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Grilling that's tasty, cheap -- and green

What's going on at the fringes of American grilling is wood-fired grilling on a grand scale.
MinnPost photos by Ron Meador
Elaborate, expensive wood-fired cooking equipment is trendy, but a miniature grill and small pile of branches can deliver equally tasty results.

Gas grill or charcoal? For more than 30 years, backyard barbecue chefs have had essentially the same two choices, neither completely satisfying.

Gas grills cook quicker and cleaner than charcoal, but add little outdoorsy flavor to the chicken and chops. Charcoal adds flavor but is messy, fussy and slow. Both methods are polluting, in different ways, and either can be a costly indulgence compared to cooking indoors. Indeed, both seem to get a little more expensive year by year, as grills get larger and the offerings of specialty charcoals expand.

But what if there were another way? A way of grilling that was flavor-rich, reasonably convenient, inexpensive — and earth-friendly, besides?

* * *

The little flame of a big idea appeared above Jim Rogers’ head as he read an essay on sustainable forestry in the developing world. In many countries the No. 1 energy problem is getting enough firewood for cooking, which often leads to the No. 1 environmental problem: deforestation.

Envisioning villagers gathering sticks and branches for their fire pits, he realized that free, clean fuel for his Weber lay all around his home in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul.

So he began to gather windfall branches — first from his own yard, then from other yards along his dog-walking routes — and to experiment with a way of grilling steaks that was both primeval and new. Also, better for the environment than either gas or charcoal.

Now is a good time to point out that Rogers, a writer and editor at the University of St. Thomas, is no back-to-the-land zealot or global-warming scold. His 19th-century house is an “energy nightmare,” he says, heated with an elderly, gas-fired gravity furnace, but he has forgone insulation, window replacement and other conservation measures because “we know people who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on those things without making much difference in their gas bills.”

However, Rogers does appreciate the difference in global climate impact between burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas — which load the atmosphere with carbon that had been locked up since the dinosaurs — and burning wood in a short, more natural carbon cycle.

He reasoned that the carbon stored in his windfall branches, were they left to rot, would soon be released into the air and soil anyway. The same could not be said of the wood in charcoal because of the fossil fuels that went into harvesting, carbonizing, packing and shipping it to market.

“Am I right in thinking that grilling over windfall branches is really zero-impact from a global warming point of view?” he asked. I think he is right, and I also think his analysis is an interesting example of “ecological intelligence” as laid out in the book of that name by Daniel Goleman.

Goleman’s hope is that “knowing the hidden impacts of what we buy can change everything,” if we make it a point to follow three simple rules: know our impacts, favor improvements, share what we learn.

Simple but not necessarily easy. Assessing the full environmental impact of products is complex (think ethanol) and some improvements carry significant costs or limitations (think electric cars).  

Notice, though, that Rogers isn’t giving up anything in deciding to fire his barbecue with windfall instead of the premium-priced “cowboy charcoal” he had been buying. He was going to have to clean up the brush and dispose of it anyway.

It’s as if he stepped into the debate over paper vs. plastic grocery bags and said, “Hey — what about cloth?”

* * *

Obviously Rogers cannot be the very the first person to hit upon the idea of repowering his backyard grill with wood, but an hour of Googling around failed to turn up more than a few other folks who are doing anything very similar (and posting about it).

What is going on at the fringes of American grilling, to judge from articles in the foodie press, is wood-fired grilling on a grand scale — achieving campfire flavor with elaborate stone fire pits and grills so large they require a vehicle to tow them around, stoked with fireplace logs. Much of the appeal seems to be in one-upping fellow foodies and/or replicating the offerings of trendy wood-fire restaurants.

This has no appeal to Rogers. “We are not foodies by any stretch of the imagination,” he emphasized. “I put ketchup on everything, and I like to eat a lot of unhealthy red meat.”

What does light him up is experimenting with different wood selections, fire sizes, and grate placements and so on, paying attention and seeing what happens next:

“Oak is just a beautiful wood — slow-burning and hot, with a deep glow. Silver maple is like kerosene — too hot, too fast. Birch is just as bad. Basswood burns OK but it has a terrible, stringy bark that just won’t let go when you go to break it up.”

He never uses pine, because of the acrid flavor it pumps into the food. But he has an apple tree and plum tree in his yard, and uses their branches to add subtle, and subtly different, flavors to meats. Sometimes he uses lilac, a heavy and dense wood that smells like incense when it burns and adds a flowery flavor to certain foods.

And while he tends the grill he also savors the experience of being more connected to the natural world. Indeed, he has begun to take note of especially promising dead branches on his neighbors’ trees, waiting for the wind to bring them down.

Nobody has yet objected to his fuel-gathering from their lawns. “My guess is they’re happy to have the brush removed. I would have been — wouldn’t you?”

