When you begin using wood pellets in pellet smokers or pellet tubes, I often hear the question of whether wood pellets should be soaked before smoking.
After all, wood chips and wood chunks can benefit from a soak before being used in a smoker.
So should you soak pellets before smoking?
Wood pellets should never be soaked. Pellets are made with compressed sawdust so soaking them will cause the wood pellets to expand and lose their shape. Expanded wood pellets can jam in a pellet smoker and will burn inconsistently compared to regular wood pellets.
So unlike wood chips, wood pellets should never be soaked or exposed to moisture.
Now let’s dive into why wood pellets should not be soaked and I’ve even included test results where I show you what happens when wood pellets are soaked in water.
What are Wood Pellets?
Wood pellets are exactly what they sound like – pellets made of wood.
Typically wood pellets are created by compressing wood chips or sawdust into tiny pellets. The compression creates heat which melts the natural lignin in the wood.
The natural lignin acts as a glue to hold the compressed wood together in the pellet shape.
The lignin is also what gives the wood pellets their shape and their shine.
Generally, wood pellets are either used in pellet smokers, heating stoves, or in pellet tubes.
Heating stoves may use lower-quality heating pellets that are made of undesirable woods that create poor-tasting smoke. Whereas pellet smokers and pellet tubes require higher quality hardwood or fruitwood pellets that create pleasant tasting smoky flavors.
Never Soak Wood Pellets
Unlike wood chips, wood pellets cannot get wet or be exposed to moisture since the pellets will expand and become mushy. Wet wood pellets will be unusable in a pellet grill since these mushy wood pellets will jam the auger.
Moreover, wet wood pellets cannot be ignited and used in a pellet tube to create additional smoke. Even after the wet wood pellets dry out, the expanded wood pellet will burn faster and get too hot to smolder compared to regular wood pellets.
Since wood pellets are created by compressing wood dust together and using the natural lignin to hold the pellet shape, any natural wood pellet is susceptible to expansion from high levels of moisture.
If the wood pellets get wet or exposed to a lot of moisture then the wood pellets will expand.
Test Results – Soaking Wood Pellets in Water
For example, below are wood pellets that I soaked with a tablespoon of water in a bowl. After about 5 minutes, the pellets exposed to water were fully expanded, mushy, and unusable for a pellet grill.
The dry wood pellets (left) and wet wood pellets (right) are visibly different.
The wood pellets that got wet are fully expanded, mushy, and will not ignite.
Make sure to remove and discard any wet wood pellets as expanded wet wood pellets are unusable.
Why People Soak Wood Chips
Unlike wood pellets that should never be soaked, wood chips can be soaked before smoking.
In fact, wood chips can benefit from a soak since soaking wood chips in water can delay when the wood chips will smolder and begin creating wood smoke.
There is some debate as to whether wood chips need to be soaked or not before placing them in the smoker.
Generally, wood chips do not need to be soaked in order to produce smoke. However, wood chips can be soaked if you want the wood chips to smolder and create smoke at a later time.
Soaked wood chips will first begin evaporating the water before the wood chips begin to burn which creates the desired wood smoke. However, wood chips can also be soaked in apple cider vinegar, whiskey, and other flavored liquids that can improve the smoky flavor.
There is a good case study published on amazingribs.com that proves soaking wood chips is just delaying the wood chips from burning and creating the wood smoke you want.
Wood Chips vs Wood Pellets
There are scenarios when wood chips are better than wood pellets and vice versa.
If you want to soak the wood before smoking then wood chips or wood chunks are the only way to go. Wood pellets cannot be soaked before smoking since the wood pellets will expand and become unusable.
However, wood pellets are needed in order to operate a pellet smoker so you must use wood pellets and not wood chips when smoking food on a pellet smoker.
Now let’s cover the advantages and disadvantages of wood chips vs wood pellets:
Amount of Smoke
The amount of smoke produced by wood chips and wood pellets is different.
Generally, wood chips will burn faster which means they will produce more smoke. However, wood chips will usually burn out faster meaning the smoke duration will be less.
On the other hand, wood pellets have a consistent and predictable burn which means they will smolder at the same speed the entire time.
Generally, wood pellets will produce less smoke than wood chips. However, the predictable burn is more beneficial since you will be able to anticipate the amount of smoke and how strong the smoke flavor will be from wood pellets.
The smoke flavor of wood chips can be more intense than wood pellets because of how inconsistent wood chips burn. If the wood chips are producing a ton of smoke then there will be a stronger smoke flavor.
However, if the wood chips are burning slowly or burnout altogether then the smoky flavor will be very faint.
On the other hand, wood pellets are predictable and burn slowly which means the amount of smoke and smoky flavor is predictable. Generally, it’s beneficial to know how the smoky flavor will turn out at the end of the smoke versus having one cookout be extra smoky while another cookout has little smoke flavor.
Generally, wood chips will burn faster since the wood chips are usually dry and full of irregular shapes. The irregular shapes create tiny pockets where the embers can turn into fires which will burn the wood chips even faster.
Wood pellets will burn slower since the wood pellets are made of compressed wood which tends to smolder. Not to mention there are no irregular shapes meaning there aren’t many tiny pockets where the embers can turn into fires.
So once again, wood pellets are more predictable which is usually preferred when smoking meat for multiple hours.
Choose The Right Wood Flavor
Regardless of whether you use wood chips or wood pellets, there are some wood flavors that taste better on some food compared to others.
For example, mesquite is a heavy smoke flavor wood that pairs well with brisket and ribs. However, mesquite may be too strong when smoking fish or pork shoulder.
See this guide for the best wood flavors when smoking different meats.
Here’s a table that should help pick the best wood flavor when smoking food:
|Food Category||Type of Wood|
|Red & Game Meat (beef, venison)||– Alder|
|Poultry (chicken, duck, turkey)||– Alder|
|Pork Ribs||– Hickory|
One Last Word
Although it is common to soak wood chips and chunks of wood before smoking, wood pellets should never be soaked. Wood pellets will expand and become unusable when soaked. In fact, expanded wood pellets can damage a pellet smoker.
So make sure to discard any wood pellets that have been soaked in water or exposed to a lot of moisture.