If you’re a woodworker, then you’ve probably managed to come up with some creative solutions for handling workshop waste. Grilling meat is one of my favorite uses for hardwood scraps. I don’t remember where I first heard that you could grill with wood scraps; I just remember that I thought it was a brilliant idea, and I immediately decided to give it a try. I am a natural-born cheapskate, after all, and charcoal is nearly $1/lb.
Little did I realize that there was a bit of a learning curve involved. My first attempts consumed abundant quantities of lighter fluid to get the wood started and resulted in some heavily smoked burgers. I was determined to make it work, so I persisted through trial and error until I perfected the technique. That was 5 years ago, and I’m happy to share my methods with you so that you may find the learning curve not-quite-so-steep.
First, you need some wood of appropriate species. All of the wood scraps that exit my shop are carefully sorted into grillable and non-grillable. Don’t even think about using conifers. Pine, spruce, cedar, fir, cypress – all of it goes straight to the kindling pile for starting camp fires. Hardwoods are what you want, and luckily, the vast majority of hardwoods that you’re likely to find in a woodshop are also fine for grilling. I avoid the softer hardwoods, like poplar, basswood, cottonwood, and willow. Walnut and elm have bitter-tasting smoke, so I skip those as well (the sapwood is fine, but avoid the heartwood).
Basically, anything that is good for smoking meat will be great for grilling also. Dense hardwoods, like oak, hickory, and mesquite make the longest-lasting coals. Softer hardwoods, like sassafras, cherry, and alder have coals that don’t last quite as long, but they work fine and the smoke is flavorful.
Here, I made a helpful Venn diagram:
Each time I clean up the shop, I grab all of the good grilling scraps and a hatchet and I split them into usable sections. A good size is anywhere from 3/4″ x 3/4″ to 1 1/4″ x 1 1/4″. The length can be up to a foot or so, but typically they will be shorter (these are scraps, after all). Doesn’t really matter, but it helps to have some longer pieces. I keep the scraps in a milk crate. Keep a bucketful of plane shavings around for starting the grill. It doesn’t matter what species; they’ll be long burnt off by the time the coals are ready.
Start by stacking up some of the longer scraps, log-cabin style, into a pyramid shape. Fill the center of the pyramid with shavings as you go.
Finish up by filling in around the pyramid with lots and lots of shavings. It takes a surprising amount to get the wood started. Then pile some of your shorter scraps on top of the shavings. It takes more wood than you might think to get a good bed of coals, so don’t be stingy. It does grow on trees, after all. Now, light it on fire.
After a few minutes, you should have a flaming mass of scraps and shavings.
When the fire has burnt down a bit, you’ll start to see the telltale orange glow in the center of the pile that indicates wood is turning to charcoal. The outer edges will turn white. There should be absolutely no un-charred wood left in the grill. Wood creates loads of smoke, which sounds nice, but the flavor of your meat will be way too strong. We want the heat with just a bit of smoke, which is what charcoal gives us. A long pair of tongs are helpful for moving around the scraps to ensure that it’s completely charred.
This is about what the pile should look like when it’s nearly ready.
At this point, put the lid on the grill and choke it down completely. This will smother the fire and cause a profuse amount of smoke. After about 30 seconds, open the vent and move the lid to the side a bit to expose about a 3/4″ crack (other grills may be different, but I find that my Weber doesn’t get enough ventilation from the vents alone).
When the grill stops smoking so much and settles into a steady, low-volume smoke, the coals are ready.
Here’s what they look like before the meat goes on.
The coals will last a good hour or more if you used a dense hardwood like oak, hickory, mesquite, sugar maple, or beech. I mostly used cherry and sassafras this time, which don’t last as long. Maybe 40 minutes. But that’s plenty of time for a few pork chops.
By the way, keep the lid on while grilling, with plenty of ventilation. If it starts smoking again, that’s your cue to give it some more air.
Lunch is served.
There are a few downsides to cooking with wood. For one, the ashes are more corrosive than charcoal ashes. They contain lye and other alkaline salts, so your grates will have a tendency to rust faster. Also, wood will produce more ash than charcoal, so open the lid gently unless you want to give your meat a light coating of ash. Neither of these problems are annoying enough to make me stop. I’m happy to have crossed charcoal and lighter fluid off my shopping list permanently. Never much cared for petroleum-based pork shops anyway.