I love to cook over real fire! Whether on a gas grill, charcoal grill, smoker grill, fire pit or even in my fireplace, cooking with fire is fun and creates unique and delicious aromas and flavors that enhance many foods greatly. But by far my very favorite way to cook is over a real hardwood firewood fire. While good charcoal and smoker cooking can certainly give you some nice char-broiled wood flavors, there is nothing quite like a real wood fire. There is something very primitive and romantic about it, harking back to pre-modern times when food was all cooked over an open wood fire.
Most people do not take advantage of real wood to cook anymore because technology has made things easier for us. Between gas stoves and grills and easy to light charcoal, cooking with fire is quick, easy and pretty much hassle free nowadays. However, there is something to be said for a leisurely afternoon, building a real fire and then using that fire to perfectly cook your grilled meal. Sometimes I don't want "quick", "easy" or the bare minimum.
So for all those like-minded grillers out there, those who want to get a little more primitive and a lot more delicious, here are some tips for how to cook with real firewood on your grill, fire pit or even in your fireplace. It takes some time and it take some practice to get right, but I think you will love the results!
Choose Good Hardwoods
At the heart of great wood cooking is good firewood which burns long, hot and gives off savory aromas. Don't skimp in this department! All of the smoky, grilled flavor that you get in your food comes from your wood so if you use bad wood, your results will be bad. So what is bad? First of all, avoid softwoods in general.
Softwoods burn easily and hot but don't burn as long and don't tend to develop long-lasting hot embers at their core. Softwoods, like pine for example, also tend to be fairly resinous and many give off piney or other sharp smells which, while not unpleasant, do not pair well with food. You can use softwoods to help get your fire started, but what you really want for the majority of your firewood is good, seasoned hardwoods.
Hardwoods are denser and will burn longer and hotter. They take longer to get started, but the extra work is worth it. There are dozens of hardwoods that make great fuel for cooking, some of which have very distinct and delicious aromas and flavors. Oak is very common, which gives off a rich, smokey aroma. I prefer fruit and nut woods as they tend to have a milder, almost sweet, aroma. Some excellent choices are almond wood, apple wood, pear wood, and pecan wood, if you can find them. Most people know about mesquite and hickory for smoking, but they are also hardwoods which make excellent fuel. If you happen to live on a vineyard, old grape vine cuttings make great wood for quick fires!
Build Your Fire Ahead
As I mentioned above, starting a hardwood fire can take some time to really get going. In addition, because you want to cook with embers as much as possible, you want to give your fire a chance to burn down as much as possible before you throw food on top. This can take quite a long time and depending on how much you are planning to cook and how big your fire pit or grill is, this can take literally several hours to build the fire, keep feeding it to build up a core of embers, and then let the large flames die down before starting to cook. Of note, while I generally prefer to do this type of wood fire cooking on an outdoor fire pit with a grill grate, most people don't realize that you can burn a wood fire in most heavy duty charcoal grills as long as it is big enough. I have used the large Weber 22-1/2" charcoal kettle grills to good effect as well as some Char-Broil charcoal grills.
Cook with Embers
As mentioned above, when cooking with real firewood, cooking over the hot embers is ideal. Why? A new fire, which has just been started does not give off much heat. Additionally, there are large flames coming up from the wood. If you lay a grill grate across this young fire, you will not get much radiant heat and instead will have big open flames lapping up around your food. This spells disaster for grill cooking! Your food will not cook on the inside very fast and the outside will catch fire and get burned to a crisp in no time!
To avoid this and to get the most of your firewood, take your time and start early. Red glowing embers give off tons of heat and don't have big flames. If cooking in a fire pit or large grill, start your fire early and keep adding wood for a while to build up a deep core of hot, glowing red embers at the bottom. Then let the top wood burn down until you barely have any flames left, just a big, 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 char your food to a crisp. Only then should you lay your grill grate across and add your food. If you are cooking a lot and the heat starts to die down, stirring the embers with a poker helps to get more oxygen to the wood and will increase the heat for a while. If you really need more fuel, you can add firewood to the side and only push it over, under the cooking area, when it has burned down and no longer has large flames.
One way to get a lot out of your wood fire cooking is to use a rotisserie. There are various rotisserie contraptions that can be purchased at grilling and camping supply stores. These are basically a large motorized or hand-turned spit that rotates over your fire pit. This is advantages for several reasons. First of all, for large roasts, such as whole poultry, pigs, and other large roasts, it gives you a very even, consistent cooking heat throughout the meat so that your food stays succulent and evenly done.
Also, for these larger roasts, laying them directly over hot embers can burn the surface long before the interior is even warm. Finally, the rotisserie can hold your food a considerable distance above your wood fire so that you can even cook over open flames without your food burning. If high enough, only the rising heat, not the actual flames, reaches your food, which is perfectly rotated in the aromatic smoke. Therefore, prep time is reduced as you don't have to burn your wood down to embers first, although some embers help to supply adequate heat. For grilled leg of lamb and whole chicken and game birds, rotisserie cooking over a fire pit is one of my favorites!
In the winter it is often too cold outside to cook outdoors. However, many of us have a wonderful real wood cooking area right in our homes, although some of us don't realize it. Most fireplaces are used exclusively for heat and ambiance these days, but years ago it was the primary cooking area in many houses. I love hearth cooking and it is not as difficult as most people think. For most types of fireplace cooking, special equipment is needed. There are fireplace cranes available which hold a handled Dutch oven pot or kettle over your fire to cook stews, soups or coffee. Fireplace grills are available which is basically a grill grate that sits over your firewood grate in the fireplace and allows you to grill any number of foods.
Even fireplace rotisseries are available which sit just in front of the fireplace and slowly turn your roast meats. But if you don't want to invest in any extra equipment, there is always string-turned fireplace cooking. Traditionally a way to roast a leg of lamb in front of the fire, I have adapted string-turning to roast a number of different types of roasts, from whole poultry to tri-tip. All you need is a long piece of kitchen twine and a screw or hook installed in your mantle above your fireplace. The weight of the roast slowly spins it on the string so that you have a poor man's rotisserie without a lot of extra equipment!
Finally, if all of the above seems like too much work and too much hassle there are easier alternatives to infuse wood smoke flavor into your food. Using smoking wood chips or chunks in either a barbecue or dedicated smoker grill is an option. Smoker cooking can really give you rich, aromatic smoke flavors in your foods. However, because you are using standard charcoal or gas as a fuel source, you avoid much of the hassle of cooking with real firewood.
I hope these tips help to get you started cooking with real firewood to bring your grill cooking to a new level of fun and flavor. Remember to always be safe when using fire of any type! Follow all basic fire safety rules so that only your food gets cooked!