German Grilling Technique: The Schwenker

There’s something to grilling that invokes a special magic. The sight of the flame, the sound of the sizzle, and the delicious wafting smells all add up to a cooking process unmatched by anything else. And though it seems straightforward enough in its essence — fundamentally, it’s food over a fire, possibly the oldest cooking method there is — there are actually a whole lot of ways to go about the method.

Take Schwenker, a German grilling technique that hails from Saarland, a state that borders Luxembourg and France. The process entails a large metal grate that’s hung and left to gently swing above a wood fire. Visually, it looks spectacular, with three hefty chains forming a cone-like shape to keep the setup suspended. The meats grilled on them pay off, too, with the consistent movement ensuring a more even cooking, as well as smoky flavors.

It’s the kind of head-turning contraption that invokes a Francis Mallmann-esque open fire dinner party atmosphere. Schwenkers are ideal for entertaining, making for hands-on experiences with guests gently swinging the grate and turning their meats while their appetites build. Plus, it really emphasizes the fire front and center — both visually and in flavor. The type of wood used for grilling strongly affects the taste, as the Schwenker imbues foods with delicious aromas. In Germany, beech is the traditional choice, used to fire the grill in a multitude of convivial contexts. Any serious Schwenkermeister will tell you that enjoying cold beer while the meat cooks is an essential part of the process.

Schwenker grilling involves swinging a grate over a wood fire

placing charcoal under tripod grill

The Schwenker technique can’t take place without chain-leveraged contraption, which comes in a range of formats. Frequently sold under the “Tripod Grill” moniker, the simple contraption has already established itself stateside, which makes procuring one online straightforward. And since many people don’t have the setup for such a large fire in their backyard, there are many models sold for camping portability.

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With a Schwenker, it’s possible to grill a large range of cuts, from classic steak offerings to sausages and even vegetables. However, in Germany, the Schwenker is most strongly interlinked with a marinated pork dish, which is also called Schwenker. The food involves a fatty, thick cut like shoulder or shank, marinated for at least a day — but often up to three. It’s seasoned with dried herbs, powdered peppers, and a large amount of black pepper. As for an accompaniment, it’s joined by an abundance of onions, sometimes peppers, all covered with a local wine.

The cut shines on the grill, requiring a patient 20 to 30 minutes to melt the fat and tie all the flavors together. It creates a piece of pork that’s tender and delicately smokey, a result more difficult to achieve with a traditional American-style grill. So after sampling the classic, experiment with other cuts, too. Just remember that though it swings, it’s still open-fire cooking, so keep our essential grilling tips and tricks in mind.

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