While these units produce some delicious foods hidden away in a restaurant kitchen, they also offer the opportunity for display cooking. The beautifully browned appearance of the meat, the smell of the caramelizing fats, is enough to tempt even dedicated vegetarians to snap up a shawarma. That's a big part of the reason they have been so popular with street food vendors, who can draw a crowd without saying a word with the help of that rotating spit.
Once the meat has been thoroughly cooked, the gyro machine is used to hold and warm the meat while it is cut. Because the meat is shaped like a cone, thicker at the top and thinner at the bottom, the top is cooked more directly by the burners, while the bottom gets a large part of its heat from hot drippings from above. This results in two unique tastes, so a good dish will have cuts from both parts.
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Thanks to street vendors in the United States, gyros are the most well-known food cooked by these machines. The gyro comes from Greece, but crossed the Atlantic in the 1960s and first became popular in Chicago working class neighborhoods. In the United States, lamb and beef are the most popular gyro meats, though pork and chicken are not uncommon. The meat is put onto an oiled, lightly grilled piece of pita bread, and rolled up with various salads and sauces. Gyros can also be found on street carts, in fast casual, and Greek restaurants across the country.
Though the gyro has built a name here, there are regional dishes across the world prepared in this style. Turkey has its doner kebabs, which are typically made of lamb, beef, veal, or chicken and served on a pita. In the Middle East, the shawarma, which is similar in preparation and ingredients to the doner kebab, has long been a favorite. Cooks making these dishes will typically call this cooking equipment a shawarma machine. Fittingly, doner kebab translates to “rotating roast,” while shawarma means “to turn.” Mexican tacos al pastor are also in this family. Pork, marinated in a mix of spices and pineapple juice, is mounted on the spit, often with a slice of pineapple and an onion on top.
Selecting the Right Model
The first thing to consider is fuel source. The three options available are electric, propane (LP), and natural gas. Typically, LP is stored in a tank at your location, while natural gas is supplied by a local utility. Though the heat comes from burning the gas, these also require a 120-volt electrical connection in order to turn the spit. Electric-only models will need either a 208- or 240-volt connection, so be sure to check what type of electrical connection you have before buying one.
Along with deciding on where the heat will come from, you will also need to weigh the burner options. Gas-fired units typically use infrared burners, with ceramic elements that radiate heat to the food. They are prized for their high-powered heat that is focused on the food being cooked. Electric models have unicoil elements that snake through the unit. That design ensures even cooking from top to bottom.
The next two options to consider are height and weight capacity. These two depend on how much food is going to be cooked at one time on the machine. A taller machine can typically cook more meat, but many manufacturers only list the total machine height and not the spit height. Thus, a 32-inch high machine may only have a spit height of 24-inches, as the unit base and top add several inches. Available heights vary from 20 to 42 inches. Units with 20-inch heights have fairly small spits and are not ideal for high-volume applications. A 28-inch machine typically has an 8-inch-larger spit, making it a better fit for a commercial kitchen.
Weight capacity refers to the weight of meat the spit can hold at one time. Maximum weight capacities range from less than 25 pounds to 85 pounds. Any machine with less than a 25-pound capacity is not ideal for a commercial kitchen.