How to Use Wood Chips for Gas and Charcoal Grills

Pile of wood

In order to master the skills of both smoking and barbecuing, you need to practice. No one is going to do it well the first time. There are many variables including how to use wood chips, cooking times and temperatures, fire control, smoking types, sauces that can affect how the meat cooks, and more. Using different heat sources can also have an impact. But if you’re determined to smoke meat whether using a charcoal smoker, a gas smoker, or using a standard charcoal grill, there are some great tips and tricks you can try that will have a major impact on the results, how tender the meat is, and whether or not you end up with meats that’s loaded with flavor.

Choosing the Right Size of Wood

You simply can’t achieve the type of rich smoky flavor you’re looking for without using the best wood chips. Choosing the right type of wood will be essential.

Many new smoking enthusiasts aren’t sure what size of wood to choose, whether it should be chunks, logs, or chips. This will depend on what you’re planning to smoke. For a shorter cooking time for meats such as chicken, fish, or steak, then chips are the best choice since these small pieces of wood tend to ignite quickly and burn out very fast.

If you’re doing a slow, long smoke for a large cut of meat, such as a pork butt, ribs, or a brisket, then you’ll want to use chunks since they can steadily burn for hours.

If you’re smoking in an offset smoker, you should use logs. These larger pieces of wood are a great choice for larger areas. A log will produce smoke; however, they also work as part of the heat source.

How to Smoke with Wood Chips

Wood smoked

You’ve probably read that you’re supposed to soak your wood chips before use. While many argue that there’s no need and others swear by this method, in the end, it will boil down to personal preference.

Soaking wood chips will slow down the burning process, since chips tend to burn out pretty quickly. All of the water in the wood must evaporate before the wood can ignite. Soaking the chips delays when the chips will begin to smoke. Some people argue that soaking the chips will result in cooling down the coals. If you want to use the wood chips the right way, the key is in temperature control. Your goal is going to be setting a target temperature and holding it there. Because of this, soaking your chips may not be the best idea. If you want, you can try experimenting using both soaked and dry chips to determine which method works the best for you. If your meat turns out delicious and smoky, then just continue doing what you’re doing. The right way will always be what works the best for you.

Preventing Chips from Burning

Wood will start to smoke once it reaches temperatures between five hundred and seventy degrees up to seven hundred and fifty degrees, depending on the type of wood you use. Smoke itself consists of a complex mixture of compounds that will create the flavors and smells we love. One group, phenol, and other phenolic compounds, and impact antioxidant characteristics which slow down the rancidification of animal fats and bacterial growth.

Burning wood will produce a little smoke and mostly heat. In order to reduce the flame, you’ll need to lower the oxygen level, causing the wood to smolder to release more smoke. Placing wood chips in a metal smoker box, a smoker pouch, or a smoking bag are all great ways to restrict the oxygen, preventing the wood from bursting into flames.

How to Make a Smoking Pouch

Making a smoking pouch is pretty easy. Use a couple of layers of foil, placing a handful of wood chips directly in the center. The pouch should be wrapped up tightly, to prevent any chips from falling out. Next, you’ll poke holes all over the pouch to allow some air in and the smoke out.

The foil works to restrict oxygen, turning the chips to charcoal and allowing them to give off the max amount of smoke, instead of just quickly burning the chips. Now, the smoke will last much longer, using less wood.

Wood Chip Types

Sawdust for smoking

So, what’s the best wood for smoking different kinds of meat? There are several options to choose from, whether you prefer a rich smoky flavor, or a subtle sweet smoky taste. These chips can come from different types of trees. Pair the right chips based on the type of food you’re smoking in order to enhance the flavor of the meat. You’ll have plenty of types of chips to choose from, including:

  • Maple
  • Pecan
  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Mesquite
  • Oak
  • Hickory

Avoid using too many chips since doing so can overpower the flavor of the meat. Once you become more familiar with the different characteristics of each type of wood, you can try mixing and matching them in order to enjoy a variety of flavors and scents.

Now that you know more about the reason behind soaking the chips, whether or not you should, and that the flavor and size of the wood matters, let’s learn how to start smoking with them.

