Did you ever see Fred Flintstone with a bag of charcoal or a tank of propane gas? Granted, you wouldn’t have seen him with a Weber or a Big Green Egg either but that’s getting away from the point of mastering how to grill without charcoal.
Charcoal and gas are the go-to fuels for modern day grilling and that’s just down to convenience. It’s much easier to turn a knob to control temperatures or get a fire going with any type of charcoal, but the downside to convenience is it lacks the wood-infused flavors certain fuels give to foods.
Mastering the grill in the traditional sense isn’t an easy feat because it involves going back to ancient times, just as many culinary chefs are doing with open fire grills in restaurants. If they can do it indoors, you, for sure, can do the same in your own backyard.
All that’s needed is to get clued in on the woods to use to get the intensive flavors your foods and foodies will love you for.
Did you know that charcoal is just pre-treated wood? That’s the only difference.
You can read the science here if you like but the gist is that using firewood for grilling instead of charcoal is just about setting the wood on fire, letting the flames fan down then using the coal embers from the wood to smoke and cook your foods on a grill grate, but… controlling the flames so they’re contained beneath the grates.
Otherwise, you’d be using the direct cooking method by grilling your food on (or worse, in) the flame instead of above it.
The Types of Wood Best Suited to Grilling
Wood for cooking is not the same as the fresh cut wood or fallen twigs you’d find when you’re camping in the woods. Wood for grilling comes in three types and none of them are fresh cut, because freshly cut wood still has moisture content in it. You don’t want water in your wood.
The three options you have for grilling with wood is to buy:
- Wood chips
- Wood chunks
- Wood logs or wooden planks
The type you use depends on how long you intend to grill your foods for. Wood chips burn the fastest so are only really good for grilling foods that take under 20 minutes.
The more you need to open the lid on your grill, the more fuel you’ll burn through. You can soak your chips so they smolder for longer, but they’ll still really be for fast foods.
In the case of larger meats needing a longer cooking time, chunks are preferable as they burn for longer so you won’t need to open the lid on whatever grill you’re using.
The only thing to remember with wood chunks on a grill is never to soak them because water will only penetrate to an eight of an inch.
Wood planks are the only type of grilling wood that will always need soaked before using it and that’s so that the flames stay beneath the grill grates.
Mastering the Art of Combo Cooking with Direct and Indirect Heat
Getting the fire going is one thing but controlling the flames to cook your meats, poultry or racks of ribs is quite another, and one that takes practice to perfect.
When grilling over open flames, there’s two methods of cooking you can do.
The rookie griller will get the flames going and grill the food over an open flame. That’s the direct cooking method.
The indirect cooking method is what you’d do with charcoal, only in this case because we’re using wood as the fuel source, it’s more about learning how to grill without charcoal and still be able to take advantage of indirect heat just by letting the flames fan down before grilling.
Using Indirect Heat for Grilling with No Charcoal Necessary
As mentioned above, charcoal is just pre-treated wood so instead, we’re taking the pre-treatment out the equation and using firewood as the fuel.
This can be used in the traditional kettle style charcoal grills by just setting your wood on fire, then waiting for around 20 minutes until the wood turns a gray color, indicating that’s it’s burning out.
The thing to note here is that you aren’t looking to build a roaring fire inside your charcoal grill or even a fire pit if you happen to have built one of those.
The aim of the game is to set the wood alight for just long enough that the chips or chunks are burned down to embers/hot coals, rather than trying to cook over open flames.
Once the wood has burned out, you’re effectively going to grill on the coals from the natural wood instead of charcoal. And get this, you can use natural fire-starters or pieces of paper or even small wood shavings to light the fire so there’s not even a need to use lighter fluid or anything with chemicals to get your wood burning.
In fact, you’re better off not to use any chemicals for grills because if you do, you’ll always taint the taste of the food.
To get the best from using wood for grilling, once your wood is burned to coals (the grayish tone the wood takes when the flames die down), you can add a fresh wood chunk or two on top of the coals to naturally infuse your food with the smokey flavor of whatever type of wood you choose.
