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Grilling over wood engages all the senses: the sweet aroma of woodsmoke wisping through the backyard, the sight of pixie-dust embers dancing above licking flames, the tinkling sound of large hunks of coals falling apart, the hand-warming glow of a fire on a cool summer night, and the complex flavors of caramelized vegetables, smoked fish, and charred meat. That primal, happy feeling you get when food sizzles over hardwood coals? Pretty sure it’s programmed somewhere deep in our DNA.
In recent years, we’ve started to level up from grilling over just gas and charcoal by getting seriously obsessed with one of the most basic elements of cooking: wood.
Used intentionally, wood can be as essential and impactful an ingredient as fat or salt. As it burns, wood releases chemical compounds that deliver delicious flavors and aromas to food. A mesquite or oak log placed down the center of the grill alongside a hot bed of charcoal will bring additional heat and a kiss of smoke to thick steaks and chops, while just a few small chunks of sweet applewood on top of the coals will do the trick for fish or mushrooms. (See “Pick the Right Wood” below for the best wood for cooking with.)
We’re not alone in our passion for wood-fired flavors. In the past decade, restaurants with custom wood-burning hearths and grills, like Maydan in Washington, D.C., have proliferated. (click here for Maydan’s Slow-Grilled Cauliflower with Tahina and Zhough.) So, too, have the number of new wood-burning ovens and grills available for home cooks. As with all things culinary, good ingredients matter the most. When it comes to cooking with fire, everything starts with wood, which serves as both fuel and flavor. Ready? Let’s go spark a fire.
“If you’re comfortable lighting a chimney full of charcoal, you’re ready to start cooking with wood,” says Aaron Franklin, a James Beard Award–winning chef and pitmaster, who shared this simple but effective grill setup. Start by building a charcoal fire. Once the charcoal is glowing red and just ashed over, bank it to one side of the grill, and then lay a piece of wood alongside or on top of the coals, depending on the recipe. This setup creates a hot zone directly over the coals and a cool zone over the empty portion of the grill for indirect cooking. If you finish cooking before the wood is completely burned up, snuff out the fire by covering the grill and closing the vents. What’s left will be preserved as charcoal, ready to add more flavor to your next grilling session.
The best types of wood for cooking are dense hardwoods from fruit- or nut-bearing trees, such as oak, hickory, mesquite, cherry, apple, or pecan, which burn hotter and longer than soft, resinous woods like Eastern white pine, which should be avoided. Some kinds of wood are classically paired with specific meat or fish for flavor: Think applewood and pork, cedar and salmon, oak and beef, and mesquite and chicken.
Once a tree is cut into logs, wood begins to lose moisture; the more seasoned or cured it is, the drier it becomes. If wood is too green, it will smolder, producing acrid smoke. (Ditto if wood is wet.) On the other hand, if wood is too dry and feels light for its size, it will burn too quickly, turning to ash without imparting much heat or flavor. Seek out wood that has been seasoned for at least a year (with a moisture content of no more than 20%) or kiln-dried (6% to 8% moisture).
You’ll also have a choice of wood cuts. We’ve listed the most common options below to help you pick the right size for your needs.—Mary-Frances Heck
Thick (usually 16- x 6- x 3-inch) oak, mesquite, or hickory logs serve as dense, clean-burning, long-lasting fuel and aromatic smoke for cooking large, rich cuts of beef and for slow-cooked pork.
2. Pizza cut
Thinner, foot-long oak and other hardwood logs are intended to fit inside domed pizza ovens or to fuel short grilling sessions.
One- to 2-inch-thick, 4-inch-wide log slices can be added to charcoal fires to customize the duration and intensity of smoke added to food.
To build a wood fire from scratch, start with a base of finger-length pieces of kindling. Add splits (below) and then logs cut lengthwise into eighths. (Click here and read on for a great kindling cracker.)
Like chunks (above) but faster-burning, butter stick–size wood pieces can be added to charcoal fires for controlled application of smoke.
Readily available at hardware stores, wood chips can be of dubious quality but still offer a burst of smoky flavor when soaked and added to the coals during the last few minutes of cooking.
