6 Reasons Why to Cook Over Wood Fire
At our men's retreat this past weekend I taught a group of men some basic skills for cooking over a fire. On a whim, a couple days prior I texted all of them to see if anyone would be interested in learning and how to cook tri-tip over fire and the response was overwhelming. Afterward, a bunch of them asked me for the notes so I thought I'd compile them all in one place here on the blog. I hope they serve you well.
But, before we get into the "how", lets start with the "why". Here are six reasons why I love cooking with wood fire.
1. "I can do that."
If you know my wife at all, you know that she is an awesome cook and does the majority of the cooking for our family. Its something that she both loves to do and is also great at. I cooked here and there - I was known for my stellar PB&J with the kids - but, if I'm honest, I think I passively delegated the cooking to her because she was so good at it and because its not an area I felt competent or confident.
One night, I was watching Chef's Table on Netflix and saw Francis Mallman's episode. As I watched him throw steaks, chicken, bread, and lamb on live fire and smoke, I was inspired. The food was simple, rugged, beautiful, and looked delicious. Generally, aside from salt, pepper, and butter, the food was as basic as if you'd just bought it at a Farmer's Market.
As I watched him char some vegetables, I thought, "Start a fire. Burn some food a little. I can do that." And that was it. I was on the path toward being known for more than PB&J with my kids.
2. Rest with my hands.
As a pastor, my job involves a lot of thinking, studying, writing, counseling, and talking. I'm in my head a lot. If you're in your head a lot as well, you may be aware that you're not alone up there. There's that voice that whispers, "Its not enough. It can be better. You're not enough. You can be better."
If that's you, what I've found is that doing physical activity gets me out of my head and is actually restful for me. Trail running, road running, going on a walk and praying with Kim, and surfing are all ways that pull me out of my head and quiet that voice. Cooking with wood fire has been one of my favorites so far though. From igniting the kindling to building the fire to arranging the coals to prepping the meat -- you're constantly using your hands and body through the process. While it is a physical activity, it is one of my favorite ways to rest.
3. Rest by creating.
In addition to being restful, its also a primary way I can be creative. I can't draw, paint, sculpt, or play an instrument to save myself but I've learned to do a few things with fire and food now.
In his book The Tech-wise Family, Andy Crouch contrasts leisure and rest. Leisure is generally distracting, passive, consumptive, and requires others to work to provide it for you - think Netflix, shopping, eating at a restaurant, etc. Rest, on the other hand, can be attentive, active, creative, and generous. Cooking with a wood fire is restful in all of those ways to me.
4. Unique every time.
Every cook is unique because of all of the variables - wind, humidity, temperature, type of wood, type of meat, seasoning, quantity of food, amount of smoke, and so on. Whereas on a gas or charcoal grill you can control for most of those variables, with a simple pit, you can't. That makes each cook and each piece of food unique.
The process of cooking over an open fire is kind of like fishing. It is slow and while it requires attentiveness, it is better done with family or friends gathered around. The whole process can take at least a couple hours so the conversation that originates around the fire continues to the table.
I've lost 35 pounds this past year by doing the fundamental shifts of exercising more and changing my diet. Kim helped lead in this and we essentially did a modified ketogenic diet that was strict and has shifted to sustainable. The reality is, you're not putting bread or sugary foods over the fire but meat and vegetables. Cooking over live fire is one practical shift you can make towards a healthier diet.
Now that we've covered the why, I've broken up the how into "wood", "meat", "cook", and "eat".
Good fire starts with good wood.
Lets start with a couple things you shouldn't do. Don't use treated wood (Yes, this is something you should ask anyone you're buying wood from). Treated wood will have any number of toxins or pesticides. Don't use soft woods like pine or eucalyptus because of the acrid smoke and resin they produce and leave. So, based on the above, you may have deduced that you shouldn't buy your wood at the grocery or a chain store.
Now, as far as what you should do, you can't go wrong with some really good hard wood like red, post, or white oak. I use oak as a primary heat and flavoring source. The next thing you should consider is what wood you could use for flavoring the food. Similar to pairing wine or beer with food, you pair wood with your meal. Almond wood is easy to get where we live and I like to use it for tri-tip and even fish. You can also consider woods like mesquite, cedar, orange, or cherry depending on what you're making.
What you're looking for with fire.
Now lets talk about making the fire. In general, you don't just light logs on fire, you have to create a smaller fire that will ignite the logs to become the larger fire.
I recommend starting the fire in a chimney with a mixture of natural lump charcoal and kindling. It will take about 15-30 minutes to get to full heat so while that is going, the kids and I will comb over the park out front for good kindling wood. After we get back and the fire is at full strength in the chimney I pour it into the pit, arrange it into a pile, and then add the kindling we have on hand. After a couple minutes of the kindling heating up, I arrange the logs around the kindling fire to ignite.
From here, the variables I mentioned above kick in. Even a mellow breeze will whip up the fire quickly, whereas still air will cause the fire to take longer to get going and may even require you to generate some air circulation. But, let me set your target - you're looking for the wood to, at least, be burned and cured so it is white on all sides (see the picture above) or, at the most, burned down to coals. As the fire burns from raw logs to coals, it will decrease in smokiness and flame and increase in heat. You'll need to choose when to put the food on based on what you're making, how long it will take to cook, and how smoky want it to be. As you plan, keep in mind it could take over an hour for the fire to burn down to the point of cooking.