Using Wood for a 2-Zone Fire to Avoid Burning Your Foods
No matter what style of grill you’re using, flare-ups can happen. What’s a ‘flare-up’? It’s when the flames increase and come into direct contact with your food and no matter how much control you think you have over your flames, the inevitable will happen.
When you’re cooking with wood, the flames will increase and that can turn your nearly perfectly grilled foods into rock-hard shells with soft meat on the inside. Not very pleasant.
The effective way to grill over hot coals of any type that can flare-up (or flame-up if you prefer) is to make a safe-zone under your grill plate. You do this by stacking your hot coals to one side of your grill, leaving the opposite side completely empty.
Note: The two-zone fire is only effective when it’s used with a lidded grill. It’s not something you can do over an open fire due to the very nature of it.
If you don’t know, on an open fire, you can’t control oxygen levels. It’s pretty much a case of how the winds blows because oxygen is what keeps the fire going, or the wood burning so to speak.
With then above in mind, here are…
The Best Types of Wood for Grilling that Require No Charcoal
According to the MarthaStewart.com website, there’s 13 different types of wood you can use from grilling. Those are:
- Camphor Laurel
- Cherry Wood
- Apple wood
In addition to the above, there’s also Grape Vine wood that goes well with most meats as well as Peach Wood which can be an alternative to Apple wood for grilling pork and poultry.
The type of wood you grill with depends on what you’re cooking as some wood types are perfect for fast grilled foods, whereas others are best suited to seafood’s. None are universally great for all types of food.
Apple wood, for example, is the go-to wood type for grilling pork and poultry. For your hamburger and hot dogs, that’s more likely to be paired with hickory wood and Mesquite reserved for grilling steaks.
How to Set Up Your Grill for Wood Cooking
1 – Put a Grill or Grate Over an Open Camp Fire
A budget friendly option for those want to experiment with wood grilling is a simple stake and grill rack to grill over the coals from an open fire. A good example is the Stromberg Carlson (link to Amazon), and as you’ll see from the photo, it’s just a pole stuck into the ground and a grill grate attached to it.
With a setup like this, you’re able to adjust the height of the grate to keep the food above the flames and bring it closer to the coal embers as the flames go down.
You can turn any campfire into a grill just by adding a grill or grate over it. These are fantastic for portability making them super-efficient for taking on camping trips letting you grill your dinners over an open campfire.
It should be pointed out that if you’re intending to use an open campfire in your backyard, it’s best to check with your neighbors first because smoke nearby can flare up asthma and other health conditions.
Also consider the safety aspect of the fire and keep it away from properties, bushes, and anything that can catch fire.
See the National Park Services guide to campfires to make sure your grill stays under your control.
2 – Build a Permanent Campfire in Your Backyard
Permanent fire pits can be built using bricks, or cinder blocks and they don’t need to be large either. In fact, the smaller will be better for grilling because you only need it wide enough to accommodate the grill grate.
To get a decent idea of the size of pit you need, there are fire rings available that let you contain a campfire, and you can also use them as a size guide (sort of a template) for replacing the ring with a permanent setup.
Most fire pit cooking grates are available in sizes up to 40-inches in diameter.
As both options above involve using a campfire, there’s the added benefit of being able to attach a rotisserie over the campfire letting you more easily rotate large chunks of meat for even cooking.
3 – Use a Wood-Burning Grill or a Charcoal Grill, but with Wood Instead
Charcoal grills only have the name as they have a small pit for burning charcoal. The same pit can also be used to burn your firewood down to hot embers/coal, then the grill grate placed over it and then used to grill with wood as the fuel instead of charcoal.
As some models can have smaller pits for burning fuel, depending on how much you use the grill or the length of time you need the fuel to burn, a dedicated wood fire grill and smoker could be a better option.
As you can see from the few options above, it is possible to start experimenting with real firewood for grilling with just a fire pit and a grill grate.
Then, once you get a taste for the natural wood infused flavor of fire wood grilling and know how often and the types of food you’ll be grilling, you’ll be better placed to select a suitable model of wood griller and smoker to take your grilling to a new level.
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