Charcoal is the most common type of fuel used in charcoal grills. Available in both lump and briquette form, it burns hot to sear the exterior of meats. Because of its popularity, some pitmasters assume that they must use charcoal in their grill. This is just a myth, however, as it’s perfectly fine to use firewood instead. Using firewood when grilling even offers several unique benefits that aren’t available when using charcoal.
Advantages of Grilling With Firewood
You can always use charcoal when grilling, but the right firewood will enhance the flavor of your food. As the firewood burns down, it will release flavorful compounds in the form of smoke. Your food will then absorb some of these compounds, thereby improving its flavor.
There are different varieties of firewood, each of which offer a unique flavor. Some pitmasters prefer the sweet and fruity flavor of cherry wood, whereas others prefer the distinct and robust flavor of hickory wood. You can even mix two or more varieties of firewood together to achieve other flavors. Of course, this isn’t possible when using charcoal. For maximum control over the flavor of your grilled food, you must use firewood as the fuel source.
Firewood is also easier to light than charcoal. You don’t need to use lighter fluid or other accelerants to ignite your firewood. Assuming it’s dry and well-seasoned, it should easily light with just a match and some tinder and kindling. Charcoal, on the other hand, is more difficult to light. You may go through an entire matchbook trying to light it, all to no avail.
Doesn’t Firewood Burn at a Lower Temperature Than Charcoal?
While it’s true that firewood typically burns at a lower temperature than charcoal, it will still produce more than enough heat to sear the exterior of your meats. Once lit, the temperature of firewood will quickly increase. It’s not uncommon for burning firewood for reach over 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. With that said, firewood gets even hotter as it turns to coals. When only the smoldering coals of your firewood are left, the temperature may reach up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. All that heat will help you grill delicious meats and veggies in a short period of time.
Step #1) Choose the Right Firewood
The first step to grilling with firewood is choosing the right type of firewood. You shouldn’t use just any firewood in your grill. If it has a high moisture content, it will burn efficiently. Rather, it will produce lots of thick black smoke and only a small amount of heat. All firewood has some moisture in it. But firewood with an excessive amount of moisture — typically defined as a moisture content of 30% or higher — doesn’t burn efficiently.
The secret to grilling delicious foods with firewood is to use a flavorful variety of kiln dried firewood. Unlike air-seasoned firewood, kiln dried firewood isn’t just left outdoors to dry. It’s actually processed in a drying kiln that extracts moisture vapor from its pores. With its exceptionally dry properties, kiln dried firewood burns hotter and cleaner than other types of firewood, making it the ideal choice for grilling.
Step #2) Add Your Firewood to Your Grill
You can now add your preferred firewood to your grill. Open the lid on your grill, remove the cooking grate, and arrange your firewood in a small stack. The stack should have an open center so that air can flow through it. If the center is closed, the fire may suffocate from lack of oxygen. To prevent this from happening, you must arrange your firewood with an open center. Your grill probably won’t support a full-sized tipi or lean-to stack of firewood, but you should still be able to arrange your firewood with an opening in the center.
Step #3) Light Your Firewood
To light your firewood, place a small pile of tinder and kindling in the open center. Next, carefully place a lit match next to the tinder and kindling. The tinder and kindling should easily catch fire, at which point the flame will ignite your firewood.
If you’re struggling to light your firewood, check out some of the fire starters offered here at Cutting Edge Firewood. Do not, however, resort to using lighter fluid or other accelerants, as they can introduce a harsh chemical flavor on your food.
Step #4) Add Food Once the Firewood Has Burned Down to Coals
A common mistake pitmasters make when grilling with firewood is adding their food too soon. If the fire isn’t hot enough, it won’t offer a true grilling experience. So, how do you know when your grill is ready exactly?
Don’t add food to your grill while the firewood is still burning with a large, visible flame. Instead, wait until your firewood has burned down to coals. The coals should be a glowing red-orange color, which indicates they are hot enough for grilling. Once your firewood has burned down to glowing red-orange coals, add your food to the cooking grate. If you’re worried that your food will stick to the grate, carefully brush a layer of high-heat oil over the grate first.
If you can’t get your firewood to turn to coals, consider the following tips to heat it up:
- Gently blow into the center of the firewood to provide it with more oxygen.
- Poke the firewood with a long metal utensil.
- Add more firewood logs to it.
- Place your grill in an open area.
- Make sure you are using kiln dried firewood and not fresh, green or air-dried firewood.
Step #5) Check Food Periodically
Your food will cook quickly when placed directly over the glowing red-orange coals, so it’s a good idea to check it periodically to ensure that it doesn’t burn. Depending on what type of food you are grilling, you may need to check as frequently as every three to five minutes. Steaks, for instance, only require a few minutes of cooking on each side to achieve a medium-rare temperature. Even hot dogs typically only require a few minutes of cooking on a hot grill. If you happen to cook your food for too long, it may burn the exterior rather than searing it.
Can I Grill Using Both Firewood and Charcoal?
You can absolutely use both firewood and charcoal in your grill. When using both types of fuel, though, it’s recommended that you use wood smoking chunks rather than logs. The charcoal will provide the heat needed to sear your food, whereas the smoking chunks will provide the delicious flavor that’s commonly associated with high-quality cooking wood.
When grilling with both smoking chunks and charcoal, keep these two fuel sources separated from each other. In other words, don’t toss your smoking chunks directly on top of your charcoal. Instead, place your smoking chunks next to the charcoal so that they smolder more slowly. You can form a ring of smoking chunks around the perimeter of your charcoal, or if you have an offset smoker-grill combo, you can place the smoking chunks in the smaller offset compartment. By separating your smoking chunks from your charcoal, they won’t burn as quickly. They’ll simply smolder at a lower temperature to create a more flavorful and pleasant grilling experience.
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