When starting a wood fire for cooking, the first thing to consider is the wood itself. Hardwoods are the
obvious choice for their clean burning nature and density when seasoned. Some of the reasons why include:
- good, solid coal formation;
- an ability to carry a high enough temperature from a piece of wood that will easily catch fire and not smolder;
- the flavor of the smokes which they produce;
- ease of splitting or reduction in size which allows the chef to properly control the amount of heat added to the cooking fire.
My favorites for flavor are apple, cherry, and hickory. My favorites for their functionality in use are oak and red maple.
Now to start the fire…an easy enough thing to do but there are reasons behind the different methods. I will speak from my expertise which translates to my rectangular shaped grill, of which the fire occupies an approximate 3 cubic foot space.
I start by selecting some of the better burning/splitting “functional” firewoods (oak, maple, birch). The intention of this is just to get the fire going and to produce a coal base to which you can add your more flavorful smoking woods (apple, cherry, hickory, mesquite) prior to cooking.
When done right you shouldn’t have to take more than two or three standard cord wood sized logs from your woodpile. You then must proceed to split with an axe or hatchet, down to eight, or tenth sized splits. Don’t forget to gather up all the little scraps of bark and small wood fragments that result from the splitting process to be used as kindling. The next thing which I do to produce more small tinder is to go through all my split pieces of wood and pull off any attached fragments of wood/bark until you have a good solid fist full of small tinder.
What’s needed to start the fire? To assemble, the only things you will need in addition to the firewood are some scrap papers/an old newspaper and some type of lighter.
How to build the perfect fire. The following are the steps I suggest taking to build a strong fire perfect for grilling:
- I use the tapered log cabin style, starting with two of the biggest, similar sized splits which I lay parallel to each other, spaced a little less than their length apart.
- Next, stack two or three logs, alternating perpendicular layers of two parallel, similar sized splits, reducing the spacing between each consecutive layer to taper the log cabin inward on itself. This will allow the fire to fall on itself when the wood starts to disintegrate from burning and create a denser coal base.
- You want to have this base be less than half the height of the interior grill space in order to properly control the intensity of the fire.
- Now fill the empty interior of your “log cabin” with a layer of loosely crumpled paper, and top the paper with your reserved small tinder.
- Top the log cabin with one or two large pieces of firewood, which will create larger, longer burning coals and will fall in on the fire directly in the center.
- If your log cabin is full but still has a good air flow through it, all that is left to do is light it.
- Wait for the initial fire to die down a bit then re-stoke with some more flavorful smoking woods and be sure to give those a few minutes to fully catch fire
Note: My apologies for the background noise from the hood fans and lack of good lighting. We’ll improve for the next episode 🙂
Now all you have to do is track down the appropriate hotspot for the food you would like to grill, and voila you are cooking like the Gauchos do on a flavorful wood fired grill! Enjoy!