Soaking: What Does it do to Wood?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 28, 2022

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Soaking wood chips when smoking meat is a common practice, but is it necessary? There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so let’s look at the facts. Do you really need to soak wood chips for smoking?

In this article, I’ll share some tips on how to get the best results without soaking.

What is soaking

Soaking Smoking Chunks: The Time-Consuming Process

The good news for chefs is that soaking smoking wood chunks (here’s why you shouldn’t) is a simple process that can be done at home. There are no extensive setup or techniques required, simply start by adding the smoking chunks to a bowl of water. This means that people can create great content in the form of producing their own smoked meats without the need for an extensive setup.

Soaking Smoking Chunks: Avoiding Waste

Soaking smoking chunks helps to avoid waste. If smoking chunks are not soaked, they will burn too quickly and produce little to no smoke. This means that the smoking chunks will be wasted and will not add any flavor to the meats. Soaking smoking chunks helps to ensure that the smoking chunks are used to their full potential.

Soaking Smoking Chunks: The Combination with Fruit

Soaking smoking chunks can also be combined with fruit to add additional flavor to the meats. Adding fruit to the water when soaking smoking chunks can produce steam, which looks like pillowing smoke. This steam can add a great flavor to the meats and can help to extend the burn time of the smoking chunks.

Soaking Smoking Chunks: Pitmasters’ Activities

Pitmasters know that soaking smoking chunks is a vital step in the smoking process. They use dampers to control the heat and avoid smothering the charcoal. Pitmasters also know that the moisture from the water evaporates during the smoking process, which helps to produce smoke. They also know that soaking smoking chunks helps to delay the burn time of the smoking chunks, which means that the meats will have a great flavor.

Smoking Chunks Don’t Retain Water: Debunking the Conventional Wisdom

Contrary to popular belief, smoking chunks don’t absorb water. The principle behind soaking wood chunks is to penetrate the interior of the wood with water, which is then released as steam during the smoking process. However, this principle doesn’t work in reality. Here’s why:

  • Wood species differ in their absorption capacity, and some species are more resistant to water penetration than others.
  • The absorption of water is affected by the size and shape of the chunk, as well as the presence of fissures and bone-like structures in the wood.
  • Even after hours of soaking, the water only penetrates the surface of the chunk, coloring it and giving the illusion of absorption.
  • The effect of soaking on the burn time and smoke production of the chunk is negligible, and in some cases, soaking can even smother the charcoal.

An Experiment That Worked

To test the conventional wisdom of soaking smoking chunks, I conducted an experiment. I soaked half of the chunks in water for 24 hours, while leaving the other half dry. Then, I smoked a rack of ribs using both types of chunks and compared the results. Here’s what I found:

  • The dry chunks produced more smoke and a stronger flavor than the soaked chunks.
  • The soaked chunks took longer to ignite and produced less heat than the dry chunks.
  • The ribs smoked with the dry chunks had a better coloring and a more pronounced smoke ring than the ribs smoked with the soaked chunks.

What’s Recommended for BBQ?

Based on my experiment and my own experience, I recommend using dry smoking chunks for BBQ. Soaking smoking chunks is a conventional wisdom that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead, try these tips:

  • Use high-quality smoking chunks made from hardwoods like oak, hickory, or mesquite.
  • Store your smoking chunks in a dry place to prevent moisture absorption.
  • Use a smoker box or wrap your smoking chunks in foil to prevent them from smothering the charcoal.
  • Experiment with different sizes and shapes of smoking chunks to find what works best for your BBQ.

Why Soaking Smoking Chunks Doesn’t Increase Their Burn Time

Contrary to popular belief, soaking smoking chunks in water does not increase their burn time. When smoking chunks are heated up, the water that was absorbed during soaking evaporates in the form of steam. This means that pre-soaked smoking chunks do not produce more smoke, but only produce steam that looks similar to smoke. The moisture that is being evaporated off your smoking chunks as they burn is what causes the steam.

Soaking Can Actually Decrease Burn Time

In fact, soaking smoking chunks can actually decrease their burn time. The water that is absorbed during soaking can cause the smoking chunks to produce more ash, which can smother the fire and cause it to burn out more quickly. This can result in shorter cooking times and lower quality smoke.

Dry Chunks Are Better for Smoking

Dry smoking chunks are actually better for smoking because they allow for more control over the smoking process. Dry chunks burn hotter and longer, providing a more consistent smoke and allowing for extended cooking times. This is especially important for larger cuts of meat like pork shoulders or briskets.

Wood Variety Matters

The type of wood used for smoking also plays a significant role in the quality of smoke produced. Different wood varieties offer different flavors and compounds that can enhance the taste of the food being smoked. Some popular varieties include:

  • Apple: Provides a mildly sweet and fruity smoke
  • Maple: Offers a mix of sweet and strong flavors
  • Oak: Produces a strong and smoky flavor
  • Hickory: Delivers an ultra-smoky flavor

Size and Cut of Chunks

The size and cut of smoking chunks also matter when it comes to achieving the desired smoke flavor. Smaller chunks will burn faster and produce a more intense smoke, while larger chunks will burn slower and produce a milder smoke. It’s important to test different sizes and cuts to find what works best for your smoking needs.

