In Argentina, grilling (Argentine Asado) is a ritual that unites all families across the huge span of the Argentine country. It is synonymous with meetings and celebrations. An Argentine Asado can mean lots of things, but the truth is that this centuries-old custom requires some knowledge of meat and the previous step: lighting the fire and ensuring you have the right type of heat to grill!
Properly preparing the fire for the Asado (Barbeque) is one of the most sacred tasks of the Argentine grill. In the article today we will explain how to prepare the fire for an Argentine Asado and why it's so important to get it right the first time!
Traditionally, the fire is lit with wood, although we can also do it with charcoal or a mixture of both. But in view of the traditional aspect of this article, we will explain the authentic way that involves using wood.
There are many grilling houses in Argentina that will use charcoal, and the reason being is that it's faster to combust and creates great embers more efficiently. But the heat from charcoal is very different to the heat from wood.
Here at Argentine Asado, (if you haven’t subscribed to our YouTube channel, you should) we use primarily wood.
Using hard firewood has some major advantages.
When it comes to choosing the right wood for your barbeque, is necessary to select the firewood correctly based on the following criteria:
Nevertheless, the wood used on an Asado has to be primarily very dry, and it has to be a hardwood so that the embers it produces will sustain the heat, and are of better quality.
Softwoods are quickly combusted, don’t provide embers that will retain the heat for a long time and don’t produce sufficient heat.
When it comes to the typology of wood and choosing the right wood for your Asado, given you have based your criteria on what we mentioned before, the following selection of woods is what traditional Argentine Asados use.
This is the list of what Argentinians would call “Leña”. This is the name that is given for each of these 3 types of hardwood:
|Name in Spanish||Name in English||Usage||Photo of the wood|
|Piquillin Firewood||Condalia microphylla||This hard, reddish and fruity wood will be used for traditional horizontal grilling methods, producing a very small amount of flame, but great embers and enriching flavour. It is key that this wood is 100% dry.|
|Quebracho Firewood||Schinopsis lorentzii||This wood is very similar to Piquillin, but with a few key differences, it offers a large flame and tends to combust a little faster than the piquillin. The actual logs are a little larger and have a tannish red Colour. Quebracho is traditionally used for vertical cooking methods such as the “asador” or “cruz” which means cross. This method is like a vertical spit, and meat or animal is cooked vertically, and the flames slowly roast the meat. This is why Quebracho is good, because of the quality of flames and heat.|
|Chañar Firewood||Geoffroea decorticans||The chañar firewood looks a bit like piquillin, with similar proportions. But the key differentiator is the colour. The Chañar firewood is a lighter colour, that doesn’t have that reddish or dark brown colour. It will be closer to a yellow or cream colour. This hardwood is used for grilling in both horizontal and vertical methods. With an emphasis put on the quality of embers and consistency of heat from this hardwood.|
After reviewing this comprehensive list of traditional Argentine firewood used for Asados, you may be asking, but I can’t access any of these types of “leña” or firewood. What are good alternatives?
The best firewoods in reference to heat value, if you can’t access the traditional Argentine firewood are:
These hardwoods will be great alternatives to the traditional Argentine “leña”.
It is essential to refrain from using any fuel to light the wood once you are ready to get the fire going. Fuel or lighters leave an unpleasant taste in the food, disrupt the smoke particles and are dangerous if you cannot control the fire. We do not recommend using any fuel starters or firelighters. We focus on preparation, selection of the wood, the paper/cardboard used to ignite the first flames and most importantly the context.
The first step is to choose the location. Make sure there is good ventilation, fires need oxygen, and then consume it fast, therefore good ventilation is key. You don’t want a strong breeze or a wind! Because that will be surely counterproductive.
The second step is to arrange the wood correctly on the firepit or place you will be lighting the fire. The easiest way to get the fire going is to place them in a pyramid shape. Firstly locate some paper or cardboard at the inner centre of the fire, then position the smallest pieces in the centre on top of the paper; they light faster and will be the ones that support the largest trunks. You can also put pieces of cardboard, pine cones, dry grass or branches, citrus peels, etc., giving the food a vibrant aroma.
It is important to remember that you have to leave a hole in the centre for air circulation since the fire needs oxygen to stay alive. We often call this the pyramid, this will help you design your fire so that you lie the kindling and logs down but all leaning to the top with a small space where oxygen can flow. And the more oxygen that enters, the more powerful the flame will be and the better you will create coals to grill with.
Once the wood is arranged, it is time to light the fire.
Light a few small pieces of wood and leave them in the centre. In this way, the rest of the firewood will start to burn.
To light the fire, put a match to the centre pieces, if you leave a small opening, light the lowest parts first.
When the fire in the centre has lit up well, you have to start arranging the wood so that the more significant pieces also light up, creating a stable growing fire.
Generally, a metal rod (part of the barbecue set) is used to move the wood and arrange it.
An Argentine Asado is cooked over embers. Therefore the goal of your fire is to create a good amount of embers, and as you go through the grilling session you will want to continually stoke your fire so that you are getting consistent amounts of embers for your grill.
Once the firewood has turned into embers, you arrange them under the grill, always leaving enough embers in your original fire to keep it going.
When you're ready to cook, lower the grill and start arranging the meat and vegetables over the embers.
Always be aware of the fat coming off the meat, which makes the flames intensify and can sometimes get out of control.
The magic of an excellent Argentine asador is not only getting good quality meat; the magic is knowing how to light the fire and dominate the embers.