Don't Soak Your Wood. This Myth Is Busted.
"Why do you think they build boats out of wood? It doesn't absorb water!" Meathead
The proof is in the coloring
To see just how far water penetrates into wood for barbecue, I soaked three pieces of wood for 24 hours in a mix of 10 drops of blue food coloring in 1 cup of water. I then rinsed the surface and patted it dry with a paper towel before photography. To skeptics and those who believe in the Easter Bunny: Yes, dye molecules are larger than water, and they are most obvious on the surface, but the discoloration of the wood, especially in the chunk (2) is due to water. As you can see, the rest of the wood is bone dry.
1) This is a solid block of oak. It is about 2" x 2" x 1". On the exterior, on the left, you can see that some die has penetrated the soft part of the grain. On the right, you can see a cross section after I cut the block in half. There is no visible penetration on the sides except for a thin crack in the wooden the top left.
2) This is a chunk of cherry wood. It is about 3" in diameter across the widest part. On the left you can see that the water stained the outside edge where the grain is running perpendicular to the camera. On the right you can see that the water penetrated through several cracks and along a few rough edges. But the wet wood is probably only about 5%.
3) This is a chip of cherry wood. It is About 1 1/4" long and 1/2" wide. On the left you can see the dye has lightly colored much of the surface, but if you snap the wood and inspect the cross section, the penetration is probably about 1/64".
Conclusion. After 24 hours, water barely penetrates solid wood and slightly penetrates cracks. Most books recommend soaking for only an hour or two. Fogeddaboudit.
Some people have problems with chips catching on fire when they throw them on the coals. I recommend that to prevent this and improve smoke quality, try making a smoke packet by wrapping the wood in foil and poking holes in the foil. Or switch to chunks.
Planking: An exception to the rule
Plank cooking is a method of cooking food on top of a wooden plank. The technique calls for soaking the plank in water for several hours. The theory is that by soaking we prevent the plank from bursting into flame and the steam created on the top surface under the meat helps with cooking. As we know, not much water soaks into the plank, so just dipping it in water for a few minutes is long enough to get the job done.
It is conventional wisdom that you should soak wood chips and chunks before using them in a charcoal or gas grill or smoker. All the books say so. All the TV shows say so.
To test the concept, I began by weighing two handsful of wood chips, and two handsful of wood chunks on a digital scale. Both bags were labeled "apple". Then I soaked them in room temp water for 12 hours. I then took them out, shook off much of the surface water, patted the exterior lightly with paper towels and weighed them to see just how much was actually absorbed. Chunks gained about 3% by weight and chips about 6%. That's not much. Chips absorbed more because there was so much more surface area than chunks.
DOH! That must be why they make boats out of wood! Wood doesn't absorb much water!
Let's say the coals or gas jets on your grill are 1,100°F an the surface of the coal or jets. If the wood surface is wet the wood cannot heat much beyond 212°F, the boiling point, until the water evaporates by turning to steam. The temp sticks there. It is the same principle as boiling potatoes in a pot water. No matter how much heat you apply to the pot, the potatoes cannot rise above 212°F until all the water is gone. Then, when they hit the bottom of the pan, they will get hotter and hotter as the water is driven out of them.
In a grill or smoker, after the water is driven off, the wood starts to warm from the outside in. When the surface hits 575°F (approximately), it begins giving off combustible gases. They may then burst into flame and the wood will be consumed rapidly. But if the wood is starved for oxygen, as it is when placed in a foil packet or a smoke box, gases and smoke particles emerge slowly and the wood will not burst into flame. It will smolder and emit smoke. Click here to read more about wood and smoke.
Soaked wood can slow the time of combustion slightly and, that can cause problems. You might see "smoke" but much of it may be steam. You may think the wood is smoldering properly, when it isn't. If you walk away and come back in an hour you may find the wood is not smoking. Or it has burst into flame and been totally consumed. Now some cooks use this to their advantage. On their cookers they have found that the wood bursts into flame when they add it mid cook, so adding wet wood prevents this until they can close the door and restrict the airflow again.
In addition, if you toss dripping wet wood on hot coals, the water on the surface can cool off the coals when the goal is to hold the coals at a steady temp. According to Blonder "Getting the air/wood mixture right is the most important thing."
This page was revised 7/24/2012
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