What is a Gaucho Grill and Why You Want One
Cooking is the origin of civilization and fire, the origin of cooking. Every culture has its traditions and hence its names and methods for live fire cooking. However, confusion can set in when so many names exist for the same thing. Throughout South and Central America, you'll find words like Asado, Parilla, and Churrasco that mean meat grilled over a fire.
The same can be said for the grills traditionally used across these regions. I am not claiming that one grill design rules the Spanish and Portuguese speaking Americas, but one grill is often identified with this area. This grill typically burns charcoal or hardwood; its standout feature is a wheel that lowers and raises the cooking grate.
So what do we call this grill? In areas of the United States and some parts of Central America, it is called a Santa Maria Grill, derived from modern-day California's old mission region. This name makes little sense in South America, where it is referred to as an Argentinian-style grill. However, Argentinians do not call it that.
Increasingly, this unit is known as the Gaucho Grill (literally meaning, cowboy grill). This name is more of a marketing move as it helps to differentiate the product and capture the mystique of open spaces, roaming cattle, and men on horseback.
What It Is
Regardless of its name, this style of grill has distinctive features. Burning coals do not sit on a coal grate; a feature that adds airflow to the fire and allows ash to fall through. Coal grates keep the fire hot and help it burn faster, requiring more fuel. This feature is similar to other charcoal grills. Build a fire and let it burn, then move the food as necessary. With the Gaucho grill, you build and tend the fire. The coals are moved on a firebrick surface, and the food will be turned as needed. However, there is one key difference, and that is all about the craft of fire control.
When coals sit on a flat surface of stone or brick, they burn slower while the brick surface absorbs and retains heat. Ash builds up on the coals and dulls the heat. A large, thin layer of these slow-burning coals creates an even, hot fire. You then move the coals around the food to lower or raise the temperature. These grills also have an adjustable cooking grate that can move as much as two feet. Get down close to the fire to sear or raise the food for a low, smoky roast. That is the art of this particular style of grill. There is a learning curve, but once mastered, it grills better than most other outdoor cookers.
Why You Want One
Some of these grills come with a basket on the side for charcoal and hardwood fire building, giving way to an authentic experience. As that fire burns, coals fall through to the firebrick surface. You shovel these coals and place them where they are needed.
As an example, imagine a thick cut of beef. You want to cook it through the middle slowly and then put a high-temperature sear on it. So raise the cooking grate a couple of inches, and bank the hot coals into a ring that fits around the meat. Let it roast, turning over occasionally. Once the internal temperature reaches desired doneness, push the coals directly under the meat. Now lower the cooking grate as low as it will go and let the meat sizzle for a few minutes per side—grilled perfection.
There are a number of these grills on the market now. Some are imported from South America, particularly Argentina, where this style of grill is quite popular. These grills are heavy and expensive, so you will be spending more than a thousand dollars on a unit. Local availability might be spotty. Fortunately, many makers will ship to your location. Look for a solid grill with a well-built firebrick chamber. The grates do not need to be heavy, but I recommend stainless steel since they will take a lot of punishment. Below I have listed my recommendations in this category.
The Puma by Nuke
Read the Full Review of The Puma by Nuke
Made in Argentina, the Nuke Puma is a very traditional example of the Gaucho Grill. You get everything you need to do some serious grilling. This unit has a large, 500 square inch cooking surface of V-shaped stainless steel. There is a basket to the left for burning whole logs down to coals (though, of course, you can use charcoal). The cooking surface moves from 4 inches to 19 inches above the fire. At around $2,600USD, this grill is an investment but taken care of, it should last you for many years of pure grilling enjoyment.
Sunterra Argentine 48
Sunterra’s Argentine Grill offers a number of customizable features. You don’t get the firebox for burning hardwood down to coals, but you can get this grill as an insert for an outdoor kitchen. You can also (and I encourage you to do so) get stainless steel cooking grates instead of simple steel. You can even pick the color of the adjustment wheel. The base model for this comes in around $2,400.
Texas Pit Crafters Santa Maria 36
Texas Pit Crafters in Houston Texas make their Gaucho Grills of all stainless steel. This improves durability but drives up the price. At around $3,200 you get a more open grate system. Instead of Argentina’s traditional V-shape grates, you get a single piece diamond cut grate. They offer a number of solutions and do custom work, so if this isn’t exactly what you are looking for, they can probably make what you want.
Tagwood BBQ Argentine
This unit from Tagwood really is a thing of beauty. Again, all stainless steel construction and with all the features. There is a lot of attention to detail in this grill, right down to a proper place to hang your shovel and ash tool Yes, it comes in at $3,500, but you really have to admire the craftsmanship and size of this grill. It does use a standard grill grate, but I won’t fault them for that. If you have the money, you might want to look at this one.