Why It's A Bad Idea To Soak Wood Chips For Your Grill

To soak or not to soak, that is the barbecue question. When it comes to grilling techniques, opinions abound on whether to soak wood chips before trusting them with your carefully planned outdoor feast. Nothing is worse (at least, on the grilling spectrum) than prepping your food for hours only to ruin it with over-smoked or under-cooked meats or unexpected flavors from simple miscalculations — and wood chips could definitely be the culprit that sabotaged your meal.

From home grill masters to famous barbecue stars, many chefs advocate soaking wood chips before placing them on the grill. But there are plenty of reasons to question that practice. It essentially comes down to chemistry, explains the Bearded Butchers. Soaking wood chips in water prior to grilling impacts things like temperature, moisture level, steam, and smoke — all of which have varying effects on your grilled meats and vegetables.

Soaked wood chips have an oversized effect on grilled food

The idea behind grilling with wood chips is to impart an intense smoky flavor to your food, explains Epicurious. Whether using traditional outdoor grills or smokers, chips made from various types of woods generate a clean smoke that permeates your food and impacts the final flavor on your plate. However, pre-soaked wood chips have additional implications.

Napoleon, a manufacturer of grills, smokers, and outdoor kitchens, weighs in on the soak-or-not-soak conversation by first explaining the rationale behind smoking food. Those who advocate the practice feel that soaking chips delays combustion while also imparting more flavor than dry wood chips. However, the experts at Napoleon feel there is no need to soak them, primarily because it takes at least 24 hours for moisture to properly penetrate the wood and soaked chips end up producing more steam than actual smoke.

Other grill experts like the Bearded Butchers agree, pointing out that the maximum temperature water-soaked wood chips reach is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which is when water turns into steam. Since it can take up to 30 minutes for steam to evaporate, the wood chips won't actually start to burn and infuse the smoky flavor you want until the food is well on its way to being cooked. Meanwhile, wet wood chips can cause lower or inconsistent grill temperatures, which leads to uneven cooking and potentially overcooked food with undesirable textures. 

Soaking wood chips in wine, beer or spirits

Some wine and beer aficionados advocate incorporating fruity or oaky wine flavors into grilled food by soaking wood chips in your favorite wine, beer, or spirits prior to scattering them across the heat source — but not so fast, says McCormick. In a guide addressing the best types of woods for grilling, the outlet points out that this is basically just a waste of good booze, as the flavor evaporates as steam and therefore won't alter the flavor of your food. 

The spice company does, however, advocate soaking wood chips or chunks for long-term smoke sessions. It's also important to soak quick-grilling wood planks such as ones made of cedar or maple, explains Napoleon. The water keeps the wood from igniting on the grill, and since the meat, fish, or vegetables lie directly on the plank, the steam helps cook the food and saturate it with flavor.

While it's good to listen to the experts, you should ultimately let your own preferences influence whether you smoke your wood chips before grilling. Experiment with various woods, soaked and un-soaked, and then enjoy the grill-icious rewards of your labor.