Grilling over an open fire is humanity’s oldest cooking technique. The backyard grills we’re used to seeing in the U.S. are usually fueled by charcoal or propane—but the oldest way of grilling is to throw meat over a wood-burning fire.
What Is a Wood-Burning Grill?
A wood-burning grill is a utensil with grates for food set directly on top of a pit for wood. This can be as simple as a hole in the ground with a grate set over it or as heavy-duty as an Argentinian-style parrilla grill (a.k.a gaucho grill), which has a flywheel to raise and lower the grill grate during asados, or cookouts.
Although grilling is typically an outdoor activity (especially when lots of smoke is involved), hearths, fireplaces, pizza ovens, and brick ovens can all function as wood-fired grills if a metal grate is placed on top of the fuel source.
Why Use a Wood-Burning Grill?
A grill is one of the simplest and easiest ways to cook, and unlike gas or charcoal grills, a wood-burning grill imparts the flavor of wood smoke, which contains over a thousand aromatic compounds, to whatever you’re cooking. The ability to maneuver your heat source in a wood-burning grill makes grilling versatile: you can quickly sear a steak, or allow tougher vegetables to cook slowly over the colder part of the fire.
What Is the Difference Between Wood-Grilling and Barbecue?
Although cooking over a wood-burning grill and using an offset smoker to make traditional barbecue both use wood as a fuel source, they’re fundamentally different styles of cooking.
- Barbecue relies on very low temperatures that cook food indirectly via smoke, while wood-grilling is a direct-heat cooking method that involves very high temperatures that quickly cook food.
- To make barbecue, pitmasters typically use an offset smoker, in which the cook chamber is separate from the fuel chamber, called a firebox. Depending on the type of wood-burning grill you’re using, you may be able to mimic this effect by placing all of your fuel on one side of the grill. This is known as a two-zone fire: food placed above the fire will receive direct, radiant heat, and food that’s not above the fuel will receive indirect, convection heat.
How Do You Select the Best Wood for Cooking?
Before you even start to build your fire, you need to choose your wood. When selecting wood for barbecuing, keep in mind some basic dos and don’ts:
- DO use wood that’s been aged naturally outdoors for six months to a year. This drying-out process is called curing or seasoning. A freshly cut piece of wood, known as green wood, has too much internal moisture, which will produce more smoke as the wood burns and slow down the combustion process.
- DON’T buy wood that’s been cured or seasoned in an oven or kiln. The exposure to high heat makes the wood extra dry, which causes it to burn faster and lose flavor.
- DO have more wood on hand than you think you’ll need for your cook, especially if you’re using wood as your primary fuel source rather than coal or briquettes.
- DO have a good mix of wood in terms of density, size, and quality. Drier, lighter pieces will burn much faster than denser, heavier ones, but they also won’t produce as much of the clean, flavorful smoke you want to taste on the meat. Both will come in handy at different stages of the cook.
- DO source your wood from trees that have died of natural causes like drought, disease, or insects.
- DON’T kill healthy trees in the name of the barbecue.
- DON’T use wood that may have been exposed to paint, stains, or other chemicals. Scraps of wood from a lumber yard are a bad idea.
- DON’T use wood that’s covered in mold or fungus.
Once you’ve gathered your wood, you’re ready to build a fire. The basic stages of fire-building are:
- Set up. When building a fire, you want to combine thinner, drier pieces that will quickly catch with denser logs that will burn slower and generate heat over a longer period of time. The arrangement of your logs should maximize airflow. Start by placing two dense logs on either side of your grill as a foundation, then three drier pieces of wood perpendicularly across the top, leaving at least an inch of space between each piece. Place another dense log across the thinner ones and a lighter piece on either side, again with an inch of space between. You should now have three distinct layers forming a basket weave-type pattern.
- Ignite. To ignite, moisten a crumpled sheet of butcher paper with a drizzle of cooking oil (like grapeseed), slide it between the two bottom logs, and light. (If you have a piece of greasy butcher paper lying around from a previous cook, use that.) Newspaper and kindling are also fine alternatives, but avoid using petroleum products like lighter fluid. As the fire grows and the logs catch, the middle layer of thinner, drier wood should catch first, eventually collapsing into coals with the uppermost log falling on top. (Alternatively, you could light charcoal in a chimney starter and add them to the firebox, followed by pieces of wood.) Whatever tinder you use to start the fire, make sure you add enough to keep the fire burning while you wait for the heftier logs to catch.
- DON’T use softwoods like spruce, pine, or fir. These woods are higher in resin and oils that produce thick, acrid smoke when lit. Cook with hardwoods only, such as pecan, mesquite, alder, and fruit woods such as applewood. What Is a Charcoal Grill?
A charcoal grill is an outdoor cooking utensil with grates set above a pit for charcoal. Charcoal grills, as the name implies, are designed to hold charcoal briquettes—not firewood—but, depending on your model, you may be able to add wood to a charcoal grill to make barbecue at home.
How To Build a BBQ Fire In a Charcoal Grill In 3 Steps
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The live-fire cooking apparatus that home cooks are most used to seeing (and owning) is the standard kettle grill. Kettle grills aren’t really built for slow smoking, but they will absolutely work if you approach them thoughtfully. You’ll need to set up the grill for indirect heat by restricting the charcoal to one side of the grill. Your smoke will come from wood chunks or chips that you add to the charcoal. Make sure you have a thermometer set up close to where the meat sits in order to get an accurate temperature reading. Here’s how to build a barbecue fire in a standard charcoal grill.
- Start charcoal in a chimney starter. A chimney starter is a metal cylinder that functions as a reusable fire starter. Place crumpled newspaper at the bottom of the chimney, then add charcoal on top. Light the newspaper with a long match, and place the chimney on a rack inside of the grill (not the grate). When coals glow red, pour them out of the chimney starter into the bowl of the grill, keeping the coals to one side.
- Add wood. Place hardwood chips or chunks on top of the glowing coals. Consider using a 50/50 ratio of charcoal to wood. More wood equals more smokey flavor, but coals provide more predictable, even heat. Another option is to create a “cool zone” by placing a log on one side of the bottom of the grill and dumping the coals next to the log.
- Oil grates and add food. Rub grate with oil, using a rolled-up rag tied with twine and soaked in cooking oil with a high smoke point. Use tongs to rub the oily rag over the grates of the grill to prevent food from sticking. Wait until the fire has died down to glowing embers to put food on the grill. Depending on your set-up, you may want to add water pans or other modifications to your grill. Keep in mind that fat dripping directly on wood or coal will add flavor, but also cause flare-ups.