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Home > Features > Living Well > Food > Green Cuisine > The Twig Grill

GreenSense- Green Cuisine

The Twig Grill

Here it is, Spring, and I just finished reading our local paper's Home Improvement column. It was all about the dangers of backyard gas grills and the careful, technically-specific maintainance necessary to prevent the 2000 fires, several hundred injuries, and $18 million in property damage caused by these devices each year -  all caused by problems related to the gas, like leaks, overfilling, and blockages (1). It could have been a sobering read, since we do a lot of outdoor cooking and grilling during the summer months. Instead it was fun to sit on the back porch and read about a job that I don't have to do.

The reason I don't have to perform "Gas Grill Safety Maintainance" is that I have converted my standard clamshell gas grill to a maintainance-free model. I did it by removing the propane tank and burners to create a "Twig Grill", powered exclusively by, well, twigs - deadwood and trimmings from the various trees and bushes on our .23 acre, urban lot. So, now, when I want to grill a steak or burger, I go out to the back yard and literally "fire up" the grill with some twigs and a match. Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, believe it or not, escaping gas grill safety maintainance is only one of the many reasons.

Reason number 1 is taste. I like my grilled food to taste like it was cooked over wood and it occurred to me that, rather than buying wood chips and dumping them in the grill for flavor, maybe it would make sense to just cook with wood from the get go.

Of course, wood chips don't burn very well by themselves, but twigs do. And my yard is full of them, thanks to my 2 maple trees, not to mention a variety of bushes and saplings growing along the property line that have to be trimmed or culled periodically. I discovered that a small fire built from dry twigs is perfect for grilling a steak, burgers, hot dogs, or chicken up to 1/2 in. in thickness. For larger cuts or slower cooking, I simply throw on a few 1 or 2" diameter branches. One of our plum trees died recently and I've been cutting 3-6 in. thick branches into grill-sized lengths and then splitting those into kindling. When I build a fire, I throw 3 or 4 on top, for a nice, even burn.

So, Reason number 2 is that my Twig grill allows me to avoid another onerous task: carting woody trimmings away. They're too big to compost, but they burn beautifully.

If you know anything about campfire cooking, you'll wonder, "Won't the flames, even from a small fire, be so tall that they'll burn the food on the grill?" The answer is, "Yes". The solution is simple: cook on the upper grill when the flames are high and finish, if necessary, on the lower grill as the flames die down.

I also keep a spray bottle filled with water on hand to cool down the fire as needed.

You may wonder whether it's worth the effort of building a fire when you could just push a button. Well, of course, it's not as easy as pushing a button, but it's not that hard either. Unlike building a campfire or a fire in a fireplace, laying and starting a twig fire in a grill is amazingly quick and easy. Essentially, you're working with all kindling. Once the burner is removed, there's a slot across the bottom that admits plenty of fresh air to feed the fire. You just wad up a half sheet of newspaper, throw a few handfuls of twigs on top, and light it. Specifically, put a wad of tiny twigs directly on top of the paper, then scatter larger ones on top.. Unlike with other fires, You don't have to worry about getting any big logs to burn. If you'd rather not use newspaper, do as I do and use a scrap of birch bark (gathered in the woods from downed trees) and some dried orange peels (They make smelly compost, but great tinder.).

In a minute or less, you throw on the meat and cook. If the fire gets too hot, a couple of spritzes of water from a spray bottle will slow it down. If the twigs start to burn away before the food is done, you add a few more. Want a smokier flavor? Lower the lid for a few minutes.

On my twig grill, I can cook a meal as fast as or faster  than I could on the gas grill, for a carbon-neutral, fuel cost of $nothing. At the same time, I reduce the yard waste I have to cart away. About the only labor involved is breaking up twigs into grill-sized pieces and putting them in boxes for easy access at dinner time.

To convert a grill from gas to twigs, just remove gas tank, burners and hose. You can leave the dials on the front and adjust them periodically to entertain visitors.



1. "About the House",  Burlington Free Press 05/24/2008, p2c.


-Alan Wagener





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