Whether you’re using an electric smoker, smoking with your charcoal, or whatever other method you choose, wood chips are a necessity. Most people know how to work wood chips into whatever setup they have, and have a vague idea of which flavors of chips pair well with different kinds of meat.
But one of the most commonly misunderstood things about smoking is a factor which is fairly simple, but sometimes unintuitive: when do you add more wood chips into your smoker setup?
The real answer here might be disappointing. It really depends on a variety of factors, and one of the most important of those factors is how much smoke do you personally want in your meat?
If you like to have a very heavy smoke flavor in your meat, you’ll likely want to change out your wood chips fairly frequently. This will make a deeper and richer smoky flavor that will start to overpower the meat after a while, so you can go as deep in terms of flavor as you want.
Similarly, you can hold back on the smoke chips when replacing for a lighter flavor, creating a thinner smoke ring that only very faintly flavors the meat.
In addition to personal preference, it should be said that the size and delicacy of what you’re cooking play a large part in this as well; I’d be hard pressed to find people who ONLY want to taste smoke, and not meat.
So if you’re smoking something like a chicken breast, or some fish, you’re naturally also going to want less smoke as a matter of course.
1. How Much is Too Much?
It’s all well and good saying that sometimes you want more or less smoke for certain foods, but where is the line drawn? How much is too much (or too little) smoke for various kinds of food?
While there’s no hard and fast rule to follow, there’s a few guidelines to consider, that should help you put your best judgment to work no matter what you’re cooking.
For smaller, more discrete, or delicately flavored foods like chicken, fish, baked goods, and so on, the smallest possible amount of smoke is what you should be choosing for. The answer to “how often should I change my wood chips out?” is in essence “never” for foods like this You let the first batch of wood smoke itself out, and then just leave it as is from then on out. It will have a nice, light smoky flavor and be perfect to eat.
For larger foods, the answer is the opposite. It’s “as many times as you want” or “frequently”. This is where timing comes into play the most. So what is that timing exactly?
2. How Often Should I Add New Chips for Large Foods?
It takes the average batch of wood chips somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes to burn out. After that, they stop producing smoke. If your batch is still smoking after that point: great! It means you’re getting a little extra bang for your buck. But I wouldn’t bother checking the chips more often than every 45 minutes or so or leaving it to a nice round hour before taking a peek inside.
This means you’re going to be changing out your chips somewhere between every hour and twice an hour on average for the duration of large cooks, to ensure that smoke gets really deep in there, but the fun part is that you can tweak that however you like.
If you’re doing a 16 hour smoke, for example, you could change out your wood chips between 16 and 32 times to get a really deep, engrained smoke in there: but you don’t have to. If you want a lower intensity smoke flavor, by all means reduce the amount of time you trade out wood chips. Maybe do an hour on and an hour off for the duration of the cook to make the smoke flavor come through a bit less intensely.
Remember, your chips are only there for flavor, not for heat. You’re using electricity or charcoal to actually cook the meat, so it’s going to be cooked through to perfection no matter what you do. The only thing the wood chips are determining is how deep the smoke penetrates into the meat and how strongly that flavor comes through.
3. Is There a Way to Make this Process Easier?
For the most part, no. Through experience of trial and error you’ll know that you’ll need to practice patience with wood chip smoking. If you’re using an electric smoker, a charcoal grill, or some kind of nonstandard setup, manually replacing your wood chips at certain intervals is going to be unavoidable.
The only real exception is a wood pellet smoker, which is sort of a double edged sword.
Wood pellet smokers are very high performance smoking machines, and they help a lot with the overall process of smoking by automatically feeding new pellets in as needed without you needing to lift a finger. Automated temperature controls supplement the feeding and make your job a whole lot easier.
However, they are also exceptionally expensive compared to the average smoker, meaning that extra bit of automation is running you a lot of money.
While a worthwhile investment for people who smoke a lot, and do high volumes at a time, I can’t really wholeheartedly recommend one for the average user.
If you’re only smoking once every few months, or even once a month, then you’re better off just using your cheaper option and dealing with the hassle of changing out wood chips on the regular.
The only real advice I can give on that front is to pre-package your wood chips so you can quickly and easily swap them out, especially if you’re using the foil packet method (recommended for infrequent smokers as well). This way you spend less time fiddling with packaging, and can just yank one packet out, toss it, and throw another one in with no fuss.