Lump charcoal, made through wood carbonization, provides clean-burning fuel with trace hardwood flavors. Charcoal briquettes are pulverized lump charcoal pressed into pieces that provide consistent heat. We like to use a mix of both: hardwood for flavor and briquettes for a longer burn. (Avoid Match Light briquettes, which have been treated with chemicals.)
To Buy: Get kiln-dried, expertly cut varieties of hardwood from Cutting Edge Firewood, which specializes in culinary firewood and ships nationwide.
How to Buy a Whole Lot of Wood
If you’re cooking over wood on the regular, those little bundles of mystery wood from the supermarket simply won’t cut it. You need a consistent source of good-quality seasoned wood. Problem is, wood vendors (at least here in the Deep South, where I live) fall somewhere on the trust spectrum between mafiosos and moonshiners: Truth is fluid. After years of looking, I finally found my guy: Cliff Wooten, an Alabama pig farmer and firewood salesman, who keeps me in steady supply of oak, hickory, and fruit wood (not to mention heritage-breed pork chops and bacon). Here’s what I’ve learned about sourcing firewood after nearly a decade of trial and error. —Hunter Lewis
Source: The fastest way to find a good source of quality wood is to ask the manager of your favorite barbecue or pizza restaurant where they buy theirs. Wood guys make their business on referrals. If you like their product, tell your friends and family.
Accountability: When you first call a wood vendor, prepare to ask plenty of questions so they know you’re serious. If they can’t answer the following questions, look elsewhere: What kind is it? How old is it? Where is it from? How do you cut it? What sizes do you carry? How did you store it? Tell the vendor ahead of time that you’ll send it back or pay less if it arrives wet or isn’t seasoned enough.
Volume: Vendors typically talk in cords, or a tight stack 8 feet long x 4 feet tall x 4 feet wide. But in my experience, the volume of your order will be dictated more by the size of the bed of their pickup truck. In other words, that Ford F-150 load will translate into a larger woodpile than a Toyota Tundra load. The price is usually negotiable.
Storage: Plan where on your property you want your wood delivered. Because of insects and fire hazards, don’t store it against the exterior wall of your house. Steel racks keep the wood off the ground and aerated ($80, plowhearth.com). Once it’s stacked, keep your pile covered, especially in the winter. Wet wood that has frozen over won’t burn correctly.
A classic Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal 22″ is great for cooking with wood because of its large, adaptable cooking area and efficient heat radiation. (It’s also what we used to test the recipes in this story.)
To Buy: Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal 22″, $175 at amazon.com
If you’re ready to upgrade to a more durable, insulated grill, try PK Grills. The rectangular shape is ideal for cooking whole briskets and other large cuts, and dual vents allow for precise control of airflow and heat.
A standard 12.5- x 8-inch sheet metal Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter quickly and easily ignites coals without chemical agents. Buy two, or size up for bigger cooking projects.
To Buy: Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter, $21 at amazon.com
GrillPackz stainless steel grill baskets are ideal for grilling anything that needs to be turned often. (It’s a game changer for chicken wings.) Use cooking spray to prevent food from sticking.
To Buy: GrillPackz Stainless Steel Grill Baskets, $25 at amazon.com
For breaking down large logs, pitmaster Rodney Scott recommends an 8-pound maul axe; it delivers more accurate and forceful strikes than a lighter axe. We like the comfort of Fiskars Pro IsoCore Wood Splitting Maul.
To Buy: Fiskars Pro IsoCore 36-Inch Wood Splitting Maul, $53 at amazon.com
To break logs into kindling, use the Northern Tool Kindling Cracker King Firewood Kindling Splitter, an Australian-made cast-iron tool that does the job consistently. Safety glasses and gloves recommended.
To Buy: Northern Tool Kindling Cracker King Firewood Kindling Splitter, $135 at northerntool.com
Build a wood fire from scratch with fatwood, the resinous sticks cut from heart pine stumps, or Ooni Premium Natural Firestarters, wax-coated wood shavings that help ignite charcoal or kindling.
To Buy: Fatwood Fire-Starter Pre-Split Kindling, from $25 at plowhearth.com
To Buy: Ooni Premium Natural Firestarters, $20 at ooni.com