Chef Mike gets all gyro-tastic on us this week
I stood mesmerized as the thin, gleaming blade of his 15-inch knife sliced effortlessly through the crispy, caramelized outer layer of meat. Late ’70s-era, Klaus Harmony-esque porn music began to play softly in the back of my mind while a genuinely friendly Greek man with distractingly hairy fingers liberated wafer-thin slices from a seductively rotating cone of meat. The slices fell gracefully into a heap, wooing me through the window of this NYC gyro shop window like the painted women of De Wallen, only much more affordable. I could do nothing but succumb to the call of the gyro.
That night in Greenwich Village I learned what a good American-Greek gyro is supposed to taste like: warm and fluffy pita bread wrapped around a generous helping of thinly sliced meat, fresh tomato, onion and a slathering of tangy tzatziki sauce. I also learned that mispronouncing “gyro” in a NYC Greek gyro shop is a quick way to get six beefy Greek guys to moan simultaneously in disappointment. The correct Greek pronunciation is “yee-rohs”, not “jai-roe” where the “jai” sounds like “pie.” If you disagree, take it up with the Greeks. I’m only here for the meat.
After being smitten with the vertical rotisserie and the twirling holy vortex of meat it produced, I quickly resigned myself to the idea that a respectable version of this spectacular street food could never be created at home. Despite what the Ronco ShowTime Rotisserie promised for four easy payments of $39.99, I was convinced that a proper gyro was out of reach for even a determined home cook like me.
But I was wrong…so wonderfully and spectacularly wrong. It is possible to get that tantalizing and meaty contrast of crispy, salty, tender and juicy at home without having to involve Ronco or a hairy-fingered Greek guy.
Greek-American gyros are made with a large, sausage-like cylinder of seasoned lamb and beef that is slowly roasted on a rotating skewer at a very high temperature, allowing the meat to cook in its own fat for maximum succulence. To recreate this at home we have to solve two issues: texture and the cooking process.
Alton Brown has a recipe for homemade gyro meat that involves compressing puréed meat and seasonings in a loaf pan with a brick. This produces the right internal texture, but since the meat ends up floating in a pool of its own juices, it comes out as a boiled, gray, dry mass with none of the crispiness that is a must for a proper gyro. Close, but sorry, Alton. I think we can do better, and we can do better by paying closer attention to salt and time.
If the meat is salted about two hours before being puréed, it will do a better job of retaining its juices and not turn your gyro loaf into a floater. Imagine meat proteins as the fringe on a floor rug. When salt combines with meat and is left to sit for some time, the salt begins to break down the proteins, causing the ends of the fringe to fray and become tangled up. This creates dreadlocked masses of fringe you can never seem to untangle. It’s an OCD nightmare with rugs, but with meat proteins, the result is a tangled matrix that increases resilience once cooked and helps the meat retain more moisture. That resilient texture is not what you would want for a hamburger or meatloaf, but this is exactly the texture you want for a good gyro.
Another factor in good gyro is temperature, both before and during cooking. Be sure and put the meat into the fridge for an hour or two before you purée it so it gets nice and cold. This will ensure the fats within the meat get chopped into tiny pieces (essentially an emulsion with the fats being suspended within the meat proteins) rather than being smeared throughout the mix. When you cook your gyro loaf, cook it at a relatively low temperature, such as 300°F, to limit the release of juices. And whatever you do, don’t overcook it. When it gets to about 170°, get it out of the oven to rest, cool and hold in those precious juices.
One of the best things about a good American-Greek gyro is the crispy edges created by the wondrous magic of the vertical rotisserie’s red-hot burners. Since I have still not shelled out the big bucks for a home vertical rotisserie, I found that slicing thin pieces off the cooled loaf and putting them under a raging hot broiler until the crispy, caramelized edges appear will give you a very respectable approximation of that holy grail of gyro texture.
Now you’re ready to load up a fluffy pita with your homemade gyro meat, a dollop of bright and tangy tzatziki, some lettuce, tomato and a dash of hot sauce to enjoy, while thinking about the poor suckers mired in their own sea of gyro-less desperation.
Have a heart, make enough to share.
Note: You’re going to need two or three clean tea towels and some string for this recipe. Read through the instructions before you begin so you’ll have everything in advance.
- 1 lb. ground lamb or 85 percent lean ground beef
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp. fresh oregano or 1/2 tsp dried
- 1/2 cup of onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, diced
- 5 slices sliced bacon, diced (putting the slices in the freezer for 30 minutes makes them easier to dice)
Combine the lamb, salt, pepper, and oregano in medium bowl and mix together with your hands until thoroughly blended. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour; overnight is even better to allow the flavors to mix, mingle and get all up in each other’s business.
[Meanwhile, put the yogurt for the tzatziki recipe, below, into a tea towel, gather up the edges and tie together with string then suspend over a bowl in the refrigerator to drain for one hour.]
Make sure your oven rack is in the middle position and preheat the oven to 300°F.
Place the cold meat mixture in the bowl of a food processor along with the onion, garlic, and bacon. Pulse the ingredients until a smooth purée is formed, scraping down the sides with rubber spatula if necessary to make sure every delicious bit is incorporated and smooth.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with two layers of aluminum foil, then form meat mixture into a rectangle approximately two inches high, eight inches long and four inches wide. Keep your hands damp with a little water to keep the meat mixture from sticking.
Bake until the center of the loaf is 155°F or for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes or refrigerate for up to a week.
Meanwhile, make your sauces. (See recipes below)
To build and serve the gyros:
- 4 pieces soft, hand-pulled-style pita (not pocket pita)
- Fresh tomato (chopped or sliced)
- Fresh onion (chopped or sliced)
- Cubed, peeled, and seeded cucumber
Hot sauce (see recipe below)
Preheat your broiler and adjust the broiler rack to its highest position. Slice the cooled gyro loaf into 1/8-to-1/4-inch strips about four inches long and two inches wide. Lay these strips on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a single sheet of aluminum foil (use a new sheet of foil, you stingy bastard) and broil for two minutes or more until the edges are brown and crispy.
Warm the pita bread in the oven. (I put it on an oven rack at the low position while the meat strips are broiling.)
Spread a nice dollop of your desired sauce over each piece of warm bread, then layer on a few strips of meat and top with tomato, onion, and cucumber as you like it. Drizzle with a dash or two (or three or four) of red chili sauce.
Eat before your roommate or the kids come through and devour the rest like locusts.
- 16 ounces plain yogurt
- 1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
- 1/8 tsp. kosher salt
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced or grated on microplane
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 tsp. red wine vinegar
[Place the yogurt in a tea towel, gather up the edges and tie together with string then suspend over a bowl to drain for two hours in the refrigerator, unless you already did this, as instructed above.]
Place the chopped cucumber in another tea towel and squeeze to remove the liquid. Thoroughly blend the drained yogurt, cucumber, salt, garlic, olive oil, vinegar in a mixing bowl. Viola! You have tzatziki sauce.
Yogurt sauce: (an option if you don’t like cucumber)
- 3/4 cup plain yogurt
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1 clove garlic, finely grated on microplane
- 2 tsp. lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. chopped parsley or mint
Combine yogurt, mayonnaise, garlic, lemon juice, and parsley. Season to taste with salt. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Red chili sauce
- 1/2 cup chili sauce (Huy Fong Chili Garlic sauce is my favorite)
- 3 tbsp. white vinegar
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper (more if you like it spicy!)
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl until thoroughly blended.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants, and singlehandedly increased Chattanooga’s meat consumption statistics for three consecutive years. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits