Grilling Turns Back to an Ancient Fuel: Wood
When Miami restaurateur Michael Schwartz opened his South American-inspired restaurant, Amara at Paraiso, in January, he made a wood-burning Jade grill the focal point of the kitchen.Posted — Updated
When Miami restaurateur Michael Schwartz opened his South American-inspired restaurant, Amara at Paraiso, in January, he made a wood-burning Jade grill the focal point of the kitchen.
And when Missy Robbins conceived her Brooklyn restaurant, Lilia, she situated the hearth — complete with a Grillworks wood-burning grill — on the path to the dining room. “People gather around it the way they would at a fireplace in someone’s home,” she said.
The world’s oldest cooking method has become one of its newest culinary quests.
While there’s nothing novel about wood-burning grills in restaurants (Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters have used them for decades), what is new is the zeal of the chefs using them, the variety of equipment available, and the growing number of American home cooks who are forsaking gas and charcoal to master the ancient art of grilling over a wood fire in their backyards.
One such convert is Marco Birch, a Manhattan financier by day and ardent wood griller on weekends. “We discovered parrilla grilling during a bike trip to Argentina,” he recalled. “The sparks and flames grabbed our attention; the unique earthy smoke flavor of the meat sealed the deal.”
So Birch bought a 48-inch NorthFork Ironworks parrilla (an Argentinian-style wood-burning grill) from Brendan McCarthy, a grill builder and fly-fishing guide in Greenport, New York.
McCarthy had experienced his own wood-fire epiphany during an outing with grill maestro Francis Mallmann, who has restaurants in South America, France and Miami. “Propane has no flavor, and charcoal isn’t much better,” McCarthy said. “The aroma and flavor of wood are in a league of their own.”
That flavor comes from the high, dry heat of a wood fire (1,000 degrees or more), which caramelizes the proteins in meats and the plant sugars in fruits and vegetables. But wood-grilled foods get even more of their distinctive flavor and edge from the fragrant smoke.
“Wood smoke contains more than a thousand flavor-producing compounds,” said Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive who has become an evangelist for modernist cooking. That list of chemicals includes creosol (associated with the smoky peat flavor of Scotch whisky), syringol (responsible for clovelike flavors), and vanillin (source of a vanilla-ish sweetness in smoke).
By the time wood becomes charcoal, Myhrvold said, 99 percent of those compounds are lost. That’s why a wood fire delivers so much more flavor than charcoal. “Almost any hardwood is good for grilling, but avoid evergreens, like spruce and pine, which put out a black sooty smoke that tastes like turpentine,” he said.
Wood grilling is different from traditional barbecue, although both start with burning logs. In a barbecue pit, the food smokes at a low heat away from the fire for intervals measured in half-days. Grilling is a rapid process in which the food sizzles directly over the fire.
“Grilling gives you loud, sharp Maillard flavors you simply can’t achieve in a smoker,” said Texas barbecue expert Aaron Franklin, referring to the Maillard reaction, which produces complex savory flavors as food browns. (Franklin and his partner Tyson Cole installed a state-of-the-art 72-inch Grillworks wood-burning grill, and two traditional J&R Oyler barbecue pits, at their Austin restaurant Loro, which opened in April.)
Traditionally, people grilled with the wood that grew in their area. In much of North and South America and Europe, that means oak — a clean, hot-burning wood with a smoke that’s robust enough to stand up to red meat yet mild enough not to overpower poultry or seafood.
Southerners burn hickory; Californians use almond wood; Pacific Northwesterners burn cherry and alder. Mesquite — the go-to wood in Hawaii, the American Southwest and northern Mexico — emits a strong-tasting smoke and pyrotechnic sparks that, depending on your level of pyromania, you’ll find thrilling or disconcerting.
Grill with a single wood, Franklin suggested: “When you mix woods, you can’t really pinpoint the flavor.”
The cooking properties and smoke flavor vary subtly from wood to wood but less than you might think. For Ben Eisendrath, the chief executive of Grillworks, the species matters less than using split, seasoned, appropriate-size logs — seasoned because dry wood burns more efficiently than green, split because the wood ignites more easily, and sized to fit in your grill, which means smaller than what you generally burn in your fireplace.
