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Let's Talk Wood

By Christie Vanover, Pitmaster, GirlsCanGrill.com

When cooking over live fire, picking the right fuel source is as important as choosing what food to prepare. The fuel you select will impact the final flavor of your meal and even plays a role in cleanup.

The three main fuel sources are charcoal briquettes, lump charcoal and wood. Before breaking down the advantages of each, let’s talk about starting the fire. 

Starting your fire

Rule number one – never use lighter fluid. While the flammable liquid gets fires going quickly, the gas-like aroma produces an unpleasant flavor. Also, even after the fire is out, that residual smell can linger in your fire pit. It’s just best to avoid it.

I prefer using natural wood firestarters like tumbleweeds. They are wood strips rolled up into small cylinders that are dipped in flammable wax.

If cooking with hardwood, place one to two firestarters on the bottom of the Breeo® fire pit in the intersection of the X Airflow™ channels. Then, build a log cabin or tic-tac-toe pattern by placing two logs parallel across the channels and two more logs in the opposite direction. Simply light the firestarters. In about 15 minutes, the logs will start to ash over.

If using lump charcoal or briquettes, dump a generous amount into the Breeo fire pit, creating a pile. Tuck two firestarters into the coals and light them. After about 15 minutes, spread the coals around with long tongs. Once they begin to turn ash gray, you can start cooking.

Another way to light lump charcoal or briquettes is with a charcoal chimney. Fill the chimney with your coals and place a Firestarter under the bottom. You can also use crumpled up newspaper, brown paper bags or kindling. Light the starter. As the coals ash over, carefully dump them into the fire pit. Add more unlit coals to the Breeo fire pit for longer cooks.

Charcoal Briquettes

Briquettes are a classic American fuel made of hardwood charcoal and sawdust that is formed into its familiar square shape with natural binders like cornstarch. They come in large and small bags, so they’re easy to transport.

Nowadays, briquettes are also infused with varying hardwoods like mesquite, apple and cherry to provide more variety of flavor.

Advantages

  • Briquettes are consistent in size, creating a more even temp.

  • Briquettes burn for a long time.

Disadvantages

  • Briquettes produce a lot of ash, so you’ll need to clean your fire pit more frequently. 

  • Briquettes can take a little longer to light, if you don’t use a chimney or good firestarters.

Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is hardwood that has gone through a partial burning process. Through this process, natural components like water and sap are removed, leaving a lightweight piece of wood coal.

When this coal is lit, you get the flavor benefits of cooking over solid wood, but there are some things to consider. The source of wood varies in each bag. Some manufacturers use lumber scraps. This is still natural wood, and in fact, it’s a benefit that these scraps don’t go to waste, but it can result in varying shapes and sizes.

Advantages

  • Lump charcoal provides clean blue smoke. 

  • Lump charcoal produces less ash.

  • Lump charcoal is lighter than hardwood.

Disadvantages

  • Lump charcoal burns hotter and quicker than briquettes. 

  • Lump charcoal can be expensive.

Hardwood

If you have an outdoor fire pit, you’re most likely going to use hardwood, which is a great choice. Hardwood accentuates the flavor of food that’s cooked over it in a special way unlike briquettes or lump charcoal. Cooking with wood logs adds to the rustic setting of being outdoors.

As your food cooks, you can add another log on and enjoy the dual-purpose smokeless fire pit feature of the Breeo fire pit as you share memories around the fire.

When selecting wood logs, be sure you’re using hardwood and not softwood. Softwoods like pine and cedar have more sap and will emit an unpleasant aroma. Some can actually be toxic. Stick with woods like oak, maple, hickory, cherry and apple.

Also, if you can, find hardwood without bark. Bark doesn’t burn as purely as the wood itself, which can negatively impact the flavor of your smoke.

Advantages

  • Hardwood is all natural, providing pure smoke.

  • You can buy wood in large quantities.

Disadvantages

  • Hardwood needs to be dry.

  • Hardwood is heavier and not as convenient to transport.

Wood is a flavor

Once you select your fuel source, you can think about the subtle nuances that different types of wood offer. Briquettes and lump charcoal are usually identified as “hardwood.” The bag doesn’t always tell you what kind of wood they’re made of, unless you buy the ones with added shavings of specific woods.

When cooking with wood logs, you have the luxury of selecting your wood type, which means you can adjust the flavor of your smoke.

Mesquite wood has a strong, sometimes bitter aroma. A little goes a long way. Whereas, pecan wood is mild, allowing you to enjoy a smooth kiss of smoke.

Other strong woods include hickory, walnut and apple. If using these woods, allow the logs to burn down more to avoid oversaturating your food with smoke flavor.

Additional mild woods include maple, cherry and oak. Cherry and oak help add a beautiful mahogany color to meats, whereas maple provides a touch of sweetness.

Now that you know all about wood, find your own formula. There’s nothing wrong with cooking with a combination of fuel sources. For instance, you can start with lump charcoal and add a log or chunk of natural hardwood in varying flavors, depending on what you’re cooking. Or if you’re cooking with wood and you need a bit more heat for the final few minutes of your cook, throw on some briquettes instead of an entire log. Most of all, have fun.