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The Food Lab: Homemade Greek-American Lamb Gyros

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Crisp, juicy gyros. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Greek-American style Lamb Gyros

This way to Grecian delight:
Here's the recipe! »

One of my earliest memories as a New York kid in the 1980s was when the Greek-owned pizza shop down the street first put up a poster featuring an attractive woman eating a Kronos-brand gyros sandwich. I couldn't get the image out of my head. It was either the dark, alluring Mediterranean eyebrows combined with that come-hither glint in the eye all seductively enveloped in the soft golden 80s hairdo.

Or it was the juicy, alluring strips of pressed-and-formed crispy salty meat combined with that come-hither dollop of creamy yogurt sauce all seductively wrapped in the soft golden pita.

Since then, I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to rigorously sample both women and gyros, and can safely say, it was the gyros that did it for me.

Now, before I go any further, I want to clarify by saying that I'm not talking authentic Greek gyros here. I'm talking Greek-American gyros.

Greek-American gyros employ the same vertical rotisserie method of cooking as authentic Greek gyros, and both come served in rich, fluffy pita bread* with a yogurt-based sauce, tomatoes, and onions, but that's where the similarities end. Unlike Greek gyros, which are usually made with whole pieces of thinly-sliced marinated pork skewered in a large stack on the rotisserie before being cooked and shaved, Greek-American gyros are made with a large, sausage-like cone of seasoned minced lamb and beef.

*not the thin type with the pocket, unless you are in Cyprus where they do everything funny)

As great as the real deal is, in all honesty, I prefer the Greek-American style. When properly cooked, the thinly shaved pieces of meat offer a sublime mixture of textures. Crispy, salty edges, and moist, tender areas that have the same satisfyingly resilient texture that a good hot dog has. My goal this week was to replicate (and improve!) the Greek-American style.

Rotisserie Blues

There are two problems with gyros at home. First is getting the texture of the meat mixture right. That elusive bouncy-yet-tender bit is not easy to achieve. The second problem, of course, is that despite watching hours of infomercials for the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, I never bucked up with my four easy payments of $39.95. I'd need to find an alternate way to cook the meat.

I started by looking to a couple of my favorite sources for existing recipes. Alton Brown's recipe requires you to puree a mixture of meat and seasonings in a food processor before cooking it meatloaf-style in a loaf pan, followed by compressing it with a brick. I tried this, and was frankly unimpressed with the results. While the internal texture was good, the meat ended up stewing in a pool of its own juices in the pan, coming out with a grey, boiled-looking exterior and not a hint of crispiness. It was also relatively dry. No thanks.

Cook's Illustrated takes a different approach by adding a seasoned pita-bread panade to their ground meat before forming it into little patties that then get pan-fried. They come out exactly as expected: little patties of pan-fried meat with the texture of meatballs.

The results are so vastly different from the real deal that my brain had to work overtime trying to convince my mouth that it was eating gyros (they also serve theirs in a pocket pita with feta cheese. I know. Weird).

Back to the drawing board.

I figured, since a Greek-American gyro is essentially a gigantic sausage, my best bet for success was to think of the meat in these terms, and that means controlling three vital elements: salt, fat, and temperature.

A Pinch of Salt

Far from just being a simple seasoning, salt plays a vital physical role in the texture of meat mixtures. You can think of meat proteins as tightly wound strings of yarn. When meat comes into contact with salt, over time, the salt acts to dissolve the proteins, causing the ends of the strands to fray out. These frayed ends can then easily become tangled up with each other, creating a semi-solid matrix. The result is a mixture that retains resilience once cooked. Now for some things, like hamburgers, for instance, this is a bad thing. I want my burger to be fall-apart-tender in my mouth. But for a sausage, this texture is desirable.

Texture is not the only thing that the meat protein matrix enhances—it also helps to trap in both moisture and fat, resulting in a juicier, tastier sausage.

So how come Alton Brown's recipe, which contains plenty of salt, still exuded juices as it cooked? Turns out that when it comes to salt, time is just as important as quantity.

The two half loaves pictured below were made with the exact same recipe. The only difference is that I salted the meat on the left two hours before pureeing it in the food processor. The difference in retained juices is dramatic:

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I poured off and collected those juices in cups and found that the meat salted for two hours had lost only about 20% of the juices that the one salted immediately beforehand had lost, and when tasted side-by-side, the improved moisture level of the pre-salted meat was undeniable.

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Just to completely drive the point home, I tried cooking one loaf with absolutely no salt added to it. Even before cooking, there was a drastic difference in texture. While the salted meat stuck firmly to itself in a tight ball, the unsalted meat was messy—mushy even. Upon baking, it released a torrent of juices, along with a mass of pale brown, congealed, jelly-like proteins. Icky.

As gross as the contents of the cup below look, this is actually all stuff that I want to stay inside the meat.

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In addition to just salting, mechanical mixing is absolutely necessary for the proper texture. Mixing the salted meat by hand just didn't cut it—the meat remained too mealy. Whipping it with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer worked better, but I found the optimum texture was to use Alton Brown's method: completely puree the meat in a food processor until it achieves a paste-like consistency. It's not pretty while you're working with it, but the end results are outstanding.

