Build the ul­ti­mate braai

There are many ways to tan a chop, but only one recipe for the ul­ti­mate out­door oven.

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents -

It’s a lot more con­ve­nient to pop some­thing in the mi­crowave or fry it on the stove, but cook­ing over fire has a cer­tain sense of oc­ca­sion to it. Our palae­olithic an­ces­tors were the first to start for­mal­is­ing the braai spot in the camp, and arche­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies date this cook­ing method back al­most two mil­lion years. Cook­ing food is like hav­ing a stom­ach out­side of your body to process the food and un­lock the full nu­tri­tional po­ten­tial. As far as we’re con­cerned, the braai should be the fo­cal point of out­door ac­tiv­i­ties, and this is what you’ll need to build a great one that’ll last a long time and keep any smoke from stink­ing up the place.


There’s a use­ful golden ra­tio when it comes to ex­tract­ing smoke from your braai area, and un­der­stand­ing that is the first step to grilling nir­vana. Ten-to-one is the op­ti­mal re­la­tion­ship be­tween braai open­ing and the flue (the duct in­side the chim­ney). Mul­ti­ply the height and width of the open­ing to get the area and then di­vide by 10 to get the per­fect cross-sec­tional area of the chim­ney open­ing.


The taller the chim­ney, the bet­ter the draught. But not al­ways. You want your chim­ney to cre­ate a low-pres­sure area along its length that will suck the smoke out. A cold chim­ney is bad for creat­ing this ef­fect, so try and po­si­tion your fire di­rectly un­der­neath the chim­ney open­ing. Mov­ing the fire back in the fire­box will also cre­ate more dis­tance for the smoke to reach your eyes, en­cour­ag­ing it to take a path of less re­sis­tance straight up the chim­ney.

Plac­ing a cowl on the top of the chim­ney is a good way to guard against the wind and also cre­ate a bet­ter draught for the smoke – wind rushing past will cre­ate a low-pres­sure area at the cowl open­ing.


Nor­mal plas­ter isn’t go­ing to cut it for longterm dura­bil­ity. No – when the heat is on, it’s best to use boiler plas­ter. This heat-re­sis­tant mix of, pri­mar­ily, quick­lime (cal­cium ox­ide, CAO), sil­i­con diox­ide (SIO2) and alu­minium ox­ide (AL3O2) sets rel­a­tively quickly and is a great bar­rier for weather, im­pact and abra­sions. The in­side of your braai will look pris­tine for years with a lit­tle bit of in­vest­ment up front.


Do you know why face bricks are the most com­mon braai build­ing ma­te­rial? Be­cause they’re baked at 1 000–1 300˚C to sta­bilise their struc­ture, and would need heat of that or higher to weaken them. This high ther­mal mass also makes for great in­su­la­tion. Go for a cav­ity wall with brick force and brick ties for op­ti­mal strength and in­su­la­tion.

A stan­dard mor­tar mix is fine for the outer skin, but go for a 1:5 or even 1:6 mor­tar mix for the in­ner skin to al­low for bet­ter joint move­ment un­der heat. This way, you’ll also get fewer cracks.

You don’t re­ally need fire bricks (re­frac­tory bricks, fired at 1 600°C) to build your braai, but a lit­tle over- engi­neer­ing never hurt any­one. Go for clay pavers or bricks for the base. Build a frame on top of the ce­ment slab and pack the bricks tightly on a sand bed. You want to leave some room for move­ment be­cause the base takes the most heat, so don’t ce­ment or grout those base bricks into place.

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