BEFORE there was the stove, there was the rotisserie. And although there’s no denying that progress has its advantages -- can you imagine spending a summer afternoon tending a live fire in your kitchen? -- there’s no disputing that there also has been a cost. Put simply, there is no better way to roast meat than on a rotisserie.
Cook a chicken in the oven and it’s fixed in place, tight within the claustrophobic confines of a steamy metal box. Roast it on a rotisserie and the bird slowly revolves, alternately drying in the open air and basting itself both inside and out with all of those lovely juices.
The superiority of the rotisserie has long been known. In “The Epicurean,” Charles Ranhofer’s seminal 1893 book on fine American cooking, he has pages of diagrams of rotisserie contraptions, complicated-looking arrangements of chains and pulleys and counterweights that were the heating heart of every 19th century restaurant. “In large kitchens [it is] the only roaster possible,” he concluded.
About 100 years later, in “Chez Panisse Cooking,” Paul Bertolli goes so far as to say of the rotisserie: “There is no better way to cook whole animals, large roasts, and poultry. With a well-made fire and a spit that turns with a slow regular rhythm, heat penetrates gradually and consistently, producing self-basted meat that is moist, redolent of burning oak or fruit wood, and cooked evenly from the center to the exterior.”
On a more prosaic level, consider the number of rotisserie chickens sold in supermarkets these days. Any cooking method so foolproof that it can be done well by grocery chains certainly has something to recommend it (now, if they’d just start using better chickens).
A better bird
Indeed, it was the quest for a better bird that drew me to the rotisserie. It was one of the first things I picked up after I bought my last charcoal grill. (For some reason, the rotisserie for my basic Weber kettle grill costs as much as the grill itself -- about $100. No matter, it’s well worth it.)
As soon as I got the rotisserie home, I hooked it up, started a fire, skewered a chicken and trussed it tight, then roasted it, seasoned with just a little salt and pepper. The bird was golden brown and so moist that when I stuck the thermometer in its thigh to check whether it was done, the juice spurted several inches.
In a lifetime of roast chickens, this was a keeper. But, I thought, maybe I could do better. The next night I repeated the process, tossing in a couple of chunks of hickory. This one was even better, the wood smoke lightly perfuming the meat.
And so it has gone for more than two years. I’ve done legs of lamb, beef loins, boned-and-tied pork shoulders and turkeys, all of them wonderful. I can honestly say that in a cooking career fraught with its share of disasters, my rotisserie is one tool that has never disappointed.
It would be flattering to attribute this to some special genius on my part. But in truth, a rotisserie is nearly foolproof, requiring only a minimum of attention. Salt and pepper the meat. Secure it to the spit. Put it over the fire. Then set a timer to wake you from your nap a few minutes before you think the meat will be ready.
You can make it more complicated, but you can’t make it better. Try some different wood chunks if you like. Most supermarkets now stock a variety, usually oak (the California classic) and hickory (the choice of the old South). For long-term smoking, it’s best to soak these before using them. With the rotisserie, I just toss them on the fire.
Along the same lines, barbecue cultists make a big deal about using real charcoal in place of briquettes, which are made from ground charcoal and binders and other additives. But I have to say that given the relatively short time it takes to cook meat on the rotisserie, I can’t tell the difference in flavor. It does seem that charcoal might burn a little hotter.
If you use charcoal, look for a product specifically labeled “lump.” I picked up a bag a couple of weeks ago without that label and what I found inside looked like carbonized construction scraps, mostly thin lathing. It burned so quickly that within half an hour there was nothing left but a couple of sticks.
Another time, I bought a bag that turned out to contain chunks nearly as big as tree trunks. They burned a long time but took a while to get to a good temperature. My advice is to find a brand you like and stick with it. Lately, I’ve been using Best of the West 100% Lump Hardwood Charcoal.
Because the meat you cook on the rotisserie is so much bigger than what you grill on a grate, it’s best to arrange the coals for indirect heat. This means leaving an open space, directly under the meat, free of fire. You can buy specially made baskets to hold the coals on either side to accomplish this. Or you can do what I do: Pick out your most beat-up loaf pan and use it to keep the center clear. It will also catch any fat that drips from the meat, reducing the chance of flare-ups.
You’ll quickly find there is another hidden advantage to roasting over a live fire. It is much easier to avoid overcooking. In an oven, the heat is constant and you finish roasting at the same temperature at which you started. With coals, the heat gradually diminishes as cooking progresses. The cooler the temperature in the final cooking, the longer the meat can roast without becoming overdone.
The easy way around
As far as seasonings go, I’m a big fan of the simpler the better. This seems to be a minority position among outdoor cooks. Somehow, grilling brings out the inner aromatherapist in a lot of people. They assemble endlessly complicated marinades as if they are planning on soothing and calming that pork chop instead of grilling it. But let’s face it, after an hour on the fire, how many levels of nuance can you taste?
Furthermore, most marinades only flavor the outside one-eighth of an inch of the meat. This isn’t important when you’re talking about steaks and chops. They’re so thin that you’re just about guaranteed to get some of the exterior with every bite. But with the larger cuts of meat that work so well on the rotisserie, the effect is diminished.
There are a couple of exceptions. The first and most important is brining. By now, every cook should know about brining pork and poultry, but here’s a refresher: A brine is a salt and liquid solution that makes meat moister and more tender. The simplest brine is made with water, but particularly with pork you can use other liquids. I’m especially partial to apple cider.
Beyond salt and liquid, you can add all kinds of seasonings. The most effective are dried spices, such as cloves or cinnamon or chile flakes. Simmer them for a minute to infuse the liquid with their flavor.
Many brines call for sugar, but I find the mere hint of sweetness you get with cider to be plenty. Much more and it starts tasting like luncheon meat.
Far more important than fancy seasoning is making sure the meat is tightly bound -- not only to the spit, but also to itself. The rotisserie will come with a pair of pronged brackets that will take care of the first. Simply secure the meat in the center and tighten down the thumbscrews.
For the second, you’ll need some unwaxed cotton twine for trussing the meat into a neat cylindrical shape. For some reason, this string can be tough to find these days. Check kitchen supply stores or ask your local butcher. In fact, the butcher probably already will have trussed most cuts of meat, including loins and such other large-boned cuts as legs of lamb.
The only thing you’ll probably need to truss yourself is poultry. When you’re roasting a bird in the oven, it’s not so important if the legs flop wantonly askew during the cooking. The heat is contained and equidistant.
On a rotisserie, though, unbound legs and wings will dangle perilously close to the lively fire, particularly after cooking has begun to soften up the joints. That’s a sure recipe for scorching and burning.
The object of trussing is to turn a chicken into a tightly bound football-shaped package. It’s far simpler to do than to describe. The easiest method is to loop the two drumsticks together at their final knob. Turn the chicken over and cross the twine in back. Keep the string pulled tight, drawing the legs up tight against the body. Turn the chicken back breast-side up and tie the twine on top, securing the wings to the breast. It sounds complicated, but do it once and it will become second nature
That’s the way it goes with rotisserie cooking: It seems that the less you do, the better off you are. Save those complicated recipes for winter. Can you imagine a better way to while away a summer afternoon than watching a roast lazily revolving over an open fire? Just be thankful it’s outdoors.