categories.

Don’t use too much or it can overpower your meat. Once you’re familiar with one wood’s characteristics, you can mix-and-match them to sample a variety of scents and flavors.

Now you have a decent idea about the types of wood chips, whether to soak them or not and how to make a pouch, the only thing left to do is to start smoking your meat.

8 Steps to Smoking With Wood Chips on a Charcoal Grill

Here is my recommended method of smoking using wood chips with charcoal:

  1. Pick the wood chips flavor that will compliment your food (such as cherry, hickory, mesquite or others).
  2. Grab a bag of your favorite quality charcoal or briquettes.
  3. Put some charcoal in the chimney and light it.
  4. Create a pouch using several layers of aluminum foil, fill it with the wood chips, seal it and poke some holes for the smoke to escape and to let in air.
  5. Pour the charcoal from the chimney and start the fire:
    For fast cooking food such as burgers, steaks, chicken breast or pork chops, place the wood chips directly below the meat.
    For slow cooking meat such as ribs or roasts, use indirect heat by placing charcoal on one side with the wood chip pouch on top.
  6. Place your cooking grate over the fire followed by the meat.
  7. Cover the grill. If you are grilling and don’t have dampers, leave a lid gap about an inch to let the air in but don’t lift it, you need the smoke.

Do remember to add more wood chips for low-and-slow cooking. However, you don’t need to smoke for the entire cooking time if going for 4+ hours (and potentially as long as 20!)

7 Easy Steps to Smoking With Wood Chips on a Gas or Electric Smoker

Wood chip pouches or boxes are one of the very best ways to add smoke into dedicated gas smokers, or a gas grill you want to add smoke to. Here’s how:

  1. Pick the wood chips flavor that will compliment your food (such as cherry, hickory or mesquite).
  2. Fill up a smoker box with the wood chips or make a foil pouch as described above. Usually, gas grills come with the smoker box. Otherwise, you can buy one or grab a disposable smoker box from the store with the wood chips already inside.
  3. Light the fire, place the smoker box on the grill.
  4. Wait until the chips begin to smoke.
  5. Place your meat on the grill and cover
  6. Cook your meat using either direct or indirect grilling methods.

Pointers to keep in mind:

Usually, 2 to 3 handfuls of chips on direct heat takes about half an hour to give up all the smoky goodness.

Soaking wood chips means slowing down the start of the burning process only, it will add time via a delay in starting to smoke, but will not add more smoke.

Make sure to keep the smoky flavor in your meat. Lift the grill lid or open the smoker door as little as possible.

Video Demonstration:

Here’s a quick video by Weber about smoking with wood chips.

Stay Away from Unfamiliar Backyard Wood

Wood from your backyard might look good for smoking. Be careful though. They could be poisonous with old poison ivy vines clinging to them or weed killer overspray. Never use pine wood as pine leaves sooty smoke that will make your food inedible.

Unless you know for sure, the wood is clean and the right type, stay away from it. You can buy wood chips almost anywhere, and they’re quite reasonable. Why take the risk?

The Two Big Choices When Smoking Using Wood Chips

Remember when you are ready to smoke your meat using wood chips you have two big decisions to make. What type of wood “flavor” (cherry, oak, hickory and others) and whether to soak or not.

Half the fun of smoking is experimenting so have a good time trying them all. Make sure to keep a journal so you can keep track of the good ones and avoid making the same mistakes.

I hope this article helps your smoking and you learned something today. Let me know how it works for you. Together we can grill better.

Mark Jenner

Hi. I'm Mark Jenner, owner and creator of FoodFireFriends.com.I grill and smoke food outdoors at least three days a week on a wide range of equipment, have done so for years, and love nothing more than cooking good food, over live fire, enjoying it with friends. The aim of this site is to educate and help others to do the same.

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