The Best Woods for Cooking: Grilling, Campfire Cooking, and More

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Cooking with wood and flame is as old as human history itself. For millennia, our ancestors gathered around flickering flames and cooked their meals over glowing beds of embers. These were not only times of nourishment, but also deep connection with others.

Today, many people are rediscovering this nearly-lost tradition. Wood-fire cooking is enjoying a renaissance of sorts.

And today, we aren’t limited to the resources within a few miles — you can easily branch out to try many different types of wood for grilling or campfire cooking.

But alas, with more choices comes more confusion. Which woods are best for which types of cooking? Which woods are safe? Are some wood types best for particular dishes?

We’ll unpack all that and more as we reconnect with the ancient tradition of cooking with wood.

THE BEST WOODS FOR GRILLING

Grilling is an easy way to discover the nuances of cooking with wood. You can use these recommendations to explore the pros, cons, and best food pairings with each wood to discover what you enjoy.

OAK — THE ALL-‘ROUNDER

If you’re new to grilling with wood, oak is the perfect place to start. It goes well with virtually any cut of meat without just the right amount of smoky flavor — unlike many other woods, it’s unlikely to overpower delicate flavors.

It pairs extremely well with beef or poultry, allowing the subtler flavors of your dish to shine while still infusing it with a pleasant smoky essence. Our top pairing recommendation: Regenerative Beef Ribeye Steak.

Oak is also energy-dense, providing 26.5 million BTUs per cord of wood.1 This means it burns hot and lasts a long time.

Lastly, oak is widely available in many parts of the United States, being native to a large portion of the eastern and central parts of the country. And because of its popularity in construction, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it at your local lumber yard.

HICKORY — RICH AND CARAMELIZING

Hickory smoke is an important element of barbeque recipes across the United States, and is commonly paired with pork or chicken.

This wood imparts a bold, smoke-forward flavor with hints of sweetness and caramelization, which works well for rich-tasting protein dishes as well as side veggies.

Try grilling up Wild Boar meatballs with a side of charred broccolini over a hickory flame.

Providing nearly 28 million BTUs per cord, hickory burns very hot.1 It also maintains a steady temperature, which is helpful for achieving your desired level of doneness.

Hickory is most prevalent in the eastern and central parts of the country. However, because of its popularity as a grilling and smoking wood, you can buy it in most regions.

MESQUITE — BOLD AND UNDENIABLY SMOKY

For centuries, mesquite has been a staple in the best Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine.

This wood adds an undeniably smoky flavor to whatever you cook with it, so use it on substantial cuts of beef like a skirt or flank steak (a must for carne asada) or game meats like Venison Steak Medallions.

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With a reported heat content of around 28 million BTUs per cord, mesquite burns hot and consistently.2

Mesquite can be found across the desert southwest in states like Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as many parts of Central America.

PECAN — SWEET, SPICY, AND NUTTY

Pecan is an excellent middle-of-the-road hardwood in terms of smokiness, so it won’t crowd out the more delicate flavors of your recipe. It’s an balanced, relatively mild choice for poultry or pork dishes.

Pecan wood also burns hot and steadily, providing 28 million BTUs per cord.3

You’ll be able to find naturally-occuring pecan wood in the southeastern and south-central regions of the United States.

WALNUT — INTENSE AND HEAVY

Walnut wood is best used sparingly or as a supplement to another species of wood. It can impart a very strong, semi-bitter taste to your food if you go overboard.

Alternatively, walnut’s intensity can play a role in balancing out challenging flavors. For example, if you’d like to reap the nutritional benefits of organ meats but haven’t yet learned to enjoy their taste, the potent notes of walnut smoke could help.

With about 22 million BTUs per cord, walnut doesn’t burn particularly hot — another reason to consider blending it with other wood species.4

Walnut trees can be found in many bioregions throughout the US, including the eastern, central, and northwestern states. Like several other species on this list, its popularity as a grilling and smoking wood means walnut is often available at outdoor cooking retailers.

THE BEST WOODS FOR CAMPFIRE COOKING

In general, woods that work for grilling also work for campfire cooking, with the caveat of local availability and harvesting it yourself (unless you haul your own wood into your campsite). Here are our top picks for campfire cooking.

OAK — BEST ALL-AROUND

It’s hard to go wrong cooking with oak. Oak trees are the most abundant hardwood in the United States, so it’s quite likely to be available near you.

Another advantage: oak packs a smoky punch. However, it’s less in-your-face than certain woods like mesquite or walnut. This makes for a nice, balanced option that you can use to prepare a wide range of proteins — from that fresh fish catch you reeled in during your trip to the burger patties you packed from home.

Finally, another reason oak is a reliable go-to for campfire cooking is that it provides excellent heat content. As the temperatures begin to drop, this slow-burning wood can keep you warm well after your meal is done.

HICKORY — RICH AND SWEET

If your chosen dish would benefit from a rich, complex, yet sweet and smoky flavor, hickory is a top choice. Pork, chicken, and vegetables of all types are fantastic prepared roasted over a bed of hickory coals.

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Because it produces an even and consistent heat for cooking, you might find hickory easier than other types of woods for campfire cooking.

If you find yourself camping in the eastern or in the central parts of the US, you’ll likely encounter hickory deadfall that you can harvest to use at your campsite.

