Should You Soak Wood before Smoking? Debunking the Myths

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  March 16, 2022

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Smoking meat is a time-honored tradition that has been practiced for centuries. However, the practice of soaking the wood is relatively recent and perhaps pretty controversial.

Where many bbq savvies favor it hugely, others staunchly oppose it. Who’s right and who’s wrong? And whether should you soak the wood for smoking at all?

This, and much more, I’ll be discussing in this rather detailed article. Moreover, I’ll provide some tidbits along the way to bring the best flavors out of the meat. 

Should you soak wood before smoking

So without any ado, let’s jump into it! 

Soaking the wood is not necessary for extra flavor. In fact, the steam arising from soaked wood can ruin the whole meat flavor. However, on the brighter side, it prolongs the burning time of the wood. It all comes down to your preference, whether you want longevity or taste! 

Why do we soak the wood for smoking?

The soaking of wood before smoking is based on the concept that it prolongs the burning duration and enhances flavor by producing more smoke.

While the first reason is slightly correct, the second one is mostly a myth. But it is a no-no either way. 

Now before you draw your weapons at me, let me elaborate a bit. The wood doesn’t absorb the moisture when you soak it but retains it on the surface.

This increases the time required for the wood to burn, which ultimately results in low temps inside the smoker for a longer time.

Since the meat is exposed to this heat for an extended duration than usual, there’s a chance that it might dehydrate from the inside, ruining the whole purpose of the process.

Additionally, as the water evaporates from the wood, It results in steam, which too, can impart some bizarre flavors at times.

Is soaking the wood necessary for a great smoke flavor?

To be quite blunt, absolutely not! It depends on the method you follow to smoke the meat. As I have previously mentioned, soaked wood can take quite a while to get rid of the surface moisture. And by then, the water will have imparted quite (too) strong flavors to the meat. 

Nevertheless, if you are still in the soaked wood party, I suggest mixing soaked wood and dry wood to reduce the risks.

The best thing about this practice is that as the dry wood burns and smokes the meat, the soaked wood will evaporate the water. This mix of smoke and steam results in quite a delicious aroma.

Moreover, the flavors can even intensify as the soaked wood starts burning later. The only limitation here is that this method doesn’t work on smokers. You should have a grill! 

That’s because a grill works at an extremely high temperature compared to a smoker. Thus, it quickly dries and burns the soaked wood while retaining the internal juiciness of the meat intact.

If you mix both in a smoker, by the time the soaked wood reaches its burning point, the meat will have significantly dried down from the inside due to prolonged exposure to heat, as mentioned before.

How long does it take to soak wood chips?

Wood chip drying time depends on its size. Generally, wood chips smaller than 1 meter require 8 to 12 hours to soak effectively.

Any pieces bigger than that requires about 24 hours to soak. Just make sure not to soak the wood over an extended period. 

That’s because it will result in significant water penetration, resulting in poor heating and burning, consequently lowering the overall temperature of the smoker even more than it normally does.

Does wet wood produce more smoke?

Yes, it does produce more smoke. However, it’s not something you would like to smoke your barbeque with, unless you love the taste of creosote, of course?

A good practice is to perfectly season the wood before sliding it in the smoker. This way, it’ll be way less toxic and has all the extra smoke and flavor you desire.

Are there any benefits of soaking wood?

Well, this might disappoint you a bit, but the disadvantages of soaked wood are far more than the advantages. Or one might argue, there isn’t any advantage at all, except for the fact that you won’t have to bear the expense of quickly burning dry wood. 

Since the woods chips or chunks absorb water at the surface, the wood will burn way slower than usual. The white smoke you see in the initial stages is actually the steam arising from the wood surface.

In other words, there isn’t any proven evidence to support that soaking wood for hours has any benefits. It’s like one of those ancient traditions debunked long ago, but people still follow it anyway. 

Should I soak wood chips or pellets for electric smokers?

While electric smokers don’t necessarily require fuel for burning, some models come with an extra compartment for wood chips or pellets to add more flavor to the smoke.

Whether you should soak those chips or not, it’s totally up to you. Personally, I would not recommend soaking it as it can result in temperature fluctuations inside. Moreover, it can also affect the overall taste and texture of the meat, and prolong the smoking duration.

As for pellets, never ever soak them. Since pellets contain compressed sawdust, exposing them to moisture will result in expansion. Thus, they’ll eventually fall apart and ruin the smoke and smoker alike.

What should I know before soaking wood?

Now that we have gone through almost everything as far as soaked wood is concerned, it’s time to shed light on some significant facts you must know before you put soaked wood in your smoker:

Wood won’t absorb much water after hours of heating

Yup, you read it correctly. If you use hardwood, It’s easy to identify how much water the wood has absorbed by examining its cross-section. 

Upon checking, you will observe that the wood chunk exhibits minimal water penetration beyond the surface layer. And this is the result after 24 hours of soaking. 

That being established, It’s not only a time-consuming process but a rather hopeless endeavor to enhance the meat flavor. And let’s accept this, most of us don’t even wait for that long. 

Poor smoldering

Although soaked wood is highly associated with “slow-burning,” it’s actually no burning at all! Yes! 

The smoke you actually see is water evaporating at 212 degrees, with smoldering following it after a specific duration. 

This leads us to debunk the theory that wet wood gives a longer smoke. It’s just steam, bro, and a bad-tasting one, for sure! 

Poor heating

I know what’s going on in your mind, “but pitmasters often soak the wood.” Well, here’s the thing. They do it because some woods just burn off too quickly, and they need them to keep burning. 

As an alternative, experts suggest placing dry chips or chunks in a foil for normal woods and poking some holes into it to release the smoke. This prevents the chips from catching fire and improves the quality of the smoke. 

It’s like killing two birds with a single stone. You get all the extra longevity without compromising on the taste! 

Final words

While the debate of soaking or no soaking will continue forever, there are some concrete downsides to the practice. These are even strengthened because there’s almost no experimental proof of how soaking the wood helps in intensifying the flavor. 

Nevertheless, the decision is highly split on the topic, and it would be challenging to settle down on one side. Therefore, I will leave the decision entirely to you. If you like bold flavors and love experimenting with your grill or smoker, then go for it. 

But if it’s the other way around, then smoking wood is absolutely not necessary to make a perfect-tasting barbeque or steak. That’s something proved by data. 

With all the factors considered, what do you think you will go with as you smoke your next steak? Soaking, or no soaking? I would prefer the second option.

See you in the next one :)

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.