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So: What is the difference between charcoal vs wood for grilling? Both make fire, and flame-kissed food is delicious, right? Well, according to seven-time world barbecue champion Melissa Cookston, comparing these two fuels is like comparing apples to oranges.
Charcoal is ideal for your typical backyard barbecue—aka, for using what the pros call direct heat—with burgers, hot dogs, steaks, chicken wings, corn on the cob, or anything else you would toss right on your grill grates. Wood, on the other hand, isn’t really feasible for direct heat grilling. “When you’re using wood, you have a lot of flame because the wood catches on fire and combusts,” Cookston explained. These flare-ups make the temperature of a wood fire difficult to control without a seriously large and specific type of grill designed for wood fires, meaning your burgers would end up a little less flame-kissed and more charred to a crisp.
But just because she doesn’t recommend lighting up a campfire in your Weber, doesn’t mean wood and outdoor cooking can’t go hand-in-hand. “I’m an outdoor cooking girl, and there’s nothing like cooking with wood,” Cookston said. In the barbecue world, wood is the most important and nuanced ingredient for smoking, a method of cooking that uses indirect heat over many hours. And even if you don’t have a smoker or a wood fire grill, you can still experiment with using wood smoke while grilling, thanks to techniques like wood chips and two zone fires.
Before we get into how to use wood and charcoal for grilling, it’s worth backing up and talking about what exactly these materials actually are in order to understand how to best harness their heat and flavor once you light that match.
Wood is technically the xylem or vascular system of a tree that transports water and other nutrients from the roots to the leaves. When it comes to cooking, you can’t just grab any old log or chop down a tree and throw it in your smoker or your grill. Fresh-cut wood has a great deal of water in it, which will steam as it burns and release off-tasting smoke. For this reason, firewood and wood meant for cooking is usually “seasoned” or air-dried for at least six months. You also want to be careful to never use any wood that’s moldy or has been treated for cooking because it can release harmful substances into your food.
Wood meant for cooking generally comes in three size options: wood chips, chunks, or logs…though chips or chunks will most commonly be used for backyard cooking; save the logs for a big open pit barbecue or the campfire. (And pellet smokers are the outliers here; they use compressed wood pellets, as their name suggests.) When it comes to the best smoking wood, hardwoods like hickory or cherry are usually preferred for their tighter cell structure, which makes them burn slower than softer woods like pine, which also give off sooty smoke that won’t taste great on your food.
Charcoal is actually made from wood that’s been burned in a low oxygen oven or silo until it’s basically just pure carbon, also known as char. According to Meathead Goldwyn’s in-depth explanation of the science of charcoal, it’s got more potential energy than wood, and “burns steady, hot, and produces less smoke and fewer dangerous vapors.”
Just like wood, there are options when it comes to selecting your charcoal, too. Briquettes, which most experts recommend for the casual barbecue-er, are usually made up of charcoal and sometimes an added binder like cornstarch, as well as other ingredients such as sawdust and sodium nitrate. (Though some brands, including Weber and B&B briquettes, use only hardwood.) Thanks to their uniform size, they burn consistently but some claim they produce an ashier burn, aka, cap out at a lower heat than lump wood charcoal. Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is just hardwood burned down to charcoal, without additives or shaping.
There are also even more specific options out there, like Japanese Binchotan, which is activated charcoal that produces a very high heat with almost no smoke; and coconut charcoal is made from pressed coconut shells that are burned down to char instead of hardwood.
A chimney starter is a great way to get your charcoal going, no matter which kind you use. Lighter fluid is a definite no-no.
For most lay-people or backyard barbecue enthusiasts, grilling with charcoal is going to be sufficient. Depending on what you’re cooking, you can set up your charcoal for direct heat grilling only, or create two zones for direct and indirect heat. (Not sure what that means? Check out this Chowhound video which will teach you.)
What about gas grills, you ask? According to Cookston, gas grills have their time and place as a quick and easy outdoor cooking tool, but they don’t compare to the results you get from charcoal. “Time is something I don’t have a lot of,” she said. “It’s very convenient to push a button and have a gas grill handy. But the flavor of charcoal is something that I crave. There’s nothing like a burger or steak cooked over charcoal. You get a totally different texture.”
For those dead set on grilling with wood only, there are a few options. “If you’re thinking about grilling with wood, what we typically do in the South is use a burn barrel to burn that wood down to what we call embers,” Cookston said. “Which is basically what the charcoal process is. Or you could use a Santa Maria grill, which we don’t have a lot of in the South. I was first introduced to those out in California.” These extra-large grills have a grate that can be raised or lowered to keep the meat off the flame.
Or you could make like Cookston, and use a zoning set up to add a bit of wood flavor in a regular old charcoal grill. “Occasionally I’ll take a wood chunk and put it over to the side,” she said. “Basically, you’re creating a two-zone fire where you’re cooking your meat on one side, and you put that wood chunk over to the other side of your grill so you’re not getting the flare up on your meat.” Since you’re not cooking directly over the wood, she emphasizes that you’ll only get a minimal amount of flavor from the wood chunk using this method.
There’s also the option of adding wood chips to your charcoal grill—some gas grills even come with a pan for you to put wood chips in—but Cookston cautions that you won’t get that smoky flavor you might be imagining. “Chips just combust and burn so fast that you’re just not going to get that great smoky flavor,” she said. “You may get a hint, but you’re just not going to get that smoky flavor you might be thinking of.”
A better option, at least in Cookston’s opinion, is smoking with indirect heat rather than grilling. “You don’t have to go to a big expense to get that flavor,” Cookston said. There are so many smokers on the market now that are inexpensive that you can actually use wood chunks in to cook indirectly and make such a wonderful product that will have that smoky flavor.”
When smoking, Cookston recommends using charcoal as a base heating component and using wood for flavoring. Because wood of different varieties—not to mention different climates and soil conditions—can produce vastly different levels of smoke (as well as subtle flavor differences), she uses different types of wood depending on what she’s cooking.
“I use fruit woods, mostly apple and peach, when I’m cooking lighter meats like pork and chicken because they accept smoke flavor so easily,” she said. “And one of the primary rules of cooking with wood is to use it just like you would any other seasoning, like salt. You don’t want to over salt, you don’t want to over smoke. So fruit woods tend to lightly smoke those lighter meats that accept that smoke flavor so readily.” When it comes to beef or other red meats, you can opt for a heavier, harsher smoke. “That’s when hickory comes into play, or you can use mesquite. Beef will take those harsher woods more readily.”
No matter what—or how—you’re smoking, the biggest rule is just to enjoy the process. “Throwing a log on the fire and smelling that wood burning…that’s what I use as perfume,” Cookston told me. “It’s an experience, the smell that you get is heavenly, and exposing meat to that smoke flavor in just the right balance is almost like a dance for me.”