Can You Use Firewood In a Charcoal Grill? [Useful Tips for Beginners]

Charcoal grills are great for cooking meat, vegetables, and other delicious foods. The grill creates a perfectly seared crust on your food that can’t be achieved by using pans or the oven. However, people who have plenty of firewood are wondering if they can use wood for a barbeque instead of coal. In this blog post, I will be talking about whether or not you can use firewood in a charcoal grill. This is an important question to ask for people who are considering using wood chips on their grills.

So, can you use firewood in a charcoal grill? You can use firewood in your charcoal grill for smoke but it will not be as hot if you were using charcoal. However, many people swear by the flavor that firewood imparts on smoked meats and use nothing but firewood to cook with. Firewood burns for a longer time, which is good for slow cooking of large and thick chunks of meat. Also, some types of woods are said to burn hotter than coal briquettes. So, you may get more smoke flavor with less fuel if you’re using hardwood. However, you should avoid using pine or any type of fir tree as the resin in it produces off-flavors.

Also Read: Using wood chips in a pellet smoker

Difference between Wood and Charcoal

Charcoal and wood actually both originate from trees. Charcoal is made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen at high temperatures to drive off water, tars, and other impurities. Wood fuel is created by simply cutting down a tree and chopping it up into smaller pieces for use.

Wood and charcoal both produce heat by thermal radiation so it will be hard to tell much difference in the temperature on the grill grate. Although charcoal may be slightly hotter, this is offset by having less time for smoke flavor to infuse into your meat. With wood, there will be less heat but longer-lasting smoke which means that you have more time for smoke flavor to infuse into your meat without having to refuel as often.

Charcoal is available in both lump and briquette form to sear the meat as it burns hotter. Lump Charcoal is made by slowly burning pieces of hardwood (oak, hickory, mesquite) in the absence of oxygen until all chemicals and moisture get out of the wood. Due to this reason, lump charcoal burns hotter and ignites faster than charcoal briquettes.

Wood, which is used for grilling is hardwood such as hickory, maple, and oak. This is the same wood used for making hardwood charcoal when its pieces are burned in the absence of oxygen. The product left after the burning process of hardwood in the absence of oxygen majorly comprises of carbon, having high heating value. On the other hand, the wood without burning majorly consists of cellulose and lignin, a complex compound of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

Charcoal briquettes are made from the compressed sawdust of scrap wood, including resinous softwoods and composite woods. The chemicals and binding agents are added to improve the burning time and maintain the shape. Briquettes burn longer, but they do not give off as much heat as lump charcoal do. Charcoal briquettes contain carbon in the range of 44 to 72%.

Lump CharcoalCoal BriquetteFirewood
Available in uneven chunks. So, you need some practice to set out a consistent bed of coals for an even transfer of heatAvailable in even pieces. So, you can use briquettes easily for an even heat transfer to cook the foodAvailable in uneven chunks. You may need the same practice as in the case of lump charcoal for an even heat transfer
Burns quickly in around 20 minutesBurns slower as compared to lump charcoal. They usually burn 3-4 times longer than lump charcoalBurn at the slowest rate. Firewood does not burn efficiently as it contains moisture and complex organic compounds such as lignin and cellulose.
Produces a large amount of heat. The temperature can be reached up 1500-2000 FahrenheitProduce lesser heat as compared to lump charcoal. Temperature is usually around 800 to 1000 FahrenheitThe temperature of burning firewood reaches up to 1000 Fahrenheit. Certain types of firewood, such as oak, burns hotter than charcoal briquettes
Produces negligible amount of ashProduces a large amount of ashFirewood produces more ash as compared to coal briquettes when it is burnt
Produces smoke and spark. The inner side of the large chunks of coal may contain the components of lignin which produce the smoke flavor. However, you couldn’t control this flavor as you won’t know what wood flavor you’ll be getting from one meal to the otherDoes not produce any smoke and spark. The chemicals and additives can impart negative effects to the flavorFirewood adds controllable rich smoke flavor to the food. You can select different types of wood chunks or their combination to control the smoke flavor based on the type of food you’re cooking.

Grilling with Wood vs Charcoal

The difference between grilling vs wood is that wood imparts richer flavor to your food as compared to coal. There is also some wood component in the core of the large chunks of coal that add natural smoke flavor to the food. But, the downside is that you can’t control that smoke taste with the coal. You don’t know what wood flavor and how much you’ll be getting from one meal to the next. If you grill with wood, you can easily control the smoke flavor by buying different types of wood.

There are several types of wood you can use for grilling including hickory, mesquite, apple, oak, etc. Each type will produce a different result in taste and smell due to the sugars and other elements within them. For example, oak tends to give food a denser and powerful smoke flavor while hickory often gives meats a sweeter flavor than mesquite which tends to be bitter.

Here are the following important aspects you should consider for grilling with wood vs charcoal.

1. Burning Process of Wood and Charcoal

Since Charcoal consists of more than 70 percent carbon, it reacts with oxygen instantly to give off the heat in the burning process. There is no complex compound in the charcoal that could take time to decompose and combine with the oxygen in the air. Due to this reason charcoal ignites instantly. However, charcoal briquettes take some time to burn as compared to lump charcoal due to binding agents. Furthermore, as carbon is a stable compound, you would need a lightning liquid to ignite the charcoal. But, once carbon catches the fire, it completely burns instantly.

