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Grilling With Wood


Dear Up In Smoke Subscriber,

When it comes to fuels for grilling, nothing beats the flavor of wood. Cooking over a wood fire brings out the primal caveman in all of us. The flickering flames are as fascinating and soothing to stare at as the delicate smoke flavor is to taste.

A wood fire is at once deeply personal (remember your first campfire?) and archetypal. It is certainly universal and timeless. “Something happens to a man when he sits before a fire,” wrote the 20th century conservationist, Sigurd F. Olson. “Around a fire, men feel that the whole world is their campsite, and all men are partners of the trail.”

Ironically, his 1956 remarks roughly coincided with big changes in outdoor cookery, at least in this country. Wood, the primordial fuel of choice since Homo erectus first walked the earth, was supplanted in suburban backyards by natural gas, propane, and stamped charcoal briquettes. In most wilderness areas, even Olson’s beloved “campfire” now depends on a canister of petroleum-based substances for its heat instead of scavenged wood.

Elsewhere on Planet Barbecue—in places as far-flung as Tuscany, Germany, and South America—wood cooking fires still burn, tended by people who take great pride in grilling the way it’s been done for a million years or more. And more and more Americans are rediscovering a method of grilling that was commonplace when our country was founded, and practiced as recently as fifty years ago.

Lately, I’ve been inundated with e-mailed questions about hardwoods. One writer was motivated by a literal windfall: Patrick N. lost a crabapple tree in a storm and wondered if he could use the wood for grilling. (Absolutely.) Another, Brandon J., asked me if I had ever tried a hard thorny wood called madrone and went so far as to send me a sample. (The smoke smelled suspiciously similar to a substance that Bill Clinton tried but didn’t inhale.)

Still other grillmasters simply seek bigger challenges. And grilling over wood—an inherently mercurial heat source rife with hot spots and cool spots—is definitely more challenging than charcoal or gas.

The original wood-burning “grill” was a campfire—still the preferred “device” used throughout South America. Argentina’s asado, Brazil’s fogo de chao, and Colombia’s hogao are all variations on a theme of meats (and sometimes whole animals) impaled on sticks and roasted in front of a campfire. The heat control is as primitive as it is effective. You move the stick—and meat—closer to or further away from the fire.

One South American grillmaster has raised the art of gaucho campfire cooking to an art—Francis Mallmann, owner of the restaurants Garzon in Uruguay, of Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires, and of Francis Mallmann 1884 in Mendoza, and author of the stunning new book, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way (Artisan, 2009). For me, this is the simply one of the best books about live fire cooking ever published, and it belongs on every serious griller’s bookshelf. (Find it in bookstores or at www.amazon.com.)

Among Mallmann’s seven fires are asado (bonfire roasting), parilla (grilling on a gridiron over embers), champa (grilling on a fire heated metal plate), etc. The coolest (actually hottest) of all is the infiernillo ( “little hell,” literally)—a sort of open outdoor oven with fires above and below the food—inspired by primitive stone ovens made by Incan Indians.

If an open fire is not an option, there are several grills on the market that can accommodate wood fires or are built specifically for them. Among them are the Grillery (www.thegrillery.com), a high-end grill equipped with a flywheel for raising or lowering the grill grate patterned on the grills popular in Argentina—you’ve probably seen it on “Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen.” Two other cool wood-burning grills are the CB940X made by Char-Broil and the stainless steel Aztec Home Grill, both equipped with a hatch in the front for adding the logs. On the set of Primal Grill, Season 2, we built a roaring fire in the larger-than-life Weber Ranch kettle grill, and when it burned down, roasted sweet potatoes directly in the embers. For the recipe, go to www.primalgrill.org.

In terms of other equipment, you’ll need long fire-resistant leather gloves or welder’s gloves; a long-handled grill hoe, garden hoe, or shovel; long-handled tongs; a steel fireplace poker; a lidded metal ash can and scoop; and of course, a fully-charged fire extinguisher.

You’ll also need a grill grate to cook on unless you plan on impaling your food on sharpened green sticks or on a telescoping fork. You can improvise a grate using, for example, an old oven rack, or use a cast iron Tuscan-style grill with legs to hold it over the fire. Position it over a bed of embers at your cook site or in your fireplace.

Here are some additional tips for grilling over wood:

  • Always use seasoned (dried) hardwoods like oak, alder, ash, beech, hickory, maple, pecan, birch, walnut, mesquite, or fruitwoods. Other options include olive wood, wine barrel staves and grapevine clippings. (For obvious reasons, all are popular in northern California’s Napa Valley.) 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, you know the drill: Create a teepee of small twigs atop a pile of kindling (wood chips, newspaper, or other tinder), adding larger pieces of wood as the fire catches. What you may not realize is that you can start a wood fire in a chimney starter. Fill the chimney with hardwood chunks and light as you would charcoal. Or light some charcoal in a chimney starter, and use it as an under-fire to bring the wood to flame.
  • Allow plenty of time—up to 45 minutes—for the fire to mature and burn down to embers. Then, with a shovel or long-handled grill hoe rake the glowing orange embers underneath the grill grate. As with charcoal, the deeper the pile, the higher the heat. A common misconception among wood fire beginners is that cooking should be done over leaping flames. Note: The exception to the rule is Germany’s Spiessbraten, an onion-stuffed pork shoulder roast spit-roasted directly in the flames of a smoky beech wood fire. But in most wood fire-obsessed cultures, embers are the goal. Replenish as needed. In South America, log fires are built in a special wrought-iron rack called a leñero brasero; embers are harvested when they fall through the spaces at the bottom. A regular fireplace grate makes a reasonable substitute.
  • Wood burns faster than either lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. Be prepared to replenish the embers every 20 to 30 minutes.
  • 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 option if you want to experiment with grilling over wood.
  • Of course, you’ll build your wood fire well away from anything flammable, including buildings, trees, spreading tree roots, dry vegetation, etc. Be sure to take note of wind direction and velocity. You don’t need to be a Californian to know that wind-driven fires can have tragic consequences.
  • 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. (Hey, things can happen fast.) 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?)
  • Incidentally—because I know some of you will ask—while wood fires send more particulate matter into the atmosphere than cleaner-burning propane, the Environmental Protection Agency does not currently endorse one over the other. Scientists say a fallen tree will release carbon dioxide into the air whether it is burned or left to rot, and over its lifetime, will have efficiently converted CO2 to oxygen. Unlike natural gas, wood is also a renewable resource. If possible, find a local source for grilling and smoking woods.

Finally, here are a couple of recipes to inspire your wood-fired grilling:



Source: Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way by Francis Mallmann (Artisan, 2009)

Method: Grilling over embers

Serves: 1

Advance Preparation: Make chimichurri sauce 1 day ahead

One 1-pound boneless rib-eye steak per person, about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 inches thick
Coarse salt
Chimichurri (recipe follows)

Make a wood fire about an hour before you plan to serve the meat. Shovel or rake a 2- to 3-inch bed of coals under the grill grate. (The grate should be 3 to 4 inches above the coals.) You want a medium-high temperature, a “2 Mississippi” fire. Salt the steak(s) to taste. Brush and oil the grill grate.

Place the meat on the grill. Rotate the meat after 5 minutes. Cook for 4 more minutes, then turn the steak(s) over with tongs and cook for approximately 7 more minutes, or until medium-rare, rotating after 4 minutes to achieve a handsome crosshatch of grill marks. Transfer the steak(s) to a platter and let rest for 3 minutes. Serve with chimichurri.


Makes about 2 cups

1 cup water
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
1 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup fresh oregano leaves
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil

Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the salt and stir until it dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Mince the garlic very fine and put in a medium bowl. Mince the parsley and oregano and add to the garlic along with the pepper flakes. Whisk in the vinegar, then the olive oil. Whisk in the salt-water mixture. Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for at least 1 day. Chimichurri will keep, refrigerated, for 2 to 3 weeks. 


Recipe adapted from Steven Raichlen’s Indoor Grilling (Workman, 2004)

Method: Grilling over embers

Serves: 4 to 6 as an appetizer

When Argentineans say grilled cheese, they really mean it—thick slabs of provoleta (a firm cow’s milk cheese similar to provolone) seared on the gridiron until they are melted and lightly browned. It’s mandatory fare at any Argentine steakhouse and a great recipe to do in the fireplace.

2 thick slices of provoleta or Provolone (each about 3/4 to 1 inch thick and 8 ounces)
1 tablespoon good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons cracked black peppercorns
2 teaspoons dried oregano, or 3 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, preferably small ones
Crusty bread for serving

Brush each slice of cheese on both sides with the cracked black peppercorns and oregano.

Prepare a wood fire. Rake red hot embers under the gridiron and preheat it for 3 to 5 minutes. You want a hot, 2 to 3 Mississippi fire. When ready to cook, brush and oil the gridiron. Place the cheese slices on the hot grate. The cheese will be done after cooking 2 to 4 minutes per side. Take care to remove it before the cheese melts on the embers.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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