Proper Grilling: Argentina as a Case Study
Summer is almost here! And while the beaches and pools may be closed this season, there is at least one summer essential that is not going anywhere: the grill.
This primal cooking method holds a special place in cultures around the world, where the grill serves as a gathering place for friends and family to celebrate life itself. While we Americans also love to grill and will sometimes even wait in line for hours to try the most revered barbecue joints, we have largely neglected, if not corrupted, this fundamental part of our shared human culture.
Before we head into summer, I propose we look to our neighbors to the south who are positively grill-obsessed to learn a thing or two about how to grill properly.
Argentina has upheld the fundamentals of traditional grilling and turned it into a national pastime. The asado is a joyous all-day affair where friends and family gather at the home of the asador, for a multi-course meal consisting of a wide range of grilled and smoked meats, enjoyed with malbec.
How does this differ from the American backyard BBQ experience? And what can we learn from Argentina?
First, a brief semantic digression on the difference between "grill" and "barbecue/BBQ." To grill is to cook over direct open fire. This is what most Americans mistakenly think of when they think of a barbecue. Grilling is how you would typically cook a hot dog, hamburger, or rib eye steak. To barbecue on the other hand, is to cook over indirect heat, as is traditionally done in Texas, Memphis and the Carolinas, where they specialize in either beef brisket or pork ribs. This method is very slow, since there is no direct contact between the heat source--wood, in this case--and the meat. As the wood burns, it releases smoke, slowly breaking down tough muscle fibers and cooking the meat at a temperature of approximately 250 Fahrenheit. The reason you do not often hear of smoked or barbecued (used correctly, at least) hamburgers or rib eyes is because they are naturally very tender and do not need hours of slow cooking in order to break down into an edible form. Ribs and brisket on the other hand are much tougher cuts and would not be enjoyable if simply grilled for 8-minutes a side on your basic backyard Weber. This article will not cover the intricacies of American barbecue. It is a complex and subtle art. A quality barbecue "pit" or smoker can cost thousands of dollars for a small backyard model, let alone the commercial models which go for tens of thousands of dollars. Barbecuing a brisket can take 8-12 hours of constant active work to maintain the correct temperature inside the pit by adding and removing wood as necessary.
Now back to my question: what can we learn from Argentina?
The grill Itself
In an Argentine home you will not find the state of the art in grilling technology. Instead, you will most likely find something that looks more like a fireplace with a simple grate, elevated a couple of inches off the floor. You will certainly not find any propane tanks or gas lines. You probably won't even find any bags of charcoal; their grilling always starts with wood.
Grilling with real wood adds an additional layer of complexity. When you burn a piece of wood it emits a lively fire. After some time the wood will turn gray and become coal. The coal does not emit much flame, but still emits heat. This is the ideal medium for grilling. Even when grilling, you do not want the flame to lick the meat. You want to be able to predictably control the temperature and consistency of the heat. When dealing with live wood you can not do either.
In order to cook with wood, you must first build a fire off to the side of the grill. As the wood turns to coals, you shovel the coals to the grilling area where they can be used to cook. For an all-day asado you most constantly be replenishing your coals with more wood. This extra step provides not only more complexity, but also more flavor.
A word about charcoal: charcoal is made by heating wood in the absence of air. This is done on an industrial scale and sold commercially in large bags for backyard grilling. The most popular charcoal comes in the form of briquettes which are made by mixing chemical binders and fillers with charcoal and molded into a uniform circular briquettes. The uniform shape and added chemical agents help it burn more consistently and last longer. Smaller manufacturers produce natural lump charcoal which comes in irregular shapes made solely of wood charcoal. To make matters even faster, most American charcoal grillers ignite their charcoal using petroleum- or alcohol-based lighter fluid that will quickly ignite the charcoal to start its burning process. A more natural method for lighting your charcoal is to use a chimney. By lighting a piece of paper at the bottom of the chimney, you can light an entire batch of charcoal using the air flow of the chimney. When using charcoal, hardwood lump charcoal and a chimney are highly recommended to avoid all of the chemicals involved with briquettes and lighter fluid. They also are no less convenient once you have a basic understanding of how to use them.
However, Americans have largely forgone charcoal for even quicker, cleaner, and more convenient methods of grilling. According to Statista, 64% of grill owners have a gas-based grill, 9% have electric (the George Forman electric grill is the #2 best-selling grill on Amazon) and 44% have charcoal. Of course wood-based grilling did not make it onto the survey.
Cooking with real wood, as opposed to charcoal out of a bag, or oil out of a tank requires more effort, skill, patience, attention and most of all, experience. And for Argentinians, that is precisely the point. Pride is a big factor in an Argentinian asado. When the host invites your to their home they are looking to demonstrate their mastery in a demonstration of hospitality theater.
It's not all about showing off though. Spending hours amidst smoke and fire, controlling the heat, without the help of any knobs, while watching over a bevy of meats for you and your kin is a primal experience. It creates an ancestral bond between man, fire and meat that is certainly part of the appeal.
Finally, there is the virtue of time. An asado is meant to last all day. Guests can arrive early while the asador tends to the fire and spend all day enjoying wine and meats fresh off the grill in the outdoors, before finally sitting down to the main feast. This is an experience to be savored. To rush it would defeat the purpose.
Not only do Argentines prefer the slower method of building their fire, but they also prefer to cook slowly at a relatively a low temperature by American grilling standards. Perhaps the most prized of Argentinian cuts is the tira de asado, which is a short rib cut across the bone (similar to a flanken cut, but thicker) rather than parallel to it, like how we typically see short ribs in the U.S. and Europe. Short ribs are a tough cut, requiring low and slow cooking (they are more commonly braised). In an asado, these short ribs are placed on the parilla, farthest away from the coals. where they will cook for over an hour. Meanwhile smaller and more tender cuts that don't require as much time will be placed closer to the coals.
Mollejas (sweetbreads), among other offal cuts are very popular, as well as chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage). At a larger outdoor gathering it is not uncommon to see a whole lamb roasted upright on an iron cross propped up over the coals. There are some condiments, like salsa criolla; and sides like cheese, salami, and olives; but mainly the meat speaks for itself.
At an American backyard barbecue hot dogs and hamburgers are of course the traditional fare. Typically they are accompanied with ketchup, mustard and relish; sandwiched between two pieces of bread, with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. It is clear which culture prizes the quality of their meat more. That is not to disparage ground beef or hot dogs. They can be very delicious, economical, and sustainable, as an abundant byproduct of a beef harvest, but I would choose the smokey, slow-cooked tira de asado any day of the week.
- Trade-in your propane grill for a cheaper, simpler charcoal model to bring real fire into your grilling. If you already cook with charcoal, try cooking with real wood next time.
- Go for hardwood lump charcoal over the chemical-laden briquettes
- Get a $15 chimney to light your charcoal without lighter fluid and save money.
- Skip the hot dogs and hamburgers and try something new. I recommend the tira de asado. You likely won't find this cut on display, so ask a butcher to cut you a 1.5-inch thick cut of flanken. Put them over indirect heat. If your charcoal is on one side of the grill, put the meat on the opposite side--think low and slow.
- Don't sleep on the offal (liver, sweetbreads, hearts) and sausages (chorizo, morcilla).
- Instead of having condiments out of a bottle, try making your own. Chimichurri made from scratch with fresh parsley is my personal favorite and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Don't sweat every ingredient. You really can't mess it up.