The Food & Wine Guide to Cooking with Wood

Learn how to fuel and flavor your next cookout with wood, the most elemental of ingredients.
By Mary-Frances Heck and Hunter Lewis
May 27, 2021
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Grilling over wood engages all the senses: the sweet aroma of woodsmoke wisping through the backyard, the sight of pixie-dust embers dancing above licking flames, the tinkling sound of large hunks of coals falling apart, the hand-warming glow of a fire on a cool summer night, and the complex flavors of caramelized vegetables, smoked fish, and charred meat. That primal, happy feeling you get when food sizzles over hardwood coals? Pretty sure it's programmed somewhere deep in our DNA.

In recent years, we've started to level up from grilling over just gas and charcoal by getting seriously obsessed with one of the most basic elements of cooking: wood.

Burning wood
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

Used intentionally, wood can be as essential and impactful an ingredient as fat or salt. As it burns, wood releases chemical compounds that deliver delicious flavors and aromas to food. A mesquite or oak log placed down the center of the grill alongside a hot bed of charcoal will bring additional heat and a kiss of smoke to thick steaks and chops, while just a few small chunks of sweet applewood on top of the coals will do the trick for fish or mushrooms. (See "Pick the Right Wood" below for the best wood for cooking with.)

We're not alone in our passion for wood-fired flavors. In the past decade, restaurants with custom wood-burning hearths and grills, like Maydan in Washington, D.C., have proliferated. (click here for Maydan's Slow-Grilled Cauliflower with Tahina and Zhough.) So, too, have the number of new wood-burning ovens and grills available for home cooks. As with all things culinary, good ingredients matter the most. When it comes to cooking with fire, everything starts with wood, which serves as both fuel and flavor. Ready? Let's go spark a fire.

Wood alongside burning coals on a grill
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

Set Up Your Grill

"If you're comfortable lighting a chimney full of charcoal, you're ready to start cooking with wood," says Aaron Franklin, a James Beard Award–winning chef and pitmaster, who shared this simple but effective grill setup. Start by building a charcoal fire. Once the charcoal is glowing red and just ashed over, bank it to one side of the grill, and then lay a piece of wood alongside or on top of the coals, depending on the recipe. This setup creates a hot zone directly over the coals and a cool zone over the empty portion of the grill for indirect cooking. If you finish cooking before the wood is completely burned up, snuff out the fire by covering the grill and closing the vents. What's left will be preserved as charcoal, ready to add more flavor to your next grilling session.

Smoke-Grilled Tri-Tips with Jeow Som Dipping Sauce

2020 F&W Best New Chef Donny Sirisavath of Khao Noodle Shop in Dallas shared this recipe, a nod to his Laotian heritage and Texas upbringing, when his parents grilled brisket over hardwood coals for family gatherings. Here, thick and meaty tri-tip steaks get seared on the hot zone of the grill and then slowly smoke-grilled until medium-rare. Let them rest, and then thinly slice them against the grain and serve with Sirisavath's jeow som, a fiery, fish sauce– flavored dipping sauce.

Grill Setup: Place a 16- x 6- x 3-inch oak or mesquite log at the center of the grill, alongside the lit coals.

Smoke Grilled Tri Tips with Jeow Som Dipping Sauce
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis
Coal-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Maximize the life cycle of a fire by cooking hardy vegetables like sweet potatoes directly in the coals. Brush away the ashes and any burned skin, leaving charred bits for textural and visual contrast. Crack open the skins, and the smoky flesh becomes the perfect canvas for spicy or sweet seasoned butters, a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche, or a drizzle of maple syrup.

Grill Setup: Use the embers from charcoal or any burned-down hardwood. Break coals into 1-inch pieces with tongs or a sturdy metal spatula, smoothing them into an even bed with divots for the sweet potatoes.

Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

Pick the Right Wood

The best types of wood for cooking are dense hardwoods from fruit- or nut-bearing trees, such as oak, hickory, mesquite, cherry, apple, or pecan, which burn hotter and longer than soft, resinous woods like Eastern white pine, which should be avoided. Some kinds of wood are classically paired with specific meat or fish for flavor: Think applewood and pork, cedar and salmon, oak and beef, and mesquite and chicken.

