Countless home chefs soak their smoking chunks in water before using them to smoke meats or veggies. The general idea is to allow the smoking chunks -- blocks of flavorful hardwood, usually measuring just under 2 inches long -- to absorb some of the water so that they produce more smoke when burned. So, is it really worth the effort to soak smoking chunks?
In this article, we'll explore smoking chunks and explain why some people soak them before using them. Then we'll explain why soaking them is actually a waste of time and has no benefit. Get to cooking faster by using quality smoking chunks that are dry and have a long burn time because of their size and density.
What Are Smoking Chunks?
As pictured below, smoking chunks are small hand cut pieces of wood -- usually about 1 to 4 inches long -- that are designed specifically for smoking and grilling.
You add them to your grill or smoker, and once lit, they'll release flavorful smoke compounds that are absorbed by your food. Different varieties of smoking chunks have different flavors. Hickory smoking chunks, for example, have a strong bacon-like flavor, whereas cherry smoking chunks have a mildly sweet and fruity flavor. You can even mix two or more varieties of smoking chunks to create a combination of flavors.
Smoking chunks are similar to smoking chips. The primary difference is that smoking chips are smaller and thinner, resulting in a much shorter burn time. You can use either type in your smoker or grill, but smoking chunks offer a superior experience to smoking chips. And with a longer burn time, they'll release more flavorful smoke to help you cook delicious food.
Smoke Equals Flavor
The amount of smoke produced by your smoking chunks will affect the amount of flavor these blocks of hardwood inject into your food. The best cooking chunks produce the best and purest smoke, and therefore the best flavor. This is why you don't want things like mold or fungus or musty water inside your wood - those add bad flavor to your food. We just want the best!
As previously mentioned, this is one reason why people soak their smoking chunks in water. If you've smoked meats or veggies with pre-soaked smoking chunks, you may have noticed what appears to be thick smoke rising from the blocks of hardwood, which may lead you to believe that soaking your smoking chunks will create more flavorful food. In reality, though, it offers little or no to benefit for several reasons:
Soaking smoking chunks is a simple, but time consuming process
- Place smoking chunks in a medium-sized bowl or pan.
- Fill a bowl or pan with water (or fruit juice).
- Allow smoking chunks to soak for 24 to 48 hours.
- After soaking, the smoking chunks are added to a smoker or grill.
As you can see, soaking your chunks requires extensive planning. Many people we know just decide not to use smoking chunks because they do not have 48 hours to let them soak. If you have ever avoided using smoking chunks because you didn't want to waste time soaking them, then we have good news for you! You do not need to soak them.
Smoking Chunks Don't Absorb Water
Even when submerged in water for 48 hours, smoking chunks will absorb very little water. They'll absorb and retain some water on the surface, but the interior of your smoking chunks will remain dry.
After lighting your smoking chunks, the water on the surface will quickly burn off. Neither smoking chunks nor any other type of hardwood will absorb any significant amount of water from soaking. If hardwood was highly absorbent, boats featuring wood hulls would likely sink rather than float. This same principle applies to smoking chunks. Water struggles to penetrate past the smoking chunk's exterior, resulting in a dry core.
It's Condensation You See, Not Smoke
Soaking smoking chunks creates the illusion of more smoke when they are burned. After lighting them -- or placing them next to lit charcoal -- you'll see a thick plume of what appears to be smoke rising from the pile of wood. This isn't really smoke, however. It's actually condensation that's being released from the exterior of the smoking chunks.
Soaking Smoking Chunks Doesn't Increase Their Burn Time
Contrary to what some pitmasters believe, soaking smoking chunks in water doesn't make them produce them more smoke when burned. The smoke you see pillowing out your smoker's or grill's dampers isn't actually smoke. It's moisture that's being evaporated off your smoking chunks as they burn. As your smoking chunks heat up, water evaporates in the form of steam. Therefore, pre-soaked smoking chunks don't produce more smoke; they only produce steam that looks similar to smoke.
This means that you're not actually extending the amount of time wood is adding flavor to your meat. Instead, your simply delaying it. The water in the wood must burn off first before the wood itself can start burning and producing smoke. Those first few minutes are vital for adding flavor, so you don't want to miss it!