Eisendrath recommends logs that are 10 to 12 inches long and 2 to 3 inches wide. He also recommends mixing lump charcoal with wood in a ratio of about 30 percent to 70 percent to produce a hotter, more even-burning fire.
When it comes to lighting the fire, channel your inner Scout. Stack the wood log-cabin style with plenty of air space between logs. Light twisted newspaper and kindling in the center. Another popular method is to light natural lump charcoal in a chimney starter, then arrange the wood (smaller pieces first, then larger) atop the embers.
Speaking of chimney starters, there is a stunningly simple way to grill over wood that requires little more than a common kettle grill. Fill your chimney not with charcoal, but hardwood chunks (oak, hickory, apple, cherry and such, the sort sold at hardware stores for smoking). Light the chimney as you would for charcoal: in 20 minutes, you’ll be grilling over wood embers.
Wood chunks burn faster than charcoal, so you’ll need to replenish them often. Lighting a second chimney will give you more hot coals at the ready. (When wood-grilling in a kettle grill, never close the lid, or your food will become unbearably smoky.)
The chief challenge in grilling over wood is heat control. To increase or decrease the heat on an Argentinian-style parrilla grill, like the Grillworks or NorthFork, simply raise or lower the grill grate with the flywheel.
When wood grilling in a fixed-grate grill, like a kettle grill, build a tiered fire with embers piled thicker to one side or at the back of the firebox and spread more sparsely in the center, with an ember-free safety zone away from the coals. Control the heat by moving the food closer to or farther away from the fire. On a fixed-grate grill with a braseiro (an open metal basket for burning logs to embers), simply rake more or fewer coals under the food.
Another way to boost the heat is to oxygenate the fire. Stone uses an ingenious tool called a blow poke, a long metal tube you blow through to direct air to a specific part of the fire. (It also comes with a claw at the end for raking the coals.) You’ll look like you’re playing trumpet to some deity of fire. Alternatively, ventilate the fire with a fan or a hair dryer.
Remember this simple formula: more air, hotter fire; less air, cooler fire. Wood-burning grills are incredibly versatile. You can grill over flaming logs, the way you might roast marshmallows over a campfire. Or grill over glowing embers, much as you would over charcoal.
Use a flame-forward fire for chicken breasts, fish fillets, thin steaks — foods that benefit from high heat and a pronounced smoke flavor. The ember method gives you a steadier, more predictable heat source, well suited to grilling bread, pizza, thick steaks and chops, and high-moisture vegetables.
Most chefs use both techniques. Franklin slow-smokes bavette on a rack high above the fire, then sears it over embers. Schwartz does most of his grilling over embers, periodically adding fresh logs to the fire to maintain a steady stream of flavorful smoke. Robbins roasts potatoes in front of the fire for a soulful twist on baked potatoes, and often grills caveman-style — directly on the embers.
“A wood burning grill is such a simple piece of equipment,” she said. “But even after two years, we’re still finding new ways to use it.”
Whichever fuel you use or method for controlling the heat, be prepared to take your time.
“This is not like cooking on a conventional grill,” Birch said. “It’s a mesmerizing process and a communal ritual that takes the better part of the day.”
Cooking Over Wood: A Guide to the Grills
By Steven Raichlen
At first glance, wood grilling is a rich person’s sport, with top models retailing for upward of $10,000. But you can find wood-burning grills in all price ranges.
———Grilled Swordfish Kebabs With Golden Raisin Chimichurri
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
For the kebabs:
2 pounds swordfish steaks (at least 1 1/2 inches thick), skinned and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
12 bay leaves (preferably fresh)
2 lemons, halved lengthwise and then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices, seeds removed, plus 1 whole lemon for squeezing
Coarse sea salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
Extra-virgin olive oil
For the golden raisin chimichurri:
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 cup boiling water
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, washed, shaken dry and stemmed
1/4 cup stemmed fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar, or to taste
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
1. Make the kebabs: Thread the swordfish, bay leaves and lemon slices alternately onto flat bamboo or metal skewers. Arrange in a nonreactive baking dish. Season the kebabs on all sides with salt and pepper. Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemon over them. Sprinkle with oregano and drizzle with olive oil. Turn the kebabs a few times to coat with the flavorings and marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, make the chimichurri: Place the raisins in a heatproof mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over them and stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Let raisins soak for 15 minutes.
3. Finely chop parsley, oregano, thyme and garlic in a food processor. Gradually work in 3/4 cup olive oil, sherry vinegar, lemon juice, red-pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste; the chimichurri should be highly seasoned.
4. Drain raisins well and add them to the chimichurri. Pulse the processor a few times to mix, but leave the raisins mostly whole. Transfer 3/4 cup of the chimichurri to a small bowl for basting, and transfer the rest to a serving bowl.
5. Meanwhile, build a wood fire in your grill with a hot zone for searing and a medium zone for cooking. (You can do the same with charcoal. If you’re using a gas grill, place a few hardwood chunks between the Flavorizer bars or over the burners. Heat one burner on high heat and additional burners on medium heat, adjusting the heat as necessary.) Brush and oil the grill grate.
6. Arrange the kebabs over the hot fire and grill until the fish is browned and sizzling and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side, 8 to 12 minutes in all. Move kebabs to the medium zone if they start to burn. Baste with a little of the reserved chimichurri as the kebabs cook.
7. Serve the kebabs with the remaining chimichurri on the side for spooning over the fish.
—Grilled Summer Beans With Garlic and Herbs
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 20 minutes
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 pounds Romano beans (aka flat or pole beans) or other summer green beans, ends snapped and strings removed
Sea salt and ground black pepper
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh basil
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh mint
1. Build a hot wood fire in your grill. (You can do the same with charcoal. If you’re using a gas grill, place a few hardwood chunks under the grate over one or two of the burners. Heat one burner on high heat and additional burners on medium heat, adjusting the heat as necessary.) Brush and oil the grill grate.
2. Combine 1/4 cup oil and the garlic in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, 8 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let cool. Stir in red-pepper flakes, lemon zest and parsley.
3. Place beans in a large bowl with the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss to mix.
4. Arrange beans directly on the grill or in a wire grill basket. Grill beans until charred and crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes, turning with tongs. (You may need to work in two batches, depending on the size of your grill.)
5. Return hot beans to the mixing bowl and stir in garlic-parsley oil. Squeeze in lemon juice. Stir in basil and mint leaves and serve.
—Grilled Pork Chops With Peanuts, Sesame and Cilantro
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes, plus 4 hours’ marinating
For the pork chops:
2/3 cup honey
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sesame oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chile oil
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
4 thick pork rib chops (12 ounces each)
For the topping:
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts
1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1. Prepare the pork chops: Place all the ingredients except for the chops in a mixing bowl and whisk to blend.
2. Arrange the chops in a baking dish. Pour the marinade over the chops, turning them to coat both sides. Marinate the chops in the refrigerator for 4 hours, turning them over a couple of times so they marinate evenly.
3. Meanwhile, build a wood fire in your grill with a hot zone for searing and a medium zone for cooking. (You can do the same with charcoal. If you’re using a gas grill, place a few hardwood chunks under the grate over one or two of the burners. Heat one burner on high heat and additional burners on medium heat, adjusting the heat as necessary.) Brush and oil the grill grate.
4. Grill the pork chops, allowing some but not all of the marinade to drip off first, until sizzling and browned on the outside and cooked to taste. If you like your pork with a blush of pink, cook until it reads 145 degrees in the center on an instant-read thermometer (about 3 minutes per side); if you like your pork cooked all the way through, look for the meat to reach 155 degrees in the center (about 4 minutes per side). Work mostly over the medium fire, moving chops to the hot fire at the end to sear the crust. Transfer the chops to a wire rack over a sheet pan and let rest for 2 minutes.
5. Garnish and serve: Combine peanuts, scallions, cilantro and sesame seeds in a bowl and toss to mix. Arrange chops on a platter or individual plates. Sprinkle with peanut mixture and serve.
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