I love cooking over real fire! Whether on a gas grill, charcoal grill, smoker grill, fire pit, or even my fireplace, cooking with a fire is fun and creates unique and delicious aromas and flavors that greatly enhance many foods. But by far my favorite way to cook is over a real wood fire. While good cooking with charcoal and smoking can certainly give you some nice charcoal-grilled wood flavors, there’s nothing quite like a true wood fire. There is something very primitive and romantic about it, dating back to pre-modern times, when food was cooked over a wood fire.
Most people no longer use real wood for cooking because technology has made things easier for us. Between gas stoves and grills and easy-to-light charcoal, cooking with a fire is quick, easy, and virtually hassle-free today. However, there is something to be said for a quiet afternoon, lighting a real fire and then using that fire to perfectly grill your food. Sometimes I don’t want “fast”, “easy” or the least.
So, for all those like-minded barbecues, those who want to be a little more primitive and a lot more delicious, here are some tips on how to cook with real wood on your grill, campfire, or even your fireplace. It takes some time and some practice to get it right, but I think you will love the results!
Choose good hardwoods
At the heart of good wood-burning cooking is good wood that burns for a long time, hot and gives off tasty aromas. Don’t skimp on this department! All the grilled smoky flavor you get from your food comes from the wood, so if you use bad wood the results will be bad. So what is bad? First of all, avoid soft woods in general.
Softwoods burn easily and hot, but they do not burn as long and do not tend to develop long-lasting hot embers at their core. Softwoods, such as pine, for example, also tend to be quite resinous and many give off pine or other strong odors that, while not unpleasant, do not go well with food. You can use softwoods to help start a fire, but what you really want for most of your firewood is good, seasoned hardwoods.
Hardwoods are denser and burn longer and hotter. They take longer to start, but the extra work is worth it. There are dozens of hardwoods that are great cooking fuel, some of which have very different and delicious aromas and flavors. Oak is very common, giving off a rich, smoky aroma. I prefer fruit and nut woods as they tend to have a milder, almost sweet aroma. Some great options are almond wood, apple wood, pear wood, and pecan wood, if you can find them. Most people know mesquite and hickory for smoking, but they are also hardwoods that make excellent fuel. If you live in a vineyard, old vine cuttings are excellent wood for rapid fires.
Build your fire ahead
As I mentioned earlier, lighting a wood fire can take some time to really get started. Also, because you want to cook with embers as much as possible, you want to give your fire a chance to burn as much as possible before throwing food on it. This can take quite a while and depending on how much you plan to cook and the size of your brazier or grill, this can literally take several hours to light the fire, keep fueling it to build up a core of embers, and then let the big flames burn out sooner to start cooking. It is noteworthy that while I generally prefer to cook this type of wood fire over an outdoor fire pit with a grill, most people don’t realize that a wood fire can burn on most grills. heavy duty coal as long as it is large. enough. I have used the large 22-1 / 2 “Weber charcoal grills to good effect, as well as some Char-Broil charcoal grills.
Cooking with embers
As mentioned above, when cooking with real wood, the ideal is to cook over hot embers. Why? A new fire, which has just started, does not give off much heat. Also, there are large flames coming out of the wood. If you put a grill over this young fire, you won’t get a lot of radiant heat and instead have large open flames licking up your food. This spells disaster for grilling! Your food won’t cook on the inside very quickly and the outside will catch fire and burn to a crisp in no time!
To avoid this and get the most out of your firewood, take your time and start early. Bright red embers are released shades of heat and do not have large flames. If cooking on a fire pit or large grill, start the fire early and keep adding wood for a while to build up a deep core of fiery red embers at the bottom. Then let the top wood burn until you have barely any flames left, just a large, deep pile of red embers. These embers give off a lot of heat, and because they don’t have large flames, they are less likely to burn your food until it is crisp. Only then should you attach the grill rack and add your food. If you are cooking a lot and the heat begins to decrease, stirring the embers with a poker helps the wood receive more oxygen and will increase the heat for a while. If you really need more fuel, you can add firewood to the side and just shove it, under the cooking area, when it has burned out and has no large flames.
Cook on the spit
One way to get the most out of your wood-burning kitchen is to use a rotisserie. There are several barbecue gadgets that can be purchased at barbecue and camping supply stores. It is basically a large motorized or hand-turned rotisserie that rotates over the fire pit. These are advantages for several reasons. First of all, for large roasts, such as whole poultry, pigs, and other large roasts, it gives you very even and constant cooking heat throughout the meat so the food stays succulent and even.
Also, for these larger roasts, placing them directly on hot embers can burn the surface long before the inside is even hot. Finally, the rotisserie can hold your food a considerable distance above the wood fire so that you can cook over open flames without burning the food. If it’s high enough, only the rising heat, not the actual flames, reaches your food, which swirls perfectly in the aromatic smoke. Prep time is therefore reduced as it is not necessary to first burn the wood to embers, although some embers help provide adequate heat. For grilled leg of lamb, whole chicken, and game fowl, cooking on the grill over a campfire is one of my favorites!
Cook in Fireplace
In winter, it is often too cold to cook outside. However, many of us have a wonderful wood burning area in our homes, although some of us don’t even realize it. Most fireplaces are used exclusively for heating and ambiance these days, but years ago it was the primary cooking area in many homes. I love cooking at home and it is not as difficult as most people think. For most types of kitchen with a fireplace, special equipment is needed. Chimney cranes are available that hold a handled Dutch oven pot or kettle over the fire for cooking casseroles, soups, or coffee. There are fireplace grills available which are basically a grill that sits over the wood burning grill in the fireplace and allows you to grill any amount of food.
There are even fireplace grills available that sit right in front of the fireplace and slowly turn your roasts. But if you don’t want to invest in any additional equipment, you can always cook with a fireplace. Traditionally a way of roasting a leg of lamb in front of the fire, I have adapted the twist of ropes to roast several different types of roasts, from whole poultry to three-pronged. All you need is a long piece of kitchen twine and a screw or hook installed in your mantel over the fireplace. The weight of the roast spins it slowly on the rope so you have a poor rotisserie without a lot of extra gear!
Finally, if all of the above seems like too much work and too much hassle, there are easier alternatives to infuse the flavor of wood smoke into your food. Using wood chips or chunks for smoking on a barbecue or dedicated smoker grill is one option. Smoke cooking can really bring you rich and aromatic smoke flavors in your food. However, because you are using standard charcoal or gas as your fuel source, you avoid much of the hassle of cooking with real wood.
I hope these tips help you get started cooking with real wood to take your grill cooking to a new level of fun and flavor. Remember to always be safe when using fire of any kind! Follow all the basic fire safety rules so that only your food is cooked!