Cooking at Home Over a Wood Fire
By Charlie Van Over
A glowing fireplace is one of the joys of life in New England. The warmth and the gentle sounds of the flames comfort us during the long dark winter. And in our house, we need an efficient fire to keep the place heated.
We’ve been using the fireplace to cook for more than twenty years. We have a squat iron grill that sits close to the hearth and a small electric spit for roasting. But most often we use an adjustable Tuscan Grill inserted into the fireplace.
Here is how we do it.
Fireplace cooking requires a well-built fireplace with a functioning chimney. Shallow fireplaces that once housed Victorian-era coal stoves are usually unsuitable. You’ll need a fireplace that is at least 20 inches deep. And a deep hearthstone helps. This is your work area. A removable fire screen is important to give you access to the grill.
If you are afraid of down and dirty, don’t cook in the fireplace. Split logs shed their bark and chips of wood. The ash bed in the fireplace tends to be dusty. And there is the occasional ember that hits the screen.
And please read my fire safety tips at the end of this post before starting.
The Grill and Fireplace Tools
Our Tuscan grill consists of a frame that supports a heavy cast iron or steel grate with two handles. The frame sits in the fireplace. Its two posts look a bit like andirons with notches that support the grate. Suspended above the fire, the grate holds foods for cooking.
If you purchase one of these grills, you need to place it in your fireplace before you build a fire.
You’ll also need a fire poker and fireplace tongs. For cooking we use long grill tongs, a long grill fork, insulated oven mitts and a spray bottle for dousing flames.
Get well seasoned hardwood, such as oak, maple, birch, ash or fruitwood. (I’ve listed these in order of availability in our area of Connecticut.) Oak or hickory and cherry will produce an intensely flavored smoke. Apple and nut wood produce a sweet, mild smoky flavor. Never burn pine nor cedar in a fireplace. They burn at low temperatures and emit resins that coat the chimney.
Have the wood cut to the right size, 18 to 24 inches depending on the width of your fireplace. You’ll want small and large pieces of wood too. The backlog, which sits against the interior wall should be nine to ten inches thick.
Make sure you have kindling to start the fire. When we buy cords of wood for our house, there is usually plenty of smaller split pieces and shreds for kindling. LL Bean sells kindling sticks made from fat wood, pine that is impregnated with resin.
Keep your wood pile as close to the fireplace as possible. Few are enthusiastic about building a fire in a blizzard when the wood is far from the house. Make certain it is covered so that it stays dry.
In order to build up a good base of embers you will need to build a sizable fire. There should be no air below the logs. In other words, if you have one of those cast iron grates, get rid of it. They were meant for burning coal, which needed air underneath for burning efficiently. (Read my primer “Rediscovering the Lost Art of Building a Fire”).
Push the andirons to the side. You’ll want to build your fire directly on a bed of ashes. (Do remove some of the ash bed when it gets too high.) You can see the two posts of our Tuscan grill in this photo. Some models like ours include a small tray for collecting juices that drip from foods cooking on the grill. It is not really necessary.
Our grill has settings that hold the rack either 5, 9 or 14 inches above the ash bed. We position it at the highest setting for long, gentle cooking.
Secrets to the Art of Cooking with Wood
The first rule of cooking over a wood fire is to never let the flames hit the food directly. This means that you always want to grill over red-to white-hot embers with few or low flames.
As the logs burn down, you may need to adjust them to create an even level of embers.
Here I am adjusting the logs in the fireplace to maintain the fire for cooking.
One you have a bed of glowing embers, the fire is ready for cooking.
You can use your hand to gauge the heat of the embers. Once the flames have died down, place your hand about 8 inches above the fire. Start counting. You should only be able to hold your hands above them for 3 or 4 seconds before it gets too hot. (Or maybe less. We have chef hands.) That’s a brisk fire ready for cooking.
For the most part, you’ll achieve the best results cooking longer and slower over your fire. You’ll want to master working your grill, moving the food between two zones of heat. Sear steaks, chops and chicken, for example, on the hottest section of the grill. Then move them to the cooler zones to finish cooking slowly and evenly. You may even need to move the food back again to a hot section for extra heat before serving.
Here the vegetables for Wood Grilled Hanger Steak are placed on the grill to cook.
Once the vegetables are cooked, I move them to cooler sections of the grill to finish cooking and stay warm. The steak, which takes only a short time, is placed on the hottest section of the grill.
If the steak needs to cook longer, you can move it to cooler sections of the grill to cook slowly without drying out.
Should grease drip into the fire and flame up, douse the flames with a gentle spray of water. We keep a spray bottle on hand just for this purpose.
Safety Tips for Wood Fires at Home:
- Never leave a fire unattended without placing a screen in front of it.
Open fireplaces that burn wood are inherently dangerous. This is because it is hard to judge how different logs will burn. Every once in a while you will hear a crack or a pop accompanied by a chunk of ember flying out beyond the safety of the stone hearth. While these little embers are usually harmless and can be easily brushed back on to the hearth, they are capable of starting a smoldering fire if they land on some flammable material.
- Keep your chimney clean.
Chimney fires, while rather infrequent, can be frightening and even result in burning down your home. Schedule an annual fireplace inspection with a chimney sweep. They’re usually quite reasonable. They will advise you on how often you need a chimney cleaning based on how frequently you build fires.
- Use the proper wood in your fireplace.
Well-seasoned hard wood such as oak, maple, walnut, birch and fruitwoods such as apple and cherry throw out the most heat. Ask your fire wood guy. They are usually very knowledgeable.
Don’t burn evergreens even if they are free for the taking. Pine creates little heat and throws off creosote when burned, the number one cause of chimney fires.
Find Tuscan Grills and all manner of wood cooking equipment at Spitjack.com
You can read about more advanced tools and fire building here.