Grilling is an art form of its own making, and with there being so many different types of fuel it can be confusing. For an authentic BBQ taste, wood chips are the perfect way to take your grilling to the next level.
However, having the ability to smoke delicious foods is not as difficult as it sounds, and it has a big payoff in flavor! Knowing the right fuel to use, and how to use it will have your family and friends begging you to use your skills at every backyard-cooking event.
Different types of wood each give distinct flavors, meaning you are free to experiment and find your favorite.
However, with so many variables, such as cooking times, temperature control, types of wood and smoke quality, refining your smoking technique does take practice.
But fear not! Read on for more information on using wood chips for the perfect smokey BBQ.
How to Use Wood Chips on a Charcoal Grill
Light the Fire
Start the process by starting up the heat, which means using a charcoal chimney starter. This is the easiest way to get the fire going and is a more controlled method of igniting the fire, by utilizing newspapers as a starter.
However, that is not your only option. If you do not have a chimney starter, build a small pile of old newspaper topped with wood kindling in the bottom of your grill.
Be careful and do not load up so much kindling that you block the paper completely. Place your charcoal on top of the pile, and light the paper using a long lighter.
Regardless of the method you used to light it, once your fire is going you will need to wait a few minutes– when the top charcoals have a nice ashy-grey color you are ready to add the wood.
Adding the Chips
At this point, if you simply put on a few fragments of wood it will quickly combust. That is not the desired goal, so it is a good idea to create a “smoking bowl” out of a few layers of aluminum foil or soak your wood chips in water before starting the grill.
While many grilling experts recommend soaking overnight, a minimum of 30 minutes should do the trick.
The smoking bowl will help to keep the wood from the direct heat and create a fantastic smoking environment.
Remember to leave areas open from which the smoke can escape– otherwise, it will not permeate the food and give you the flavor you have worked so hard to create!
Soaking your woodchips also helps create steam, which might not give you the tastiest of food. You should be looking for a dry, blue-colored smoke for maximum flavor production.
Types of Wood Chips to Use for Smoking
There are a variety of wood chips on the market, and it is important to know which type of chip to use for what application. It really does make a difference in the overall flavor profile of the food.
All-Purpose Wood Chips
Hickory is a popular choice for an all-purpose wood, infusing food with a pungent, sweet flavor that most people would recognize as a classic smoked taste.
This is a good wood to use if you are smoking a variety of meats at the same time because it pairs well with almost any food. In addition, hickory gives the black color that most people traditionally associate with smoked meat
Cherry wood is another classic choice that is a workhouse for many expert smokers. The flavor is light and sweet, and is recognized for being a choice that will work well with almost every food.
It too will provide the rich black color, which in the world of smoked meats does mean that the food is burned– it implies flavor!
Mesquite is an additional choice for an all-purpose wood but comes with a warning.
It is best to use mesquite in the open air, and not a closed cooking environment, because the flavor is so intense. It can be overpowering, but it is delicious when it is handled properly!
Applewood is the perfect partner for pork. lamb, poultry, and cheeses. It has a sweet fruitiness that is mild and most people’s palates will enjoy it. Because it is a more mellow flavor, it is also a good choice for seafood lovers.
For red meats, oak is the more traditional option and goes well with game meats as well. The flavor is intense and smoky so this is not a wood chip to choose for more delicate meats.
Pecan is a fantastic choice if chicken is on the menu, but must be handled with care. It is easy to over-smoke with pecan and that can lead to an acrid, bitter flavor.
However, the nutty and rich flavor that pecan wood brings is worth the extra effort.
Maple is another good choice for chicken and pork, with a subtle and mild flavor profile. Sugar-maple, however, is the best when it is paired with turkey, which makes it a great choice for holiday cooking.
For more delicate proteins, such as seafood, Alde wood is the best choice. Alder creates a particularly flavorful salmon and is also a fantastic option for grilled vegetables.
Hearty vegetables such as asparagus do well when being smoked with Alder wood. It can also be a flavorful choice for chicken and shrimp.
Other Forms of Wood: Pellets and Chunks
Wood pellets can also be used for successful smoking of meats– and can even be added to gas grills to add in flavor. Pellets are created from compressing fragments of hardwoods and therefore are more processed.
For this reason, they might not be the best choice if you are looking for a more natural option.
However, some brands on the market offer pellets without added chemicals, but it might take a bit of research to find the ingredients.
Pellets do burn hotter and faster than wood chips, which can give you a bit more control over the temperature of the grill. They also produce less ash and burn more consistently.
Wood chunks, on the other hand, burn much more slowly than wood chips do. This allows more time for flavor to seep in, and although it might be less convenient, it can lead to some amazing flavors.
