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Grilling over wood

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I've been looking online for information about grilling food over wood, not charcoal or gas, but most of the information seems to be about smoking (i.e. adding wood, soaked or not, to a charcoal or gas grill to flavour the food), but I want to learn more about cooking over wood itself.

Namely:
1. How long will it take the wood to burn to embers suitable for grilling?
2. How will I know when the wood is ready? Totally white and glowing like coals? How long should I be able to hold my hand twenty cm above the embers?
3. Like with charcoal should I rake the embers to two opposite sides of my grill for indirect heat for items like chicken?
4. How long will wood embers be hot enough for cooking?
5. For fast cooking items (sausages, steak, fish) how high should the grill be from the embers?
6. For slow cooking items (chicken) how high should the grill be from the embers?

Any advice or answers to those questions would be appreciated. I'm hoping to grill a spatchcocked chicken that's dry brining in my fridge, tonight over wood. Thanks.

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  1. Here s my .02c.... If i were cooking a chicken, i would get some bricks and place them in the middle of my grill grate, so i had a hot side and a cool side(heat on one side, nothing on the other). I often cook jerk chicken in this manner.
    The amount of time it will take your wood to burn down to suitabel embers, will depend on what side logs/chunks you start out with. It will also depend on how dry your wood my or may not be. I would give the wood at least an hour to produce nice managable embers.

    1. Will depend on what kind of wood (hard or soft) and how big the pieces are.

      1. 1. How long will it take the wood to burn to embers suitable for grilling?

        Hard to answer... Amount, Size, shape, age, type of wood, weather conditions, etc all play a role.
        Figure on 11/2 hours...Maybe less...Maybe more....

        2. How will I know when the wood is ready? Totally white and glowing like coals? How long should I be able to hold my hand twenty cm above the embers?

        Glowing red coals...no flaming wood ~~~ Ballpark...3 Seconds

        3. Like with charcoal should I rake the embers to two opposite sides of my grill for indirect heat for items like chicken?

        Yes...You will need some type of two zone fire for chicken ~~~ Oppistie sides as you describe, or either all coals banked on one side......

        4. How long will wood embers be hot enough for cooking?

        Lots of variables...How big was your fire/coals to begin with...What are you are cooking etc.
        Long enough for grilling steaks, chops fish etc. ~~ For BBQing Chicken you may need to have a fire pit separate from your grill to produce additional coals...Or use lump charcoal started in a chimney.

        5. For fast cooking items (sausages, steak, fish) how high should the grill be from the embers?

        3-5 inches should work fine...

        6. For slow cooking items (chicken) how high should the grill be from the embers?

        Probably as high as your grill will allow...and offset. Not directly over the coals.
        HTH......

        Enjoy!

        1. I have been experimenting with grilling over wood, in one fashion or another, for the past 5 years or so. Nothing about my approach has been particularly scientific (unless one counts my fundamental reliance upon trial and error). That being said, and in the greater spirit of the ‘hound, I’ll at least try to share what passes for the useful knowledge I have accumulated.

          Initially, I’ll note that the technique I employ utilizes an amalgamation of fuels. I start my fires with a base of briquettes in a chimney and then lump charcoal (roughly a 1 to 2 ratio). When this is afire, i.e. before it’s at the ember stage, I dump it into the grill and add wood. The woods I use most often are oak, maple, cherry, and apple. (As the first two are more readily available, I tend to use them most regularly saving the fruit woods for more traditional barbecue/smoking applications). I chop the wood into smaller pieces generally by splitting normal length logs (18 inches) into thicknesses of 1 to 2 inches square.

          I continue to burn the fire until the wood has been well lit but is not reduced to only glowing coals. It seems to me that lump charcoal alone would be sufficient if one did not want some flame and additional smoke. If I am direct grilling, I will even out my fuel at this point and place the grill directly over them. The fire is very hot (I don’t really do the hand over the coals thing, but I doubt I’d last more than a couple seconds if I did) and the grill is perhaps 5-6 inches above it. Chops or steaks go on over such a fire and are cooked uncovered. I do not leave such cuts unattended for very long

          If I am indirect grilling, I manipulate the fuel into an appropriate “formation” on one side (I use a barrel smoker grill not a kettle). The grill rack is fixed at about 6 inches above the coals. I place the meat on the opposite side of the grill – the more heat I want the closer I place the flesh. The lid is closed for such applications. I would say that I get at least an hour of hot cooking time before I need to add more fuel. I will add either more wood or lump coals or both according to how much smoke I want.