How to Use them with Charcoal

  • Start by picking the flavor of the wood chips that will best complement your food. Next, you’ll grab a bag of your favorite briquettes or charcoal. Place the charcoal in the chimney, then light it.
  • You’ll create a pouch for the wood chips using many layers of foil, then fill it with the chips, seal it shut and poke some holes in it to allow the smoke to escape.
  • Grab the chimney and pour out the charcoal to start the fire. If you’re cooking pork chops, chicken breast, steaks, or burgers, then you’ll want a faster cooking process, so place the chips directly under the meat.
  • If you’re cooking a roast or ribs, then slow smoking is a must. For this type of smoking, you’ll want to use indirect heat, placing the charcoal on one side and the wood chips on top of the charcoal.
  • Next, place the cooking grate on top of the fire, then add the meat and cover the grill. If the grill you’re using doesn’t have dampers, then you’ll need to leave an inch-sized gap to allow the air in, however, avoid lifting up the lid as the food cooks to prevent smoke loss.
  • Make sure you remember to add more chips for slow smoking. However, if the cooking time is longer than four hours, you don’t need to smoke the meat the entire time.

Using a Smoker

  • If you’re using a dedicated gas grill or gas smoker, then wood chip boxes or pouches are the best way to add smoke.
  • Like with a charcoal grill, start off by choosing the right wood chips, then make the foil pouch or fill up the smoker box. Typically, a gas grill with come with a smoker box. If your grill doesn’t, then you can always purchase a disposable smoker box or make a foil pouch.
  • The next step is lighting the fire and placing the smoker box or pouch on the grill. Give the chips time to start smoking. Place the meat on the grill then cover it and give it time to cook.

Smoke Production Length

Some smoking enthusiasts believe that after a certain point, meat stops taking on smoke, so there’s no reason to smoke beyond that point. However, this isn’t the case. The meat will actually continue to take on new smoke for as long as you want. However, the surface of the meat and the environment inside the smoker will change. If it’s moist and cool, smoke will stick to the surface. As the cooking process progresses, the surface of the meat will warm up and dry out. This can easily be overcome by spritzing the meat or basting it. Keep in mind, if you go overboard with the basting or spritzing, then you may end up just washing off the rubs or seasonings that have been applied.

You should also keep in mind that coal doesn’t produce the same amount of smoke that wood does, so if you want more smoke later on in the cooking process, you’ll need to add more wood.

Just because meat can take on as much smoke as you want, doesn’t mean you should allow it to smoke for hours. You don’t want your meat to taste overly smoky.

Smoke Rings

A smoke ring is caused when the smoke from the burning fuel hits the meat, reacting with the myoglobin in order to change the color. This doesn’t have any impact on the flavor of the meat itself. Despite this, a smoke ring is highly desirable and a sign of a skilled smoker.

If you’re desperate to achieve a smoke ring, then start off with using some cold meat, then keep the meat moist throughout the duration of the cooking process. This can be accomplished by spritzing the meat and keeping the environment humid by adding a pan of water to the grill or smoker. This helps the smoke to also stick to the surface of the meat.

You can also use a spice rub, which will add flavor, while also encouraging more of the smoke to stick to the meat’s surface.

You need to make sure that you add wood to the fire early on, while the meat is still cold. This is the time when meat will absorb most of the smoky flavor, without you needing to interfere with the smoking/cooking process. Keep in mind, while you want to get the wood in there as soon as possible, you should also wait until the coals have stopped smoking and the fire is hot, before you add the wood chips.

Wood Chips Tips

  • Typically, two to three handfuls of chips placed over direct heat will last about thirty minutes.
  • Soaking your chips means that you’ll slow down the start of the burning process only. It will not make the chips smoke more.
  • Be sure to keep the smoky flavor in the meat. Opening the door of the smoker or lifting the grill will allow a lot of smoke to escape.
  • Purchase a smoker thermometer. The temperature has a lot to do with the volume of smoke you get. It will also let you know how much longer your meat should cook for. Use a digital thermometer, which will tell you exactly what’s going on.
  • Make sure you keep your smoker or grill clean. Sticky black residue isn’t going to taste good the next time you smoke or grill. The smoke that comes off this substance will probably be full of creosote. Additionally, grease that drips off of a dirty grate and into the fire will make for pretty disgusting smoke.

Don’t Use Found Wood for Smoking

While wood you find while you’re camping may look good for smoking, you need to be very careful. The wood can be poisoned with weed killer overspray or poison ivy vines. Never use pine since pine leaves behind sooty smoke that will make the meat inedible.

Stay away from any wood that you don’t know is the right type and is clean. You can purchase wood chips pretty much anywhere, for a reasonable price.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to use wood chips the right way ensures that your food is infused with the right amount of smoky flavor. Knowing how and where to carefully place them will also prevent waste and allows you to time the smoking process just right. By following the tips included in this guide, you should have no problem turning out meat that’s smoked to perfection and loaded with flavor.