You will have to add wood less often than with wood chips, and you can afford to be a little bit less diligent at watching for flare-ups. No matter what wood you choose to use at your next cookout it is sure to be a success if you incorporate the right techniques and pairings.
Incorporating these tips and tricks will ensure your home is the go-to place for food, flavor, and fun!
Recommended: Camerons Wood Smoking Chips Variety Gift Set ( Amazon Link )
To Soak Or Not To Soak Wood Chips
This is widely, and quite fiercely, debated among seasoned BBQ veterans. Soaked wood chips will not ignite meaning they last longer on the grill, giving an immediate, steady stream of smoke.
Grillers on this side of the debate point out that adding dried wood chips to the grill will mean they are likely to burn up before they give you enough smoke for that signature smokey taste.
Those on the ‘no-soak’ team, however, raise that the chips would need to be soaked for around 24 hours to absorb enough moisture to make any difference to the production of smoke.
They claim that although the wood chips will take longer to start smoking, that soaked wood chips will bring the cooking temperature down and produce wet steam rather than smoke.
Some grillers note that they do not find a significant difference between soaking and not soaking, with others claiming that the smoke quality is better wth dry wood.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q.1 Where Do You Put Wood Chips On A Charcoal Grill?
You can use a smoker box on a charcoal grill to produce the smoke while you’re cooking. You can buy these separately if your grill did not come with one, you can also find handy, single-use smoker boxes for convenience or you can even make your own out of aluminum foil.
If you have soaked your wood chips, you can place these in directly with the charcoal once it has turned an ashy grey color.
If you have opted not to soak the chips, you can put them on the charcoal if you are cooking food for a shorter amount of time, such as bratwurst.
Alternatively, wrap your dry wood chips in foil, poke some holes in the top to let the smoke escape, and you can place them directly on top of the charcoal or the grill.
Q.2 Do you keep adding wood chips when smoking?
This all depends on what you have on the menu! If you are cooking sausages or wings, something that takes a relatively short time, then a few handfuls of wood chips should be all you need.
This will produce around an hour’s worth of heat.
However, if you are cooking something at a lower temperature for a longer time, it is worth considering adding another handful every 30-40 minutes to lock in all of the best flavors.
As you perfect your technique, you will be able to judge by the smoke whether you need to add another handful.
Thick, white smoke is a sign that the fuel is burning very quickly, after this point you should get an almost invisible ‘blue’ smoke, which is the smoke you want to maintain for the optimum flavor.
Q.3 Is cooking with wood healthier than charcoal?
There are suggestions that using wood over charcoal can benefit your health. Charcoal burns hotter than wood, and the higher temperatures can produce carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCA’s).
This is what produces the black charring on grilled meat. While slightly less common, this can happen when cooking with wood chips as well.
Wood has no additives or added chemicals, although sometimes treated to remove the moisture, whereas charcoal can contain adhesives or other binding agents.
However, it hasn’t yet been proven conclusively that there are any significant health benefits to cooking with wood over charcoal, to avoid the production of carcinogens it’s advised to grill at lower temperatures, where possible, so the meat doesn’t char.
Q.4 How long does it take for wood chips to start smoking?
To an extent, this will depends on which side of the ‘to soak, or not to soak’ debate you fall on personally.
Soaked wood chips will start releasing moisture and producing a vapor almost immediately after it is placed on a heat source. Dry chips that haven’t been placed directly on the coal will take a little longer, from 5- 20 minutes.
It’s debated whether smoke produced by soaked wood chips is actually the water being released as steam.
Whether your grill has been pre-heated will affect the time it takes for your wood chips to start producing smoke. The higher the temperature when you add your chips, the quicker they will start to smolder and you can start cooking.
Q.5 Can you put wood chips directly on charcoal when grilling?
The short answer is yes, but results will vary depending on whether they have been soaked or not, and how long you need them to burn for.
For food that requires a shorter cooking time, such as chicken or wings, where only a short burst of smoke is necessary to produce the desired flavor, then dry chips directly on the charcoal will be fine.
Small fires are said to produce the best-tasting smoke, but this is something you will have to try for yourself!
If you are grilling for a longer time, wood chips will need to be soaked to stop them from burning out too quickly. If you are looking to elevate your BBQ experience this summer, adding wood chips to your charcoal grill is a must.
Everyone has different cooking and taste preferences, and of course, different grills (and even the weather conditions!) will give varying results.
The best way to find your perfect wood and smoke combination, and become the talk of the neighborhood, is having fun getting plenty of practice to see what works for you.