Every culture has a name for cooking with wood: braai in South Africa, barbacoa in Spain, churrasco in Portugal and Brazil, and the familiar “barbeque” to Kurdish, Hmong, and East African chefs. And, just like the name, the method is entirely different for each. But the need for a chef to call in all their senses? That never changes.
After all, it’s one thing to cook with an oven where you can set the temp and forget it; the entire oven has circulating air all the same temperature, in a controlled setting. With a gas grill, some of the better cook tops will have a larger burner for boiling or searing and some will go down low to delicately melt butter and nothing more. Cooking over wood, however, is another matter. Depending on the type of wood and the aging and drying process, it can burn hot, or not at all. It can burn too quickly and too hot … in which case you’ll find you can’t cook without burning your food. In other words, there are dozens of variables. And you need to pay attention to them all.
Listen to the pan to hear the cooking of the moisture; you’ll know when the meat is done by the slow stop of the sizzle. Sniff for things that need to be removed from the heat. Look at the pan and see that Maillard effect, your product caramelizing to where you want it. Feel a steak for the bounce-back it gives to tell you—with practice—if it’s to the cook you want … or, as the Argentines say, cocinado al punto: “cooked on point.” I remember staying at an estancia (a cattle ranch) outside of Buenos Aires and seeing gauchos prepare a skirt steak, or entraña, to perfection over the hot coals, their forks and knives holstered to their hips as an American cowboy would holster a gun—both representing the end for something or another.
As long-standing as the gauchotradition is, though, other cultures go back almost as far as fire itself, cooking root vegetables and whole animals underneath the earth after a fire has been made—kind of like a first-century oven. Think of this method as like a tagine; the moisture keeps raining on top, creating deep levels of flavor with almost no loss of moisture. At the same time, there’s no path for the smoke to escape but into the meal itself, adding to the flavor.
Places like Namibia and Japan keep ancient techniques alive as well. There, they take the cooking process seriously, using centuries-old methods of drying to come out with the hottest-burning, longest-lasting wood. Namibians use rooikrans, a type of acacia, and sekelbos wood dried naturally in the sun. It burns for hours and has such an amazing aroma. Still, binchotan is my hero of the group. Just as Japanese culture takes one thing at a time and perfects it (I’ll post more on my time in Japan soon), it takes firewood to the next level, too.
Oak from the Wakayama Prefecture—specifically a town called Minabe—is, in my opinion, the cleanest charcoal in the world, and great for cooking. Dried and smoked over four days in a mud-covered kiln, it burns lower but purer, and longer because of the high temperature used to carbonize it. Did you ever wonder why yakitori is so delicious? That’s why. Binchotan highlights high-quality chicken—so much so that many people who eat yakitori for the first time are shocked at the flavor from just chicken with minimal seasoning. When it comes to cooked chicken, there is no rival.
Another, more familiar cult of the fire gods is one I’m sure we’ve all tried: American barbeque. Each region of the South lays claim to the “best” brisket, ribs, and pulled pork. Whether cooked over applewood, hickory wood, other fruit hardwoods, or mesquite, every state proudly makes use of their own resources. If not for a holiday (Fourth of July cookout anyone?), many hobby grillers, roasters, and BBQ aficionados spend months if not years preparing for a full circuit of competitions around the country, fueling the fire of this long-standing tradition.
In Thailand, it’s street food that’s the big attraction, drawing crowds from around the world to have a taste. Vendors cook over charcoal, either from long cooking tables and grills or with a wok, where all the heat concentrates at the bottom. The chef will quickly use a ladle to push the ingredients to the side of the pan for a quick respite before gravity takes them back to the hot spot. But there are ways to speed up the process even more, and put the fire into overdrive. Once, I saw Jay Fai make her famous egg omelet with crab, her goggles protecting her from the hot oil of the wok. She turned the air blower—resembling a 1980s all-metal blow dryer—directly under the heat to make the wood embers come to life. The immediate reaction of the oil got the heat to just were she wanted it.
Of course, there are ways to slow the fire down as well. When I have a beautiful sear but know the inside needs longer to cook, I often move the pieces of wood apart from each other. Typically, I’ll have a hot spot on my grill as well as a place where I can let things hang out over indirect heat while I work on bringing the whole product up in temp to just where I want it. In the end, much like life, there’s a lot you can control … but a lot that will fight your best intentions.
Maybe that’s why cooking over wood has always caught my attention: The work involved. The pureness of making a fire from the start and the joy you get watching it dance around in the dark. The smell of its smoke. The knowledge that this is how our ancestors cooked in centuries and millennia past, from roasting a whole pig or lamb to even just smoking fish to preserve for long journeys. Sometimes to appreciate things, you need to take all the fuss out of it of the preparation and just appreciate the rawness of cooking with a force nearly as old as mankind. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been over a fire, and others over a wonderful meal, so it just makes sense to combine them.
One of the best steaks I ever cooked was a prime ribeye about 2.5” thick. Using nothing but lump oak charcoal, a tire rim, a metal grate, and a few bricks, I seared the steak quickly on all sides with the rim, then used a few bricks to raise the grate off the coals to get indirect heat and finish it off. The steak took over an hour to cook, but was a perfect medium rare with an amazing crust on the outside. The drip, drip sound of fat sweating out from the fat cap onto the embers—and the subsequent sizzle of smoke wafting back to flavor the steak—was music to my ears. I remember feeling like Gollum when I cut into that steak, not wanting to share any of the nearly 3 lbs. of meat with anyone, giving them the side eye and saying, “my precious”. I hold all steaks to that standard.
Using wood truly is my favorite way to cook. I’m OK with the snobbery of tasting menus; they have their place, and the technique involved is absolutely cutting edge. But in all my travels, eating in many of the world’s best restaurants, I’ve always craved coming back to the basics. Actually, one of my best memories was cooking mushrooms in a cast iron pan in a friend’s fireplace, just outside of Atlanta. It’s not foolproof cooking. You have to pay attention to sight, sound, and smell. And it’s not something you can walk away from, either, unlike a sous vide (an art in itself, but more plug and play).
Because fire is the truest way of cooking using all the senses.
Share some of your best stories, recipes, and pictures below of wood cooks that you’ve done!