          I usually do a whole chicken (4-5 pounds) indirectly after applying a basic barbecue rub. It takes on average 90 minutes. I would do a spatchcocked bird over the direct flame first and finish to the side. The cooking time would drop by at least half.

          I am presently short on time but wanted to get something up in the event it may be of help. I will try to think about any other useful information I may have omitted. One thing I would note, however, is that the use of a combination of fuels was definitely the product of experience. I get the ease of lighting from the chimney and charcoal, coupled with the heat and flavors imparted by the wood. The convenience of the lump coals, being basically preburned wood chunks, to supplement the use of wood should not be overlooked.

          1. thank you everyone, this is all very helpful. I went and bought wood yesterday afternoon... and then it started to rain. So I will hopefully be able to do this tomorrow night. I'll let you know how it goes.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Gooseberry

              Sorry to hear about the inclement weather. I hope you get the chance to try soon. Perhaps, you will share your experience? I have never before tried to encapsulate the technique(s) I have been developing and would welcome any reports from others who attempt similar approaches.

              In looking over what I wrote, I would like to elaborate and note that the chimney is really used as a fire starter. I will sometimes use as few as 6-8 briquettes and a similar amount of lump if I want the fuel to be mostly wood. I find the bed of burning coals permits the quick ignition of a significant amount of wood. The use of more charcoal/lump creates a larger "bed" and, in turn, will permit the preparation of quite a massive fire (should one be desired).

              I use only hardwoods. Softer woods like pine or cedar produce noxious odors that foul food.

              In addition to being able to produce a smokier taste, I find a properly prepared wood fire is hotter than one consisting of only lump coals. I prefer the use of a predominately wood - super hot - fire for thick chops and steaks, as well as pizza. Perhaps the best single "grilling over wood" example I can provide invloved a prime cut of aged NY Strip a bit better than 2 1/2 inches thick. I lit a considerable sized fire from aged oak, seared the meat for a bit on each side, and finished, off-heat, in the inferno for 10 minutes or so. Damn, I may have foregone an insurance payment to afford the steak, but it was fine! (A similar approach for oversized cuts of veal chops, a prime rib of 1-2 ribs, porterhouse, or ribeye, has proven rewarding as well.).

              1. re: MGZ

                Cooking over wood fires is the main summer/fall social activity where I live!

                On a party scale, it is done over a large pit (typically built out of concrete blocks) and the rack/grill is about 48 inches (or chest height) above the embers.

                Wood is added as needed and everyone has some sort of “pusher” (a long iron rod with a shovel-like attachment) to move the embers around as needed to cook various foods on the grill. Last weekend we did ribs (beef and pork) and corn on the cob. Chicken halves are also popular.

                Intentionally, cooking over the fire takes 2, 3 or, 4 hours depending on the meat. It can often be an all day affair. The guys start the fire in the morning and get a several inch deep bed of coals going before putting the meat on.

                At home, we have a stone fire pit and cook the food about 24 inches above the heat source. I have been doing it so long, I don’t think about the process anymore.

                We do use charcoal to start the fire and form a base. Not necessary but if we don’t have tons of time (or are really hungry) we find it cuts down on getting the fire ready. I find that smaller pieces of wood work better to get a nice bed of coals set up. We use hardwood only.

                1. re: cleobeach

                  That's awesome. It's a completely different technique than I've ever used and therefore quite fascinating to me. Basically, it seems to be a slow barbecue variation without as much "smoking." I'd bet it's a fine way to spend an afternoon - crisp, fall air, a cooler full of beer, a couple guitars . . . .

                  1. re: MGZ

                    Yes, a slow BBQ variation w/o the smoke is a good description. Yes, large coolers of beer are involved (as well as wine) and more often then not, someone is playing/singing. Totally awesome.

                    I have pictures of the last chicken event that shows the pit and the specially designed and constructed flipper mesh grills that hold the halves. (I took the pictures to show a Danish friend who couldn't understand/picture what I was describing to her)

                    Is it possible to post pictures in a thread?

                    Some people have flat, solid surfaces welded on to their grill/grate to do other dishes on the side like chili or potatos in a dutch oven.

                    Generally, we are cooking other little things in a dedicated area - nibbles like small venison steaks or other wild game, grilled clams, shrimp, veggies - throughout the cooking process.