Of all the methods of cooking, there are few more satisfying than wood fired cooking. Getting it right requires experience, know-how and the right fuel.
When cooking with an oven, stovetop or even a barbecue, you don’t really need to think about the cooking fuel. The gas or electricity simply generates the heat and the temperature controls do the rest.
Not so with wood fired cooking. Different woods burn at different rates and temperatures. There are differences in moisture, sap and oil content that need to be taken into account. There’s even the flavour profile of the timber itself that needs to be considered.
Choosing the right wood for your wood fired oven is absolutely essential for firing the perfect pizza crust or baking the best loaf.
So let’s have a look at a few things you need to consider when selecting firewood for your wood fired oven.
The best woods to use for wood fired cooking are dry, cured hardwoods. These include Australian natives like white gum, ironbark and jarrah, as well as woods like oak, alder, hickory, walnut maple, ash, beech, and birch.
Hardwoods can be as much as three-times heavier than softwoods. Because of their density, they can be difficult to light. However, once burning they produce more heat than softwoods and burn for longer, meaning you require less wood to heat the oven.
Properly dried hardwoods also burn much cleaner than softer woods, which means less smoke and soot. Since smoke can adversely affect the flavour of the food, clean burning woods are essential for wood fired cooking.
Fruitwoods are another great option for wood fired cooking. These are mostly hardwoods from fruit-bearing trees. Different fruitwoods have different flavour profiles, which can add a smokey depth to your cooking. While some fruitwoods won’t burn as clean as cured hardwoods, they remain popular because of the flavours they can add to the food.
Popular fruitwoods include apple, cherry, plum, almond, pear, maple, pecan, mesquite, chestnut, avocado, apricot and nectarine.
The moisture content of the wood will have a significant effect on how it burns. Wet wood releases a lot of smoke and won’t burn hot enough for wood fired cooking.
Freshly cut wood, or green wood, have a high natural moisture content and won’t be any good for cooking. Ideally, firewood should have a moisture content of around 20%. Moisture content lower than 15% is too dry for wood fired cooking, as it burns too hot and generates too much smoke.
Hardwoods can take a year or two to naturally dry to the required 20% moisture levels, while softwoods can take between six and eight months.
For best results, you should aim to use hardwoods that have been professionally kiln dried. This wood will have the right balance of moisture and dryness to burn well without releasing too much smoke.
Make sure you store your wood in a dry, covered and well ventilated places to prevent it from absorbing moisture while in storage.
What Not to Use
While there are plenty of great firewood options for wood fired cooking, there are also a number of woods that should definitely be avoided.
Always avoid laminated woods like plywood and particleboard, pressure-treated timber or anything painted, chemically treated or glued. These wood products contain some very nasty chemicals that you don’t want anywhere near your food, your oven or in the air around you. You should also avoid using chemical firelighters for the same reason.
Avoid using charcoal in a wood fired oven. Charcoal produces a lot of carbon monoxide when it burns, which can be a safety risk, even when cooking outdoors.
You should also steer clear of woods that are high in sap or natural oils like pine, fir, eucalyptus, white birch, and cedar. The sap and oil content, especially in the bark, can give off a lot of smoke when burning, leaving a bitter taste in the food.
Finally, you should always consider the environment when making your firewood choices. Try to use native timbers that are sustainably grown and harvested. Avoid transporting woods from other regions, as this could mean transporting non-native bugs, pests and diseases.
In Victoria, you can collect your own firewood from state parks during specific times of the year. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that most of this wood will be green and will need to be dried before it’s ready to burn as firewood.
Ensuring you have the right wood that has been properly dried and stored will ensure you get the best performance from your wood fired oven, meaning you can serve up the perfect pizza and the best barbecue.