Wood chips are one of the ways you can add a smokehouse flavor to your smoked meats. If you are planning to make your own wood chips for the smoker, you’ve come to the right place.
Before you head out to the forest and chop down your own wood, here are a few things to consider:
- You need to know what is the best wood suited for wood chips. I’ll talk about the different woods for different flavors (think apple, hickory, or maple here).
- The various methods for making your own wood chips.
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Best Wood for Making Wood Chips
When you’re looking for a wood to make wood chips remember wood is made up of hundreds of different compounds. And it’s these compounds that impact how your wood burns, how it smokes and the type of flavor it has.
These compounds react in various ways which ultimately changes the color, the flavor and aroma and texture of your food. Interestingly enough, certain compounds aid in food preservation. They coat the outer layer of the food being cooked and impede the growth of bacteria. Which explains why wood smoking was an ancient method used for centuries to preserve foods especially as refrigeration was unheard of hundreds of years ago.
The burn temperature of the type of wood used for smoking is important. Cooks know the motto for smoking – low and slow! If the wood burns too hot, you’re going to battle to smoke your meat perfectly. So, you want to select a wood species that has a medium burn temperature.
Hardwood is your best wood for making wood chips. If you go with softwood, you’re going to face some serious problems such as:
- Too much sap
- An overload of terpenes which can make people sick if ingested with food
- They leave a resinous layer not only on your food but in your smoker as well
I won’t list the softwood trees to avoid. Instead, focus on the next list and you won’t need to worry about picking the wrong wood for making wood chips.
Different Woods for Different Flavors
BBQ cooks, both amateur and professionals, swear different woods impart different flavors to their smoked food. And they could be right. Otherwise, why do we make such a fuss about using apple over cherry wood or hickory instead of oak wood?
If you’ve a fruit orchard in your backyard you may already have a selection of hardwood on hand to make your own wood chips. Or you could speak to friends, neighbors, or foresters to find the different wood species listed below.
This list not only tells you about the different flavors you’ll get when using the wood for chips, but it’ll also help you to know they’re hardwood.
- Almond: A lightly flavored wood perfect for vegetables and fish.
- Apple and cherry: Both burn at high temperatures though cherry less so. Be aware of this if using for smoking. They impart a sweet, fruity smokey flavor and work well with most foods.
- Ash: A popular choice for chicken. It burns hot and fast so don’t use if you intend smoking for a long period of time.
- Chestnut: An excellent wood for smoking and need I say it? But I will say it anyway! It gives a delicious nutty flavor to smoked food. Hazelnut is another good option as well as pecan and walnut.
- Hickory: Most cooks will use this commonly found wood as wood chips. It’s best suited to pork ribs and other pork food.
- Lemon: This is not a wood one would have considered for making wood chips, but it does impart a delicious, light smokey tang to food. It’s very popular in Spain for wood fire cooking.
- Maple: This is another wood synonymous with smoking foods especially fish.
- Oak: A wood that’ll produce a strong smoke with strong flavors.
- Mesquite/Acacia: These produce a heavy flavor and burn at a high temperature so more suited to an open grill than a smoker.
While I’ve listed the most used woods for wood chips, you won’t go remiss using any of the following woods when smoking:
- Fruit trees: Apricot, plum, tangerine, orange, grapefruit, mulberry, nectarine, peach, and pear.
- Other: Pimento, olive, beech, ash, elm, and willow.
By using any of the wood species listed here you’ve taken the guess work out of trying to determine if you’re working with hardwood or softwood.
3 Ways to Making Your Own Wood Chips for Your Smoker
Now that you know which woods are best for making wood chips, let’s get down to making your own wood chips.
1. Using an Ax
Most homes have an ax in the shed or storeroom. This is one of the best tools for making your own wood chips. Use the following steps to build up a stock of wood chips for your smoker.
- Buy dried firewood from your local retailer. Ask for apple, maple, hickory, or oak wood as this is commonly found in most areas. Or, if you have any of these trees in your garden, collect old or dried pieces of wood.
- Take a chunk of wood and place onto a flat surface. This could be a leveled piece of tree stump, the driveway, or any other concrete surface.
- Hold the chunk of wood upright with one hand and with the other hand, use the ax to chip away pieces of wood. You’re not chopping wood here – you’re slowly and methodically chipping away at the chunk of wood until you’ve a pile of wood chips.
If the wood is still slightly green, it’ll have moisture in it. If this is the case, lay the wood chips out where they can dry fully.
2. The Saw Method
If you happen to come across a pile of wood already cut up into smaller logs or chunks, buy them. Again, make sure they’re hardwood and preferably one of the species listed above if you want flavorful smoking.
With the saw method, you want to have either a chop saw, a hand saw or a bandsaw. While the chop saw is a power tool designed to chop smaller pieces of wood, the bandsaw is the safer option.
- Ensure your wood logs are dried. Signs of cracking in the wood are indications that the wood is dry.
- Switch on the bandsaw and carefully feed each log through the saw, cutting into small flat wood chips.
- Once done, store the wood chips in a dry place or if you’re using immediately place them into the smoker.
Some cooks like to soak their wood chips before smoking. This is a personal preference and can easily be done by soaking your cut pieces of wood in water for 30 minutes.
3. Hire a WoodChipper
If you’re one of those lucky guys with your own fruit orchard, you know you’ll often end up with dead pieces of wood. Or, when pruning your trees, you end up with piles of twigs and branches. What you’re looking at is piles of potential homemade wood chips! This is the time to hire a woodchipper.
- Remove any bark and leaves from the branches. By the way if you decide to leave the bark on that’s fine. It’ll have minimal impact on the smoking, and some say the bark is responsible for the deep apple flavor (if you’re using apple wood).
- Set the woodchipper to the right setting for wood chips. Feed the branches through the woodchipper.
- Lay out the pieces on a tarp in the sun to dry out. If your wood is still green, you’ll need to let the wood “season” (another word for drying) for at least six months before using in the smoker.
This is one of the quickest and easiest ways to making your own wood chips especially if you’ve got a load of wood to chip up. With pieces of twigs and saplings, simply break them up into smaller pieces and set out to dry or store in a dry place.
What to Look Out for When Making Your Own Wood Chips
Be aware of the following pointers when making your own wood chips:
- Always use dried wood. If your wood is wet or green, it’ll impact the burn temperature and flavor imparted through the smoke. For dried wood you’ll need to season green wood for up to a year.
- Store wood chips in a dry place preferably in sealed containers. If your wood chips get damp you run the risk of mold growing and this will have a negative impact on your smoked food.
- If signs of insect activity are indicated in the wood (wood boring, insect eggs etc.), it’s best to toss the wood out.
- Take extreme care when working with power tools or any other equipment when making wood chips. Wear eye goggles to prevent any loose pieces of wood flying into your eyes.
Watch this informative video to show you how to make wood chips from large chunks of wood.
Making your own wood chips is easy once you know how and which wood to use. It also saves you spending a fortune on commercially produced wood chips especially if you’re smoking every weekend. And a sense of satisfaction always comes when you’ve made something yourself!