MAPLE — SWEET AND SUBTLE

Maple wood imparts a subtle, sweet flavor to food, enhancing the taste of roasted dishes while providing a mild, pleasant aroma. It’s a great choice if you want a well-rounded flavor profile that’s light on the smokier notes.

With a relatively low heat content of 20-25 million BTUs per cord, maple is well-suited to foods that require longer cooking times to avoid charring.4

If a pasture-raised whole chicken is on the dinner menu at your campsite, maple would be a fine choice on a cool summer night.

Maple trees are concentrated in the northeast United States in deciduous forests, but their range also includes portions of the midwest and southeast.

ASH — LIGHT AND MILD

Historically, ash was a popular choice for smoking meat and fish to preserve them. Compared to most woods, it’s far less smoky and has lighter flavors.

Ash is a good choice if you want a mild, clean-testing, minimally smoky wood-fired meal — or you can blend it with other woods to achieve your preferred balance of mellow and bold.

Our recommendations to explore the mild flavors of ash wood: salmon or trout with fire-roasted potatoes.

Ash is also a great choice for campfire cooking because of its moderate heat content (24 million BTUs per cord) and steady burning properties.4 It’s also a rather clean-burning wood, producing minimal smoke.

Ash trees are abundant throughout the eastern half of the US, well into Canada.

TYPES OF WOOD TO AVOID FOR COOKING

There are two categories of wood that you should avoid cooking with: softwoods and treated or stained wood.

Softwoods are rich in resin. As a result, they tend to produce thick, black smoke, odd, bitter or unpleasant flavors, and lots of sparks (fire hazard!). Species include pine, fir, spruce, and many others. An easy way to remember it is that in general, softwoods have needle-shaped leaves and do not bear fruit or nuts. They also stay green year-round.

Treated or stained woods contain added chemicals to prevent decomposition and termite infestations. These chemicals work great for construction, but are toxic when burnt or consumed.

If in doubt, assume any random lumber scraps you encounter are treated and steer clear of burning them at all, let alone cooking with them.

HOW TO OBTAIN WOOD FOR COOKING

The most convenient option is to buy pre-cut wood locally. Your local lumberyard likely sells pre-dried, cut scraps or log sections that are ready to burn. Retailers that specialize in grilling and outdoor cooking also offer a wide selection of woods.

Some hardware stores also have wood scraps that are free or inexpensive — just make sure they aren’t pressure-treated or stained.

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On the other hand, harvesting fallen trees or limbs is the most economical and environmentally-friendly option, but it also requires the most work. You’ll need a chainsaw or at least a trusty hand saw and a way to get the wood home (or to your campsite).

The fallen wood is already dead, so you can cut a few smaller chunks and leave the rest if you’re looking for less than a truckload. And depending on how long a tree or large limb has been down, you may not need to wait to season it.

If the wood fell 6-12 months ago, it may already be dry enough to use — perfect for campfire cooking. But if the wood is “green” or moist when you cut into it, you can either come back several months later, or cut it and store it outside at home until it’s ready.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT COOKING WITH WOOD

WHAT IS THE BEST WOOD TO COOK STEAKS WITH?

Mesquite, oak, and hickory are top choices for cooking red meat due to their complexity and boldness. Steaks aren’t a delicate cut of meat. You can — and should! — go bold and enjoy the full experience of full-bodied, smoky flavor when you’re grilling or cooking steaks over a campfire.

Our top pairing for a gourmet steak experience: mesquite wood with Force of Nature Venison Tomahawks.

WHAT IS THE BEST WOOD TO GRILL FOOD WITH?

If you’re looking for a do-it-all wood that can cook everything from fish, to poultry, to burgers, your best options are hickory or oak. Both are classic favorites of barbecue connoisseurs and impart a crisp, clean, smoky finish with a bit of a bacon’y twang to your dish (yes, really)!

WHAT WOOD IS BEST FOR CAMPFIRE COOKING?

Oak wood is the best overall for campfire cooking. Flavor-wise, it works well with a range of meats, and it’s widely available. Importantly, oak also burns hot and slow, which makes it a great campfire choice for staying warm as you eat your meal!

WHAT WOOD IS BEST FOR SMOKING VEGETABLES?

Maple wood or any of the fruit-bearing woods (like apple, cherry, or peach) are ideal for smoking vegetables. These hardwoods provide a light, smoky undertone that won’t overpower the delicate taste of veggies. Try cooking peppers, onions, or asparagus over a wood fire for an unforgettable meal.

IS GRILLING WITH WOOD BETTER THAN GRILLING WITH CHARCOAL?

In our view, wood offers a more exciting culinary experience compared to charcoal. High-quality charcoal is a fine option and certainly a step up from grilling with gas, but nothing can compare to the nuance and complexity of pairing the right wood (or multiple woods!) with your favorite meats.

At Force of Nature, we offer premium-quality meats raised using regenerative agriculture. They’re better for people and the planet. Explore our products.

REFERENCES:

  1. https://forestupdate.frec.vt.edu/content/dam/forestupdate_frec_vt_edu/resources/presentations/WoodsandWildlife2013/bondfirewood.pdf
  2. https://plantnative.org/is-mesquite-good-for-firewood.htm.
  3. https://www.firewood-for-life.com/pecan-firewood.html
  4. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1858&context=extensionhist
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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>