Cooking with Wood: Choosing Wood, Timing and Retaining Heat


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Supper on the Grill 

After many years of trying to successfully mesh my love of the outside with my love of food; I have found a true wood fire to be the most satisfying way to get supper on the table. Cooking with wood is not always practical; however, when utilized can produce wonderful flavors. There is no proper way to go about cooking with wood; and I believe it is because this is the way we, as humans, began our path to cooked food. How you accomplish your wood cooked food will largely depend on your resources and taste. This article is not necessarily a “how to,” it is more of a “lessons learned” for you to take and build on as you build up your own cooking fires. 

The Wood

Depending on your location in the world, you may or may not have access to readily available wood. Fortunately it takes a surprisingly small amount of wood to cook a meal. For most hardwoods, you could imagine that the volume of wood to cook a meal would be one and a half times larger than the amount of charcoal you would use to cook a meal. That is a very safe over estimation. Depending on what you are cooking you may need less fuel. For example, hamburgers and hot dogs require a very small amount of wood, while cooking a roast requires more. Learning the types of wood available in your area is important. Each type of wood burns differently.

We live in the Appalachian Mountains so we have ready access to hardwoods. If I want to cook something fast and hot, searing steak for example, I like to use ash wood. If I am cooking something that needs time and low heat, like a roast, I will use oak. Woods all result in different tastes as well. In our area we have a number of locust trees. Locust trees give off a most unappealing smell when they are burned so I never use them for my cooking fire. Even if you are cooking in a closed dutch oven; a small amount of smoke will permeate your food so foul smoke will taint the taste of your food. 

You do not need to cut down healthy trees to cook your food. Oftentimes I will poke around our woods to find limbs that have fallen from storms to use as cooking wood. Some of our trees are the victims of invasive species and need to be culled anyway. The ash trees are a prime candidate for culling as they have been attacked by beetles in the past few years. Dead wood will burn more efficiently and more hot than “green” wood. Using the leftovers and castoffs from the forest are beneficial to both you and the trees. 



Whatever wood you use, the most important thing to know is to only use natural wood. Wood that has been treated has harmful chemicals that should not be used to cook with. Also be cautious if you have poison oak or ivy in your area; burning those plants can cause allergic reactions. 



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