Today we’re going to ask the question, “should you soak wood chips for your electric smoker”, this question comes up a lot, and truthfully there are pros and cons to doing it either way. So let’s dive in and take a closer look.
If you’re new to smoking then it probably strikes you a bit strange when you find an original smoking recipe that calls for you to soak the wood chips before tossing them in your smoker. It seems counter-intuitive after all how would they catch fire, and if they did, wouldn’t they just release steam?
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But if you talk to an experienced smoker, it quickly becomes clear that the conventional wisdom is that soaked wood chips create a better smokey flavour. However, I have never been a fan of blindly accepting what everyone assumes to be the obvious answer.
So how did pre-soaking wood chips become popular? Well, when wood burns, it gives off heat, a lot of heat actually, and smoking is supposed to be a low and slow method of cooking. We have to maintain steady low temperatures over a long period of time. Sudden bursts of high heat are the enemy.
If you’ve read our guide to the best electric smokers, then you already know the heating element is controlled by a thermostat, so there is no need for soaking wood chips. But to be fair, soaking your wood chips is about more than just temperature regulation.
Why Would Someone Soak Wood Chips?
Most people own charcoal or gas smokers; with these, there is a real concern that the wood chips will catch fire, dampening them before use makes this far less likely. Many will also swear that soaked wood chips last longer or even create more smoke.
The problem with this logic is that when the wood chips heat up, so does the moisture inside them. This leads to the moisture evaporating, and in short order, you have your smoker filled with billowing clouds of steam, which often gets mistaken as smoke.
If you genuinely need more smoke, a much better approach would be to select a type of wood that is known for generating a lot of smoke, such as Oak or Hickory.
So Should I Soak My Wood Chips Before Using Them With Electric Smokers?
The truth is no, and it’s just not necessary. Adding wood chips to your electric smoker will give your smoked meats a fantastic flavour. But you will still need to replace the wood chips every 2 or 3 hours anyways. So you just don’t see any significant benefit by extending that slightly.
However, there are some exceptions. While wood chips generally come flavored out of the bag, you can get creative and soak your wood chips in things like apple juice, wine or even beer. This can impart some exciting flavours to your food.
But you need to be careful as these liquids an overpower the flavour from the wood or go on to create something else entirely. So you will want to experiment until you find a juice that compliments the meat you are trying to smoke.
So the answer is, it depends, you certainly can, but the benefits are minimal to non-existent when you’re using an electric smoker.
Why Wouldn’t You Soak Your Wood Chips?
We just talked about how the different flavours from wood and liquids can mix together in good and, not so good ways. However, another critical point is the effect it may have on the quality of smoke your getting for the chips.
When I say quality, what I generally mean is the colour of smoke. Gray and black smoke is usually considered dirty smoke and has been known to carry carcinogenic compounds, while white smoke is just evaporating water or steam.
The smoke you want to see is a pale, almost transparently thin blue smoke. This comes from having lots of oxygen in the air and dry wood chips. When you soak your wood chips, the wood becomes damp, and the quality of the smoke goes down.
Smoking meat generally follows a less is more philosophy that harkens back to a simpler time. It should be all about the basics and nuances. Too much smoke very quickly takes a perfect cut of meat and makes it inedible, or overwhelm the subtle notes from marinades, rubs or brines.
My Final Verdict
It comes down to what flavours you are trying to achieve if you’re trying to be creative and mix something like adding an apple juice tone to your smoke then its undoubtedly doable.
However, if you just want to throw some meat in your electric smoker and have something great to eat without anything extra, then I wouldn’t bother. The ability electric smokers have to set a fixed temperature and maintain it eliminates virtually all the debatable benefits to soaking your wood chips.