When you’re grilling or cooking in a smoker, adding some wood to the fire is the best way to get that true smoky flavor. Whether you use the best portable charcoal grill, a gas or electric smoker, you can add wood for an authentic flavor. Wood chips and chunks come prepackaged for your convenience, but which type of wood should you use? What’s the difference between wood chips and chunks for grilling and smoking? Let’s find out.
Wood chips consist of small pieces of wood that are great for quick, short bursts of smoke. Even if you soak your wood chips, they will burn up pretty quickly and will create smoke, then disappear. If you’re not smoking meat for a long period of time, or if you want a subtle smoky flavor, then wood chips are the best choice.
When you bring home a new smoker, make sure you read the instructions, which will give you some tips on how to use wood chips. Some gas and electric smokers are specifically designed for wood chip use only. This means you’ll be unable to use wood chunks with that type of unit.
Wood chunks consist of larger pieces of wood. Chunks are often less than two inches in length and are a great choice for smoking meat for an extended period of time. You’ll get more smoke during the cooking process, without the need to add more to the smoker or grill every half an hour. Make sure you check whether the smoker you have can be used with wood chunks.
Choosing the Wood
When you’re purchasing wood for smoking, make sure you take your time and choose a type of hardwood that offers a pleasant scent and flavor. Look for high-quality chips that will complement the type of meat you’re smoking. The best wood chips for smoking will add some rich flavor to any meat.
To Soak or Not to Soak?
Whether you’re using chunks or chips, you don’t want the wood burning too quickly. Wood that burns too quickly will create an intense burst of smoke that can cause the food to taste too bitter. When you soak the wood in water, you’ll slow down the burning process, lengthening the time the wood smokes. You can soak the wood chunks for approximately half an hour, or the wood chips for fifteen minutes. Be sure to allow the wood to drip dry for several minutes before you add the wood to the fire. The goal is to keep the wood moist, not soaking wet. Other people argue that soaking the wood does nothing more than prevent the wood from smoking right away and does nothing to lengthen the smoking time.
This is a hot topic that has been debated in the smoking and grilling community for years. In the end, I recommend trying both methods and making up your own mind regarding whether or not soaking is effective.
Adding the Wood at the Right Time
When you’re using a charcoal grill, the wood should be added to the coals once the fire has had time to die down and you’re ready to start grilling. Avoid adding the wood chips before you’re ready to cook, otherwise, you’ll simply waste the smoke.
When to Add Wood
You’ll want to add the wood directly to the coals as soon as the fire has begun to die down, if you’re using a charcoal grill. Don’t add it before you’re prepared to cook, or you will be wasting the smoke. If you’re using a vertical smoker, you’ll find that it comes with a pan or tray above the burner to hold the wood. You’ll want to add the wood once the smoker has reached the right temperature, allowing the smoke to develop before you add the meat.
If you’re adding wood chunks and chips to a gas smoker, then you’ll need to keep the wood away from the fire, using a device such as a cast iron box, which will hold the smoking wood, preventing ash from collecting in the grill. You can also use foil pouches.
Grilling with wood infuses your food with a unique smoky flavor that you can’t get from any other type of cooking process. For smoking, hardwood is the best wood for smoking different kinds of meat. Soft wood such as cedar and pine will create sooty, nasty smoke.
Once you’ve chosen the right wood size, choosing the type of flavor will be next up. While each type of wood has a unique flavor, it can be hard to really distinguish the flavor of one wood from another. Choose the wood based on the type of smokiness it imparts, instead of getting stuck on the flavor. You’ll have your choice of mild, medium, or heavy smoke.
Mild wood includes cherry, apple, and alder. The smokiness of these types of woods are usually mild with a slight hint of sweetness or fruitiness. Mild wood tends to pair best with delicate cuts of meat such as fish and chicken. For both types of meat, a little smoke will go a long way. This is also a great type of wood to begin with, if you’re totally new to smoking and don’t want the flavor of the smoke to overpower your meat.
Hickory and oak are both medium woods that are often the hardwoods of choice. Many people will choose oak as their go-to for pretty much any type of meat. This type of meat will impart that distinctly smoky flavor, but one that’s not overpowering. Hickory is considered much heavier than oak, offering a strong flavor that’s perfect for large cuts of meat. Both types of hardwood are great for beef and pork, both of which are meats that can handle stronger smoke.
Mesquite is the strongest wood you can use for smoking purposes. It’s also the wood of choice for any type of Texas barbeque. Brisket is actually one of the few cuts of meat that’s able to stand up against this type of heavy flavor.
These are just some examples of the types of woods you can use and the level of smokiness they offer. With any type of wood chip, especially those that fall into the medium and heavy smoke categories, make sure you avoid using too much wood. Smoke can easily and rapidly overpower the flavor of the meat. So, if you’re new to smoking meats, then I recommend using one to two cups at a time and slowly increasing the amount of wood chips as you find the right balance of flavor and smokiness, which is something that you will also be able to achieve using a combination of different types of wood chips.
- Hardwoods need to burn properly and be ignited correctly before food is introduced, just like when you’re grilling with charcoal. In order to do this, you’ll first place the wood chips or wood chunks on top of the hot coals and allow them to burn until the wood is no longer flaming and is instead producing thick smoke. With chips, this will be almost immediate. When you use wood chunks, this will take some time to get it right, so about five to ten minutes, depending on the size of the wood and the type.
- You can also cook with hardwood exclusively, but when it comes to grilling, for the best results, it’s also important to use the right amount of wood. This will lead to improved control between the smokiness and heat that will keep the food turning out as perfect as possible.
- Learning how to smoke and use different types of woods, whether chips or chunks is all about experimenting and learning as you go. You’ll find certain types of wood burn better or impart a richer flavor, which types of woods are best paired depending on the meat you’re cooking, and how long to wait before you add the wood, or how long to allow the meat to smoke. Experimenting is one of the most exciting parts about smoking and grilling.
The difference between wood chips and chunks is that wood chunks offer a longer smoking time, while wood chips tend to burn and start smoking almost immediately, resulting in a smoking time of just twenty to thirty minutes, depending on how much you use. So, if you’re cooking a roast, brisket, or ribs, then you’ll want to use wood chunks. If you’re cooking smaller cuts of meat, then you should use wood chips, which offer a shorter cooking time. Learning when to add the wood chips or chunks and how long each type will smoke for, is all part of smoking meat like a pro and experimenting with new techniques, types of wood, and smoky flavors.