* * *

As it happens, brush disposal has become a more significant chore for me since I moved to a wooded lot. So I was eager to test Rogers’ methods using (1) a miniature Weber I’ve had but hardly used in the last 25 years of gas grilling, and (2) some of the buckthorn I’ve been piling up in an eradication campaign that will never, ever end.

The first result was four leg quarters of chicken that were the tastiest I’ve had in many years, either at home or in a restaurant, prepared in under an hour. Since then I’ve done pork ribs in an old gas grill, over a wood fire built in baking pans laid atop the lava rock, and skewers of yakitori chicken on a hardware-store hibachi. No disappointments so far, and I’ve rediscovered yet another benefit of campfire cooking — wood smoke keeps the bugs at bay.

If you want to test this yourself but haven’t built a campfire for a while, here’s what to do:

  • Gather fuel in two sizes: pencil-sized twigs or smaller for starters, inch-diameter branches or a little bigger for the main fire. You will want enough twigs to cover the bottom of the grill in a loose pile about 2 inches deep, and enough branches to form a second, loose layer up to 6 inches deep. Avoid wood that’s too green or wet to snap readily, or so light and dry it will burn away too fast. No rotten wood, no evergreens. (Buckthorn is excellent, by the way.)
  • Put a few twists of paper in the bottom of the grill and light them. Working quickly, snap the twigs to length and pile onto the fire in crosswise layers. Snap or cut the larger branches to length (I like lopping shears for this; Rogers uses a folding camp saw.) Pile the cut branches atop the twigs in crosswise layers.
  • Admire the flames and stir the wood occasionally as it burns, gradually compacting it into a dense pile of glowing embers, with any bark burned completely away. Wipe the cooking grate with a paper towel soaked in oil; cooking spray won’t stand up to the high heat.
  • Wearing leather gloves, lay the cooking grate in place and add the meat. Let it sear on one side, then turn it over. Covering the grill at this point will slow down the cooking and reduce fat flare-ups, but will probably make the food too smoky for many palates. My solution was to cover the grill for short periods when the flare-ups got too intense.
  • Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness; the cooking period is likely to be different from what you’re used to.
  • And please email me about your results at rmeador [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (11)

Loved the article. To make the wood go further (farther?), we use a rocket stove. There is zero waste and it is fun for the kids to make and operate.

Further. Use farther only for actual physical distances, and further for more abstract stuff.

Anyway, the article completely ignores electric grills, and almost starts with a false dichotomy. I say "almost" only because I don't think electric grills have been around for 30 years.

I'd be interested in seeing electric grills analyzed in a follow-up, and evaluated on the same "green" parameters as in this article.

From the air quality/human health perspective, wood smoke is not a very healthy thing to be putting into your neighborhoods air.

Me? I grilled turkey burgers over a cleaner-burning propane flame this weekend. I may not be a foodie, but I know what I like.

I also didn't send any smoke into my neighbors yards -- or into open windows in their homes.

The problem with the "green" label on this article is that there isn't enough windfall wood to replace all the charcoal and gas grill use in the Twin Cities. And even if you could, adding that much wood smoke to an already lower air quality because of backyard fire pits in the summer would only make the Twin Cities a less livable place. There have been many studies that show you increase deaths in urban regions when recreational burning goes up significantly. Wood smoke contains some of the same carcinogens found in cigarette smoke!

In addition, we added insulation to our attic (which in places had HAY as insulation) and save hundreds of dollars a year on gas. Perhaps Jim Rogers should do a little more research. The cost of gas has gone up over the last ten years, pretty significantly, so if you did your cost-saving measures at the wrong time, it wouldn't look like you're saving any money. But you are. And you sure are doing your part to save the environment

Thanks for the article, Ron. I've been using wind fall wood for a number of years rather than spending a lot of money on charcoal. One problem I've run into is that wood burns very hot and too quickly for slower cooking. Any suggestions?

I have to second Ms. Burns on this one.

Through much of the winter, Wild-West Denver prohibits wood burning, whether outdoors in the REALLY determined griller’s back yard, or indoors in the fireplace or wood stove, and for precisely the reasons Ms. Burns cites. In the midst of a howling gale, it’s no problem – except for those people living downwind – but most of the time, you’re simply creating smoke that isn’t at all healthy, even if it does carry the enticing aroma of cooking meat.

I also question the offhand comment about insulation. Six or seven years ago, when I lived in Loveland, Colorado, about an hour north of Denver, I added 10 inches of fiberglass insulation above living space that was centrally-heated, but minimally insulated, and that I couldn’t afford to air condition. The added insulation made an immediate 25% reduction in my winter heating bills during the first winter after it was installed, and enabled me to enjoy summer days of 100-degree outside temperatures with the interior temperature never reaching 80 degrees as long as I kept the windows closed. I used a couple small fans to move the air around, and was quite comfortable.

