The Art Of the South African Braai & How to Braai The Perfect Steak

Braai isn’t just the South African word for barbeque. It is far more than that: a national institution, a cultural identity and a cooking method that has been brought to a fine art by the men of South Africa (while women can and do braai perfectly well, it’s generally their chance to let the men take charge of the cooking, while they relax and merely throw together a few salads and clear up after the men…!).

Where else but South Africa could a public holiday be dubbed National Braai Day, and the braai be so enthusiastically embraced that everyone has forgotten the original reason for the public holiday. It’s Heritage Day by the way, and how fitting that it should be dedicated to the braai – part of the cultural heritage of all South Africans whatever their race or background.

To understand a bit more how the braai in South Africa differs from the American barbecue or the Australian barbie we have to start with the fire. Only wood will do. Forget gas barbeques – you will be met by cries of derision from any braai experts in your midst. Charcoal or briquettes are also second best. It must be wood, preferably one of the alien invader species that South Africa is infested with, so that you feel good about your eco-friendly stance. Rooikrans is best, burning steadily and retaining the heat, but Port Jackson will do in a pinch, just build a bigger fire.

The fire size is important too. Even if you are just planning on braaiing a few steaks it is best to build a roaring inferno. You want plenty of hot coals to grill your meat to perfection. If the coals are too few or have burned down too much you won’t get that sizzling perfection that seals in the juices and caramelises the outsides. In fact many braaimasters light two fires: one to cook on first and the second to provide more coals as the first ones die down. This is especially handy if you are cooking several different things or for many people.

Part of the braai master’s expertise lies in judging the point when the coals are ready to cook on. Too hot and flames will spurt up again as soon as any fat drips onto the coals. Too cool and you know the story. It helps having a braai arrangement that allows you to raise and lower the grid. For some it is a simple matter of adding or removing bricks from their fire surround. Others have cleverly designed grid supports with notches to lower or raise the grids. Everyone has their own favourite design, but the main thing is that you can have the meat at the right distance from the coals so that it cooks quickly without burning to a cinder.

How To Braai The Perfect Steak

Good steak is a treat, something to splash out on for special occasions or to spoil the family with on a quiet weekend. So when you do spend money on a really good piece of steak you want to make sure you cook it to perfection. The only way to do that, especially if you are in South Africa, is to braai it.

Grilling steak over a bed of searing hot coals seals in the juices, caramelises the outside (caramelise, not carbonise!) and adds a gentle wood smoke flavour to complement the succulence of tender meat. When cooked properly you don’t even need to marinate the steaks, though you can if you want, as they will have plenty of flavour just with a light seasoning of salt and pepper.

So on to the tips on how to cook the perfect steak:

  1. Make sure that your steaks are at room temperature before you cook them. Take them out of the fridge at least an hour ahead of time and leave them covered in the shade to warm gradually. Defrost frozen meat the day before in the fridge and then bring slowly to room temperature.
  2. Build a big enough fire, bigger than you think. Even for a few steaks just to feed your family you want a good hot bed of coals, so don’t stint on the initial fire. Wood is best – stack it high and let it burn down to glowing red coals. If you have to use charcoal, use at least half a bag. Start cooking as soon as the coals are ready – red hot and glowing as the flames have died down.
  3. Get to know the height of your grid. About 10 cm is ideal but anything from 5-15 cm will work, you just have to adjust the times of cooking accordingly.
  4. The ideal timing for medium rare steaks cut to a thickness of 2.5-3cm (and medium rare is considered the only proper way to eat good steak in South Africa!) is 7 minutes over hot coals on a 10cm high grid. They should be turned three times, so that they have 2 minutes on each side first off, then another 1.5 minute s on each side. If your grid is higher than 10cm, cook for slightly longer, if lower for slightly less time. The same for steaks that are thicker or thinner than the ideal thickness.
  5. Season the meat after it has been turned once. You don’t want to add salt long before cooking as this will draw out the juices.
  6. Always use tongs rather than a fork to turn the steaks, so that you don’t pierce the meat and lose the juices.
  7. After cooking give the meat a few minutes to ‘rest’ before serving. The juices will settle. Keep the meat warm in a warmed pot or dish while it rests and don’t leave it too long – 5 minutes is plenty.

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