Why Australians prefer hardwood for cookingOctober 3, 2018
Collecting firewood doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult task, but it’s one of those situations where your ‘instinct’ would lead you astray. For example, your natural tendency is to find ‘fresh’ wood, so you’d probably look for a tree with fat branches and lop them off. Similarly, if you picked wood from a tree and when you got home and put a match to it, it lit up in seconds, you’d keep harvesting wood from that same tree.
Both these approaches would be wrong. One, ‘fresh’ wood is generally moist, especially if it’s still attached to the tree when you cut it down. This means fire will sizzle the tree sap, producing lots of smoke and steam, and very little heat. Also, if your chopped branches caught fire instantly, they were probably softwoods.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with softwoods. It’s just that they make up 75% of tree cover, so unless you’re consciously looking for a hardwood, you’ll inadvertently go soft. And while they catch fire quite quickly, they’re not as dense as hardwoods, so you burh though them faster and end up using more wood while not generating as much heat.
The reason for the seasoning
Hardwoods can take up to 100 years to mature, while softwoods grow in a quarter of that time. When trees are chopped for firewood, they have to dry out completely before they can be used. That’s why collecting fresh wood is a mistake. If you’re foraging, look for dry, dead-looking twigs that have already fallen to the ground and snap easily.
In a timber yard, apply the same principle, looking for the dried out, grey logs at the back of the stack that have been there longest. The worse it looks, the better it burns. The process of firewood drying out in a timber yard is called seasoning. The wood has to become completely dehydrated. This process takes a year or two in hardwoods, but half the time in softwoods.
That’s the main reason why most foraged woods are softwoods. It’s unlikely that hardwood logs would sit in the wild unmolested for two whole years, so if you’re picking dry twigs off the ground, they’ve been there a few weeks, or maybe a few months (though typically, it’s just a few days), so they’re probably softwood.
Don’t DIY your firewood
This is also the primary advantage of buying commercial firewood instead of collecting your own from the woods. Self-harvested firewood is unlikely to have seasoned, so it will produce a noisy, smoky, sooty fire. And since it burns through so quickly, you’ll need lots more of it, most of which will go to waste.
That’s how deforestation for firewood happens – because you have to cut down so many trees to keep up with your demand, and even if you plant more, they don’t grow nearly as fast as you cut them down. Commercial firewood dealers – at least the good ones – have a strategic sustainability cycle that allows trees to mature and firewood to season without depleting their forest sources or damaging climate by depleting watersheds.
There are two main reasons why hardwoods are a better option for both cooking and heating. They burn hotter, giving you higher cooking temperatures, and last longer because it takes more time for them to turn to ash. Australian hardwoods include iron bark, red wood, yellow bark, and red gum. It takes longer to get the fire roaring, but it’s worth the wait.
Don’t smoke – unless you want to
Secondly, hardwoods produce a lot less smoke than softwoods, especially if they have been properly seasoned. Because they are denser and burn hotter, the wood pulp is utilised more completely, leading to less wastage, smoke, and ash (smoke mostly comes from unburned carbon). Ideally, you don’t want your food to have thick dark smoke, so smoke-free is best.
However, there are times when you do want smoke in your food. For example, when you’re slow-cooking food by smoking, you want slow-burning fruitwood embers at low temperatures. These fruitwoods have rich, distinct flavours. You want hardwoods for this purpose too, because smoking takes several hours, sometimes as long as a day.
You don’t want softwood coals that will be gone in minutes. Popular smoking woods for your barbeque include apple, pear, red jam, hickory, oak, peach, nectarine, pecan, plum, grape, apricot, and iron bark. They are sometimes soaked in red wine for extra flavour.