Updated June 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Buying guide for Best wood chips

Adding wood smoke to meats, fruits, and vegetables has been a practice literally since man discovered fire. Not only does smoke add a new flavor element to food, but it also kills harmful bacteria on the surface and extends shelf life. Wood chips are an important part of the smoking process because they generate the steady supply of smoke needed for low, slow cooking.

Wood chips used in commercial smokers and barbecue grills come from hardwood trees, either fruit bearers (cherry, apple, pear) or nut bearers (hickory, oak, maple). Each variety of hardwood imparts a different flavor profile to meats and vegetables. Some provide a lighter, sweeter undertone, while others provide a darker, more savory accent.

Finding the perfect pairing of wood chips and meat is one of the joys of smoking, and a quality buying guide should take some of the guesswork out of that selection process.

wood chips
The differences in flavor profiles among tree species is so slight that many experienced grillers choose the geographical origin of the wood chips over the actual type of wood.

The basics of smoking

Many methods of preparing meat, such as roasting, broiling, and pan-searing, involve high heat (400°+ F) and short cooking times of less than an hour. These methods work best on pricier cuts with natural fat deposits that keep the meat hydrated as it cooks. Less-expensive cuts of beef, along with pork, poultry, and fish, do better with low heat (typically between 220°F and 230°F) and a much longer cooking time of three hours or more. This is where techniques such as smoking and barbecuing come in.

A commercial smoker is a compact outdoor cooking vessel that maintains a near-constant temperature below 250°F. Wood chips may be the single source of heat, or they may be added to generate a steady supply of smoke to the chamber.

The smoking process begins when the wood chips reach a certain temperature in the smoker and begin to smolder, not ignite. The smoke passes over the meat or vegetables, and the particles and gasses penetrate the surface. As the meat or vegetables slowly heat on the racks, the fibrous tissues break down, creating a more tender finished product. The smoke also creates a flavorful outer layer and helps preserve the meat.

Another sign of successful smoking is the appearance of a smoke ring.

Types of wood chips for smoking

Hardwood chips for smoking, grilling, and barbecuing can be divided into two camps: fruit-bearing and nut-bearing. The difference between fruitwoods and nut woods may be negligible in appearance, but it’s definitely noticeable in terms of the flavor profile.

Common fruit hardwoods include apple, cherry, pear, peach, and plum. Applewood and cherry are the most common on store shelves. Fruit hardwoods do not necessarily impart the flavor of their fruit during the smoking process, but they do tend to create a light, sweet undertone to the meat. They are often used to smoke pork, fish, and poultry.

Nut-bearing hardwoods for smoking include oak, hickory, maple, and pecan. These types of hardwood chips produce a stronger and more savory form of smoke and may not be the ideal choice for beginners to the technique. It is easy to over-smoke meat, and the results may be too bitter or intense for the consumers. Mesquite is often mentioned as a smoking hardwood, but it also has a strong flavor profile and can be challenging to control. It is a better choice as a heat source for grilling or barbecuing rather than smoking.

Packaging size

Some wood chips are available in single-use packages, ideal for adding smoke to a rack of ribs or a small pork shoulder as it grills. These smaller packages make it easier for new smokers to experiment with different types of hardwood before investing in a favorite.

Manufacturers also package wood chips in bundles weighing several pounds, enough for wholesale smoking projects or frequent outdoor grilling. It is also possible to order hardwood chips in bulk if you’re planning to smoke meat at a commercial level.

wood chips
DID YOU KNOW?
The appearance of thick white smoke indicates the wood chips are burning too quickly. This level of smoke can create an unpleasant acrid flavor if the airflow is not reduced.
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To soak or not to soak

Regardless of the type of wood chips you choose to put in your smoker or grill, there is one important issue to consider. Conventional advice on wood chips suggests soaking the chips in water for at least several hours (if not overnight) before adding them to the smoker. The theory is that the soaked chips would not ignite, resulting in a longer period of smoldering and smoke generation. A number of manufacturers still include soaking instructions on their packaging, and some professional pitmasters also recommend soaking the chips.

However, there are those who believe soaking wood chips is not necessary and that, in fact, it hinders the smoking process. Hardwood does not absorb water easily, so the chips would only have minimal penetration. The water must convert to steam before the wood reaches its smoking point, and the wet chips can reduce the overall temperature of the coals or other heat sources.

In short, there is nothing inherently wrong with soaking wood chips before putting them in a homemade smoke pack or commercial smokebox, but unsoaked wood chips will also perform well if the heat is properly monitored.

Aromatic hardwoods for smoking can be sold in various sizes, from pellets and chips to chunks and full-size logs. Each size offers advantages and disadvantages.

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How much do wood chips cost?

Inexpensive

Single-use packages of common hardwoods can be found on store shelves for $10 or less. The selection may be limited to popular fruitwoods (apple, cherry) or possibly a nut wood such as hickory.

Mid-range

Larger bags of fruit or nut-bearing hardwood chips typically cost between $10 and $25. This range includes a wider assortment of fruitwoods plus the more expensive oaks, mesquites, and hickories used in commercial smoking.

Expensive

The rarest hardwoods used for smoking meats, primarily old-growth fruit trees, cost at least $25 per container. An assortment of more common hardwoods can also cost $35 or more, but it does offer home cooks a range of flavor options.

wood chips
DID YOU KNOW?
Wood smoke typically contains 100 compounds which may be in the form of solids, liquids, or gasses. A gas called syringol creates a smoky aroma, while a gas called guiacol creates a smoky flavor.
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Tips

  • Avoid adding too much smoke. There is a learning curve associated with smoking meats and vegetables. A common mistake is adding too many wood chips at one time. The result can be an unpleasant bitter flavor. Add wood chips sparingly if the smoke is no longer steady.
  • Check the smoker temperature at least hourly. While a “low and slow” cooking process does allow for downtime, maintaining a consistent temperature is critical. A wireless thermometer system can alert you if the smoker’s temperature falls out of the ideal range.
  • Use a mister to keep the meat moist. Mix equal parts water and apple cider vinegar in a spray bottle with a mist setting. Periodically mist the surface of the meat during the smoking process. This will help keep the meat from drying out, and it will also attract smoke particles to the meat for a stronger flavor.
  • Consider using a dry brine or rub before smoking. Dry brining the meat with just kosher salt a few hours before smoking will add flavor, and it will also trigger a moisture-trapping response called denaturing.
  • Do not use expensive cuts of meat without experience. A good rule of thumb for beginners is to only use meat you can afford to ruin. Start with a more forgiving meat such as chicken or pork butt. Then, work your way up to more challenging meats, such as pork ribs and beef brisket.
  • Use wood chips in a smoke infuser. These countertop gadgets allow you to add smoky flavor to small cuts of meat, cheese, cocktails, or even salt.
wood chips
The common practice of soaking wood chips before smoking is a source of debate among experienced grillers. Most recommend soaking to avoid burning, but some feel it’s an unnecessary step that delays smoke formation.

FAQ

Q. Can I use wood chips from pine or cedar trees for smoking?

A. Softwood trees such as pine and cedar are not recommended for smoking because they contain volatile oils that impart an unpleasant flavor when the wood reaches its smoke point. It is much better to use prepackaged hardwood chips or create larger chunks from hardwood logs.

Q. How can I control the amount of smoke the wood chips generate?

A. A quality smoke box or handmade smoke pack should provide some control over the smoke level, but sometimes, a wood chip will ignite rather than smolder. Reduce the amount of available oxygen in the smoker or grill by closing off the vents until the smoke lessens.

Q. Are there meats that shouldn’t be smoked with wood chips?

A. Smoking is considered a low and slow method for cooking “tough” meats such as pork shoulder, beef brisket, and ribs. Higher-end cuts that respond well to roasting or grilling should not be smoked, such as pork tenderloin and lean beef roast.

Q. What is a smoker box?

A. While many home cooks fashion their own smoke packets using perforated aluminum foil, commercial metal smoker boxes are also available. These perforated boxes hold a certain number of wood chips in a specific area of the smoker or can be placed on top of hot coals in a backyard grill. They are generally inexpensive and help produce a steady supply of smoke through the vents.

Q. How can I know which types of wood chips are compatible with various meats?

A. The matching of hardwoods and meats is more art than science, but master smokers have created a list of recommended pairings. In general, the flavor profile of the meat (sweet, savory, beefy, etc.) should be enhanced by the flavor profile of the wood chips. This information is often included with recipes or researchable online.

 

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