Cooking with Wood

When it comes to cooking, with wood, I think it’s one of the most human things to do, and a campfire is very comforting. Scientists are still arguing about when our ancestors started cooking with wood. Theories range from 1.8 million years ago to 12,000 years ago. The truth no one will argue, cooking is one of the keys to our evolutionary development. If not for cooking the world would be a much different place today. Cooking over glowing embers is fun, most of us have fond childhood memories of roasting hotdogs or marshmallows when camping. It’s a great social gathering, a great way to connect with our family, friends and our wild side. Let’s get started, shall we?

Safety First

Our ancestors, probably, learned their lessons the hard way. More than likely, they scorched a few huts, suffered some 3rd-degree burns, and destroyed their hunting grounds, before they mastered fire. Lucky for us we live in the modern world, and hopefully learned from their mistakes.

Safety Equipment to Have on Hand

    • Fire extinguisher: this goes without saying. A garden hose at the ready works well too.
    • Safety Glasses: when you’re splitting, cutting, and breaking wood, you want to protect your eyes.
    • Leather Gloves: to protect your hands from splinters and heat when stoking the fire, and cutting wood.
    • Shovel: this is for firefighting and moving coals around.

Make sure you are not wearing loose clothing that will catch fire easily as well.

The Cooking Equipment

This can range from expensive to almost free. At the high end, and my dream grill is a Santa Maria Grill, from Sunterra.  At the low end, a campfire pit or park style BBQ, at your local campground or a public park (make sure you check all the local laws on campfire restrictions).

Until I can afford the Santa Maria Grill, I use my 22” Kettle, Lodge Sportsman’s Grill, or the local campground fire pit. Whatever fits your budget, expensive or cheap, the technique is the same.

Building the Fire

We’ll cover a few things here. Safety first, make sure you have all of your safety equipment handy and move your cooking apparatus to a safe place. You don’t want to burn down your hut, or neighborhood (our ancestors did that already).

The Wood:

    • Do Not Use: Anything with poison in the name. Oak, Ivy, Sumac, Oleander things like that. To be honest, the information on the web is spotty at best, but do some research before you start.
    • Do Not Use: Treated, Manufactured (plywood, particle board), Painted, or Unidentifiable Wood.
    • Do Not Start: The fire with gasoline, lighter fluid, or any other accelerant. Use newspaper or a brown paper bag.

Other than the ‘Do Not’ above, most everything else is fair game. Hardwoods are usually better and readily available, Oak, Fruitwoods, Nut Woods, and Mesquite, can be sourced at your local home improvement store. This can get expensive, but it’s a good place to safely start. If you live in an area where people heat their homes with wood. Craigslist is a great place to find wood for a good price. Cutting and collecting your own is budget friendly and fun too. Don’t be afraid to use some of the soft-woods. I live in the Great Basin and cook with Utah Juniper, and Pinion Pine on a regular basis. That’s what the Native Americans of the region used as well.

Have wood, start a fire. Here’s a great link on fire starting.

We’re Not Smoking

Before the wood police come out and say “you can’t cook with juniper and pine, you’ll DIE”. Let me clarify something, we are not cooking slow and low, and smoke flavoring the food. This is not a brisket cooking for 12 hours with Post Oak on an offset smoker. This is grilling over hot embers and you can use almost any kind of wood, except for the poison kind, that kind will kill you.

Be Patient

Okay now what, well you got your wood, and started your fire right? Just wait and wait. This takes a lot longer than charcoal or the gas grill heating up. This will take 45 minutes to 1 hour, maybe longer depending on the wood. Keep that fire extinguisher handy, grab a beverage, and tend the fire. Build a pretty good fire and let it burn down to glowing coals, it will look a lot like lump charcoal when it’s ready. Depending on what wood used, this will be trial and error. Characteristics of wood differ, some burn hotter and faster, some make great coals, and give you longer cooking times, but take forever to burn down.

If you’re cooking for a long period you can burn wood on the side and add coals to the grill. This is a little more complicated and for more seasoned grillers.

What to Grill

As my 15 year old would say “anything I want”.  It’s true you can cook anything, don’t let your fears stop you or hold you back.


Grill them all, I say. Some fun things to cook are peppers, beets, and sweet potatoes, you just throw them on the coals and peel off the burnt parts. Grilling greens yes. I said it. from lettuce to Swiss chard, nothing is off limits. Split a head of romaine lettuce in half, and char the one side, on one of the halves, then make a salad as usual. The char will get your guest talking. Try grilled coleslaw (link to recipe) for a new flavor profile, delicious. All of the usual suspects are in play, zucchini, asparagus, and eggplant, or make some roasted salsa, and don’t forget the fruits.


The Meat

It’s probably best to start off with the lean, or thin cuts of meat, for the beginner. There will be fewer flare-ups and fire management. Lean meats will also cook faster. Keep seasoning simple at first, I recommend just sea salt, then work your way up. A lot of marinades and rubs will burn easily.

  • Easy Grilling
    • Carne Asada
    • Chicken Breast
    • Top Sirloin
    • Hotdogs (organic 100% grass-fed)
    • London Broil
    • Center Cut Pork Chops
    • Any Wild Game Meat
    • Shrimp and other shellfish
  • Moderate Grilling
    • Whole Tri-Tip
    • Ribeye Steak
    • Tomahawk Rib Steak
    • New York Steak
    • Chicken Thighs
    • Chicken Wings
    • Salmon Filets or Steaks
    • Fish Filets
    • Fatty Sausages

Master these two lists, then you’re ready for the big leagues. Spare ribs, whole roast, and whole fish, to name a few, are foods that require a longer cooking time and a lower cooking temperature.  Fire management, the distribution of coals, and keeping the meat moist are the challenges here. Take a step on the wild side and try a caveman ribeye, cooked directly on the coals. If you ever get a chance to read the “Barbecue Bible“, by Steven Raichle, it’s a great book and a recommended read.

That’s it, good luck, be safe, and have fun! Let me know how things turn out. If you’re like me, you will have some great successes and many failures.


Live Wild

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