Are you curious about the different ways of grilling in South America? Here’s a walkthrough of what a Parrilla is and how to use it.

Overview

There are many ways of cooking food over live fire. One of several commmon ways of grilling in South America is by using a so called Parrilla. It’s a kind of fireplace where you burn wood into charcoal which is then shuffled to the side to use for cooking food. A parrilla can be very simple, like grill grates placed on two rocks on the ground with charcoal underneath, or large commercially built grills with a crankshaft to raise and lower the grill grates over the fire.

Cooking food in this way is referred to as cooking ‘a la parrilla’, you can also cook your food ‘al asador’. The latter refers to the ‘asadores’, the metal crosses upon which the carcass is splayed open and then placed over glowing embers. This article focuses on cooking ‘a la parrilla’.

Parrilla from above
Parrilla from above

Construction

A common way of constructing a parrilla is by building it kind of like a table where there’s a cradle of sorts on one side where you place the logs/splits. When the logs progressively turn into charcoal the charcoal is shuffled over to the other side, underneath the grill grates, where the food is cooked. So the fire wood has to turn into glowing embers first.

The fireplace (‘brasero’)

If you want to build your own there are few things worth noting. It’s gonna get very hot where the fire is, so oversized material is recommended. The log ‘cradle’ I constructed is made of 20 mm (25/32″) solid square bar, so it will last a long time. Round or square tube won’t last, the fire will burn through. A good distance between the bars is 5-8 cm (2-3″), no more. This provides adequate room for the glowing embers to fall through.

The brasero of a Parilla
The brasero of a Parilla

The fireplace is surrounded by bricks (‘fogonero’) which not only blocks heat radiation, but also (when cooking outside) provides wind protection.

The cooking side/grill grates

This part is less complicated. I fabricated grill grates by using ordinary expanded metal, but any other choice will do. using stainless round bars (lots of them in parallel) works great, and is easier to clean. So, what about coal bed to grill grates distance? Well, 15-18 cm (6-7″) is recommended, no more. This provides a good height where you can increase heat (if needed) by shuffling more coals underneath.

Parrilla grill grates
Parrilla grill grates

YouTube Video: custom building a Parrilla

Usage

Fire Wood

You use the hardwoods that are available locally. Just like for traditional barbecue you steer clear of the trees with high sap content, like pine or larch. But a lot of other types of wood are good to use. Oak is very common in American barbecue, but here it is less well suited since it goes directly from burning log to ash. There’s no glowing ember middle stage. Mesquite is good, I use birch since that is what I have available. Normally I would never use birch in my offset smoker, I really dislike it’s smoke flavor, but this type of cooking is different. We don’t smoke meat, we grill it, and for that birch is a good option.

Starting the fire

Start by placing a few splits in the firebox. I prefer splits to get the fire started. Place a few fire starter cubes (or similar) underneath, directly on the fire bricks, and add some kindling. When the splits catch fire, keep adding a few more and then add logs. Make sure you get a real good fire going, we want the wood to burn so it produces charcoal.

Starting a fire in a Parrilla
Starting a fire in a Parrilla
Burning logs in a Parrilla
Burning logs in a Parrilla

As charcoal and glowing embers fall down on the bricks, keep shovelling them over to where the food is.

Glowing embers in a Parrilla
Glowing embers in a Parrilla

Use a long shovel, I fabricated one like this:

Parrilla Shovel
Parrilla Shovel

YouTube-video: how to grill on a Parrilla