Grilling With Wood Instead of Charcoal: What Is the Difference?

by | Aug 21, 2023 | campfire, Grilling | 0 comments

Grilling With Wood Instead of Charcoal: What Is the Difference?

In all my years of being a pitmaster, I’ve heard people debate between grilling with wood and charcoal. 

I won’t lie I can never choose one as both have their own sets of benefits and limitations. Depending on your requirements, you’ve to pick one. 

If you grill with wood instead of charcoal, you can add extra flavors and aromas to your grilled meat and vegetables. However, grilling with wood is more difficult and time-consuming compared to charcoal. 

In this article, I’ve talked more about grilling with wood instead of charcoal. So, let’s get into it!

Quick Comparison Table – Grilling With Wood Vs. Grilling With Charcoal 

CategoryGrilling with WoodGrilling with Charcoal
FlavorAdds extra flavorsCharred or smoky flavor
Time Taken Requires more prep timeRequires less prep time
Ease of GrillingNot beginner-friendlyBeginner-friendly
Burn TimeBurns for a short timeBurns for long
AromaAdds aroma to the BBQ itemJust a smoky aroma
Eco-friendlinessLess More
Cleaning Requires less timeRequires more time
SafetySaferLess safe due to extra added additives. 

Charcoal Vs. Wood Grilling  – The Main Differences

You already have an overview of the differences between cooking with charcoal and wood. Let’s understand these differences in detail. 

  1. Flavor 

The biggest difference that you’ll notice when you grill with wood instead of charcoal is the flavor. 

Generally, charcoal lumps give a smoky and slightly charred flavor to anything that you’re grilling on it. Also, there’s no variety of charcoals. No matter which one you use, it’s going to give your meat the same type of smoky flavor.  

On the other hand, cooking wood imparts its own fresh and unique flavor while grilling anything. In fact, there are multiple types of wood, and each has a distinctive taste. 

I’ve mentioned the types of hardwood, along with their flavors in the table below. 

Type of WoodFlavorBest Usage
Apple WoodSweet, fruity, and lightCheese, pork ribs, pork bacon
Cherry WoodSlightly sweet, and fruity, and imparts a lovely reddish huePork ribs and beef
Maple WoodSlightly salty with a sweet aromaCheese, vegetables, chicken 
Hickory WoodIntense and savory, adds a deep color to the meatLarger cuts of pork and beef
Oak WoodSlightly intense smoky flavor Goes well with almost everything
Peach Wood Slightly sweet and fruitPork, poultry
Pecan WoodSpicy, nutty, and mildly sweetLamb, beef, pork, poultry
Mesquite WoodEarthy and intenseDuck, lamb, pork, brisket, fish

You can choose any of the above-listed smoking wood types for grilling as per your taste preference. 

  1. Time Taken 

It’s necessary to know the amount of time taken for the wood or charcoal to heat up, especially when you’re in a hurry. 

Keep in mind that wood takes more time than charcoal to heat up. Charcoal is easily combustible and hence, heats up in at least 20 to 30 minutes. 

On the contrary, wood needs at least an hour to heat up. You also need to bring down the heat for appropriate grilling. So, don’t go for grilling with wood if you’re in a hurry. 

Keep in mind that charcoal also reaches high temperatures more quickly compared to wood. Therefore, it’s ideal in situations where you require the grill to burn hotter for an extended period of time.  

  1. Ease of Grilling and Preparation

If you’re just starting out with BBQ, it’s best to stick with charcoal for outdoor cooking. 

With charcoal, there’s not a lot of preparation needed. You just need to add the coals to the grill or smoker and wait for the coals to heat. If you want to reduce the smoke, you can just add more coals to the smoker. 

Contrarily, wood requires both pre-preparation and cooking preparation. In pre-preparation, you need to season the wood before using it.

Seasoning your wood basically means you need to let it sit and dry for six to nine months. Or, you can go for the kiln-drying approach, which takes about three to seven days.

You cannot skip the seasoning process as fresh wood contains plenty of moisture. This moisture may steam during the grilling process and make your meat taste weird.  

Even after its pre-preparation, things aren’t exactly easy. 

Burning wood requires a lot of monitoring and control. As it combusts too rapidly, you need to add wood chips repeatedly to keep up the grilling process. 

So, beginners should avoid using wood smoke first and go for charcoal instead.  

  1. Burn Time 

This is also one of the most important parameters to consider when you’re comparing wood and charcoal. 

Pure carbon or charcoal has a longer burn time due to its high calorific value. Calorific values state the amount of heat produced when a fuel has combusted completely. 

