Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Santa Maria, Uruguayan, and Argentine Grills, The Differences

Gary Knackstedt, NorCal Ovenworks Inc.
 Hello to all that I've talked to, and those who haven't called yet. One of the most common questions that I am asked is, "What's the difference between a Santa Maria, Uruguayan, and Argentine Grill?"

Santa Maria BBQ originated when farmers in the Santa Ynez Valley  dug a pit, built a fire using a local hardwood, and threaded pieces of top sirloin onto willow saplings. It turns out that the hardwood native to the Santa Ynez Valley, commonly called red oak, is actually , Quercus agrifolia, Coast Live Oak, which is an evergreen oak that produces smoke with a lovely and intense taste and aroma. This is the true key to Santa Maria Style BBQ, although other oak species can produce excellent results.

When designing a grill for Santa Maria Style BBQ, there are a number of things to consider, the first of which is that the most smoke is produced over a relatively immature fire of red oak if you are lucky enough to have it, or some other species of oak if you live outside of California. The second is that an immature fire burns hot,
NorCal Ovenworks' Santa Maria Grill
and the third is that thick chunks of beef are generally what is cooked on a Santa Maria Style BBQ grill. The high, hot flame of an immature fire is tamed by a deep firebox, one whose depth is at least 14 inches, although I have cooked on fireboxes as deep as 26 inches and absolutely loved the experience. The second thing to consider is temperature control. We put the center of our crank rod 24" above the top of the firebox to allow for low and slow cooking and to prevent/control flarups. Our grate guides descend to 2" above the firebox floor because, eventually, your immature fire will mature into a hot bed of coals, and you can continue to lower the grate of the Santa Maria grill as this happens. Finally, there is an absence of ventilation on NorCal Ovenworks' Santa Maria firebox. We are working to give our customers a long afternoon of grilling, and one of the ways to do this is to slow down the grill by eliminating ventilation of the firebox. Don't over fire your Santa Maria Style Grill, start with 1 20" X 4"  log for the BBQ grill plus 1 log per liner foot of grill. Depending on the species of wood, you may have to add a bit more wood, but too little is better than too much wood.

One of the key differences between Latin American and American cooking is the attitude about beef flavor. Americans often like a heavy smoke flavor, and steak or BBQ sauces on their beef. The Latin American palate is geared toward a beef with a slight smokiness, and contrary to popular belief,
NorCal Ovenworks' Uruguayan Grill
even chimichurri is often frowned upon. The only seasoning on most Latin American beef is salt. The Latin American concept is to cook over hot embers, never over a smokey live fire. In rural locations, this is accomplished by building a bonfire and shoveling the embers from the bonfire under the grill. Later,a section of the grill was dedicated to the production of embers. This brasero can be seen on the left side of the Uruguayan Grill. Temperature is controlled on a Uruguayan Grill by the amount of embers pushed under the grate, and the height of the grate. Our 54" X 27" Uruguayan Grill features a brick lining, and a hanging grill and brasero to allow embers to be moved, unimpeded by grill or brasero legs. An additional benefit of cooking over coals is that it is significantly more difficult to cause a flare up over hot embers than over a live fire.

Cooking oven embers significantly reduces the severity, intensity, and frequency of flareups, but fat
NorCal Ovenworks' "Baby Bear" Model Argentine Grill
is still rendered out in the cooking process. This fat can fall into the hot embers and burn, causing a bitter smoke to be deposited on the meat. The solution to this is a grill designed to channel grease away from the fire with a sloped or slanted "v-grate" into a drip pan. An Argentine Grill consists of a firebox, a brasero for the production of hot embers, and a height adjustable V-grate to channel grease away from the fire. It is very difficult to cause a flareup on an Argentine Grill with all of these features, even when cooking beef shortribs, pork ribs, or bone-in, skin on chicken. This is not to say that Argentine Grills are better than Uruguayan Grills, which are better than Santa Maria Grills. Each of the grill styles can be used to produce great food. The grill is part of the equation, as is the skill of the grill master, the quality of the meat, and the quality of the wood. I might even suggest that the quantity and quality of the wine, and the quality of the friends are also part of the equation.

That's all for now. I wish all of you might have a great week, filled with at least a little sizzle and the scent of burning wood and grilled meat!