Adventures in souvlaki-ing: chapter one

It’s become a kind of mini-tradition for me to post a picture of my first souvlaki of the summer to social media as a celebration of summer in Greece. Three years ago today, I posted this:

For obvious reasons, I won’t be going to Greece this summer, for the first time since 1998. It depresses me, so I’ve been doing research on how to make souvlaki in my backyard here in Colorado. (Note: never order souvlaki from any restaurant outside of Greece. It will be awful). It won’t be the real thing, for a variety of reasons, mostly the ingredients but also the absence of ice-cold Φιξ. I thought that my experience might be useful for some of my American friends and fellow souvlaki lovers, so here goes.

First, the meat: after consulting a bunch of videos about making souvlaki, I decided to start with Boston Butt. A lot of traditional Greek souvlaki seems to be made from the neck (λαιμό) or from pork belly (πανσέτα), but the key is to get a good mix of fat and meat so that the souvlaki stays moist. The guys at Whole Foods tried to convince us not to get boston butt for grilled meat, which just confirms that Americans don’t understand meat on a stick.

Step two was grilling. (Most places don’t season the meat until after the grilling is finished, so I did the same). I used our gas grill, which is sub-optimal, and I quickly realized that the arrangement of the grill was also not what I needed:

Typically when you grill souvlaki, the ends of the skewers are off the flame, allowing them to be easily turned, and the grill perpendicular to the souvlaki, like so:


I ended up turning my souvlakia around on the grill so that they grilled properly, but it made the skewers impossible to touch. Once I got them off the flame, I hit them with flaked sea salt (Maldon) and Greek oregano from Methana, and plenty of lemon juice. The result was actually pretty good:

This was before I added the lemon

These souvlakia were decent. I’d give them a ‘B’ (Sarah gave them a ‘B+’). The mix of meat and fat was good, and they weren’t dry. The next time, I’m going to try the following tweaks:

  • soak the skewers (the kalamakia) for longer, so they don’t burn
  • oil the grill so that the meat doesn’t stick to it
  • salt the meat before I grill it. This is not traditional, but my souvlakia needed more salt and seasoning
  • cook them on a medium flame and then increase the heat at the end to make sure that the fat crisps up properly (this time, I started with a high heat and finished the souvlakia on lower heat to cook them through)
  • hit them with more salt immediately after I take them off the grill.

I’ll report back once I’ve made these tweaks. Of course, to do it right I should really just use wood charcoal instead of gas, which is convenient but the flavor is bad.

4 thoughts on “Adventures in souvlaki-ing: chapter one

  1. They look like they turned out brilliantly.

    One thing I have noticed in some of the souvlatzidika (where they forgo using a marinade) that they salt the meat and leave it in the fridge for a long while before hand. A sort of dry brine. This way you need less salt to penetrate deeper into the meat, it is a good compromise. You still get a lot of rendered fat and a good crispy outer layer.

  2. Wonderful. Great advice on cuts!
    On salt: Samin Nosrat, whom I like a lot, advocates dry salt brine partly to de-moisturize the exterior of the meat, permitting it to brown better. I have not looked for photos of her grilling, but some of the same principles at work with her pan-fried steak:
    – which is of course not reverse-seared.
    There’s also J. Kendri Lopez-Alt of Seriouseats, another wonderful writer. He’s one of several who’s begun to advocate putting mayonnaise on grilled meat. I know, that sounds weird. And I’ve never got round to doing it, but I wonder if it would help with souvlaki:

    “Functionally, we can think of mayonnaise as consisting of three ingredients: Along with fat and water, there is also egg protein. As the mayonnaise on the surface of a piece of meat cooks, its water content eventually evaporates away, breaking the emulsion and leaving behind a thin, evenly distributed layer of fat, as well as a very, very thin coating of egg protein.:
    … It’s difficult to work with sweet sauces like barbecue or teriyaki, which have a tendency to burn as your meat grills. Mayo solves this problem by diluting and coating the sugars with fat and egg protein. Combining a sweet sauce with mayonnaise before rubbing it on the meat allows you to grill as hot as you like without risk of burning. Also, that sauce flavor really sticks to the meat.”

    On vulnerable thin cuts pays off particularly well, he says.

    These are add-ons. Your process is admirable as is, I think.

  3. It is 05:30 and you have me drooling. Last Fall I bought a mincing machine. I have tried various parts of a pig for sausage – pansetes definitely rule and neck is a distant second, other parts a never again. Season then fridge for at least 12 hours before cooking. Anise is good for a change up.

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