Drying and Storing Chunks

To achieve the best smoke quality, it’s important to properly dry and store smoking chunks. This process consists of:

  • Cutting the wood into the desired size and shape
  • Allowing the wood to dry for at least a year to fully remove any internal moisture
  • Storing the dry chunks in a cool, dry place away from any moisture or tight spaces that can cause mold to form

Learning how to properly control the smoke produced by smoking chunks can make a significant difference in the final product. Chefs and people who enjoy smoking food should spend time learning about the benefits of different wood varieties, sizes, and cuts to achieve superior smoke quality.

Why Soaking Smoking Chunks Could Smother Charcoal

When it comes to smoking meat, using wood chunks is a popular way to add flavor to your cooking. However, it’s essential to ensure that the wood chunks are dry before using them. Wet wood chunks can cause a range of issues, including smothering your charcoal.

How Wet Wood Chunks Can Prevent Charcoal from Burning

When you place wet wood chunks on top of hot charcoal, the water content in the chunks will begin to evaporate. As the water evaporates, it will create steam that can smother the charcoal, preventing it from burning. This can be a significant problem, as it will impact the temperature and cooking time of your meat.

Why Soaking Smoking Chunks Isn’t Always a Good Idea

While some people prefer to soak their smoking chunks before using them, it’s not always the best option. Soaking the chunks can cause them to become heavier, which can make them more difficult to work with. Additionally, soaking the chunks can cause the wood to release steam instead of smoke, which can impact the flavor of your meat.

Choosing the Right Size and Type of Wood Chunks

When choosing wood chunks, it’s important to consider the size and type of wood. The size of the chunks will depend on the type of smoker or barbecue you’re using. Electric smokers typically require smaller pieces, while larger smokers can accommodate larger chunks. The type of wood you choose will depend on your personal preference and the type of meat you’re cooking. Some popular options include hickory, mesquite, and applewood.

How to Ensure Your Wood Chunks are Dry

To ensure your wood chunks are dry, follow these steps:

  • Keep them in a dry area: Store your wood chunks in a dry area, such as a box or bowl.
  • Let them dry out: If your wood chunks are wet, let them dry out in the sun for a few hours before using them.
  • Use a moisture meter: Consider using a moisture meter to check the water content of your wood chunks. The ideal moisture content is between 10-20%.

The Key Takeaway

When it comes to smoking meat, using dry wood chunks is essential. Soaking smoking chunks may seem like a quick and convenient way to add flavor to your cooking, but it can cause significant issues, including smothering your charcoal. By choosing the right size and type of wood chunks and ensuring they are dry, you’ll be able to create delicious, flavorful meat every time.

What Can Soaking Wood Planks Do for Your Smoking Experience?

When it comes to smoking meats, veggies, or any type of food, using wood planks is a popular way to add a rich and flavorful taste to your dishes. But what about soaking the wood planks before using them? Is it necessary? The short answer is no, it’s not necessary, but it can offer some benefits.

How to Soak Wood Planks

If you’re planning on soaking your wood planks, here are some simple steps to follow:

  • Cut the wood planks to the desired size (usually around 12 inches long and 6 inches wide)
  • Place the wood planks in a container filled with water, making sure they are fully submerged
  • Allow the wood planks to soak for at least an hour, but preferably longer (up to 24 hours)
  • Take the wood planks out of the water and dry them off before storing them

Soaking Wood Planks vs. Dry Wood Planks

While soaking wood planks can offer some benefits, using dry wood planks can also produce a delicious and flavorful dish. Here are some differences between the two:

Soaking Wood Planks:

  • Produces a longer and stronger smoke
  • Releases more flavorful compounds
  • Adds moisture to the food
  • Takes longer to ignite, allowing for a longer smoking time

Dry Wood Planks:

  • Produces a shorter and milder smoke
  • Offers a more subtle flavor
  • Is able to be stored dry, making it more convenient for last-minute grilling or smoking

What About Soaking Pellets or Chips?

Unlike wood planks, soaking pellets or chips is not necessary. Soaking them can actually smother the charcoal, preventing it from igniting and causing a delay in the cooking process. Dry pellets or chips are able to produce smoke immediately, making them a better option for smoking.

The Real Evidence: Soaking vs. Dry

While there is no real evidence that soaking wood planks is necessary, it ultimately comes down to personal preference. Some people swear by soaking their wood planks, while others prefer to use them dry. The best way to find out which method works for you is to try both and see which one you enjoy more.

In the end, whether you choose to soak your wood planks or not, the primary goal is to create a delicious and flavorful dish that you can enjoy with friends and family. So go ahead, fire up the grill or smoker, and experiment with different types of wood to find the perfect match for your next cookout.


So, don’t soak your wood chips and don’t waste your time with that extra step. Don’t forget to let them rest for a few minutes before you put them on the smoker so the extra moisture can evaporate. Soaking wood isn’t necessary for smoking meat, so don’t worry about it! Just use dry wood chips and follow our tips and you’ll be ready to go in no time. So, don’t hesitate and get smoking!

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.