Once a tree is cut into logs, wood begins to lose moisture; the more seasoned or cured it is, the drier it becomes. If wood is too green, it will smolder, producing acrid smoke. (Ditto if wood is wet.) On the other hand, if wood is too dry and feels light for its size, it will burn too quickly, turning to ash without imparting much heat or flavor. Seek out wood that has been seasoned for at least a year (with a moisture content of no more than 20%) or kiln-dried (6% to 8% moisture).

You'll also have a choice of wood cuts­. We've listed the most common options below to help you pick the right size for your needs. —Mary-Frances Heck

different types of wood
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

1. Logs

Thick (usually 16- x 6- x 3-inch) oak, mesquite, or hickory logs serve as dense, clean-burning, long-lasting fuel and aromatic smoke for cooking large, rich cuts of beef and for slow-cooked pork.

2. Pizza cut

Thinner, foot-long oak and other hardwood logs are intended to fit inside domed pizza ovens or to fuel short grilling sessions.

3. Chunks

One- to 2-inch-thick, 4-inch-wide log slices can be added to charcoal fires to customize the duration and intensity of smoke added to food.

4. Kindling

To build a wood fire from scratch, start with a base of finger-length pieces of kindling. Add splits (below) and then logs cut lengthwise into eighths. (Click here and read on for a great kindling cracker.)

5. Splits

Like chunks (above) but faster-burning, butter stick–size wood pieces can be added to charcoal fires for controlled application of smoke.

6. Chips

Readily available at hardware stores, wood chips can be of dubious quality but still offer a burst of smoky flavor when soaked and added to the coals during the last few minutes of cooking.

7. Charcoal

Lump charcoal, made through wood carbonization, provides clean-burning fuel with trace hardwood flavors. Charcoal briquettes are pulverized lump charcoal pressed into pieces that provide consistent heat. We like to use a mix of both: hardwood for flavor and briquettes for a longer burn. (Avoid Match Light briquettes, which have been treated with chemicals.)

To Buy: Get kiln-dried, expertly cut varieties of hardwood from Cutting Edge Firewood, which specializes in culinary firewood and ships nationwide.

50-pound boxes from $49, 4- x 2-foot racks from $245 at cuttingedgefirewood.com

Pollo al Pastor with Charred Tomato Salsa

Juan Pablo Loza, director of culinary operations at Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, shares his obsession for the al pastor style of cooking. In Michoacán, cooks marinate butterflied whole chickens with citrus, spear them with thick wooden stakes, and hammer the stakes into the ground. Splayed open, the chickens slowly cook vertically over a bed of coals, resulting in juicy meat and bronzed skin. Here, we adapt the cooking style to a horizontal grill basket set over two stacks of bricks on the grate, positioning the chicken up and away from the hot coals. Once it's cooked through, chop the crispy skin and meat together and spoon it into warm tortillas with roasted salsa and pickled onions.

Grill Setup: Place a 16- x 6- x 3-inch oak or mesquite log at the center of the grill alongside lit coals.

Pollo al Pastor with Charred Tomato Salsa
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

How to Buy a Whole Lot of Wood

If you're cooking over wood on the regular, those little bundles of mystery wood from the supermarket simply won't cut it. You need a consistent source of good-quality seasoned wood. Problem is, wood vendors (at least here in the Deep South, where I live) fall somewhere on the trust spectrum between mafiosos and moonshiners: Truth is fluid. After years of looking, I finally found my guy: Cliff Wooten, an Alabama pig farmer and firewood salesman, who keeps me in steady supply of oak, hickory, and fruit wood (not to mention heritage-breed pork chops and bacon). Here's what I've learned about sourcing firewood after nearly a decade of trial and error. —Hunter Lewis

Source: The fastest way to find a good source of quality wood is to ask the manager of your favorite barbecue or pizza restaurant where they buy theirs. Wood guys make their business on referrals. If you like their product, tell your friends and family.

Accountability: When you first call a wood vendor, prepare to ask plenty of questions so they know you're serious. If they can't answer the following questions, look elsewhere: What kind is it? How old is it? Where is it from? How do you cut it? What sizes do you carry? How did you store it? Tell the vendor ahead of time that you'll send it back or pay less if it arrives wet or isn't seasoned enough.

