Outdoor cooking tips
Wood-fired outdoor cooking
Cooking outdoors using a wood-fired oven or grill is easy once you know how. But preparing a meal outdoors using a wood fire can seem a daunting prospect to the uninitiated. So we asked leading outdoor chef Cornelius Veakins to give us his top tips for getting started with wood-fired cooking.
Before you launch into wood-fired cooking at home, there are a few things you need to consider:
1. What do you want to cook?
The first thing to think about is what food you like to cook and eat. If you only want to cook burgers and sausages outdoors, a £20 barbecue and a bag of charcoal from your local DIY store will do just fine. But if you want to cook a wider range of meals for your family or when you’re entertaining, if you like fine dining or want to cook more of your meals outdoors, then an exciting new world of possibilities is open to you by harnessing the versatility of wood-fired cooking.
2. How much do you want to spend?
There are a whole host of outdoor ovens, grills and braais available, ranging in price from £300 up to £10,000 and more. It’s worth shopping around for the right kit for your budget. Don’t always go for established brand names – read reviews and ask for advice. It’s a good idea to start small with wood-fired cooking to see if it suits you, then upgrade when you’re ready.
3. How close are the neighbours?
One potential problem of burning wood is the risk of billowing smoke causing an irritation to your neighbours. However, if you are creating excessive smoke, it’s probably because you are using cheap, wet wood that isn’t suitable for cooking anyway. If you use only good-quality, dry hardwood, like the wood supplied by Dalby, you will create hardly any smoke. Instead, the gentle aroma of burning wood and outdoor cooking is likely to have the neighbours knocking on your door with plates and cutlery in hand!
Why cook with wood?
Cooking with wood is an elemental, hands-on experience. It’s the oldest, most natural form of cooking. Using wood for outdoor cooking is also heathier and more sustainable than using charcoal. I like it because it’s totally natural; there are no additives in wood, and I even use Dalby Firewood’s natural firelighters so I don’t have to use any artificial chemicals in my cooking. It’s also easy to master, with a little practice. You can pick up the essentials in two or three sessions, through trial and error, and quickly produce some really delicious food.
What about the British weather?
There is a perception in the UK that outdoor cooking is just for the summer months; that our weather is too wet and unpredictable to cook outdoors most of the time. But that simply isn’t true. The weather, unless it’s a torrential downpour, shouldn’t stop you cooking outside. Remember, you are cooking outside, not eating outside. I cook all meals outdoors in the UK all year round. It’s a wonderful experience, and all it requires is a change of mindset.
Choosing the right fuel for wood-fired cooking
The quality of the hardwood you use is vital to a successful outdoor cooking experience. Cheap, high-moisture, mixed-species wood will give you a very smoky, acrid, unpleasant experience. Look for wood with low moisture content – ideally around 10% – that comes from sustainable sources and a Woodsure-certified supplier. Dry, good-quality wood will give you a consistent burn, low smoke levels and a reliable source of heat for cooking.
Types of wood to use for outdoor cooking
Different species of wood have different burning properties and so are suited for different types of cooking. Silver birch, for example, lights easily and gets hot quickly, giving a high heat for a short period of time. That makes it ideal for wood-fired pizza ovens. I use it to get my oven up to temperature in about 20 minutes, then I can cook four pizzas in 90 seconds.
For an outdoor grill where you want to cook over a longer period, I use silver birch initially to get the heat up quickly, then use oak or ash to sustain the heat. Oak and ash are slower burning species; they give off heat for longer and have less flame, so it doesn’t char the food. Beech has similar burning properties to oak and ash. All these species are available and ready to burn from Dalby Firewood.
Outdoor cooking equipment
So what do you need to start your wood-fired cooking adventure? It has to be said that cooking with wood does require more expensive kit than your average charcoal barbecue. You want something that is robust, well-made and able to withstand the onslaught of the British weather for many years. However, you can pick up an entry-level wood-burning oven for £300-£400, which will give you an opportunity to experience wood-fired cooking and find out if it’s for you. They won’t last forever, but if you find that you enjoy outdoor cooking, you can upgrade to a more permanent piece of kit.
There are two types of kit I would recommend for outdoor cooking:
- Wood-fired oven.
Often called a pizza oven, this is essentially an outdoor oven. It’s very versatile and can cook far more than just pizzas. I use mine to cook breads, slow-cooked stews, casseroles, soups, pasta dishes, chillies and much more. I’ve cooked an entire nine-course Christmas meal in my pizza oven – starters, mains, desserts, the lot.
- Outdoor grills
Argentine-style grills are perfect for cooking all types of meat, from steaks to whole pigs, as well as vegetables, flatbreads, pancakes and much more. For me, the ultimate piece of kit is the Flaming Grills Argentine grill, made in Yorkshire using precision machining. These are expensive items, but they offer a host of well-designed features that give you the perfect asado outdoor cooking experience.
Is wood-fired cooking for me?
As a final word, I would say don’t be afraid of outdoor cooking. There is no excuse not to cook outside in the UK. When I train people in wood-fired cooking, even experienced chefs, I can see the initial trepidation in their faces. But within half an hour they are looking relaxed and confident. Once you understand the basic principles of how to control the heat and use different types of wood for different types of cooking, you have everything you need to embark on your outdoor cooking journey.