Cooking at Home Over a Wood Fire

Lamc chops of a wood grill

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.

The Fireplace

Fireplace cooking requires a well-build 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.

Please read Safety Tips for Wood Fires at Home at the bottom of this link before you get started.

The Grill and Fireplace Tools

Our Tuscan grill consists of a frame that supports a heavy cast iron grate with two handles. The frame sits in the fireplace. Its two posts resemble 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.

The Wood

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.

The Fire

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”)

Stacking the wood in the fireplace for cooking.

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 these photos. Some models like ours include a small tray for collecting juices that drip from foods cooking on the grill. It is not really necessary.

Roaring Fire started for cooking with wood

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. Often, as the fire dies down, we will lower the grate to get closer to the remaining embers.

Secrets to the Art of Cooking with Wood

The first rule of cooking over a wood fire is: 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. And you may need to add small pieces of wood to build up the fire if it dies down.

Here I am adjusting the logs in the fireplace to maintain the fire for cooking.

Cooking at Home Over a Wood Fire Adjusting logs in the fireplace to maintain the fire for cooking.

One you have a bed of glowing embers, the fire is ready for cooking.

Glowing embers indicate wood fire 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.

Cooking at Home Over a Wood Fire Holding hand over wood fire to gauge the heat.

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.

Cooking at Home Over a Wood Fire Placing fingerling potatoes and radicchio on grill to cook over wood in the fireplace.

Once the vegetable 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.

Cooking at Home Over a Wood Fire Adding hangar steak to the wood grill for cooking while vegetables are kept warm.

If the steak needs to cook longer, you can move it to a cooler section 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.

Resources:

Find Tuscan Grills and all manner of wood cooking equipment at Spitjack.com

You can read about more advanced tools and fire building here: