Cooking with Wood – Things to Know
Cooking over an open fire is an experience that can be hard to convey over text. Perhaps it is something in our DNA from thousands of years huddling around fires to keep warm at night, or perhaps it is the fact that food cooked over a wood fire has a distinctive taste that you just can’t replicate on a gas stove.
There are many ways to cook using wood, whether it be a garden fire pit, a wood stove, and even a campfire. But in many ways, as there are of cooking with wood, there are even more types of wood to cook with. Unfortunately, not every type of wood is suitable for cooking over. In this post, we’re going to go through some types of wood that you should not use in a fire you intend to cook with, including how you might identify the wood and why you shouldn’t use it.
Please note that this list is not definitive—just because a type of wood is not on this list does not mean it is automatically suitable for cooking with.
Though sometimes actually green from moss, the name refers to the fact that the wood is still fresh rather than its color. When a tree is cut down, it is full of sap, which is very high in water content. As you might have guessed, being loaded with water isn’t exactly conducive to easy lighting. It also burns incredibly inefficiently and produces a lot of smoke.
As a general rule, freshly cut timber needs to spend six to nine months drying out before it is suitable for use in a cooking fire.
Softwood includes wood from trees like firs and pines, and are so-called because they are… you guessed it… softer than other types of wood. Softwood is not suitable for cooking with because it burns a lot more quickly than other kinds of wood and doesn’t leave much in the way of coals behind when it is done. Given that, for the most part, it would be the coals that you cook over, this isn’t a favorable attribute. It is also a very sooty wood to burn, which isn’t necessarily a problem for something like camping firewood but isn’t great for contained fires like you would find in a wood stove.
Endangered Trees and Plants
This one shouldn’t need much explaining. Some types of wood, regardless of how well they burn, should not be used for cooking simply because the plants from which they came are endangered. These include trees like Blue Ash and the Kentucky Coffee tree.
If you buy firewood from a reputable supplier, you shouldn’t have to worry about inadvertently using endangered wood. But if you are heading out into the forest for a bit of wild camping and you intend to source your wood from nature, as it were, make sure you do your research, so you don’t accidentally break any laws. There are over twenty endangered species of trees in North America alone!
A fire crackling away on the beach long into the evening is an image many people find appealing. Enjoying the company of friends as the waves lap against the shore in the distance, the cool sea breeze on your faces. It is the stuff dreams are made of. Unfortunately, driftwood is a very bad fuel for fires.
Whenever you burn any wood, a carcinogenic chemical called Dioxin is released. This chemical accumulates in your tissues over time and can remain in your body for as much as eleven years. Now, while this is a strong reason not to burn any wood, and certainly not to do it regularly, driftwood, it turns out, is considerably worse than other types of wood when it comes to producing these toxic fumes.
Furthermore, the chemicals released by driftwood can corrode your venting or the stove itself, making it unsuitable for use even in a closed wood stove with a proper chimney.
Wood That is Too Large
Whether you have bought firewood or you are collecting it from the surrounding area, wood that is too large makes for a difficult time when cooking. For one thing, it may not fit in your fire or stove, forcing you to cut it down or split. But beyond that, larger pieces of wood are harder to get going.
The one exception to this rule is if you are looking to get a campfire going that will burn for a long time, perhaps for the warmth or even just the ambiance, since a larger piece of camping firewood will burn for longer (once you get it going). But as this post is specifically about cooking, it’s going to be a no on the big lumps of timber.
Painted wood, especially very old wood that may have been painted with lead-based paint should be avoided when choosing the fuel for your cooking fire. This is especially true if you plan to cook over an open fire, like a campfire or fire pit. Whatever unpleasant and probably toxic chemicals get released from the burnt wood may seep into your food, which is not likely to improve the taste, and will almost certainly be bad for your health.
Advising against using non-local wood is not specific to cooking, but any wood burning, particularly if the wood will be spending time outdoors, such as would be the case with an outdoor wood store. The reason for this one is because it moving wood around in this manner can transport diseases and pests around with it, which can cause outbreaks in areas that would not otherwise have had them. You don’t want to be responsible for an incident of controlled deforestation, do you?
If you are planning to go camping in the woods, you should be knowledgable about many things, for both your safety and the wellbeing of the plants and animals around, and that includes what types of wood are suitable for cooking with. However, for things like indoor wood stoves, you should be fine buying firewood from a typical shop, but keep your eyes peeled for kiln-dried oak, as that is generally the best choice.