Volume: Vendors typically talk in cords, or a tight stack 8 feet long x 4 feet tall x 4 feet wide. But in my experience, the volume of your order will be dictated more by the size of the bed of their pickup truck. In other words, that Ford F-150 load will translate into a larger woodpile than a Toyota Tundra load. The price is usually negotiable.

Storage: Plan where on your property you want your wood delivered. Because of insects and fire hazards, don't store it against the exterior wall of your house. Steel racks keep the wood off the ground and aerated ($80, plowhearth.com). Once it's stacked, keep your pile covered, especially in the winter. Wet wood that has frozen over won't burn correctly.

Grilled Mushrooms with Smoked Crème Fraîche

This dish, inspired by the cooking of Swedish mushroom forager and chef Elle Nikishkova, layers wood flavor onto oyster and chanterelle mushrooms and tangy crème fraîche, which picks up extra flavor during a brief smoke over juniper. Salting the mushrooms in advance draws out excess moisture so they caramelize quickly; a drizzle of honey adds the perfect finish

Grill Setup: Place an applewood log alongside coals or place wood chunks on coals for mushrooms. Place juniper berries or a branch on coals for crème fraîche.

Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis
Burning wood and chicken grilling
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

Seven Essential Tools

Weber Kettle

A classic Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal 22" is great for cooking with wood because of its large, adaptable cooking area and efficient heat radiation. (It's also what we used to test the recipes in this story.)

To Buy: Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal 22", $175 at amazon.com

PK Grills

If you're ready to upgrade to a more durable, insulated grill, try PK Grills. The rectangular shape is ideal for cooking whole briskets and other large cuts, and dual vents allow for precise control of airflow and heat.

To Buy: PK Grills, from $370 at pkgrills.com

Charcoal Chimney

A standard 12.5- x 8-inch sheet metal Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter quickly and easily ignites coals without chemical agents. Buy two, or size up for bigger cooking projects.

To Buy: Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter, $21 at amazon.com

Grill Basket

GrillPackz stainless steel grill baskets are ideal for grilling anything that needs to be turned often. (It's a game changer for chicken wings.) Use cooking spray to prevent food from sticking.

To Buy: GrillPackz Stainless Steel Grill Baskets, $25 at amazon.com

Maul Axe

For breaking down large logs, pitmaster Rodney Scott recommends an 8-pound maul axe; it delivers more accurate and forceful strikes than a lighter axe. We like the comfort of Fiskars Pro IsoCore Wood Splitting Maul.

To Buy: Fiskars Pro IsoCore 36-Inch Wood Splitting Maul, $53 at amazon.com

Kindling Cracker

To break logs into kindling, use the Northern Tool Kindling Cracker King Firewood Kindling Splitteran Australian-made cast-iron tool that does the job consistently. Safety glasses and gloves recommended.

To Buy: Northern Tool Kindling Cracker King Firewood Kindling Splitter, $135 at northerntool.com

Natural Fire Starters

Build a wood fire from scratch with fatwood, the resinous sticks cut from heart pine stumps, or Ooni Premium Natural Firestarterswax-coated wood shavings that help ignite charcoal or kindling.

To Buy: Fatwood Fire-Starter Pre-Split Kindling, from $25 at plowhearth.com

To Buy: Ooni Premium Natural Firestarters, $20 at ooni.com

Slow-Grilled Cauliflower with Tahina and Zhough

Maydan, Rose Previte's Washington, D.C., restaurant and wood-fired homage to Lebanon, is justly famous for its massive hearth, where this whole marinated cauliflower is cooked. While the Maydan chefs truss and hang the cauliflower heads over the fire to slowly cook them, we've adapted the recipe to slowly grill-roast them over indirect heat before lightly charring the cauliflower over the coals to finish. Simply put, this is one of the most delicious dishes we've ever grilled at home. Serve it as a hearty main course or as a side with herbal zhough and bright tahina sauces, garnished with sumac onions and herbs

Grill Setup: Place a 16- x 6- x 3-inch oak or hickory log at the center of the grill alongside lit coals.

Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis