You’d think something as common as a braai would be second nature to us South Africans but I realised just how divisive the subject of a good braai can be. Everyone thinks they’re an expert at it! It’s not really as straight cut as people may think it is. The type of fire used, to marinate or not to marinate, high heat or medium heat, red meat first or chicken first, dry spices or wet basting sauce…there are countless debates on this topic.
A few years ago the concept of commercialising a braai and turning it into a daily meal option and not just a weekend gathering around a flame saw the mushrooming of the township shisa nyama. Literally the term means “burn meat”.
As a chef, I always try to do things a bit differently. Instead of using a gas braai or charcoal I always recommend people use wood. The reason is that a wood flame adds character to the meat, it smokes your meat whilst cooking it makes it taste a whole lot better…and meaning you need fewer spices and flavourings.
Your meat is always dry? The reason is that we’re using the wrong cut or the meat has been sliced wrongly. The cut you use for a braai is key, always go for juicy and fatty cuts, the reason is that the fat in the steak melts off as the meat is grilled, resulting in a more succulent steak. Rib-eye steak is my favourite cut for this. Make sure it’s cut at a thickness of about 2 fingers. The thickness of the steak is also important to get a juicy steak. Too thin means it will dry out. Oh, and you shouldn’t marinate red meat! By marinating red meat you’re removing all the natural juices in it and actually drying it out, the salts in marinades draw out the natural moisture in the meat. When your fire is at its hottest, grill the red meat until it is well browned and then remove it and allow it to rest on the side until the heat of the fire has decreased and then return it to the flame to finish cooking, the only season after this process, you’ll have a naturally tastier and softer steak. For the kids, pork ribs are always popular. Just make sure you have extra basting sauce to keep basting the meat.
Also, don’t shy away from seafood on the grill. Prawns and crayfish are awesome on a braai and very quick to do. Just marinate them in garlic, butter and lemon juice. They need a medium heat fire though. Whole fish is best wrapped in foil, be generous with the butter and season it well, sprinkle some lemon juice and wrap it tightly in foil. Fish only need about 15 minutes on a braai. I stick it right into the hot coals.
Some people boil the chicken first and then baste it to braai on the fire. Rather marinate your chicken overnight in a marinade that has an acid (like lemon juice or vinegar), oil and spices. What is the secret to juicy braaied chicken? An oven! You use the flame just to grill the outside of the chicken and brown it and then you place the chicken in the oven to finish it off. If you don’t have an oven nearby you can achieve the same concept by covering your braai with the chicken on the grid in thick foil for a few minutes, this creates the same oven effect.
You don’t always have to eat braai meat with pap! A couscous salad is quick, healthier and won’t leave you feeling heavy. You can also grill off the sweet potato and sweet corn on the braai. Rub your sweet corn with butter afterwards or if you’re really trying to be fancy you can even try blue cheese!
One of the things that amuse me when I’m invited to a braai is observing just how people go about with their tools and fire starting. I try my best to keep my hands clean and avoid conflict by sitting as far away from the braai or group of people attempting to braai as possible.
There really isn’t that much that you need when braaing. The essentials that one should always have though are:
- Metal tongs
- A wire brush
- A basting brush
- Wood or logs
- Empty containers to store your meat in when done
- A dry clean cloth
- A small side table
- Your braai stand!
That’s it really. You don’t need any more than that. Fancy gadgets and cool looking tools don’t really add much to how well your meat will taste in the end.
There really isn’t that much to a braai. If you understand the basics of cooking then you’ll understand the fundamentals of making an awesome braai. There is so much one can do on a braai besides just grilling meat. You can bake bread, you can cook pancakes, make desserts and you can even make coffee.
Best way to start a fire?
- Use wood. ALWAYS use wood. The best kind of woods is hardwood. 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.
- Build a pyramid-like structure. Stack the wood in a square formation and keeping building up, maybe about 4 levels. You firelighter should be in the middle of the stack. Light it and move away. That’s it. In about 30 minutes your fire should be roaring. Use a good set of heavy-duty tongs to move the wood around once the pyramid collapses on itself.
- To test if a fire is ready hold your hand above it, if you can count to 10 without moving your hand away, your fire is cool/hot enough to grill meat on.
What meat is best for outside cooking?
Chicken: I love grilled chicken. This is the only meat I would marinate for a braai. The others you only baste once on the braai, not before. Salt absorbs and removes moisture. When you marinate red meats your final product on the braai will be dry. You can braai a whole chicken by butterflying it and making it a “flattie” but this tends to leave some parts more cooked than others. I always portion my chicken into pieces before braaing.
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. Rather buy it directly from a butcher and watch him make your boerewors as you watch.
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. T-bone steak is also awesome on a braai. Generally, meats with high amounts of fat or are still on the bone work well on braais.
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.
