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Your Guide to Becoming a Braai Master
Everything you need to know about braaing like a seasoned South African
In a South Africa where braaing is now more of a religion than a mere pastime, firing up the perfect coals and grilling the most flavourful meat is not just an activity; it’s something of an art form (hence the rise of popular reality TV series like Pick n Pay’s “The Ultimate Braai Master”).
So, to help shed some light on just what goes into grilling like a god, we consulted the ultimate king of the fire, BraaiBoy (known more conventionally as Gareth Daniell). An avid barbecuer since he was a wee one, this proud South African took on a dare in April 2009 to braai every single day for a full year and simply never stopped. Today, the meat guru, who believes that braaing is in every SA citizen’s blood, has checked out of his day job to take up the position of tong master full-time (“I like to think I’m retired, but my wife says I’m unemployed,” he jokes).
Needless to say, as someone who now has his own boerewors (farmer’s sausage), charcoal and spice range, and gets grills going at events around the country, Gareth is certainly well positioned to give some solid advice about the art of braaing like a boss. What follows below then are his answers to a range of BBQ-related questions that cover everything from what fuel to use to when to turn your steak. So, if you’re looking to perfect this quintessentially South African skill, this one’s for you.
Q&A WITH BRAAIBOY: HOW TO BRAAI LIKE A BOSS
We’re guessing that purchasing meat is the first step in the braaing process. Can you tell us about a few classic braai meat options, and what to consider when buying each?
Good meat is one of the most important ingredients for a good braai, so the secret is to find yourself a butcher you can trust and go for quality over quantity – rather buy a smaller cut of A-grade meat and pay a bit more than opt for the biggest and cheapest. You can braai almost anything – chicken, prawns, crayfish, even apples – but if you’re just starting out, three foolproof options are boerewors, steak and lamb chops.
- Boerewors: when buying this option, be sure to pointedly look for the word ‘boerewors’ on the packaging. This is because there’s a big difference between ‘braai wors’, which can contain anything (donkey, water buffalo, heart, testicles), and ‘boerewors’, which is your safe bet.
- Steak: rump steak is a great fallback option and tends to have more flavour than fillet. It’s hard to see a good steak on the shelves, but as a general rule, look for one that’s been aged.
- Lamb chops: if you’re not sure what you’re looking for, go for rib chops – they’re usually nicer (although smaller) than leg chops, which can get a bit tough.
Note: If you’re a pescetarian, rather try out this tasty, proudly Capetonian snoek braai recipe.
What tools, accessories or equipment should a braai master have handy?
The number one thing is a good set of tongs – your tongs are almost like an extension of yourself. There are lots of other tools that could work or should work, but if you have good tongs, good meat and good company, you can pretty much wing it the rest of the way. As for the braai structure, whether you’re using a stand-alone or built-in braai, the critical things to have are a stainless steel, height-adjustable grid (so you can control the heat) and a tray at the bottom to catch the ash (so cleaning is easier). A kettle braai (like a Weber) is fantastic, but since the grid isn’t adjustable, you do need to get your timing (with regards to when you put your meat on) exactly right.
How and when should you prepare the meat with spices and marinades?
Firstly, don’t feel like you need to spice or marinate meat too much – often just plain salt and pepper does the trick. If you do use a marinade though, rather baste (paint it on) during cooking toward the end of the braai session to prevent sauces that are high in sugar or tomatoes from burning. And if you are going to spice, do so while you’re braaing on the second- or third-last turn, or rub it in at least an hour before you braai. The reason for this is that salt draws out moisture so you need to give the meat sufficient time to reabsorb it (so that it’s not dry and tough).
What are the different types of braai materials available, and in what situation would you use each?
The options are gas, wood, charcoal (carbonised wood) and briquettes (charcoal residue that’s been compressed into shapes). What you use depends on what you want to do.
- Gas: this is definitely one of the easiest ways to braai – it’s simple to control, and the fire is ready the second you turn on the switch. Gas is great if you’re braaing indoors (eg: in bad weather) where an open fire would be dangerous. There’s a lot of stigma about a gas braai not being a real South African braai, but really, there’s nothing wrong with it.
- Wood: a wood fire makes the best braai because it imparts the most flavour and is just more fun. It’s great for a lengthy social get-together or a boys’ weekend. Though, it’s harder to control, and it’s more difficult to get the exact temperature you want.
Note: heavy, dense hardwoods, like mopane, kameeldoring, rooikrans or even Cape vines, are the best choice because they form good embers after burning. Light woods, like pine, should be avoided as they don’t produce nice coals.
- Charcoal: charcoal is great for fast, convenient braaing as it’s an easy-to-use fuel form and lights very quickly.
- Briquettes: this is the best, if not only, option to use in a kettle braai because briquettes are an efficient fuel form and a rather exact science (they’re great for getting the right heat at the desired time). They can also be used in very small amounts and retain heat longer than charcoal does.
What sort of materials can be used to start the fire, and what situation would each be best for?
There are many options for getting a fire going (below), but the secret is to find something that’s going to light easily and stay lit for a while.