Where to buy the wood.
Again, I wouldn't buy the wood at a grocery or chain store. Here are some of the best firewood suppliers I've found in Orange County.
Woodhill in Irvine near the Great Park.
Dave Schultz in South Irvine at the end of the 241.
Keep in mind that these places are often cash-only, sometimes have odd hours (so you should call), and will negotiate the prices a bit.
Understand where on the cow (or pig, deer, etc) the meat comes from.
For example, brisket is a very strong and tough muscle near the front legs and 'chest' of a cow; which is why it needs to be cooked for a long time at low heat. Cooking 'low and slow' breaks down the connective tissue in the muscle and renders the fat down into the meat, making brisket the tender, juicy meal it is when done well. Tri-tip is from the bottom sirloin portion of the cow which is marbled but more lean than, for example, rib eye.
What to look for in tri-tip.
Like many steaks, you first want to look for good fat marbling. Again, tri-tip is a leaner cut so the more marbling the better. But, tri-tip also has a large layer of fat on one side of the muscle. I like to have a good sized layer of fat. You can trim that down a bit but I wouldn't go shorter than 1/4". Lastly, for our family of five, I look for a cut thats at least two and a half pounds.
Where to buy the meat.
In our area of Orange County, when it comes to tri-tip I've found that Sprouts has the best cuts and prices . Costco's cuts are too lean and Whole Foods' are pricier (duh). The butcher at Sprouts will also cut a tri-tip for me based on my request. I've found Costco is great for brisket and Whole Foods is great for things like pork belly and bison ribs.
My dad, who makes the best steak I've ever had, gets his cuts from Ralphs in Villa Park.
All that said, your best bet is to find a butcher you can talk with, whether thats at a grocery store or neighborhood butcher.
How to prep the meat.
A general rule is to get the meat out of the fridge long enough to bring it to room temperature before cooking. I learned a hard lesson cooking for the guys at men's retreat because I rushed the process and didn't allow the meat to come to room temperature - it still still cold to the touch when I put it on the fire. The problem is, as you'll see below, the target of cooking is internal temperature (or doneness). If the meat is cold when you put it on, especially internally, it will cook unevenly, burning on the outside and being undone inside. So, bring it out around an hour before cooking.
When you bring it out, we get to a point of contention and one of the unique variables - oil and rub. Some people add olive oil and others don't and many people have strong opinions on what rub to use. I do add olive oil to help the rub stick and for flavor. When it comes to rub, I most often use Santa Maria or Montreal seasoning. Santa Maria is more garlic-y and Montreal more peppery. I'm about to start venturing into making my own soon after brainstorming with a good friend about making an espresso-based rub.
Lets look at the first few steps as you get started. The first question is if you are going to use direct or indirect heat. If you're going to use indirect heat (as I recommend), push any logs and the majority of the coals over to one side of the pit. Be mindful of the wind at this point so you can push the heat upwind of where you want to put the meat.
Then, after you've put the grate over the pit and let it heat up a bit, add the meat to the fire with the fat side up, thick side closest to the heat, and downwind so the smoke hits it. Francis Mallman has this pet peeve he continually hits which is to not repeatedly move the ingredients you have over the fire. Just let them sit and char. I'll just say I think thats more of a discipline than a rule.
As it cooks, what you're looking for on the outside is that bark to form from the charring and the smoke. I've found that you will need to move the meat a bit during the cook to not turn one side of the meat into charcoal and while the other is still pink and to get a relatively even bark.
But always keep in mind that your primary target is what is happening on the inside. What is the question the waiter asks you when you order a burger or steak in a restaurant? "How would you like it done?", right? And you know that is all about how cooked the meat is internally. So, while you should pay attention to whats happening on the outside of the meat, your primary target is the internal temperature of the meat.
Different cuts of meat have different temperatures for levels of doneness. For example, brisket is done anywhere between 190-207. My dad's ribeye is done perfectly at 121. I've found tri-tip to be perfect at 135-137. You can use the age-old 'touch test' but I recommend using a meat thermometer to get this right.
What else you can put over the fire.
While we're talking about cooking, let me talk about what else you can cook over live fire. I use the grill grate or a cast iron griddle and skillet to cook everything from vegetables and fruit to naan bread. Most often I'll do carrots with goat cheese, burnt fruit (nectarines, peaches, apricots, figs) with yogurt, bok choy, hash browns, and baby broccoli. At the end of the day, a live fire is just another heat source but its a heat source that adds some unique flavors as you cook so go ahead and be creative.
Two final notes on enjoying your work. First, your patience needs to continue for a short while longer because you need to let the meat sit covered for at least 15 minutes before cutting it. This helps the meat retain all the juices that are still inside. While a piece of meat is cooking, the heat causes the muscle to expel moisture; which is why overcooked meat is always dry. When you take the meat off of the fire and let it rest, that stops that expelling process and allows the juices to settle internally.
And lastly, as you cut tri-tip, you need to cut it against the grain. The trick is tri-tip has two halves where the grains are going in different directions so be sure to note that before you cook.
That was a long post but I hope it gets you excited to at least try cooking over live fire if not jump head-long into it like I did. If you do, save me a piece next time you cook.