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Always use seasoned hardwoods like oak, mesquite, hickory, pecan, walnut, almond or other nut and fruitwoods. The most flavorful woods we have found are Hickory, Oak, and Mesquite wood. Other options include almond, walnut, or even grapevine clippings but these are less desirable because they are fast burners and low in flavor. Softwoods like pine and fir produce a resinous smoke that generally spoils the flavor of food.
If you’ve ever built a campfire or started a fire in a fireplace, cooking woods do start the same. Create a teepee of small logs atop a pile of kindling (wood chips, newspaper, or other tinder), adding larger pieces of wood as the fire catches. In some grills, you can start with a bed of charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal as an under fire to bring the wood to flame and eventually to cooking embers. Use fluid starter very carefully or use our sawdust and paraffin starter squares.
Allow plenty of time—up to 45 minutes—for the wood fire to mature and burn down to embers. The embers are what you will need for cooking. With a shovel or long-handled grill hoe rake the glowing orange embers to the area below your grill, put your food on the grill and get to cooking! As with charcoal, the deeper the pile of embers, the hotter the fire. We have found that the PREMIUM cooking woods, Oak, Hickory and Mesquite wood have the longest burning embers, usually 45 minutes to I hour in many cases. With the faster burning woods, be prepared to replenish the embers every 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how long you expect to be cooking.
Open fires, i.e., those built on the ground or in a pit, are disallowed in many areas. Check with local authorities prior to your grilling session. An indoor wood-burning fireplace is also an excellent option if you want to experiment with grilling over wood.
When using a metal grill for wood cooking, be sure to learn whether it was designed for wood and not just charcoal. Since wood is much hotter than charcoal, any grills that are not sturdily constructed enough for that higher heat will eventually melt out of shape.
If you are cooking in a pit or with an open fire, keep a fire extinguisher, water hose, a bucket of salt, or a pile of dirt and a shovel nearby to keep the fire from spreading out of control. Extinguish the fire completely once you are finished with it. If you’ve built the fire in a charcoal grill, starve it of oxygen by putting the lid on and closing all the vents. If the fire has been built in an open area, douse it thoroughly with water (watch out for rising steam) or smother it with dirt. Tend the site for at least 30 more minutes to ensure the fire is completely out. (Remember “Smoky the Bear” and his public service words of wisdom?)
We contend that smoke produced from charcoal will lend a very slight smokiness to food (the charcoal tastes better than gas debate), but you need to step up your game with wood if you want real flavor out of your grilling medium.
Grilling with wood is one of the greatest advantages to cooking food over a fire in my book, providing the unique opportunity to add a flavor that just can’t be accomplished to the same degree inside a kitchen, this type of cooking is one that will require a bit more experimenting on your part, since more variables are in play and taste for smoke is incredibly subjective.