As for fat content, I wanted to bump mine up a bit, and adding a few slices of bacon to the lamb mixture was the way to do it. I know, I know. Adding bacon to anything these days seems like a cliché. All I can say is, in the end, the bacon flavor doesn't come through—it's inclusion has the biggest impact on moisture level and texture (after all, bacon has been cured by extensive salting—exactly what we want when it comes to achieving the right sausage-like texture).

Getting Warmer

Has anyone else noticed that when it comes to sausages, oftentimes, the large nationwide brands have significantly better texture than the ones that come from small-scale artisan-butchers? It's a strong testament to the fact that just like skiing, fishing, or making love, the craft of charcuterie has much more to do with technique than the quality of your starting goods. You could begin with the greatest meat in the world, but if it's not salted and mixed properly, your sausage will end up crumbly, dry, and/or mealy.

The other factor that can deeply affect the outcome is temperature. The following two mixtures were made with the exact same ingredients. The only difference was that on the one in the right, I kept my meat chilled in the fridge at 38°F until just before pureeing it, whereas the one on the left was allowed to sit at room temperature and came all the way up to 58°F before I pureed it.

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Astounding, isn't it? While the one on the right stayed tight and compact, the one on the left broke apart as it cooked, the fat leaking out, and turning mealy. It's all about emulsions. When pureeing, if all goes well—your solid pieces of fat will get chopped up into tiny pieces that are then suspended within the matrix formed by the protein in the meat—even after it's cooked. Let your mixture get too hot, and rather than chopping, your fat ends up melting and smearing, preventing the proteins from forming a tight matrix, and refusing to form a stable emulsion with the meat. The result is dry, grainy, and all around unpleasant.

Finally, just like a solid piece of meat, the hotter you cook sausage, the more moisture it will expel. So for optimum juiciness, it's best to cook the gyro meat at a relatively low-temperature (say 300°F), and just until it reaches 165-degrees internally.

So to sum, the four steps for perfect sausage:

  • Salt your meat in advance and mix thoroughly.
  • Make sure there's enough fat.
  • Keep your meat well-chilled while working with it.
  • Don't overcook it

Next up: flavoring

Flavor Fix

The Kronos website indicates that the classic Greek-American gyro meat is made with a mixture of 85% beef and 15% lamb. I don't know about you, but I prefer to keep my shopping list as minimal as possible. Since I love lamb, I saw no reason not to make my own gyros our of 100% lamb meat. As for seasoning, a 2% addition of salt (the standard amount for a sausage) was necessary, along with a little kick of black pepper. While some recipes contain a myriad of warm spices and aromatics, I found that all the meat needed was a bit of fresh oregano, some onion, and garlic. Adding the flavorings directly to the food processor as I pureed the meat made the process a snap.

Getting Crispy

Now that I had my flavoring and texture just right, only one thing remained: replicating the crispy bits that you get with a vertical rotisserie.

At first thought, it seemed like the best answer is to simply broil the loaf of gyro meat until the entire outside is crispy—like a small version of the real deal. The problem with that is that although the outside gets crispy, you're still left with an expanse of un-crisped bits on the inside. With a real gyro, the entire outer surface of the large meat cone gets crisped. The cook slices the crisp bits off the outside, exposing the next layer of meat to then get crisped-up.

What this means is that in a good restaurant sandwich, your sandwich has a very high percentage of crispy bits, and you certainly don't get any of the completely soft inner parts. To replicate that, my goal should be to increase the ratio of crisp-bits-to-soft-bits.

The solution was surprisingly easy. Rather than broil the whole loaf, I first sliced it into 1/8th to 1/4-inch thick pieces before laying them flat on a sheet tray and broiling the whole thing. The tray emerged from the oven a beautiful expanse of sizzling, brown, crusty surfaces. Grecian delight, indeed!

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What's best about this method is that you can easily cook the whole loaf ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator. Then whenever you'd like a sandwich, simply slice some pieces off the end of the loaf, and crisp them up under the broiler for a couple of minutes. Even a toaster oven works fabulously for this. I was able to make a hot gyros lunch for myself and my wife (who hates tomatoes and cucumber but love lamb) yesterday in under ten minutes start to finish.

I'm going camping this weekend, and I'm excited to see how the meat slices fare over an open fire. My guess is delicious.

Finishing It Off

While tzatziki—a garlicky yogurt and cucumber based-sauce—might be the topping for traditional Greek gyros, Greek-American establishments tend to favor a sauce made with a creamy mixture of yogurt, mayo, garlic ,and parsley. I like this sauce too, along with a few dashes of hot sauce. The only other elements are thinly sliced onions, some chopped fresh tomatoes, and a diced cucumber or two.

Of course, just like coke tastes better out of an aluminum can, a gyro taste better when you wrap it in foil and eat it with your hands. Seriously. Try it.

Continue here for Greek-American style Lamb Gyros »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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