Soaking Smoking Chunks Could Smother Charcoal
Not only is it ineffective, but soaking your smoking chunks could smother your charcoal. If you're only cooking with smoking chunks, this won't be an issue. But many home chefs use a combination of both smoking chunks and charcoal. In either a grill or smoker, they'll create a stack of charcoal for the heat and then add a few cooking chunks for flavor. It's a simple setup that works great for smoking all types of meats and veggies.
When using charcoal, you should avoid soaking your smoking chunks. The moisture content on the exterior of the smoking chunks can smother your charcoal, creating cold spots and messing with your cook temperature. The bottom line is that you should avoid soaking your smoking chunks if you're planning to use charcoal as well. Charcoal and soaked smoking chunks don't mix, and using them together will only make your cooking activities a little more difficult.
What About Soaking Wood Planks?
If you're planning to cook using a wood plank, on the other hand, soaking your plank may prove beneficial. Grilling on a wood plank will inject your food with a rich flavor. But if you don't soak it in water, heat from your charcoal or cooking wood could ignite the wood plank, causing it to burn. A simple way to prevent this from happening is to soak your wood plank in water for about an hour or two, at which point you can place it on your grill. The wet exterior will prevent the wood plank from igniting and burning, allowing you to cook delicious meats or veggies on your grill.
The evidence is clear: Soaking your smoking chunks doesn't offer any real value or benefit. It doesn't increase the burn time or amount of smoke produced by your smoking chunks, and it can even smother your charcoal. Save time and enjoy a better experience by not soaking your cooking chunks.
How to Make Your Smoking Chunks Last Longer (Without Soaking Them)
Soaking your smoking chunks won't make them last longer, nor will it make them produce more smoke. The good news, however, is that there are other ways to make your smoking chunks last longer. The bottom line is, it all comes down to the size and quality of your cooking wood.
Size is obvious - the larger the piece of wood the longer it will burn for. This is why chunks consistently provide better results than chips.
The species of wood is important as well. You will get a better experience when you use high-quality smoking chunks derived from a hardwood tree like pecan or oak. Softwood smoking chunks are less dense than their hardwood counterparts. With a lower density, there's less wood matter in softwood smoking chunks than in hardwood smoking chunks. By using high-quality hardwood smoking chunks, you'll achieve a longer burn time.
Choosing cooking wood that has been kiln dried can also make a big difference over seasoned cooking wood. Seasoned wood dries by sitting outside for long periods of time (a year or more). The level of moisture can vary depending on the way the wood was stacked and the location, and the wood has actually started to decay. Decaying wood is less dense, plus it might have mold, fungus, or bugs, which we don't like cooking with! When firewood is freshly cut and put into a kiln, it maintains its density and will therefore burn for a longer amount of time.
You can also help extend burn time by spreading your chunks out around the coals. Place one chunk right over the fire so it starts smoldering instantly, but then place the others a little further away and off to the side. As the flame slowly spreads throughout your smoker, the chunks will ignite in turn over time, providing you with flavor for hours at a time.
You can also make your smoking chunks burn more slowly by adjusting the dampers on your smoker or grill. When all the dampers are fully open, the internal temperature of your smoker or grill will rise, resulting in a shorter burn time for your smoking chunks. Partially closing the dampers, on the other, will limit the amount of oxygen the fire receives, resulting in a longer burn time for your smoking chunks.
The Bottom Line on Soaking Smoking Chunks
It's not uncommon for backyard chefs to soak their smoking chunks in water before adding them to their smoker or grill. The general idea is that soaking smoking chunks makes them burn more slowly and produce more smoke. As revealed in this blog post, though, pre-soaked smoking chunks do not produce a better experience. If anything, the experience is worse!
When we deliver smoking chunks, they arrive extremely dry. We send all of our firewood and cooking wood through a rigorous kiln drying process. It spends 48 hours in the kiln at 250 degrees - That's 12 times longer than the standard required by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). We spend a lot of time and effort delivering you ultra dry cooking wood because it provides a better experience, so don't attempt to reverse the process by soaking them!
You can enjoy longer cook times by choosing the best quality wood chunks for smoking, available on our online store today. Cutting Edge Firewood offers a variety of ultra-premium smoking chunks, including white oak, hickory, cherry, pecan and whiskey, all of which will allow you to smoke delicious meat. We even offer complimentary shipping for our smoking chunk products across the United States.