Grilling with Wood

Posted on July 1st, 2011 by Tonia 6 Comments

Can you believe it’s already the 4th of July weekend? Where did June go? Time is moving much too quickly for my liking. But I can’t really complain, after all, this is my favorite weekend of the summer!

The tiny little town I grew up in puts on a spectacular fireworks show on the 3rd. It has been rated the second-best show in the whole state {Madison was #1}. Thousands of people flood in to see it, so we always get there hours before it starts to stake out a good spot. We play frisbee and boccé, eat and drink, and catch up with old friends who are in town for the show.

And then at about 10:30 PM, for fifteen minutes, the sky lights up. Our hearts race, we snuggle closer to our loved ones, and we’re overcome by a childlike appreciation for explosives. And we feel super patriotic, too. It’s awesome.

Fireworks are far from environmentally friendly, unfortunately. But there are a couple things we can all do to keep our celebrations a little greener: Bring real plates and cutlery to your picnic instead of paper or plastic, and grill with your own homemade charcoal instead of the store-bought kind that is loaded with chemicals.

The upside is that your food will taste better and be healthier for you. The downside is that it takes a while to get the wood cooked down enough so it won’t scorch your meat. You have to plan a ahead and get it burning about an hour and a half before you want to put the meat on {longer if you’re cooking fish or pork that requires low heat.}

Start the wood in the belly of the grill and leave the top off and allow it to burn freely. Once the smoke turns from opaque-white to clear-gray, it means that the moisture in the wood has been burned away and you can begin grilling.

Coals will be forming at this point {if your grill has a valve for cutting off/allowing air flow through the underside of the grill, closing it will aid in the coals forming more quickly}, and you can push them over to one side of the grill to create a “hot side” and a “cool side”. Put the meat on the hot side for a moment to get a bit of char going, and then cook it the rest of the way on the cool side so that it cooks slowly and doesn’t burn or dry out.

We usually use maple wood, but you can use other types as well. If you’re lucky enough to live in Texas where there is Mesquite, it is a delicious wood for grilling {many charcoal brands try to copy the taste with chemicals…but it just ends up tasting like chemicals.}

However, there are a few types of wood you do not want to use, because they contain toxins that can survive the burning process and are harmful: PINE, FIR, SPRUCE, REDWOOD, EASTERN RED CEDAR, CYPRESS, and OLEANDER.

I found a pretty extensive list of good woods for grilling, put out by the Northwoods Smoke Club of Minnesota:

ACACIA – Same family as mesquite. When burned in a grill, acacia has a flavor similar to mesquite but not quite as heavy. A very hot burning wood.

ALDER – Delicate with a hint of sweetness. Good with fish, pork, and poultry.

ALMOND – Sweet smokey flavor that compliments all meats.

APPLE – Mild with a subtle fruity flavor. Good with poultry {turns skin dark brown} and pork.

ASH – Fast burner, light but distinctive flavor. Good with fish and red meats.

BIRCH – Medium-hard wood with a flavor similar to maple. Good with pork and poultry.

CHERRY – Mild and fruity. Good with poultry, pork and beef. Wood from chokecherry trees may produce a bitter flavor.

COTTONWOOD – A softer wood than alder and very subtle in flavor. Use it for fuel but use some chunks of other woods {hickory, oak, pecan} for more flavor. Don’t use green cottonwood for smoking.

CRAB APPLE – Similar to apple wood.

GRAPEVINES – Tart. Provides a lot of smoke. Rich and fruity. Good with poultry, red meats, game and lamb.

HICKORY – Most commonly used wood for smoking. Sweet and strong, heavy bacon flavor. Good with pork, ham and beef.

LILAC – Very light, subtle with a hint of floral. Good with seafood and lamb.

MAPLE – Smoky, mellow and slightly sweet. Good with pork and poultry.

MESQUITE – Strong earthy flavor. Good with beef, fish, chicken, and game. One of the hottest burning.

MULBERRY – The smell is sweet and reminds one of apple.

OAK – Heavy smoke flavor. RED OAK is good on ribs, WHITE OAK makes the best coals for longer burning. All oak varieties reported as suitable for smoking. Good with red meat, pork, fish and heavy game.

ORANGE, LEMON and GRAPEFRUIT – Nice mild smoky flavor. Excellent with beef, pork, fish and poultry.

PEAR – Nice subtle smoke flavor. Much like apple. Excellent with chicken and pork.

PECAN – Sweet and mild with a flavor similar to hickory. Tasty with a subtle character. Good with poultry, beef, pork and cheese.

SWEET FRUIT WOODS – APRICOT, PLUM, PEACH, NECTARINE – Great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork and fish. The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.

WALNUT – ENGLISH and BLACK – Very heavy smoke flavor, usually mixed with lighter woods like almond, pear or apple. Can be bitter if used alone. Good with red meats and game.

If none of these trees grow where you live, check out the Northwoods Smoke Club website for more info on good and bad woods for grilling.

Happy 4th of July! Have a great weekend.

{Posts might be a little light next week as we dash around to visit our families for the holiday, but we’ll be back in the saddle and blogging as normal by the following weekend!}


  1. Karen says:

    I work for an organization that funds a sanctuary for bears in Pakistan. Acacia branches are one of their favorite snacks so it MUST taste good.

  2. Patricia says:

    What a great post! Thanks for the homemade charcoal tips…we’ve never tried it but I think it’s a must do for this holiday weekend. We have nothing but time this weekend. Have a lovely holiday. :)

  3. Tonia says:

    Let me know how it goes if you try it!!

  4. Liz says:

    Please note to your readers that firewood should not be moved from county to county or across state lines. Insects like emerald ash borer and worse are hitching rides on firewood and destroying our native trees. Buy it there and leave it behind or use it up. The environmental impact of bringing in disease or insects is far greater than that of purchased charcoal.

  5. Tonia says:

    Very true, Liz. Good reminder!

  6. Tonia says:

    Also, be REALLY REALLY careful that the wood you’re burning is not pressure-treated. The chemicals in that wood, if burned and inhaled, WILL KILL YOU. It’s super nasty stuff.

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