Cooking with Wood: Choosing Wood, Timing and Retaining Heat

Reader Contribution by Holly Chiantaretto and Hallow Springs Farm
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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. 

Timing

Cooking with wood is different then cooking with gas or charcoal. You need to give the wood fire time to come to its full potential. There have been many times after a good meal when I have said, “Look at that fire, it’s just now ready to cook on.” Cooking the natural way, with wood, takes patience. You can always add more wood, or take coals away as your temperature needs demand. 

Depending on the heat you want to cook on also makes it necessary to plan ahead. If you need a hot fire there is a high point for wood heat just before the coals take the downward turn. If you need a steady heat it is best to wait until after that peak. The only way to get a true understanding of when to put certain foods on a grill is just a bit of experience. Typically I wait until the flames have ebbed off and you see coals begin to emerge for any food that goes on the grill. At that time, I will place the racks on the grill and close the lid so the racks get cleaned with the heat and so the coals slow down. It is extremely beneficial to have a temperature gauge on your grill. A temperature gauge will keep you from putting your food on the grill too early and monitoring the gauge will keep you from burning food that will be on the grill for an extended time. 

Starting the Fire and Heat Containment

A grill can come in all forms. I have cooked on everything from hot rocks to a lovely steel and iron grill. The things to consider are; having a food safe grate to use as a cooking surface, the ability to keep your grate up off of the hottest parts of the fire, and a cover for your food if you need to do more cooking than just searing. I once made a functioning grill out of some rocks piled up in a circle, a grate, and a large lid to an oven roaster. There were many meals cooked in that pit. One of the most important things to think about when putting together a wood cooking system is to use things that are food safe. For example you would not want to use a barrel that had paint on it without first burning off the paint. Any materials that may have dangerous chemicals can leech off into your food either through direct contact or from smoke. 

Starting your fire requires the same considerations. If you are like me you may have some difficulty starting a fire. I like to use things that cannot be used anymore to get my cooking fires going. Old cotton, in the form of blue jeans and all cotton t-shirts, are an excellent fire starter. Whatever materials you use be sure they do not contain plastics or other harmful chemicals. For example I would not use any old materials that contain polyester. Using newspapers and cardboard are a great way to eliminate waste with a purpose. I also like to use the food grade cheese wax from my homemade cheese after it has served its time preserving the cheese. 

Dry wood and kindling arranged in a tripod style over top of your fore starter will give air circulation enough over your flames to get the wood burning.  

The Reasons Why 

Hands down the number one reason why cooking with wood is an excellent choice is that wood is an easily renewable resource. It can be done sustainably and economically. Using propane, gas, and electricity is an extra cost that may not be necessary for all forms of cooking.

Cooking with wood is also a healthy option. Many charcoal brands use chemicals that stay on the charcoal and could possibly leech into your food. And eating food that has been cooked over a fire just tastes wonderful. People have developed a taste for “smokey” flavors in food because we have a history of cooking our food over hearth fires from one end of the planet to the other. Dinner does not have to be from the inside, it can happen outside. There is no singular approach to cooking food, it can be an adventure. 

Holly Chiantarettois an organic farmer, farmer market manager, and goat breeder in Kentucky where she also raises cattle, pigs, chickens, and hops, and preserves the harvests from her garden. Connect with Holly on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.


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