For instance, wood has a calorific value of 18.5 to 19 MJ/Kg, whereas the same for charcoal is 25 to 35 MJ/kg.

Therefore, you won’t have to add charcoal repeatedly to keep up the burn time. 

If you use wood instead, you’ll have to keep adding wood chips to increase the burn time of the grill. 

  1. Aroma 

Just like the flavor, there are differences in the aroma of the meat too when you grill with wood instead of charcoal. 

Charcoal only gives a slightly burnt fragrance to the grilled items. But, different types of wood have specific fragrances that are imparted to grilled meat or vegetables. 

For example, most fruitwoods have a sweet or fruity smell, whereas oak, hickory, and mesquite provide an intense and earthy aroma. 

So, if you’re grilling with wood instead of charcoal, you’ll get some wonderful-smelling dishes!

  1. Expense and Eco-Friendliness

Wood is more expensive and less eco-friendly compared to charcoal. 

When you heat the wood, it gives off a lot of smoke. It might be because the wood has more moisture compared to charcoal, which steams a bit on grilling. 

However, charcoal burns fast and doesn’t produce as much smoke. 

  1. Cleaning

The whole cleaning process of charcoal is more tedious than wood. 

Charcoal leaves an ashy residue unlike wood, which requires proper cleaning. Also, handling charcoal is a bit of a messy task, compared to wood. 

If you’re grilling with wood, you don’t have to worry about getting your hands or clothes dirty!

  1. Safety 

Lump charcoal has additive ingredients, especially in a bag of charcoal briquettes. These include sawdust, starch, and even clay. Most of the time it’s safe to use charcoal and grill with it. However, in some situations, it may contain harmful additive ingredients that can make your food unsafe to eat.

It may also get risky if you use lighter fluid with the charcoal grill.

Wood doesn’t have any such additives. It is safe to consume as long as there are no fungi or mold on the wood.  

When to Grill With Wood?

Now, the question is when should you grill with wood fire instead of charcoal. 

Here are some situations when grilling with wood is a better option. 

  • You require your meat to have some additional flavors and fragrances, apart from the smoky one. 
  • You don’t want to clean a lot. 
  • You require something natural and safe to consume.

On the other hand, opt for charcoal if you’re a beginner, and want easy prep, more burn time, and a higher temperature!

How Can You Grill With Wood?

If you’re planning to grill with wood, note that the steps are different from charcoal. 

I’ve written down an extensive step-by-step guide to grill with wood as per my experience. 

Step 1: Pick Your Wood Type and Size 

In charcoal, there’s not much to choose from. But, when it comes to wood, you need to decide its type and size. 

As I mentioned earlier, wood can have several types. You can go for sweet and fruity woods like cherry, apple, pear, etc., or go for earthy and intense ones like hickory, oak, and mesquite. 

Wood also comes in different sizes – chunks, chips, and logs. Wood chips burn fast, and logs are hard to manage. Therefore, according to me, wood chunks are the best option! You may choose as per availability and your preference. 

Step 2: Smoke Using an Appropriate Grill

You can use wood for grilling in all three types of grills – charcoal grill, gas grill, and electric grill. Let’s understand what you need to do further. 

Cooking with wood in any grill is pretty straightforward. You just need to take an aluminum foil, add wood chips to it, and make a pouch. Then, punch two to three holes in the pouch. 

Also, you need to preheat the grill first. Then, place the pouch in between the flames. It’s best to position it slightly near the left or right flame for the gas grill.

When you see blue smoke coming out of the smoker, you can place anything that you want on it. You can also go for indirect heat or direct heat. 

Note: If you already have a smoker tray, just use that instead of using aluminum foil. 

Final Thoughts 

There’s no truly “better” option between grilling with wood and charcoal. I love grilling with wood when I want to spice or sweeten up my BBQ meat with natural items. 

However, whenever I’m in a hurry or just want nicely-smoked meat, I prefer charcoal over wood. So, the choice lies on the pitmaster’s head!

Related Questions

Is it better to grill with wood?

Grilling with wood takes more time compared to charcoal. Yet, it’s better than charcoal when it comes to adding new flavors and fragrances to any food item.

Is cooking over wood healthy?

Wood doesn’t contain any additives and is safe to consume. However, according to WHO, the smoke from wood may lead to respiratory and lung diseases in the long run. 




Colin has been grilling, smoking, and barbecuing in his yard for as long as he remembers.  His favorite dish is pork belly smoked on his favorite offset smoker. Read more about Colin here.


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