I have never been a grill master. I don’t remember being in that hot position at any of the backyard barbecues, picnics, or holiday-weekend cookouts I’ve been to. Instead, I was busy with the things that go with a meal. I love summer salads, and snacks are my weakness. And you don’t want to know what I would do for a ripe watermelon (on a site like this). But I don’t stand behind the fire very often to take care of the meat and vegetables.
Most of the time, someone with a lot of testosterone and a bottle of lighter fluid in their hands fills that position. Dads, graduates, dudes, and bros know that their culinary peak is here, staring into the fire and feeding a lot of people. But before I get too far into heteronormative stereotypes, I need to pay attention to my best friend and favorite grill master, KO. She is a well-known woman behind the hot coals, and I spent my last summer in Brooklyn dining by the river and attending her outdoor parties every week. Grilling is not a male or female thing to do; it is a way of thinking. And this summer is when I learn how important it is.
But instead of buying a grill, I decided to make something more interesting (why buy something you can make yourself?). People have been cooking over an open flame for thousands of years, and we have made a lot of different tools to help us do it. Here’s how to put together a Tandoor.
A clay oven is what a tandoor is. A long time ago, when people lived in small huts, they cooked together in a large central oven. Most of the time, these were pits dug into the ground and filled with burning wood. As people got more mobile, these ovens were taken out of the ground and shrunk down so that each family could have their own. The tandoor now comes into the picture. Tandoors were smaller and easier to move than earth ovens of the past, but they worked the same way (though still not terribly easy to transport).
The idea is simple: wood or coals are burned at the bottom of a clay pot that has been insulated. When the lid is on, the container can reach temperatures that are hard to believe (500-800 degrees). Meats and vegetables are cooked on skewers inside, and bread is often just slapped on the clay walls.
A convection current is made inside the vessel by letting cold air in at the bottom. As the air hits the coals, it gets warmer, gets less dense, and moves up through the cylinder. The air that was at the top has had time to cool down and now falls back to the coals. Convection heat is the transfer of energy through flows, in this case, air flows. Slowly, the clay starts to take in and give off some of that circulating, insulated heat in the air (a process known as radiation). With just a few things, you can make a convection oven that is very efficient, which is something you might pay a lot for in a modern kitchen.