What makes hardwood grilling better? October 14, 2010
In this inaugural post, I think it's important to answer the most fundamental question underlying the entire premise of the blog: what makes hardwood grilling better than your "average" American barbecuing experience?
Before I get into the specifics of what makes hardwood grilling better, I must first preface this entire discussion with a few caveats. First, hardwood grilling is not (and cannot be) for everyone. Many people--due to lack of outdoor space, local fire codes, limited access to hardwoods, or myriad other reasons--simply cannot cook in this method. While such people might inevitably enjoy an authentic asado experience, it doesn't mean they can regularly grill in this manner. Second, hardwood grilling is not easy. It is not convenient. It does not come with an auto-light button which produces an immediate flame and gets your grill hot within a matter of minutes. It takes patience, attention to detail, trial-and-error method, and wisdom gained through frustrating failures. In a culture where we have begun to place greater emphasis on speed and efficiency in every aspect of our daily lives, the "slowness" of hardwood grilling can be an major obstacle for those wishing for a quick meal off the grill. Lastly, similar to the second point, hardwood grilling is not practical for every meal, even for the most die-hard asado lovers. Due to the preparation involved, the amount of time it takes to get coals ready for grilling, and the lengthy cooking times of the larger cuts of meat, it is not an ideal culinary experience for everyday eating. In fact, an asado is typically prepared on weekends or special occasions in South America for this very reason. If you're in the mood to quickly barbecue a steak or a couple of chicken breasts after a long day's work, you're just not going to turn to hardwood grilling. All that said, when time and patience allow, there is no better barbecue experience than a true hardwood asado.
Hardwood grilling is the oldest and most natural form of cooking. It's not hard to imagine our pre-historic ancestors grilling the day's hunt over a hardwood fire. There were no propane tanks, compressed charcoal briquettes, or lighter fluid. These modern inventions have certainly increased the popularity of grilling by making it easier, faster, and more convenient, but it doesn't mean it's better. Hardwood coals are the ideal fuel for open-air grilling because they produce excellent coals which burn hotter and longer than other materials and impart a light smoke that adds flavor and character to the meat. The beauty of hardwood grilling is its emphasis on the most basic elements of cooking a meal: wood, fire, air, food.
Hardwood grilling produces better flavored food. One of the most salient criticisms of food grilled on propane gas grills and charcoal briquettes with lighter fluid is that one can taste the chemical flavors in the end product. These chemicals are transferred to the meat during the cooking process. Not only does this reduce the quality of the flavor, but you're ingesting these chemicals into your digestive system. Though smoke is certainly produced during hardwood grilling, these are natural smoke elements that enhance the quality of the food and do not leave a chemical or synthetic aftertaste.
Hardwood grilling allows for a greater variety in flavor. Admittedly, hickory and mesquite chips can be used in gas and briquette grilling to impart flavor, but if you're looking for the greatest variety in flavor imparted to the meat, then hardwood grilling produces the most options. In South America, the most popular hardwoods for grilling are quebracho, coronilla, and lenga. In North America, oak is probably your best bet for hardwood coals, but maple, birch, and hickory also work well. For a light whiff of flavor, some prefer to use hardwoods from fruit/nut trees such as applewood, cherry, and walnut. Granted, we are talking about subtle differences in the taste of meat. One is not going to immediately distinguish the variations in flavor from oak to birch to cherry right away.
When combined with natural foods, such as grass-fed beef, it produces an unrivaled dining experience. Growing up in the U.S., I liked beef but never loved it. I thought its flavor was somewhat bland and the texture mealy. It wasn't until I had my first taste of free range, grass-fed Argentine beef that I realized what I been missing my whole life. The beef in Argentina, arguably the best in the world, is rich, savory, and full a flavor. A mere sprinkling of some sea salt is also you need for seasoning and the beef speaks for itself. Admittedly, finding access to larger cuts of free range, grass-fed beef can be difficult, but there are certain purveyors such as Gaucho Ranch and La Estancia here in Miami that offer top quality products. The same can be said for organic chicken, pork, lamb. Whenever possible, I try to obtain local and sustainable meat products for my grill. It tastes better, is better for you, and is better for the environment.
The art of hardwood grilling teaches patience and attention to detail. I have fallen in love with not only the end-product of asado, but the entire process. In a world of fast food, hardwood grilling is anything but. In fact, I have recently become a large proponent of the slow foods lifestyle. For me, the patience required in lighting a fire, waiting an hour for coals to be ready, and then waiting 1-3 hours for the meat to be cooked teaches me that the best things in life are worth waiting for. I find myself relishing the quality of meal so much more when I have been its steward from start to finish. The attention to detail needed in all aspects of preparing and executing an asado quiets my mind and brings me peace. If, during the process, I can slow my life down to have a conversation with a friend or loved one or simply enjoy a beautiful day outside, all the better.
The above reasons only scratch the surface of why a true hardwood grilling experience is better. As Gaucho Garcia progresses and grows, the benefits of this method of cooking will become more and more evident. For those of you lucky enough to have experienced an authentic asado, what do you like most it? What do you think makes hardwood grilling better?