Is my meat ready?
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 rarer 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, the steak should be left to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. This is to let it reabsorb some of its juices and let the proteins in the meat relax 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.
Can veggies be cooked on a braai?
Yes, you can grill mushrooms, potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut and just about any kind of starchy vegetable on a braai. Place in foil and add some butter and herbs. Make sure the foil is tight around the veggies and place them in the coals towards the end of the braai when the coals have cooled down.
Red meat: Steak
To braai the perfect steak at your own home is one of those things you should be able to do with ease. As long as you stick to a few basic guidelines and pay attention to what you are doing, you will master this skill in no time.
Once you can comfortably braai an awesome steak at home, this knowledge, skill and experience will be your foundation for doing it anywhere else, in whatever strange braaing conditions life might throw at you.
To braai the perfect steak, the meat that you are braaing has to be of a certain quality. However well you braai it, a bad piece of meat is never going to turn out great. The following foundational principles will equip you with a culture of excellent steak braaing that you can use for the rest of your life.
The steak should be at room temperature by the time it goes onto the fire.
- If it’s in the fridge, take the steak out 20 minutes before you want to braai it, and leave it in the shade or indoors. (When you make the effort to buy great steaks, you are probably not going to freeze them, but if the steaks you want to braai are frozen, transfer them from the freezer to the fridge at least a day in advance to allow them to thaw slowly.)
- It’s already 100% protein, so cover it with a cloth to keep the flies and bugs away.
You need plenty of extremely hot coals.
- If you are making a real fire with real wood, and this is the best way to braai, make a big fire from the outset. Do not make a medium-sized fire and add more wood later. By the time the second batch of wood has burnt out, the coals from the first batch will be half dead. Once the meat goes onto the fire, the process will be over quickly, so if you want to stand around the fire and discuss life with your guests for a few hours before you eat, make a medium-sized fire by all means. But when you intend to braai, add lots of wood, wait until it’s burnt out, then braai.
- If the petrol station only had wet wood available and you have to use charcoal, light quite a lot of it. For a small braai, consider half a bag.
- If you are wondering whether you have enough heat, then the answer is probably no. For these easy steps to a perfect steak to work, you need peace of mind that your coals are extremely hot. This is essential.
The exact height of your grid is not important. Anything between 5 and 15 centimetres is fine.
- When you braai steaks at your own home, always braai them on the same height and know exactly what that height is.
- When you are braaing at a new location, compare the height of the grid to the height of the grid at home, and adjust the braaing time accordingly.
Steaks should be done medium-rare.
- If you really prefer your steaks rare and aren’t just saying it to one-up everybody else ordering medium-rare, then you shouldn’t be ordering rare steaks anyway. There are two great dishes for you to try – steak tartare and beef carpaccio.
- If you prefer your steaks medium, then start buying superior quality steaks, learn how to braai them better, and acquire the taste of enjoying them medium-rare.
- If you like your steaks medium well or well done, then why exactly are you reading this? You’re probably quite capable of messing the meat up all by yourself.
- If one of your guests asks for medium, and you have prepared enough extremely hot coals to start with, then there will be quite enough heat to get their steak medium by the time everybody else has sat down and been served. This should not happen too often, as most classy people nowadays are aware that steak should be enjoyed medium-rare. If any of your guests want their steak well done, refuse.
Take note of the time when the steaks go onto the grid and take them off after about 7 minutes.
- Steaks cut to a thickness of 2.5 cm to 3 cm, braaied on extremely hot coals, and at a grid height of 10 cm, take about 7 minutes in total to become medium-rare.
- Break up the 7 minutes as follows: After 2 minutes turn the steaks for the first time, then turn them again after another 2 minutes; then turn them after 1 and 1⁄2 minutes, with a final turn another 1 and 1⁄2 minutes later. They are now ready.
- It’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone else to keep the time while you do the work.
Use braai tongs, not a fork, to turn the meat. A fork will make holes in the meat, and you might lose some juice.
The meat should be dry when it goes onto the fire; do not baste until both sides of the meat have been over the coals for 2 minutes each.
- As the heat from the coals seals the outside of the meat facing downwards, certain chemical reactions occur in the meat which develops part of the flavour. If you baste the meat before those chemical reactions have happened, the basting will boil and steam the side of the meat. Your steak will have less braai taste.
Meat needs to ‘rest’ a bit after the braai before you eat it.
- This lets the juices settle down and not all run out when you slice the meat.
- Watch out that the steak does not end up cold by the time you eat it. If you heat up the plates you will be eating from, this should not be a problem.
- By the time everyone has sat down and been served, the meat has rested enough.
- Do not put the steaks in an aluminium braai bowl with lots of other meat and then into an oven where they will steam for another hour while some fool is braaing his frozen chicken. Your steaks will be ruined.