After the best BBQ summer in living memory, you might be ready to try something a bit more adventurous than your standard charcoal fire. Why not try cooking with wood instead? Apart from impressing your friends with your Bear Grylls style outdoor skills, you will quickly realise that the main advantage of using wood is the unique and wonderful smoky flavours that it infuses your food with.
Grilling with wood v charcoal
Even though charcoal is derived from wood, in creating the standard product a lot of the minerals and nutrients in the wood are burnt off, and it is these that provide that wonderful injection of flavour. Like wine that reflects the unique composition of the soil that the grapes grow in, a tree will produce its own fingerprint of flavours when its wood is burnt.
This might be news to most of us, but top restaurants like Neil Rankin’s Temper in London have long regarded wood as an essential ingredient in their award-winning menus. But you don’t have to be a London foodie to get in on the action. Here are some tips that will help you learn how to cook with wood like a pro.
Which wood is best?
With so many options available, a good starting point for any budding chef would be some kiln dried oak or ash. Once you have mastered the basic technique you could try specific woods that complement the meat you are cooking. How about applewood for pork, or maybe the subtler flavours of alder for trout and salmon? Fresh mackerel cooked on the wood of a lemon tree would make Rick Stein swoon!
What you will need
A large BBQ is best when building a wood barbeque. It doesn’t have to be big enough to accommodate a spit roast pig, but bigger is definitely better. With the extra heat that wood fires produce long handled tongs are a definite must, as is a good steel poker for moving the logs as they reduce to the embers that you will be cooking on.
The first step is to create a big strong fire using kindling and firelighters. It is better to use too much wood than too little as you can always wait a bit longer for the embers to achieve the best cooking temperature. For steaks and other red meats, a really hot fire is best. If you can only bear to hold your hand above the grill for a second or two then it is just right for that juicy T-bone. Cooking time is less than you would expect; for a one-inch thick steak you will only need five minutes each side.
For fish or chicken you will need less heat but it will be cooking for longer. Move the grill up a few inches, or wait a bit longer for the embers to cool down.
Did someone mention pizza?
At this point we really should mention the joys of the pizza oven. If you have travelled in Italy you will know just how amazing their pizza is with its subtle flavours and thin, perfectly crispy bases. Mama’s secret recipe and proper wood-fired pizza ovens are the reason. These ovens generate far more heat than the standard convection oven found in a UK kitchen. More and more people in the UK are realising just how easy they are to build and fun to use and they are gaining in popularity. There is a real theatre to making pizza in one, and they become a focal point of any gathering.
The best wood for pizza ovens is undoubtedly seasoned hard woods like oak, ash, maple and beech, which are much heavier than softwoods and generate much more heat for their volume. Again, kiln dried wood will give you the best results as it has the lowest moisture content meaning it burns hotter and emits less smoke than other types of wood.
Back to basics
Over the last couple of decades, we may have got a bit lazy when it comes to cooking our food outdoors. Modern gas barbeques and petroleum infused briquettes are certainly convenient, but we lose out on the visceral satisfaction of building a great fire, not to mention a world of new flavours. Maybe it is time to join the movement back to a more traditional cooking method using a heat source direct from nature?