Finally, even if using windfall wood worked perfectly, produced no smoke, and made for superb, complex flavors in whatever was being cooked, there’s not enough of it for all the grillers in the region to use it as a replacement for charcoal or gas. Trying to do so would deforest this area just as quickly and thoroughly as areas of Africa, Central and South America have been deforested, and for similar reasons. In the long run, windfall wood is either a boutique fuel, or the desperate scavenging of the few people remaining after the collapse of civilization. It doesn’t strike me as a practical, or even especially “green” replacement for the fuels being used now.

Can't wait to try this. I haven't grilled all summer--too many skeets and not a lot of extra cash for grilling supplies. But the storms this year have left piles of dead twigs and branches that I would burn anyway. Might as well throw a few Fun Dogs on the smoldering heap. This sounds perfect for a backwoods cheapskate like me who doesn't grill very often
and has an endless supply of free dead wood and live buckthorn. Wonder how black walnut works? I lost a couple of those this summer.

For those non-smokers out there, rocket stoves produce virtually no smoke and they produce ultra-green charcoal which I know nothing about but it sure sounds impressive.

@ #3 and #4: I can definitely appreciate those concerns, but I think that's more of a problem in theory than practice. I don't think Minneapolis and St. Paul, and particularly the suburbs have the kind of density for this to really matter. I've lived in various neighborhoods in the city for years and have never been gagged by wood smoke.

Sure, maybe if everyone at the same time all of the sudden started grilling at the same time one day it would get unpleasant. But if a few people save a little carbon by grilling this way - and consider that people have backyard fires all the time that are certainly larger than a typical cooking fire - I think it can't hurt, helps a little, and sounds like fun.

I guess this just reminds me of "wind turbines kill birds". You need to account for the actual scale of the problem and the general necessity to anything to reduce global warming.

Ron Meador's recent article shows a great lack of awareness about the effects of woodsmoke on air quality. In a 2009 Forbes article, Minneapolis was rated the sixth worst city for air pollution largely because of our particle pollution problem, and it has gotten worse. At a recent Air Quality forum at the American Lung Association, the MCPA officials said that Minnesota is not be in attainment with the new guidelines on healthy levels of particle pollution. If Meador was seriously writing about the environment, he would take into account the effects of woodsmoke on the health of children and vulnerable adults. It’s been clearly shown that when particle pollution rises, death rates rise from asthma, COPD, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, infant deaths, and cardiovascular disease. In order to understand the size of this problem, you have to first understand that asthma is an epidemic in our country. The number of vulnerable adults and children is astounding. Since 1980, asthma death rates have increased across the board for age, gender, and ethnic group by 50 percent. The death rate for children from asthma has increased by 80 percent, and lung disease is the leading cause of death among newborns. And there is a direct link between wood smoke and asthma attacks. According to a recent EPA report, numerous studies link wood smoke particle levels to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits. According to a Washington State Department of Ecology report, “Burning two cords of wood produces the same amount of mutagenic particles as driving 13 gasoline powered cars at 10,000 miles each at 20 miles/gallon. Wood smoke is made up of microscopic particles and gases that are too small to be filtered in the respiratory system, and they collect in the remote regions of the lungs, causing structural changes deep within the lungs. It is particularly upsetting that an environmental reporter would be encouraging cooking over wood as "green." Clearly Meador hasn't read the research on woodsmoke.

I feel I must comment on this story, even though it is several days old.

There is nothing "green" about cooking with wood. Once wood is burned, it releases many of the same components as cigarette smoke such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde (now recognized as a carcinogen), sulfur dioxide, fine particulate matter and other chemicals that are known to be, or suspected of being carcinogens. Wood smoke stays chemically active and can cause damage to cells in our body for up to 40 times longer than cigarette smoke. And, wood smoke travels farther than cigarette smoke thereby affecting more people. If Mr. Rogers let that twig just rot in his yard, there is no danger that it would cause an asthma attack or send someone to the ER with a heart attack. That is what could happen to someone who is vulnerable, or exposed even for a short period, to wood smoke. Once that twig is burned, it's also contributing to the air pollution in the metro area. (This year, Ramsey County's air was downgraded for particle pollution from a "C" to a "D" by the American Lung Association.)

Mr. Rogers might be surprised to learn that the black carbon (soot) that is produced by burning his twigs are also contributing to the melting of the Arctic glaciers.

With the popularity of wood grill restaurants, people emulating those restaurants by cooking with wood, and back yard fire pits in all neighborhoods in the metro area, it is impossible to escape the caustic wood smoke that is everywhere 24/7. We've banned smoking in bars and restaurants, but we are all breathing wood smoke. We're all smokers now. Honestly, it it worth setting that twig on fire just for a piece of meat?

Hopefully, Mr. Meador will read some of the research on wood smoke and do another article for MinnPost on the dangers of burning that twig. It does affect others around you and it does affect the planet.

Be kind to your neighbors and don't burn wood!