Wet Wood Vs. Dry Wood: Is Soaking Necessary?

There are pitmasters who insist on soaking their wood chunks and chips before smoking meat, and then there are those who are adamantly against it. Does it make a difference, though?

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The wet wood vs. dry wood debate is one that has raged on for ages. If you're on the fence or haven't formed an opinion yet, the following points might help make up your mind.

Point #1: Believe it or not, studies show that solid chunks of wood absorb very little water---even after hours of soaking. Cross sections of various hardwood species indicated minimal penetration beyond the surface layer and only slightly more water absorption in cracks and crevices. Wood chips do take on more water because of their large surface area.

Point #2: When you put wet wood on a grill or smoker, it doesn't start smoldering immediately. In fact, what you're witnessing is the water evaporating at 212ºF (boiling point) and turning into steam. Only once the moisture has completely evaporated will the wood chunk heat up to the point where it can produce smoke and impart flavor to your food.

Point #3: Point #2 kills the theory that wet wood will give you a longer smoke. If the wood is steaming, it isn't smoking.

Point #4: If you're using a charcoal cooker, soaked wood can smother the fire and reduce the heat. With temperature control being a crucial part of smoking, you're unlikely to want any interference.

Point #5: Many pitmasters soak wood chips because they tend to burn up in a heartbeat. Experts suggest that you place dry chips in a foil packet and then poke holes in it to release the smoke. This workaround not only prevents the chips from catching fire, but it also improves the quality of the smoke.

The Exception

If you enjoy plank cooking, you'll want to soak the wood for a few hours before placing it over the heat. Although the plank won't absorb much water, the moisture will prevent the wood from catching fire and incinerating your food. If you forget to soak, you could find yourself facing a relatively expensive mistake and calling for takeout.

Ultimately, you want to create a clean burning fire with a sweet smelling smoke that's thin, blue, and almost invisible. While the wet wood vs. dry wood debate is likely to rage on as long as there's wood to burn and meat to smoke, the reality is that soaking is often unnecessary and shows very little benefit. Wood must be dry for it to smoke rather than steam, so you're essentially wasting time and H2O with soaking. If you're not convinced, go ahead and experiment. We'd love to hear your results.

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