If we talk about the burning of firewood during grilling, it catches the fire easily as it involves the process called pyrolysis. Under the influence of heat, lignite and cellulose compounds in wood release gases that burn instantly. However, the heat content of these gases is not so much to increase the temperature to a larger extent. This is a complex chain reaction that requires a huge time duration to decompose the stronger bonds between those chains and release the heat to produce a temperature up to 1000 Fahrenheit.

burning process of firewood
Source: Innofirewood

2. Cooking Time

If you want to slowly cook the food to enjoy the smoke flavor, it is better to use firewood for grilling as it burns for a longer time. The rule is simple: the substance which burns faster will keep on burning for a lesser time, and the substance that takes time to burn will keep burning for a longer time.

Firewood can burn for one to two hours, while charcoal can last up to 30 minutes after burning. So, charcoal grilling is suitable for barbequing the meat quickly with a perfect crust due to the high temperature. On the other hand, if you’re grilling thick or large pieces of meat, grilling with firewood is a better choice.

3. Heating Effect

With charcoal grilling, you can control direct and indirect heating spots as coal does not produce high flames like firewood.

When you are grilling with charcoal, you can control the heat well as compared to firewood. You can also increase or decrease the heating zones by changing their location in your grill box. If there is too much heat coming from one side of your cooking zone, then move it away from that particular spot and place it closer to another spot. This way you will be able to distribute the heating area around your food product evenly.

In firewood, highly volatile gases produce high flames that can cause charring on your food. One side of the firewood log may be glowing, while the other side is just off. The high active flames of firewood cause the effect of charring due to flare-ups when fats in the meat start dripping over the burning firewood. So, for grilling with firewood, the best bet is the low and slow barbeque.

4. Desired Smoke Flavor with Firewood Grilling

True wood smoke adds an undeniable flavor to the food. With coal, you can get the same flavor for different types of food. But, with certain types of firewood, you can get the desired flavor of smoke as the wood contains the flavorful organic compounds that release a nice smell in the smoke to impart the flavor to the food due to the slow-burning time of firewood.

Here are the following types of firewood people prefer for grilling.

  • Oakwood – It is very dense and can burn for a longer time. It is great firewood for smoking beef. It produces a good smoky flavor, which is neither too strong nor too subtle.
  • Mesquite – It can be a very smoky wood that burns quickly and imparts a very rich flavor to the food. The smoky profile is great for dark meat, steaks, and quick cooks.
  • Hickory – Hickory gives a strong flavor than oak, but it is not as strong as mesquite. It is the most widely used wood in barbeque. Hickory is stronger as compared to oak wood, due to which it is suitable for the grilling of large and thick pieces of meat.
  • Pecan – Pecan wood is considered to have the highest quality among other fruitwood, but milder than oak and hickory. Pecan wood does not produce as heat as oak wood does.It gives off a sweet and nutty flavor for smoking poultry. Pecan wood is excellent for low-and-slow cooking, particularly for briskets and other large cuts of beef.

I’ve also found this great resource on the firewood features in which you can find their smoke effectiveness and heating values.

Tips for Grilling With Wood

  • You just can’t grab any old wood log or chop down a tree for grilling. You need to make sure it is the right wood and properly seasoned. Freshly cut wood gives off sap which will coat your meat with an acrid unappetizing flavor so make sure to use dry well-aged woods. So, use the firewood that is either kiln-dried or has been naturally air-dried for at least six months.  According to pitmasters, kiln-dried wood is better than seasoned firewood as the moisture is dried out of the pores of kiln-dried wood, due to which it burns hotter and cleaner.
  • For backyard BBQs, I’d recommend you to use either wood chips or wood lumps. For campfire BBQs or large pits, wood logs are ideal. Wood logs take much time to get to the point on which you should grill over them. So, they are only suitable for large pits or campfire BBQs.
  • Do not use lightning fluid on your firewood. Always use kindle and tinder for the ignition of firewood irrespective of the wood shape you use for grilling.
  • Wood takes time to completely burn as compared to coal. So, don’t place your food too early on the grill as the wood chunks are smoldering in the initial phase. Give them around 30 to 60 minutes to completely burn or when a thick white smoke starts diminishing. Once the wood chunks are converted to red-orange embers, you can then place your food on the grill.
  • You might need around three times more wood chunks as compared to the lump charcoal to get the desired heat for the grilling and searing of the meat. You need a good wood embers base for the desired heat for grilling. Also, make sure you don’t cook on the active high flame as it would char the meat instead of searing.

Grilling With Both Charcoal and Firewood

The most suitable option for grilling food is to use a combination of charcoal and firewood. Charcoal is for a perfect cooking temperature and searing of meat, and firewood is for good smoke flavor.

Since, coal and wood burn differently, first burn the wood chunks to embers in a separate fire-pit or chimney, and then transfer them to the grill in which lump charcoal is burning.

You can make different arrangements of wood and coal to grill your food. You can create a two-zone fire in which you would use wood as a source of indirect heat to smoke your food. In this way, your food will be safe from the flare-ups from the wood as it will not be placed right above the wood embers.

If you have a weber grill, in which you can’t adjust the height of the grate, you have to mainly use charcoal for grilling and searing of meat, and add some wood chunks to the coal for the required smoke flavor.

You can check out the tutorial below for clarity.

Santa Maria Grill is another great option if you want to use a combination of coal and wood. In Santa Maria Grill, you can control the height of the grate according to the intensity of the flame. In that case, the reasonable arrangement of wood and lump charcoal is in the form of rings. First, you can lay out wood chunks or logs in the center and then, add coal briquettes (that are already lit separately in the chimney) around the perimeter of the wood chunks.