AmazingRibs.com is supported by our Pitmaster Club. Also, when you buy with links on our site we may earn a finder’s fee. Click to see how we test and review products.

Myth: Soak Your Wood First

It is conventional wisdom that you should soak wood chips and chunks for a few hours before using them in a charcoal or gas grill or smoker. All the books say so.

The proof is in the weighing

Since the best smoke woods are hardwoods, fruitwoods, and nutwoods, to test the concept, I began by weighing two handfuls of wood chips, and two handfuls of wood chunks on a digital scale. Both bags were labeled “apple”. Then I soaked them in room temp water for 12 hours, took them out, shook off much of the surface water, patted the exterior lightly with paper towels and weighed them to see just how much was actually absorbed. Large chunks gained about 3% by weight and small chips about 6%. That’s not much. Chips absorbed a bit more because there was so much more surface area than chunks.

The proof is in the coloring

To see just how far water penetrates into wood, I soaked three pieces of wood for 24 hours in a mix of water and blue food coloring. I then rinsed the surfaces and patted them dry with a paper towel. I photographed the exteriors. I then cut the wood in half and photographed the interiors. As you can see from the pictures at the top of the page, the dye discolored the surface only a little, mostly where there is peach-fuzz from the cutting and chipping process, and water and the dye entered the interiors only where there were cracks and fissures. The rest of the wood is bone dry.

1) This is a solid block of oak. It is about 2″ x 2″ x 1″. On the exterior you can see that some die has penetrated the soft part of the grain. On the right, you can see a cross section after I cut the block in half. There is no visible penetration on the sides except for a thin crack in the wooden the top left.

2) This is a chunk of cherry. It is about 3″ in diameter across the widest part. On the left you can see that the water stained the outside edge where the grain is running perpendicular to the camera. On the right you can see that the water penetrated through several cracks and along a few rough edges. But the wet wood is probably only about 10%.

3) This is a chip of cherry. It is about 1 1/4″ long and 1/2″ wide. On the left you can see the dye has lightly colored much of the surface, but if you snap the wood and inspect the cross section, the penetration is probably about 1/64″.

Conclusion. After 24 hours, water barely penetrates solid wood and slightly penetrates cracks. Most books recommend soaking for only an hour or two. Fogeddaboudit.

Now I know a few of you are going to tell me that your deck and picnic tables absorb wood. That’s because they are loose grained woods, usually pine, and they have been parched by the sunlight. But fruitwoods, nutwoods, and other hardwoods have very tight grain and about 10-25% moisture within.

What happens to wet wood on a grill?

There’s another good reason to not soak your wood. If you toss dripping wet wood on hot coals, the water will cool off the coals. But the key to good cooking is controlling your temperature. The goal is to get to a target temp and hold there. Nice and steady.

Let’s say the coals or gas jets are 600°F on their surface. If the wood surface is wet the wood cannot heat much beyond 212°F, water’s boiling point, until it evaporates by turning to steam. The wood’s surface temp sticks at 212°F. After the water is driven off, the wood starts to warm and when the surface hits the combustion point, about 575°F, it begins giving off gases. It can then combust and produce smoke. Click here to read more about how wood makes smoke and the different phases of combustion.

You might think you see smoke when you toss on wet wood, but it is really steam. Here is a test the AmazingRibs.com science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder did with two wood chip packets. Both had 50 grams of wood, but he soaked one in water. Both went on top of a 600°F heat source. The dry wood (red line) rose in temperature rapidly to the combustion point. The wet wood rose rapidly to the boiling point of water and stalled there for almost 30 minutes. When it dried out, it rose rapidly to the same temp as the dry packet and began to combust and produce smoke. Now the exact elapsed time will vary depending on the oxygen supply, but you get the picture.

chart showing the difference between wet and dry woodchips

I have used this to my benefit. I will sometime put two small foil loaf pans of wood on the grill, and pour water in one. The dry one will start to smoke in short order and by the time it peters out, the water will have evaporated from the second one, the smoke time bomb, will kick in.

smoke bomb

One more reason not to soak: Not all smoke is the same. The best tasting smoke is practically invisible, thin, and pale blue. Blue smoke is better than white, gray, or black, by far. Blue smoke needs dry wood and a hot fire, lots of oxygen and flame. Some people complain that their chips catch on fire when they throw them on the coals. To prevent this they make a smoke packet by wrapping the wood in foil and poking holes in the foil. Don’t bother. Let the wood burn! That’s how you get blue smoke! Click here to read more about wood and the different kinds of smoke.

