You are currently viewing How Long to Soak Wood Chips Before Grilling
wood chips on white

How Long to Soak Wood Chips Before Grilling

Adding wood chips to your grill can boost the flavor and add complex undertones to your grilled foods. After you learn how to grill with wood chips you will never go back to grilling without them. Knowing how long to soak wood chips is a key step in the process.

You should soak your wood chips for at least 30 minutes in cold water before putting them on the fire. This will prevent them from catching fire and allow them to create that great smokiness we all love. There are many different kinds of wood chips to use. Keep reading to learn more.

Do You Need to Soak Wood Chips?

If you don’t soak your wood chips they could catch fire rather quickly if they come in contact with the flames. This might be okay if you are trying to add heat to your grill but we are usually looking for smoke when adding chips.

Soaking the chips will allow them to smolder and create that great aroma we are trying to add to our grilled food.

What’s the Difference Between Wood Chips and Wood Chunks?

Wood chips are used for short grilling times as they can burn rather quickly even when wet. These are good for grilling chicken parts, fish or burgers. Wood chips can be down in the coals or up on the grill, anyplace where there is enough heat.

Wood chunks are used for longer grilling times, like racks of ribs and whole chickens. Wood chunks are often used as part of the fuel of a charcoal grill. They burn much longer than wood chips.

If you are using an electric or gas smoker read the units directions as some smokers can only use wood chips.

Why Should You Use Wood Chips?

Our ancestors used to cook over open fires. This allowed for a natural smoky flavor in the food. Using different woods produced different flavors. The wood used in the fire was as important as the food itself.

Now that we grill with charcoal or gas we’ve lost those wood flavors and the delightful complexities that they added to the food. We’ve traded flavor convenience.

Adding wood chips to our grills is how we get back to the roots of fire cooked foods without the need to cook over an pen fire.

How to Select Which Chips to Use

You should select wood chips that complement the food you are grilling.

Use light woods, like Pecan, Alder or Cherry, for delicate meats like fish or chicken. Light woods provide a light sweetness to the meat.

Peach and Pear wood are not as common and thus harder to find but they work great with poultry and fish. They leave a light fruity flavor that complements those delicate meats.

Use medium woods, like Hickory, Whiskey or Oak, for denser meats like ribs or pork shoulder. Medium woods provide a more robust smoky flavor.

Mesquite is a very strong wood that can leave a bitter taste if over used. It burns fast and so not ideal for long grill times.

It’s always possible to combine types of wood too. Play around with several and see what combinations you like. Wood chips are not expensive so a little experimentation is doable even on a tight budget.

Another thing to try is soaking the chips in apple juice. Alder chips soaked in apple juice make a fantastic combination for chicken or fish.

If you’re looking for a recommendation for some great wood chips to smoke your grilled meats, head on over to my Best Smoking Chips page. It’s got a detailed description of a set of 180 sq. inch of Western wood chips, and you can pick whichever wood you like.

Those come in a bag large enough to last you the whole grill season, and you can easily find whichever flavor you’re looking for.

How to Grill With Wood Chips

At least 30 minutes before you are ready to grill your food soak your wood chips in water. A large glass bowl works nicely for this. You can also use apple juice, beer or whiskey if you are so inclined.

After the chips have soaked for at least 30 minutes drain but don’t rinse them. You don’t want want them so wet they drip onto your fire, or gas burner, or so dry they catch fire.

Hot Tip
Keep the lid closed as much as possible when using wood chips to get the most smoke flavor possible.

Don’t let the chips burn too quickly or they can cause a bitter taste on your food.

If wood chips burn too quickly they can also cause flare ups. It’s a good idea to keep a spray bottle full of water near when using wood chips to help dampen any flare ups.

Tips for Using Wood Chips on a Gas Grill

If you are using a gas grill you’ll want to use a smoker box.

Your grill might include this already. Look for metal compartment about the size of a soda can. You can place your chips in there and they will heat up with the burner.

If your gas grill does not include a smoker box you can buy one. They are simply a metal box with holes that allow the smoke to escape into the grill. You can see the smoker box I recommend on my Best Smoker Box page.

It’s a heavy, thick aluminium box, which is going to prevent it from warping from heat while you grill. The lid opens and closes easily enough, and the bottom part has no holes at all, so you’ll have a hard time catching the chips on fire.

As for size, it can fit about 2.5 cups of wood chips, which is more than enough for one grilling session.

If you need a quick solution now you can make your own smoker pouch out of aluminum foil. Make a cup shape out of the foil and put your damp chips inside. You’ll want to use 3 to 4 handfuls of chips.

Pinch the top closed, being sure to leave some space for the smoke to escape. You can use a fork to make more holes if desired. Place the pouch on the grill directly over a burner. This method is super easy to clean up as you throw the pouch away after each use.

Tips for Using Wood Chips on a Charcoal Grill

If you are using a charcoal grill you can place the damp chips directly on the charcoal. Within a minute or so you should start getting that aromatic smell from your chips.

You can also use a smoker box or an aluminum foil pouch.

A smoker box is a metal box with several holes that allow the smoke to escape. You can place the box directly on the fire or on the grill itself if there is room. Be sure to let the box cool before trying to pick it up when it’s time to clean up.

To use foil, just fold the foil into a cup shape. Add your chips, about 3-4 handfuls, and then pinch the top shut and place the pouch on the charcoal.

Where Can You Buy Wood Chips?

Wood chips can be purchased many places these days. I’ve even seen them in larger grocery stores that carry charcoal.

You can find wood chips is larger hardware stores where they sell grills and outdoor gear.

A large selection of wood chips can be found online. Sites like Amazon and Walmart sell chips in a variety of sizes and flavors. It’s even possible to buy a combination pack that includes 3 or 4 types of wood. Their long shelf life means you don’t have to really worry about freshness.

Check out my Recommended Gear page to see what chips I use and recommend.

How to Store Wood Chips

If you buy your wood chips in bags they can be stored in them until use. You’ll notice on many brands their are small holes in the bags to allow for air to get in and prevent mold growth.

After you’ve opened a bag you risk rodents if you leave the bag wide open. Use a chip clip (like you probably use in the kitchen to close snacks) to seal the top of the bag.

Another option if you are combining bags of wood chips is to transfer them to a 5 gallon drum with a lid. Just be sure that the drum is clean, preferably new, and punch a few small holes in the top for air to get in. That will prevent mold and rodents from ruining your chips.


We’ve learned a lot in this article about how to use wood chips, which wood chips to use and even the best way to store them.

Adding wood chips to your grilling routine will add a new dimension to the flavors you can produce when you grill. Your family and friends are sure to notice and it’s one more step on your journey to being King Of The Coals!