In South Africa braaing is 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. “Braaing is in every South Africans blood, there’s just something about grilling meat outdoors that appeals to everyone, regardless of their economic status, race or cultural background” says Craig Hutchison, CEO Engel & Völkers Southern Africa.
Be it for a birthday, Christmas, farewell, welcome home, or simply to get a few friends together, any occasion is an acceptable reason to light the fire, and any day is a good braai day – there are few things we love as much; it is all about the experience, the company and the quality of the food.
With the warmer months finally upon us, many might be in the market for a new braai and it is worth-while to consider all the options before you buy. We look at the fuel and the apparatus’ available for the perfect braai to help you make an informed decision:
Wood or Charcoal?
Wood was formerly the most widely-used braai fuel, however with our busy schedules these days the use of charcoal has increased due to its convenience. We have 3 options available to us to get that fire going; wood, charcoal (carbonised wood) and briquettes (charcoal residue that’s been compressed into shapes). What you use will depend on the occasion and how much time you have.
Undoubtedly the best braai is with wood, there is no comparison to the flavour of your meat and it is great for a lengthy social get-together. When food is grilled over wood, a compound called Guaiacol is released, this is the smoky spicy aroma compound produced when you use heat to break down lignin, which gets infused in the meat. The wood smoke goes into the meat or pot, giving it that unique flavour, which you can never get from charcoal or gas. For this reason we still remain fans of the classic wood fire.
We are reliant on fire as both a heat source in winter, and for entertainment. Different trees provide us with wood, with different qualities that contribute to the fire. It is the density and moisture content that determines its favourability; some types have too much moisture or are too dense and do not burn in a satisfactory manner.
Wood should have been given at least a year in which to dry out, leaving it with less than 20% moisture content. Hardwoods are very dense; they have more potential heat energy per volume of firewood. Therefore they tend to be the best firewood types for heat and for cooking. However, they are more difficult to get ignited, usually cost more, and take longer to dry than softwood.
For every wood-burning braai enthusiast out there, you’ll find someone who’s every bit as passionate about using charcoal. Charcoal is great for a fast, convenient braai as its easy-to-use and lights very quickly. Briquettes is the best option to use in a kettle braai, because they can be used in small amounts and retain heat for longer than charcoal pieces.
In the end it all depends on your requirements. Wood for “geseligheid” with friends till the coals are ready, and charcoal when braaing for the family and you need to get it done quickly. So go ahead and stand behind whichever method you prefer – the choice is yours.
Popular wood options:
- Sekelbos – Is very popular, extremely dry and hardy. Commonly found throughout the country, and is, without a doubt, the best to use as it gives off intense heat, burns incredibly long, and also imparts a lovely smoky flavour to the meat.
- Black Wattle – Easy to light, lasts extremely long, and provides that glowing coal. It is a bit harder to find and will be a little more expensive than Blue Gum.
- Blue Gum – Not endemic to South Africa and it is often a little wet. The resin also makes it burn out faster than the Black Wattle.
- Mopane – Indigenous to SA, and is the braai king next to the Sekelbos. Is very dry and hardy, and makes extremely hot coals in very little time, and stays hot for a very long time.
- Kameeldoring – Has the lowest moisture content, is extremely dry and heavy. It takes long to burn out and creates a large amount of hot burning coals. Almost smokeless and has a natural musky fragrance.
- Rooikrans – Very popular in the Western Cape; It usually comes in log shapes and is also a great hardwood for a braai.
- Apple wood – Difficult to come by, but is a great source of firewood. It is ideal for a pizza oven or for smoking. It has its own sweet aroma that is known to flavour the food.
Heavier, more dense wood, is ideal wood for a slower braai, especially if you are not in a hurry to get the fire going and want to enjoy fire making and a few cold ones while doing so.
Hard wood burns at a higher temperature for longer, this is partly due to the fact that the longer wood burns for the hotter it gets. Hard/dense wood will also leave ample time to cook and to restart the fire at a later stage in case someone arrives a little late.
Dense wood is it is usually more expensive and hard to get at times but in the end because it burns for longer, you will use less and it’ll probably work out to be the same amount of money but with a better outcome. Use soft wood for a camp fire where it can burn out quick after you’re done and it makes for a great high flame bonfire.
Which type of braai to buy?
Each person has their own favourite, and depending on the occasion and what needs to be cooked, will be the deciding factor of which braai is better to use.
Standard Wood Braai
These are for honest-to-goodness braaiers, who just need hot coals and good meat. The most important feature is that it has a sturdy height-adjustable metal grid to control the heat, and an ash tray underneath for easy clean-ups. You’ll find all shapes and sizes, from portable units that are ideal for suburban balconies or picnic outings, to the elaborate built-in models.
- Meat has that smoky flavour
- Cheap and convenient
- Messy to clean
- No temperature control
- Open fire can be dangerous depending on the environment you in
Kettle braai / Weber
Kettle braais have become a popular choice, the sizes range from those suitable for cosy meals for two to much bigger models. When making your choice, look for good, thick metal and enamelling and check that the lid fits snugly. The golden rule is to resist the temptation to lift the lid to prod the meat at all costs. The vents in the lid and in the bowl help to control the heat. These braais are a good choice if you like doing big chunks of meat, or whole chickens, as they distribute the heat more evenly. There’s also a wide range of accessories available, such as smokers, rotisseries and griddles, which allow you to be more adventurous.
- Perfect for outdoor convection cooking
- 2 cooking methods available (Direct and Indirect)
- Lid controls fire flare-ups
- Many feel that it does not give the same ambiance as a traditional braai
This range continues to win converts because of its versatility of various cooking methods. They have plenty of accessories to choose from and are made from cast-aluminium; a sturdy construction should be a major consideration in making your selection. Gas grills have domed lids to ensure heat distribution, and thermostats which allow you to cook different dishes, at the same time, at different temperatures.
- Faster and convenient
- Temperature control on various levels
- Have a far greater amount of add-ons/accessories
- Can’t achieve that original smoky braai flavour
- Supply and demand – Gas is not always available
- Price of Gas – notoriously more expensive than wood/charcoal
Before making a decision to use either charcoal, wood or gas, one needs to answer these 4 simple questions:
- How much time do you have?
- How much meat, etc. must you braai?
- How many variations of meat/sides do you have to cook at various temperatures?
- How good you are at working with wood and charcoal/how much effort are you willing to put in?