WHY WON’T MY WOOD CHIPS SMOKE??
We’ve all been there! You purposely made a list of all the things you would need for the weekend BBQ. Carefully selected the meat, cleaned the grill or smoker the weekend before, and purchased the wood chips to impart that great flavoring you can only get from hardwood! You marinated the meat 24 hours ahead and woke up on grill day full of excitement.
So, what happened?
Instead of having the best, most flavorful meal you had to settle for an ordinary grill day with no special flare.
The wood chips failed to smoke. Or, worse yet, they just burned up in minutes.
It’s time you learned exactly what to do with those wood chips so this never happens again!
Tip #1: Understand the basics of hardwood
Wood is loaded with water. It’s only after the tree is cut that a loss of water or moisture occurs as there are two types of moisture content in wood: free water which is water in the cell cavities and bound water which is water held in the cell walls.
Try to cook or grill with a wood that has been fresh cut and you’ll likely have a very bad meal; acrid undertones and black, sooty color. Wet wood stimulates acrid smoke vapor.
Now, go the opposite direction. Take a wood that is dry, as in it’s too low to register on a moisture meter, and you have a full heat generator. This is what we want in the fireplace or fire pit to keep us warm, not in the grill, as it will simply generate too much heat and produce overdone, dry foods.
Tip #2: Understand Oxygen Flow
Even when using equipment with fuel assist like LP, gas or electric, you still need to be aware of air flow. Quality equipment is always designed with insulation in mind to keep heat from escaping but all equipment has some level of venting built in. Whenever you use grilling or smoking woods with equipment, you need to find the balance between air intake (oxygen) and exhaust damper or vent.
Some manufacturers will build in the ideal location for the wood chips by incorporating a drawer. Even if you don’t have this option on your grill, you can still provide the perfect spot for producing combustion to the wood by simply placing your wood chip container on or above the heat source. That’s it! Often this can be accomplished by putting your container right on the heat diffuser or bar that is under the grill grate.
Tip #3: Understand What the Lid is For
Have you ever wondered why charcoal grills have a completely removable lid while LP/Gas and Infrared grills always have a hinged lid that is permanently attached?
The reason is very basic; grill grates, regardless of material construction, are designed to absorb heat and produce conduction heat where they contact the food items (conducting heat from the grate to the food). The lid of the grill reflects the heat back to the food grates in what is termed convection heat (transferring heat by air flow or through a liquid medium like water (think boiling eggs). These grills maintain vents somewhere on or near the lid to vent out the gases from the LP or natural gas used to operate the grill. Remember, LP needs to be mixed with air to burn, thus, the reason for all those vents on LP grills!
Here’s the thing — if you keep opening the lid while using wood chips, you change the dynamic of the heat absorption forcing the unit to work harder to produce both conductive and convection heat. Plus, you will keep altering the stages of combustion of the wood chips. Leave the lid alone!
Tip #4: Don’t Wet the Wood Chips
I hear this all the time that the worry with wood chip use on a grill is that they will burn too fast. Let’s break this down so you understand just what happens when smoke vapor is produced from wood material.
The drier the wood the faster it will go through the stages of combustion and the more heat it will produce. If you have wood that is without measurable moisture, you will get limited or no smoke production, just heat. You need to purchase wood chips that have some measurable moisture to work effectively. Chips labeled as kiln dried are likely too dry for producing smoke vapor.
Tip #5: Step Up from Chips to Chunks
Maybe it’s time to abandon wood chips all together in favor of bigger pieces of wood. Here’s how to know what would work better:
If you’re cooking one item and it is a short cook time, then chips will serve you well. If, however, you are planning on loading the grill with an assortment of foods say sausage, chicken, corn, peppers, ribs, etc., then you may want to consider using wood chunks either directly on the grill’s diffusers or in a wood chip metal box (learn how to do this). These pieces, being large and dense, will burn longer giving off more smoke, which means less work for you to replenish. Plus, you can do different types of wood chunks all at the same time (one cherry, one maple, one hickory … you get the point).
Success with wood chips can be had if you learn to purchase wood with some moisture, use the wood dry (no pre-soaking), keep the wood over the heat source of the equipment so it can combust, and use the right type of wood product — chips versus chunks — for the length of cook time.
Then get ready to truly have the best grill day ever!
By Donna J. Grant, M.S., Lead Wood Specialist at SMOKINLICIOUS® GOURMET WOOD PRODUCTS. For additional information regarding this article or other wood cooking questions, please contact her at 1–800–941–5054 or at email@example.com.