Cooking on wood can be intimidating for the uninitiated. Outdoor grilling on a charcoal or gas grill, barbecue, or fire pit is straightforward and most people have at least some experience with it. A wood fire grill is seen as a bit more advanced or adventurous, but it doesn’t have to be! It’s not as hard as it may seem as long as you know a few things going in. There are definitely advantages to cooking over real firewood but there are some trade-offs as well. I’ll try to lay out both sides for you here so you can decide for yourself if you want to try your hand at real wood cooking or leave it to the wood fire grill restaurants.
Pros of Cooking on Wood
- The Flavors – This is one of the strongest arguments for cooking with wood. No one can deny that real firewood smoke has some of the best flavors that are infused into your food. This is especially true if you use good fruit woods like applewood or Almond wood or smoking woods like Mesquite and Hickory. With wood chips and a smoker box, you can re-create some of this real wood smoke flavor to an extent on your grill, but the ultimate is from real premium, seasoned firewood embers.
- Its Natural – Gas grills and processed artificial charcoal rely on chemicals to help supply heat. While this may not be a big deal, for some of us, the idea of a 100% pure heat source is appealing. Natural firewood is one way to avoid the use of chemicals. Another is natural hardwood lump charcoals.
- Intense Heat – Cooking with wood over a dense core of glowing hot embers gives off very intense heat which is great for all your cooking with fire needs. Yes, you can get intense heat from other fuels as well, particularly gas grills and infrared burners, but those do not supply the wood smoke flavors.
- Its Fun! – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again! Cooking with fire is fun! I love getting a big wood fire going, tending it, adding wood and watching it burn. All the time invested in building a good fire and getting good hot embers for cooking is rewarding to me. When you finally have a delicious meal out of it, it is especially rewarding. Sure, it takes time, but it is worth it and part of the whole experience!
Cons of Cooking on Wood
- It Takes Longer – No doubt about it, cooking with wood takes a lot longer than on a gas or charcoal grill. If you are cooking on a grill grate over firewood, you ideally want to cook on glowing embers, not on open flames which will char and burn your food. To get that core of hot wood embers takes time and a lot of wood. You need to burn a bunch of wood for a long time until it falls apart as embers and then you can add your grill grate and cook over them. If you are rotisserie cooking you can cook over the open fire as long as your food is at a great enough distance from the flames (for an example see my rotisserie roast leg of lamb recipe which has a video of the cooking process).
Either way, it takes time to get your fire going and getting the core of heat built up enough to be able to cook over it. It is really a several hour investment. I personally love this time, sitting around tending the fire while chatting with friends and enjoying a nice cold beverage so for me this isn’t always a disadvantage but rather one of the pros of cooking with wood.
Maybe You Don’t Want Smoke Flavors – Perhaps your recipe has more delicate flavors and you don’t want the wood smoke flavor that is supplied by a charcoal or wood fire grill, yet you want an intense heat source to quickly sear your food and leave some nice caramelization on its surface to enhance the flavor. If that is the case, then cooking with wood would not be ideal. An indoor grill, natural gas grill or gas grill may be perfect for this situation.
It Can Be More Expensive – Depending on where you live, good quality, seasoned firewood can be expensive, especially in the winter when there is a high demand for it. If you live in the country, you may have a more inexpensive source for good firewood or you can season your own firewood. However, because you need a lot of wood to build a hot fire and develop a deep layer of hot embers, you can consume quite a bit of wood which can add up in dollars. This is a necessary evil for those of us who won’t sacrifice flavor. However, it may not be justifiable for all situations or recipes.
- The Embers Don’t Stay Hot as Long – If you are cooking over the wood embers alone, they tend to loose heat faster than charcoal. Charcoal, especially industrially made pressed charcoal briquets (lump hardwood charcoal less so), is made to supply long-lasting heat and can often stay hot enough to cook over for hours. Wood embers get cool faster. The way to extend your cooking time is to make sure you have a deep core of embers before beginning to cook. This requires time and a lot of wood. Additional wood can be added to the side to replenish the supply and as it becomes embers, pushed under the grilling food. You don’t want the fresh wood directly under your grilling food (unless on a high rotisserie) or the flames will burn it!
- You Need Special Equipment – This is not entirely true, but for most of us, a fire pit grill is the easiest way to cook over wood embers. If you don’t have one already, you’ll need to buy a firepit. Additionally, for longer roasting of larger meats (like whole chickens or leg of lamb) you need a rotisserie device. Both a fire pit and a rotisserie can be built from scratch if you are crafty, so this doesn’t have to be very expensive. A hole in the ground or a temporary brick fire pit can be used for cooking with wood.
In the end, the question of whether cooking with wood is right for you depends on your preference, the equipment you have available, the availability of firewood, time, and the individual types of recipes you want to cook. This is different for everyone. Figure out what works best for you, but at least give wood cooking a chance. It’s fun and the flavors can’t be beaten!