- Firelighters (small flammable tablets):this is the most obvious option today. Quality firelighters light easily and will burn for 10 minutes or more, so if you have these handy, this is the best choice.
- Kindling (twigs and sticks): if you don’t have firelighters, or want to be a bit of a boy scout, then go for the old option of kindling. The key is to bunch up or tie newspaper in a knot, light it, then place small twigs on it and replace these with thicker and thicker logs.
- Gel: as a rule of thumb, just steer clear of gel. You can’t see if it is lit, sometimes it burns too quickly, sometimes not at all – really, it’s just a gimmick.
- Other: if firelighters or kindling aren’t an option, or you just want to play around, you can try things like cooking oil inside a cardboard egg carton, kids crayons, lint stuffed into an empty toilet roll, a Coke bottle filled with sand and a few drops of petrol, or even a candle and old sock!
Any tips for building a really brilliant wood, charcoal or briquette-based fire?
Remember, fire needs oxygen to keep going. So, for a charcoal or briquette braai, light the firelighter first and let it burn for a good 20 seconds before throwing some, not all, of the pieces on. If you don’t do this, you could smother the flames. For a wood fire, light the firelighters and build a square stack of wood around them (place two logs parallel to each other, then place another two perpendicular to these on top, and so on). You could also pack the wood in a tepee form, but the risk is, if one log burns through, the whole stack could collapse.
How can you determine when the fire is ready to put the meat on the braai?
There’s no hard and fast rule, and the best way to get a feel for this is just to braai more often. One way to do it though is to hold your open hand above the grid and feel the heat: if you can keep your hand there for 5 seconds before it gets too hot, then you’re about ready for steak; if you can keep your hand there for about 7 seconds, then you’re ready for boerewors; and if you can survive around 10 seconds, then you can put chicken on (chicken needs a colder fire). In terms of how the fire should look, if you’ve used wood, there must be no more flames, only embers; if you’ve used charcoal or briquettes, they must have turned completely grey (ie: you shouldn’t be able to see any black).
And what about turning the meat? How do you know when to flip it?
The key thing is obviously to turn the meat before it blackens. As a general rule though, less is more – flip it less to avoid losing the juices to evaporation (the exception is boerewors, which cooks more evenly if you turn it more). For a steak, the best is to put it on the fire and let it braai on one side, then flip it over after a few seconds and let it braai on the other, then turn it over a third time and wait for the juices to seep to the surface. This is an indication to turn it again, so flip it for a fourth time, wait for the juices to come through again and then take it off the fire.
How do you know when your meat is cooked to your liking and ready to come off the braai?
Again, there’s no set rule, and some of the rules of thumb out there are total myths – different cuts, different sizes and different thicknesses are going to feel and look different. For steak, you can slice it slightly and look at the colour inside; plus, remember, the squishier your meat, the more rare it is, and the firmer it is, the more well done. Chicken is generally ready when the juices run clear, and boerewors is done when you can snap it easily with the tongs. Also bear in mind that different meats have different cooking times, and you ideally want everything ready at the same time. To make sure all the items are done simultaneously, throw the chicken on first at the edge of the fire, then put the boerewors and chops on, and then throw the steak on last at the centre of the grid.
Once the meat has been taken off the braai, is there anything that must be done before eating or serving it?
Yes, steak should be left to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. This is to let it reabsorb some of its juices and continue cooking a little (because steak keeps cooking on the plate, sometimes it’s actually best to remove it from the fire a bit before it’s done to your liking). Otherwise, everything else can be eaten straight off the braai.
Right, so the meat is done. Now, what are a few classic braai side dishes that can be prepared to accompany it?
Even a few of the standard braai side dishes can be done on the fire. Some options include:
- Braaied potatoes: wrap them in foil, throw them in the coals, and smear some butter on after they’re done (you can also use sweet potatoes and add some butter and honey before they go in the foil).
- Garlic mushrooms: season large black mushrooms with garlic, salt and pepper; add cheese; wrap them in foil; and braai them in the coals.
- Garlic bread: to prevent garlic bread from burning, either cook it in the coals right at the end of the braai session and turn often, or put it on the side of the grid at the start of the braai and remove it only after the meat is done.
- Braaibroodjie (grilled sandwich): this side dish is about as South African as it gets. Just make sure you tie up the sandwich like a parcel using cotton string so that the contents don’t fall into the fire when you turn it.
- Salad: potato salad is a braai classic, but a regular green salad always works well too.
- Alcohol: you can’t braai without beer.
To round off, are there any important ‘braaing dos and don’ts’ to remember?
- Don’t sit back and tell the person braaing how to cook the meat. If you don’t have the tongs in your hand, then keep your opinions to yourself.
- If you’re invited to someone else’s braai, do bring your own meat, unless you’re explicitly told not to.
- Don’t be wary of the red stuff you see in your meat and overcook it – it’s not blood; it’s all of the yummy juices.
- Do have a good time. The irony is braaing is not actually about the food or the cooking; you can get very technical and follow this and that rule, but the most important thing is just to enjoy yourself with good friends.
Looking for a fine perch on which to fire up the coals now that you’ve honed your skills? Have a gander at our guide to top braai spots in Cape Town.
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