So, you’re wanting to add a little more flavor to your grilled food? You’re most likely already grilling your food because you like the smokiness that the grill imparts on the food. Whether it’s from the meat juices dripping on hot charcoal, or if you have a gas grill, the meat juices dripping on the flame protectors, flavorizer bars or ceramic briquettes - it’s the smokiness from these drippings that help make grilled food taste sooo good. But you can add even more smokiness flavor to your meats if you use smoking wood, too.
But that just leads to a lot more questions… Should I use wood chips or chunks? What kind of wood chips or chunks taste best with which kinds of meat? How much should I use? Should I soak them first? Ah, questions, questions, questions…. There’s a lot to cover here, so go get your favorite beverage – perhaps an IPA or glass of wine? – and get comfortable, let’s see if we can help!
What’s the difference between chips and chunks? Smoking wood chips are the smaller pieces of wood, about the size and thickness of a quarter or so, or smaller. Whereas wood chunks are the bigger pieces of smoking wood, more along the size of your fist. Obviously, the chips are going to burn a lot faster than chunks, since they’re smaller. So, there are different ways to use chips vs. chunks.
When to use chips vs. chunks? In general, chips are best used on gas grills and chunks are best used with charcoal grills.
The best way to use wood chips on a gas grill is to put them in a smoker box, a foil pan, or a pouch of foil. Smoker boxes are usually metal boxes that are solid on the bottom and sides with a lid that has various holes in it. The idea is to put some wood chips in the box, close the lid and set the box under the grilling grate or on top of the grate. You then turn the burner on under the smoker box to medium high to get the wood chips to start smoking. If you don’t have smoker box you can also use a disposable foil pan, fill it with chips and put some foil over top of it with holes poked in the foil cover to let the smoke out. Or you can wrap a handful of chips up in foil wrap (I’d go with at least two layers) and poke some holes in the top again to let the smoke out.
For a charcoal grill, it’s best to use wood chunks. Because of the high heat chunks will burn longer than chips. You can either put your wood chunks on top of your burning charcoal, or you can pour your hot coals out of your chimney on to your wood chunks, so they’re on the bottom of the fire. You can do it either way – experiment and find which way you like best. This applies to kettle grills and kamado grills, or any kind of charcoal grill you might have.
For best results when smoking meat on your grill – keep the lid closed!! The smoke will never get into the meat if you keep lifting the lid to see how its going. Like they say – “If you’re looking, you ain’t cookin’!”
Next question: What kind of wood should I use? Different kinds of wood impart different flavors for different kinds of meat. In general, the fruit woods – apple, cherry, peach - tend to be the lightest in smokiness and typically go well with chicken and pork. Mesquite and hickory are stronger and tend to go well with beef. Experiment – try different woods with different meats. One of my personal favorites is pecan wood smoked chicken wings or chicken thighs. (We’ll get into that recipe in another article someday.)
How much wood should you use? Well, think of smoke as a seasoning, kind of similar to salt and pepper. If you use too much, you can’t take it back out! So, if you’re new to using chips or chunks, it’s better to go with smaller amounts at first, if in doubt. In general, a handful or two of chips in your smoker box should be sufficient for gas grills. Whereas 2-3 good sized (the size of your fist) chunks should suffice for most charcoal grills. But it also depends on what you’re cooking and for how long.
And finally, the ultimate, most often asked question - to soak or not to soak? That is the question! Personally, I’m a fan of NOT soaking wood chips or chunks first. For chips it just delays the creation of smoke. And for chunks, I don’t think it significantly extends the life of the chunks in the fire. I just don’t think a wood chunk sucks up much water in 30-45 minutes or however long you soak them. The idea is you want smoke – you’re not trying to save wood!
At Great Lakes Grills, we have wood chips and wood chunks! We have apple, cherry, pecan, oak, hickory, and mesquite. We sell it in bulk so you can buy as little as you want or as much as you need. We can also help you pick the right flavor for the food you’re cooking. So, it’s time to step up your grilling game and add a little smoke to your grill. Let’s get grillin’!