When you’re getting ready to do some outdoor cooking, you may automatically default to charcoal. But with the rise in popularity of fire pits, perhaps you started asking some questions. Should I be grilling with charcoal? Should I try cooking over a wood fire grill? Both a charcoal and a woodfire grill produce fire and a smoky flavor. Is one better than the other? In this article we’ll go over the differences between charcoal grilling and preparing food over a woodfire grill, when which fuel source is preferred, and how to get the best of both worlds.
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Grilling with Charcoal: The Smoky Truth
Charcoal grilling is popular for a good reason. This traditional fuel source produces classic grilled smoky flavors, is relatively inexpensive, and gets hot enough to give your steaks that steakhouse-style seared exterior. Before we get into the details on when charcoal works best, let’s go over the difference between briquettes and lump charcoal.
Briquettes vs. Lump: Which Charcoal is Best?
Charcoal is wood that has been burned in a low-oxygen environment. Sap, moisture, and naturally occurring chemicals are burned off, leaving behind pure carbon. So if they are both charcoal, what separates briquettes from lump?
Grilling with Charcoal Briquettes. Briquettes are charcoal blended with a binder like cornstarch, sawdust, or other additives and then compressed into shapes. Some brands of briquettes include lighter fluid which can give food a petroleum-like taste and smell. Their uniform size means they tend to stack well and burn evenly. Briquettes are less expensive than lump charcoal.
Lump Charcoal Grilling. Lump charcoal is purely the carbon left behind after burning the wood. Because it is charcoal in its purest form, with no additives or shaping, it makes it a cleaner way to grill. Lump lights and burns faster and hotter than briquettes but may not last as long. Lump charcoal grilling tends to be easier to control for maintaining temperature. If cooking on the Gather Grill, we recommend lump charcoal.
Charcoal Grilling vs. Wood Fire Grill
No matter which kind of charcoal you choose, when it comes to grilling with charcoal, you’ll find it easier to control the heat versus a wood fire grill. Grilling with charcoal also tends to be faster and easier to start than a woodfire grill and easier to keep going. It also produces less smoke. When you want a smoky flavor, that may seem like a negative. However, it does help prevent over-smoking food, a situation where the smoke flavor overwhelms everything else about the meat.
One important consideration is quality control. Lump charcoal from reputable brands will produce consistent quality results. Firewood, however, can have a massive range in quality.
Firewood that is wet and moldy will always provide for a horrible cooking experience, yet some people still attempt to do this. Cooking with kiln dried hardwood firewood that is clean will produce incredible results. It is much easier to control the heat and flavor of firewood that has a consistent moisture content and is a predictable size.
If you want to grill with woodfire, then make sure you choose to cook with quality firewood.
A Wood Fire Grill: Flavor and Tradition
Grilling over an open fire conjures up images of campfires, cavemen, or giant open-pit barbecues. Wood brings worlds of flavor to your grill, provides comforting ambiance, and even keeps the bugs away. It might be traditional, but is a wood fire grill the best for your cookout?
Choosing Wood for Your Woodfire Grill
Wood comes in chips, chunks, or logs. Logs are typically reserved for fire pit entertainment rather than for a woodfire grill, so when cooking on an egg style kamado grill you’ll primarily be looking at chips or chunks. Chips are so small that they tend to burn away far too quickly to provide much flavor so we recommend chunks for smaller grills. However, you’ll want to keep both logs (or sticks) and chunks on hand when you have a smoker, grill, and fire pit combo like Gather Grills.
Flavor on Fire. The big reason to use a woodfire grill is the wide range of rich, smoky flavors the wood adds to food. Hickory and mesquite are famous woods for grilling and smoking and pair well with robust red meats. Fruit woods like apple or peach add a subtle sweet flavor and go well with chicken and pork. Avoid using softwoods like pine, as they give off excessive smoke and soot which negatively impacts the flavor of food.
Keep it Dry. Your wood needs to be dry. Fresh wood contains too much moisture, producing too much steam and unpleasant flavors when it is burned. The best wood for a woodfire grill or a fire pit is kiln dried wood, or wood that has been air-dried for at least six months. Seasoned wood is not as reliable as kiln dried wood because its moisture content is unpredictable and it is more prone to mold and bugs. Low-smoking, longer-burning hardwoods like oak, hickory, and cherry are recommended for both fire pits or cooking.
Woodfire Grill vs. Grilling with Charcoal
In general, it is more challenging to control heat on a wood fire grill. It burns faster than charcoal, is slower to heat, and is more likely to interfere with your seasonings through “over smoking”. Depending on where you live, it may be more challenging to find wood appropriate for a woodfire grill than to find charcoal. However, don’t count wood and all its magical flavors out. Wood still has a place in your grilling life.
Charcoal is best for direct-heat grilling. Its fast and furious characteristics make it great for quick-cooking foods like burgers, hot dogs, and vegetables. You can quickly cook for a large crowd on the Entertainer the Reunion from Gather Grills.
When to Cook with Wood Fire Grill
Wood is far better for indirect heat than direct heat. Using direct heat on a woodfire grill can cause excess charring due to flare-ups. If you’re using only wood, your best bet is going for a low and slow barbecue. This cooking method also allows your food time to absorb the flavor of the wood. You can keep your woodfire grill small or go a bit bigger with the Tailgater or The Pioneer from Gather Grills.
Getting the Best of a Wood Fire Grill While Grilling with Charcoal
If you want the temperature control and ease of charcoal but long for those deep, complex flavors that wood brings to the party, you can have your steak and eat it too. Here are the three best ways to combine charcoal grilling and a wood fire grill to get the best of both worlds.
The Two-Zone Solution
To get the direct-heat benefits of grilling with charcoal and the deep flavors of wood, try the two-zone method. There are a few ways to set this up, and both work beautifully on any of the four sizes from Gather Grills.
Half and Half. Put your charcoal on half the grill and your wood on the other side. The charcoal side will burn faster, with more heat and fewer flare-ups, so do your grilling there. This is great for faster smokes like chicken wings or ribs. This more subtle indirect smoking helps prevent over-smoked foods from overwhelming your tastebuds.
The Magic C. Stack your charcoal around three-quarters of the perimeter of the grill and place the food in the middle. This structure burns slower and is a good choice for longer smokes like brisket, whole turkeys, or pork butt.
Mix Them Up. Build the fire with charcoal and get to the right temperature. Just before throwing some meat on the grill, add a few pieces of wood to provide additional flavor. The charcoal works as your heat source, while the wood provides the flavor.
Reignite Your Grilling Passion with Gather Grills
Whether you go with charcoal, wood, or a combination of both, when you do it with Gather Grills every meal can be an adventure. As a grill and smoker, griddle and firepit with a built-in dining table for you and your guests, you’ve never done dinner like you will on one of these epic multi-function cookers.
If you’re passionate about grilling with charcoal, the flavors of a wood fire grill, and connecting with family and friends, it’s time to come together over your new Gather Grill.