How to use wood chips for food smoking

Written in 2024
by Adam

    Wood chips are a staple of any backyard cook. They provide that extra flavour and aroma that can't be replicated by anything else. Whether you're smoking meat, vegetables, or even nuts, wood chips will make your food taste better.

    You don't need a smoker when using wood chips, a charcoal or gas grill will work just fine. It's best to note each uses wood chips differently, don't worry, we will cover them later on in the post.

    Choosing the correct kind of wood to go with the food you are cooking is important. We'll discuss the different kinds of wood and what foods they pair well with. Then we'll go over how to prepare your chips for smoking, as well as a few extra tips that will make sure you're getting the most out of them

    When To Use Wood Chips For Food Smoking

    There are different ways to add a smoky woody flavour and using wood chips is just one of them. Others are logs and wood chunks.

    Wood chips are ideally used when cooking food that needs a short time to cook, such as fish, steak or chicken. This is because wood chips catch fire quickly and burn out fast.

    However, they don't provide a heat source, you'll need to use either a charcoal or gas grill for that.

    When it comes to woodchucks, they can burn for hours and are best for a long and slow cooking process. 

    Logs last longer and are ideal for large cooking areas such as cooking pits or smokers, and you won't need an extra source of heat.

    Choosing the Right Wood Chips for Food Smoking

    The first thing you should do is think about what type of meat, fish, vegetables etc that you are cooking and choose your wood accordingly. Each type has its own unique flavour profile which makes it suitable to use with different foods.

    You can try experimenting to find out which pairing works best for you!

    Here are some common wood chips used for smoking and some suggestions on how to pair them.

    1. Mesquite Wood Chips

    Mesquite wood chips have the strongest smoke flavour. They are a classic choice when it comes to smoking meat.

    It's a hardwood from an evergreen tree and has been used for barbecuing in Mexico since Aztec times, so you know it must be good!

    Link EcoWoodBBQ|Exstream BBQ Barbecue Smoking Wood Chips Food Smoke Apple, Beech, Oak, Cherry 100% Natural No Chemicals (Mesquite 3 Litre)

    Works well with red meat, especially cuts that need long and slow cooking.

    2. Apple Wood Chips

    Applewood chips are a great choice if you want something slightly sweeter.

    Link Weber Store| Weber 17621 Apple Wood Chips, Brown, 32.5 cm*17.0 cm*12.0 cm

    It's ideal for cooking poultry, pork and fish dishes as it has a sweet, fruity flavour that enhances the taste of meat without overpowering it. 

    3. Hickory Wood Chips

    Hickory wood chips are a bit stronger than applewood, as well as being the most commonly used type of smoking chip.

    Link Western| Western Perfect BBQ Smoking Wood Chips Variety Pack - Bundle (3) - Most Popular Flavours - Apple, Hickory & Mesquite

    It's perfect for beef and pork dishes. The medium-strong flavour is also ideal if you're using spices or rubs with your meat because it will enhance them!

    4. Pecan Wood Chips

    Pecan wood chips are milder than applewood and hickory.

      Oklahoma Joe's | Western Premium BBQ Products Pecan BBQ Smoking Chips, 180 cu in

    Pairs well with fish and poultry as well as vegetables such as aubergines, peppers and tomatoes. It's also great for beef dishes like burgers or steak if you don't want too strong of a flavour!

    5. Maple Wood Chips

    Maple wood chips are mild with a sweet, nutty taste.

      Napoleon | Napoleon 67002 Maple Wood Chips, 2-Pound Bag

    They pair well with chicken and pork dishes, as it enhances their flavours without completely overpowering them. It also goes really nicely if you want to make something sweeter with a maple syrup glaze!

    5. Oak Wood Chips

    Oak is a classic smoky choice for food smoking. It has a medium-strong smoky flavour.

    Grilling Wood | 3 Litre BBQ Smoking British Wood Chips (Oak)

    Best if you want to make something with strong flavours, like ribs or brisket, as it gives them that rustic taste! These wood chips are also great with pork and most vegetables.

    6. Cherry Wood Chips

    Cherry wood chips have a great fruity flavour that works well with poultry.

    Woodabrix Store | Woodabrix BBQ Smoking Wood Chips for Charcoal, Gas BBQ/Smoker, 100% Natural, 800 g/1.76 lb (3.2 Litre / 195 cu in), Cherry

    They are a good match for poultry and fish dishes, especially if you want to add a little sweetness. If you like cherry desserts, then this is the wood chip that will make them taste even better!

    Is Soaking Wood Chips is Necessary? Not Exactly...

    Wood chips are an important part of the smoking process, but not every type should be soaked in water before being used. The only time you'll want to soak wood chips is if you're smoking meat that takes a long time, like beef or pork ribs.

    When soaking the wood chips, the first thing you want to do is pour warm water over them and leave them in overnight so that they can absorb some moisture. This will stop them from burning too quickly, as the water helps to regulate their temperature.

    It is said that soaking your wood chips in apple juice or vinegar gives them more flavour, but you don't have to if you want a neutral taste!

    How Long Should You Soak Your Wood Chips

    There is a lot of debate about how long you need to soak your wood chips, but it really depends on the type of smoker that you have and how long you intend to smoke the meat.

    For instance, if you are smoking a steak, you only need to soak your wood chips for around 30 minutes because the meat also cooks fast. If you are smoking for a longer period of time, then it is best to soak them overnight before adding them to the grill or smoker, as they will burn out slowly.

    If using a gas grill then soaking wood chips is not necessary as they will be able to burn without any issues with the use of a smoker box. However, if using them with charcoal or other types of grills, then soaked wood chips are recommended for longer smoking sessions.

    How to Use Wood Chips On a Gas Grill

    What you'll need:

    Wood chips

    A smoker box for your gas grill or Aluminium foil

    If you want to add wood chips when cooking with a gas grill, then the easiest way is through using a smoker box. If your barbecue doesn't come supplied with one, and it's not in any of the accessories that you already own, then they are very affordable and can be found online like the BBQ Smoker Box(add link).

    All you need to do is place your wood chips inside the box and then light them on fire. When they're burning, simply close the lid of the smoker box so that all the smoke gets trapped in there! This means that it can infuse with whatever meat or vegetables you are cooking while also releasing some smoky flavour into the air.

    In case you don't have a smoker, you can use aluminium foil. To go about it:

    • Place a handful of chips in the centre of two pieces of foil. To keep the chips from falling out, wrap the pouch tightly and neatly as if it were a birthday present.
    • Poke holes all over the place to let some air in and smoke escape.
    • Place the bag on the fire, much like you would with a smoker box.

    Instead of burning the chips and reducing them to ash, the foil will prevent oxygen, turning the wood into charcoal and producing the most smoke.

    How to Use Wood Chips on a Charcoal Grill

    What you'll need:

    • Wood chips
    • Charcoal
    • A metal container to place the wood chips or aluminium foil pouch

    First, you need to build a charcoal fire as normal. There are two a few ways of using wood chips with a charcoal grill 

    1. Fast Cooking Foods

    Once you have a bed of hot, white-grey coals, scatter your soaked wood chips over the top and wait until they start producing smoke before closing the lid. Make sure they are not too close then it will create flare-ups that can burn your meat!

    Note that the wood chips should produce mild smoke rather than catching fire and billowing dense white smoke with an unpleasant flavour. There is too much air movement if this happens. Close the lid and double-check that your vents are adjusted correctly.

    2. Slow Cooking Foods

    Use indirect heat to cook meat slowly, such as ribs or roasts, by placing the charcoal on one side and the wood chip bag on top.

    You can also use aluminium foil for this step as well by making an aluminium pouch with the wood chips inside of it, poking some holes to allow airflow.

    Place it on top of your coals or grill bars just like you would a smoker box and wait until they start producing smoke before closing the lid.

    When is the best time to add wood chips?

    The best time to add the wood chips so as to get the right amount of flavour is during the last few minutes of cooking, or even for just a couple of minutes before removing your food from the grill. That's why you soak the wood chips to delay the burn rate.

    For longer cooks where you want more smoky flavours added it's best to add the wood chips after the first hour of cooking.

    How Often Do You Change Wood Chips In A Smoker

    Remember, wood chips do not add any cooking to the food. When choosing when to add more wood chips it is best we consider these three things:

    1. The type of food you are cooking

    A lot of smoke may make the meat taste bitter, and it might even make it unpleasant. A little control is sometimes necessary.

    If you're smoking fish or little pieces of chicken, you'll only need a few wood chips to get started, then you won't need to add any more because the meat cuts are so small, they cook rapidly (before the original wood chips have finished smoking) and don't require as much smoke.

    Some other meats, like lamb, absorb smoke much more readily than others and can easily become over smoked. So, while a Lamb joint may be cooked for 6 to 8 hours, you should only smoke it for the first hour so that it absorbs the most delicate tastes and doesn't finish up tasting like an old ashtray.

    2. What's your preferred level of smokiness?

    Some people like the smoky taste to be more subtle and others want it so strong you can smell it way before your guests even walk through the door. So, if you know how much smoke is enough for your family or friends' tastes, add a little less than that amount of wood chips at first and then add another half-handful every hour after that.

    When you're just starting out, it's always best to stick with lighter smoke across the board so everyone gets used to how smoky food should taste and they don't turn their noses up at your efforts!

    3. Model of Your Smoker

    Some models have big wood chip trays while others are smaller. So it all depends on the size of your chip tray and the number of wood chips it can carry.

    There is no need to worry your smoker's handbook will give you an idea of how long it will take before you can add more wood chips.

    It is important to note that there is no need to add any more chips past 4-6 hours. The reason for this is that after the first few hours when the temperature of the meat is high and over 63 Celsius (145 degrees Fahrenheit), the smoke won't stick to the meat.

    Tips on using wood chips

    Always make sure to close the lid so that the amount of oxygen will reduce so that the wood chips will smoke instead of burning.

    To get a good smoke flavour, do not add too much at one time. Make sure to check on your food from time to time, so you will know when it is ready for more smoky flavours.

    How to store your wood chips

    When you buy a bag of wood chips, it is best that you use them within two weeks or else they will start going stale. You can put the leftover in plastic zip bags and freeze until needed again. There's no need to thaw if using straight from the freezer which means it won't be necessary to soak them if using the same day. If you need to thaw, it's best that overnight is enough time.


    Wood chips are one of the best ways to add smokiness to your food.

    Which wood chips are your favourite, and how do you pair them with the different types of food?

    What are your tips on using wood chips that make it easier to get started with this technique?

    Leave your comments, I always love to hear from you!


    What's the difference between wood pellets and wood chips?

    Wood chips burn faster than pellets because they ignite at a lower temperature than wood pellets.

    How long do you soak wood chips?

    For fast cooking foods, 30 minutes is enough, however, if you're smoking foods for longer, you'll want to soak your wood chips overnight.

    Do I need a special kind of smoker?

    No, you don't need any special equipment. A gas or charcoal grill will do with an addition of a wood smoker box or aluminium pouch.

    Written by Adam

    Adam is the creator of the SmokeGuys website, running it since 2016. Hater of coriander, lover of all things meat... Adam currently works in marketing with a dream of being able to make food his full-time 'job' in the longer term.

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