It’s not the size of your schwenker that matters, it’s how you swing it.
By Kristy Alpert
You’re most likely to find these tripod grills in backyards and festivals in the Saarland and Rhineland-Pfalz regions of Germany, from where they originated, but they’ve duly developed a cult following that extends far beyond the German borders. There are camping versions, homemade versions, and, yes, the world’s biggest schwenkers.
“Propane can’t touch cooking over wood on an ancient European grill,” says Neil Murphy, corporate chef at Merriman’s Restaurant in Hawaii, where he’s been grilling with a schwenker since 2011.
You never forget your first schwenker.
For me, it was after a few beers and a stroll around the glowing stalls of a night market in Germany. The cobblestone pathway leading to a massive fire pit and then, there it was, loaded with meat and swinging away in the open air.
The contraption, called a schwenker, dangled dangerously close to the hot flames while three large men with medieval looking meat hooks circled around it and sipped beer.
A schwenker is a heavy-gauge German-style grill that is suspended beneath a tripod by metal chains. They’re tough. They’re primal. And they’re ridiculously awesome.
“It’s kind of like a rotisserie but not,” Murphy says. “Three people [or just one for a smaller grill] station themselves around the schwenker and push the grill with a stick back and forth over the fire. Beer is a must, and you just drink with others and keep slowly pushing the grill over the fire until the food is cooked.”
Aside from the obvious perk of being able to stand and drink around an open fire, meat cooked on a schwenker comes off juicy, tender, and flavorful, with real wood smoke seasoning the cut … especially the schwenker cut.
Not only is schwenker the name of the grill, but it’s also the name of the traditional pork steak grilled on it and the name of the pitmaster who does the grilling.
“In German, we say, ‘der schwenker schwenkt den schwenker auf dem schwenker,'” explains Andreas Schackmann, championship schwenkmeister at Smoke and Fire in Saarland, Germany, “which means ‘the pitmaster swings the steak on the schwenker.'”
You can grill more than just protein on these meat swings, though, and Schackmann recommends braising in a Dutch oven on the grill or sautéing veggies in a pan or directly on the grill grate.
The constant motion of the grill over the flames eliminates hot spots and allows uneven cuts to come out uniform with just a little manipulation of their placement on the grill.
“You start with a bright red, glowing fire,” Schackmann advises, also recommending traditional beech wood for ultimate flavor. “And then you just add the meat and keep the grill on the move, bringing the finished pieces to the edge to be kept warm so everything can be eaten together.”
The concept of a schwenker is incredibly simple, and the steps to cooking on one are equally as humble: light fire, swing meat, drink beer.
Recipe from German National Tourist Office
What you’ll need:
4 large (10 to 12 ounces) pork neck steaks or pork shank steaks
5 large onions
Salt and pepper
How to make it:
1. Chop the onions and season with pepper and salt. Put the meat in a glass bowl and season with salt and pepper as well. Then cover the meat with the onions and place a cloth over the glass bowl. Leave to marinate for at least 24 hours.
2. First you need to start the fire. To do this, you need beechwood logs about one foot long, which you split into fine chips with a hatchet. Lightly crumple up several sheets of newspaper and place them in the center of the fire. Now place the beech wood chips as steeply as possible on the crumpled newspaper, which you can then light. As soon as the first thin shavings have burned well, you can add thicker shavings. Place them as steeply as possible against each other over the fire. In the next step you do the procedure again with even coarser logs. Slowly you should have a good fire. The logs will then collapse.
3. Grease your grill with some cooking fat. The grill should be adjusted so that the flames do not reach the meat, but end about 2 inches below it.
4. Place the meat on the grill grate and sear it briefly on both sides. Then just turn it over if some gravy has settled on the top of the man. It is important that you keep the grill constantly in motion. The grate should swing back and forth and rotate. The turning ensures that the uneven heat distribution over the open fire is evened out. Continue to schwenk for about 25 minutes or until the pork has reached your desired doneness.
5. Enjoy it with a radish salad, spring potatoes, and a beer.