Planking: An exception to the rule, sort of

Plank cooking is a method of cooking food on top of a wooden plank. The technique calls for soaking the plank in water. The theory is that by soaking we prevent the plank from bursting into flame and the steam created on the top surface under the meat helps with cooking. Alas, not much water soaks into the plank, and not much steam hits the food, but if you don’t soak it, you’ll have a bonfire with your dinner the star of the show. Click here for more on planking.

Related articles

Published On: 2/23/2013 Last Modified: 3/10/2021

  • Meathead - Founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.


If you help us, we’ll pay you back bigtime with an ad-free experience and much more!

Millions come to AmazingRibs.com every month for quality tested recipes, tips on technique, science, mythbusting, product reviews, and inspiration. But it is expensive to run a website with more than 4,000 pages and we don’t have a big corporate partner like TV network or a magazine publisher to subsidize us.

Our most important source of sustenance is people who join our Pitmaster Club, but please don’t think of it as a donation. Members get 21 great benefits. We block all third-party ads, we give members free ebooks, magazines, interviews, webinars, more recipes, a monthly sweepstakes with prizes worth up to $2,000, discounts on products, and best of all a community of like-minded cooks free of flame wars. Click below to see all the benefits, take a free 30 day trial membership, and help keep this site alive.


Post comments and questions below

grouchy?

1) Please try the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help.

2) Try to post your question to the appropriate page.

3) Tell us everything we need to know to help such as the type of cooker and thermometer. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we probably can’t help you with time and temp questions. Please read this article about thermometers.

4) If you are a member of the Pitmaster Club, your comments login is probably different.

5) Posts with links in them may not appear immediately.

Moderators

  Max

Click for comments...

Spotlight

These are not ads or paid placements. These are some of our favorite tools and toys.

These are products we have tested, won our top awards, and are highly recommend. Click here to read how we test, about our medals, and what they mean.

Use Our Links To Help Keep Us Alive

A big part of this site is our unbiased equipment and product reviews. We love playing with toys and we have no problem calling them the way we see them. Some companies pay a finder’s fee if a reader clicks a link on AmazingRibs.com and buys a product. It has zero impact on our reviews, zero impact on the price you pay, and the sites never tell us what you bought, but it has a major impact on our ability to keep this site alive! So before you buy, please click our links. Here’s a link that takes you to a page on Amazon that has some of our favorite tools and toys: https://tinyurl.com/amazingribs


Bring The Heat With Broil King Signet’s Dual Tube Burners

3 burner gas grill

The Broil King Signet 320 is a modestly priced, 3-burner gas grill that packs a lot of value and power under the hood. Broil King’s proprietary, dual-tube burners get hot fast and are able to achieve high, searing temps that rival most comparatively priced gas grills. The quality cast aluminum housing carries a Limited Lifetime Warranty.

Click here to read our complete review


Masterbuilt MPS 340/G ThermoTemp XL Propane Smoker


This is the first propane smoker with a thermostat, making this baby foolproof. Set ThermoTemp’s dial from 175° to 350°F and the thermostat inside will adjust the burner just like an indoor kitchen oven. All you need to do is add wood to the tray above the burner to start smokin’.

Click here to read our detailed review


GrillGrates Take Gas Grills To The Infrared Zone


GrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, kill hotspots, flip over to make a fine griddle, and can be easily moved from one grill to another. You can even throw wood chips, pellets, or sawdust between the rails and deliver a quick burst of smoke.

Click here for more about what makes these grates so special


Finally, A Great Portable Pellet Smoker


Green Mountain’s portable Davy Crockett Pellet Smoker is one mean tailgating and picnic machine. But it’s also gaining popularity with people who want to add a small, set it and forget it pellet smoker to their backyard arsenal. And with their WiFi capabilities you can control and monitor Davy Crocket from your smart phone or laptop.

Click here to read our detailed review and to order


Fireboard: The Ultimate Top Of The Line BBQ Thermometer

Fireboard Labs Product Photo Shoot. Kansas City Commercial Portrait and Wedding Photographers ©Kevin Ashley Photography

With the ability to monitor up to six temperatures simultaneously with either Bluetooth or Wifi on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer, Fireboard is the best digital thermometer we’ve tested.
Click here to read our detailed review


Our Favorite Backyard Smoker

The amazing Karubecue is the most innovative smoker in the world. The quality of meat from this machine is astonishing. At its crux is a patented firebox that burns logs above the cooking chamber and sucks heat and extremely clean blue smoke into the thermostat controlled oven. It is our favorite smoker, period.
Click here for our review of this superb smoker


The Efficiency Of A Kamado Plus The Flexibility Of The Slow ‘N Sear Insert

kamado grill
Built around SnS Grill’s patented Slow ‘N Sear charcoal kettle accessory, this 22-inch kamado is a premium ceramic grill that brings true 2-zone cooking to a kamado.

Click here for our article on this exciting cooker