Wed 31 May 2017
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SHOULD YOU GRILL WITH MOLDY WOODS?
There are many opinions out there in the BBQ world when it comes to the wood used for smoking and grilling. Some people preach it doesn’t matter where the wood comes from as long as it isn’t a treated lumber. Comments include, “don’t worry if there are bugs or bug holes – if they’re in there, they’ll just burn up”, or “fires are hot so anything on the wood just burns”.
But you should worry. Here’s why.
In the USA, we try hard to re-purpose items so our landfills aren’t overflowing. What we fail to do, however, is ponder the history of that re-purposed item. Let’s take the common wooden pallet for example.
Wooden pallets have enjoyed a rebirth with the DIY generation. Everything from headboards and wine racks, to dining tables and wedding guest books, have been constructed from the used wooden pallet. What should be widely discussed, is the potential for toxic exposure to this wood item. Wood pallets, just like scrap woods, can harbor mold spores as well as chemical residue if they were used to transport items containing or exposed to chemical toxins. Use these discarded items for cooking wood and you introduce a whole host of new risks.
A Primer on Mold
Mold growth is stimulated by three specific needs:
#1 Moisture: Mold spores need moist or damp locations to grow
#2 Food Source: Mold spores need food to survive and they love porous materials
#3 Optimal Temperature: Mold spores can thrive in temperatures from 32° to 120°F and have the highest stimulation rate in temperatures of 70-90°F. Yes, even at the freezing mark, mold spores don’t die, they simply go dormant.
The Look of Mold
Mold has a range of appearances but on wood is mostly reveals itself as a fuzzy or discolored layer on the surface of the wood. Molds are a type of fungus and they grow on wood when the three conditions mentioned above combine. Molds feed on the wood nutrients (cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin compounds) without weakening the wood itself.
Why is Mold a Risk
Molds produce millions of microscopic spores that can be carried in the air. Mold spores are around us everywhere. They search for the ideal surfaces to land on and grow. When they increase in concentration, allergic reactions are triggered in sensitive individuals. Expand this concentration to multiple locations and you can become highly sick.
Cooking with Moldy Wood
You now know the 3 parameters needed for mold spores to concentrate and thrive. Why would cooking with moldy wood be of concern if you’re simply throwing them into hot coals or exposing them to gas-fueled heating elements?
Because mold spores can survive combustion!
Molds can produce mycotoxins, toxic chemicals that are present on spores and small fragments of mold and fungus that are released into the air. When moldy wood is introduced to fire, these toxins are released into the air and can cause anyone around the equipment to experience coughing, sneezing, eye and throat irritation. If a preexisting condition like asthma is present, symptoms will be worse. This can lead to a compromised lung health and disease.
Remember, mold looks for moisture environments so if you are cooking with moldy wood, you take the risk of the airborne spores taking harbor on the food being cooked over that wood. The moist surface of the food is a perfect visiting ground.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
The biggest challenge is it is almost impossible to distinguish toxic molds from non-toxic which is why I recommend that you never use moldy woods for cooking. Some types of molds won’t reveal themselves on the outside of the wood but will be present within the interior wood cells. It is always best to err on the side of caution and dispose of moldy wood or burn it in an outdoor setting not being used for cooking.
Get Rid of Ash
I highly recommend that you safely dispose of all ash from previous wood-fired cooking to decrease the risk of mold spores and fragments. As mentioned above, mold spores can survive combustion and so they can remain active in ashes. Don’t leave old ash laying around and certainly not within the equipment.
Finding hardwoods at the ideal moisture level, storing the woods in a well-ventilated area, and rotting wood to circulate air exchange are good practices to help you stay safe during the outdoor cooking season and maintain healthy lung function for life.