A tandoor is a clay oven, it fact it is basically almost like a very large clay pit, large enough to hold a small fire created by slow burning wood charcoal. The heat is controlled by the amount of oxygen that is let in or out of the pit. Many tandoori ovens have a small door or window at the bottom which is opened or closed to let in oxygen. The direct heat of the charcoal fire is reflected by the ceramic walls of the tandoor intensifying the heat and creating a cooking environment that easily reaches 600 degrees F. Marinated meats are lowered into the oven on long metal skewers and cooked in this smoky and extremely hot “pit” until they are grilled to perfection.
The marinade used in almost any tandoori dish starts with yogurt. While this might sound a little strange this is actually perfect for marinating meats because it has a natural acidity and it is thick so it surrounds and holds to the meat well and keeps the herbs and spices in place. The flavor of the yogurt (always plain) is so mild you typically don’t even taste it, but does an amazing job of penetrating the meat and holding the flavors of each spice in.
In addition to the colors provided by the spices, tandoori marinades are also flavored traditionally with ginger, garlic, coriander powder, cayenne pepper, and garam masala. Garam masala is a combination of roasted and ground cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper. This spice mixture is great on practically anything because it imparts a mellow but savory flavor to whatever you use it on. You can adjust the spiciness of your tandoori dish by adding more or less cayenne pepper.
So, after you have combined your spices and yogurt, got the right color and spiciness, immerse the meat into it. You want meats to sit in this thick marinade for several hours to absorb the flavors. Now you are ready to hit the grill. Remember that tandoori is cooked at very high temperatures and while you probably don’t have a tandoor in the backyard your barbeque grill will do the job perfectly. Get your grill as hot as you can and keep it closed as much as possible. You want to start out at a high temperature and keep it that way. Lift the lid only long enough to get the meat on the grill and to keep a close enough eye out to prevent burning.
Tandoori cooking can be a very healthy and easy way of preparing foods. The trick to using a tandoor or charcoal heat is that making sure the heat hits the meat immediately. The combination of the yogurt, the natural juices of the meat and the intense heat created by the charcoal fire, ensures that the natural fats of the meat are sealed within the meat immediately. This creates a nice flavor without having to use or add external fats such as butter or oils.
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