One of the challenges of writing about Barbecue and Grilling is the confusion of terminology. The word barbecue means so many things in so many places and don't get me started on the use of the word 'grilled' in grilled cheese. Interestingly, this problem isn't restricted to the English language. Throughout the Americas, whether it's Spanish or Portuguese, words like Parilla, Churassco, and Asado have similar problems, but ultimately we are talking about meat, grilled over a... real fire with smoky flavors.
This problem of wording extends into the style of grills that are commonly used from the southern tip of South America into the South Western part of the United States. Like the early traditions of the United States, fires are frequently built in pits in the ground and meat is suspended overtop. Cheap and simple, this method doesn't necessarily fit the modern backyard. To accommodate our patios, decks, and lawns, a style of grill has emerged that still has a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to a name. Sometimes referred to as a Santa Maria Grill, an Argentinian Style Grill, or increasingly a Gaucho Grill (literally Cowboy Grill), these units have a pan or grate for charcoal in the bottom, and a movable cooking surface that can be dropped down for intense, high temperature grilling, or lifted up for a smokier, low and slow style of cooking. I am not going to argue what to call these grills and fully acknowledge that they are and will continue to be known by a number of names.
A grill of this type is, of course, powered by charcoal, but should be equally competent with hardwood logs. This adds to the authenticity of the experience and cooking. What differentiates this style of grill from others is the movable cooking grate. This movement needs to be a large one. The cooking surface should drop down to a couple of inches above the fire for intense searing and raise far enough away from the fire for low-temperature cooking. This adjustment range needs to be somewhere in the 14 to 18-inch range and the mechanism should be smooth and easy to operate. In most of these grills, the grate is raised and lowered with a wheel connected by cables to the movable cooking surface.
These grills are not inexpensive and tend towards the luxury market. You can spend over $20,000USD for some units, but those provide a wide range of convenience features and very heavy construction. Models can be found at just over $1,000USD, but are simple steel construction and will require a good deal of maintenance to keep them alive and working. Gaucho grills are not for everyone, but they offer some amazing versatility and serious grilling capabilities.
Most of these units are available as a standalone grill or as an insert.
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Kalamazoo Gourmet makes some of the best all fuel grills on the market and the most expensive. Their Gaucho Grill offers everything that can be imagined in this style of grill. This stainless steel plate, hand-built grill has a gas powered ignition system, so anything from charcoal to whole logs can be loaded into it and lit without even a match. It has an internal, chain driven rotisserie system for added versatility, and this grill can handle a turkey on the spit while also searing steaks. At... more than $20,000USD this is the most expensive grill of its type on the market, but having had the chance to play with this grill, it is a wonder to behold.
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Grillworks is in its second generation of making some of the most spectacular grills of this style in the world. These grills were inspired by the company founder's travels in Spain and South America. The solid construction and simple design have made these a favorite from some of the most noted culinary celebrities of our age. This 36-Inch unit is perfect for the backyard, though at well over $4,000USD it to is something of a luxury item. The channeled grates keep grease away from the fire... and the serious stainless steel construction makes it a grill that will last for many years to come.
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This recent addition to the market comes in at just under $4,000USD and features a side mounted firebox where logs can be burnt down to coals that are then shoveled onto the cooking grate to replenish the fire. This model offers this extra level of authenticity in a convenient package. The cooking grates are the typical v-shaped stainless steel variety that channels grease away from the fire and captures it for easy cleanup. The grate range on this model is 18 inches.
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At around $3,600USD this 'Parilla' Grill as the manufacturer refers to it also comes with a side mounted firebox for building the fire from either charcoal or logs. The most noticeable feature of this model is the firebrick lined box that insulates the grill and helps to contain the heat where it is most needed. It also comes with an enclosed cabinet, a variety of colors and a number of options, including a hood.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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Coming in well under $2,000USD, this Argentinian style grill from BBQ Pit Boys is one of the least expensive versions of this style of grill. It is at least one of the least expensive worth considering. The construction is heavy duty steel and this model lacks the stainless steel of much more expensive products but cared for, it still possesses all the durability and function that you would want from this style of cooking equipment.
There is a learning curve to using a Gaucho style grill. Fires need to be carefully built to provide the kind of even heat that will lead to a successful cookout. Temperature control can only be done by adjusting the height of the cooking surface, so it needs to be closely watched to ensure that foods are cooked properly and to avoid burning. These are, however, some of the most enjoyable grills out there for the serious cook. Almost anything that can go on a grill can be cooked on these units, and the flavor is in many ways superior to standard grills, even standard charcoal grill. This is campfire cooking perfected.