You were grilling in the park, looked over, and noticed someone throwing logs instead of coals into their kettle. Maybe you’ve even thought about it yourself, and you came here wondering whether or not it’s a good idea.
For many grillers who use charcoal, it’s hard to imagine using anything else. But long before charcoal came along, cooks were using wood to grill over an open campfire.
Yes, it is entirely possible to grill with wood instead of charcoal. And there’s more than one merit of doing so, from cleaner burn to tastier meat.
But, what are the advantages and disadvantages of using wood versus using coal? What are the best types of wood to grill with? And, how do you go about grilling with wood?
Keep reading, and you will learn the answer to those questions—and many more.
Grilling with Charcoal: Advantages and Disadvantages
Did you know that you’re already grilling with wood if you’re using charcoal? That’s because charcoal is wood. It’s pre-burned in a low-oxygen environment until it becomes pure carbon.
The most common forms of charcoal include charcoal briquettes and charcoal lumps.
Charcoal briquettes are made from a combination of coal dust, sawdust, wood chips, pulp, peat, borax, and binders (petroleum- or starch-based). They’re shaped evenly, so they keep a steady grilling temperature. But they’re smaller and burn quickly.
On the flip side, charcoal briquettes, especially those with petroleum-based binders, give off pretty unpleasant smoke during the initial burn. They also take longer than charcoal lumps to get up to cooking temperature.
Charcoal lumps are simply uneven pieces of burned wood. They burn very cleanly, don’t produce as much ash, and get hot very quickly.
However, the temperature drops after a while, making them suitable for fast grilling over direct heat and less so for lo’ and slo’ grilling over indirect heat.
Advantages of Charcoal
Here are a few advantages to grilling with charcoal.
Char-grill flavor. Whenever meat drips onto charcoal while grilling, the juice sizzles and releases special steam that infuses the meat with an amazing char-grill flavor you cannot replicate using other methods.
Searing. Since charcoal doesn’t combust and burns hotter for longer, it is much easier to manage the right temperatures you need for grilling meats such as tender, juicy steaks that have those deliciously crunchy sear marks that everyone loves on meats.
Cleaner and more affordable. Charcoal is also cheaper than wood for grilling. You can pick up a 20-pound bag of briquettes for about $18 to $20.
Also, since it burns longer, a little goes a much longer way than is the case with wood. And since it’s pure carbon, cooking with charcoal is actually more eco-friendly and cleaner.
Easier to control. You can create zones of direct and indirect heat with charcoal. This is helpful when grilling large cuts that you need to cook longer. It also helps your meat remain juicy and tender and not get burned.
Heats up and cooks faster. Charcoal takes a shorter amount of time to attain the correct temperature, about 20-25 minutes on average. It also cooks your food much faster since it burns hotter.
Disadvantages of Charcoal
While charcoal does sound like a better option than wood, there are a few drawbacks.
It’s about as messy as grilling fuel gets. Charcoal stains are no joke. Plus, cleaning a grill full of charcoal ashes is no walk in the park either.
One flavor option, and one flavor option only. You get one flavor—charcoal with charcoal. And while it can be delicious, it can also be a bit boring experiencing the same flavor cook after cook. For those who want to mix things up a bit, wood grilling might be the way to go.
Chemicals. With charcoal briquettes, you’ll experience more chemicals in your food, impacting its overall flavor. And if you use lighter fluid, that’s introducing even more chemicals into your food.
Grilling with Wood: Advantages and Disadvantages
When you cook with wood, you introduce a completely different flavor profile to your foods compared to charcoal.
More flavors. Using the right kind of wood for grilling can give you so many more flavors than charcoal. Wood smoke naturally has over a thousand compounds that produce flavor.
Zero additives. You don’t need to worry about artificial additives, such as the ones found in charcoal briquettes. Wood, as long as it’s been seasoned properly, is chemical-free, making your food much safer to eat with a rich flavor from natural ingredients that are not compromised.
Grilling with wood is harder to master. With wood, you’ll need to stay on top of your grill to monitor smoke levels. Too much smoke and your food will taste like wood. Wood can also burn faster, so you’ll need to add more wood chips more frequently than charcoal.
Wood doesn’t heat up as quickly. While charcoal usually takes 20-25 minutes to heat to the right temperature, wood takes much longer. You can expect to wait about an hour for your wood to reach adequate cooking temperatures and then perhaps up to two hours before your food’s fully cooked.
The Best Types of Wood for Grilling
When you use charcoal, you open the bag and pour the coals into the pit. Wood, on the other hand, needs to be properly seasoned for a few months to a couple of years before it’s ready to cook over.
Freshly-cut wood, or green wood, has too much moisture. Not only will it burn unevenly, but it will give off a heavy, dirty smoke that makes your food taste bitter.
Also, not all firewood can be cooked over. While nearly all hardwoods can be used for grilling, you don’t want to grill with softwoods such as pine and spruce. These smolder with soot and make your steak taste like turpentine. In some cases, the chemicals contained in them can even make you and the folks at the BBQ table sick.
Generally speaking, firewood for grilling tends to come in one of two sizes. Chips and chunks are small, handpicked, full-seasoned pieces of wood ideal for backyard cooking. Wood logs are best for campfires and pit BBQs.
Below, we’ve rounded up some of the best hardwoods for grilling:
- Mesquite: Sweet and smokey, great for all types of meat.
- Hickory: Gives meat a mild and smoky flavor that’s not overpowering.
- Applewood: Delivers a subtle sweetness that works best for meats with high-fat, such as pork.
- Pecan: One of the best woods for cooking low-and-slow, works especially well for large cuts of beef and briskets.
- Oak: A very popular option in Southern states that makes denser and more powerful smoke. It works best with pork and beef.
And there are many more types of woods out there for grilling, such as cherry, camphor, alder, straw, juniper, straw, and maple, just to name a few.
How to Grill Using Wood
Thankfully, grilling using wood is pretty simple.
You just throw your wood in the grill and light it with a natural fire source. Once it starts turning white and ashy, restrict the airflow to force your fire to die down a little. You want to grill over wood that’s glowing or smoldering, but not flaming.
Can You Use Both Wood and Charcoal?
Can you have the best of both worlds? The answer is a clear and unequivocal yes!
Many skilled grillers combine charcoal and firewood to make use of charcoal’s ability to burn evenly and controllably with the fragrant and flavorsome smoke from the wood.
The charcoal goes on the bottom of the pit and the wood, usually in the form of chips or chunks that have been soaked in water for a couple of hours, goes on top.
Of course, making this happen is easier said than done, and it requires a good amount of skill and practice.
When it comes to grilling with wood, there are many more flavor options, but it does take much longer than charcoal.
Whether wood’s a better choice for your cook depends on how much time you want to spend cooking and the flavor you’re aiming to get.
And, of course, you can always try both at the same time.