I like cooking, and I especially like to be able to reproduce food that I would normally end up paying an arm and a leg for if I went out and bought it from a restaurant or fast food joint. I can make curry that tastes almost identical to those you get from an Indian Takeaway, and I can make pizzas which are also identical to takeaway ones. Another long-time quest has been to be able to make my own doner kebabs from scratch.
I’ve tried making doner meat in the past, and it wasn’t successful. Membership of the local cash & carry outlets means that I have access to the kinds of things you wouldn’t find on supermarket shelves, and on more than one occasion I have been tempted to buy a whole doner leg (that’s one of those big things that slowly turn around in front of the grill at the kebab shop). If I’d have been stupid enough to do it, God only knows how I’d have cooked it (and yes, the option of buying a doner grill did occur to me), or what I’d have done with 10kg of cooked doner meat. Buying it would have been cheating, anyway. Satisfaction could only come from being able to make doner meat from scratch.
The few goes I had a couple of years ago were a hell of a palaver. It was all about mincing lamb breast twice, forming patties, pushing them inside an empty tin can, cooking it, then using a blow torch whilst turning the mini-doner leg on a fork and slicing layers off. Even the pictures that accompanied one of the recipes I tried showed that the final slices of meat were coarser-textured and nothing like a proper slice of doner meat. That’s how it turned out for me – the taste was pretty much spot-on, but the cooked meat was crumbly and had no “bite” to it. The worded version of that same recipe mentioned that commercial preparations “probably” use transglutaminase – or meat glue – to hold the texture. I’d been planning on trying that, when out of the blue the answer came from… bacon.
Why bacon, you ask? Well, yet another of my culinary quests was recently completed when I started curing my own bacon (I’ll have to do a write-up of that). I needed some curing salt, and I found Surfy’s Home Curing website as a source of it. While browsing Surfy’s site I noticed that they also sold Doner Kebab Seasoning, and with my previous failed attempts in mind, I asked Surfy a few questions about the texture problem I’d experienced. That’s where the key piece of information came from: temperature.
In a nutshell, the most critical part to getting the texture right when making doner kebab meat is the temperature you do the mixing at. It has to be very cold, almost freezing.
Making Doner Kebab Meat
Surfy’s Kebab Seasoning, comes with a handy recipe for doner meat. The recipe is so simple that I couldn’t believe it was going to work, but I decided to give it a go exactly as it was written to see what happened.
I bought two 500g packs of lamb mince from Asda and stuck them in the freezer along with a bowl of water. When the water had just started to freeze (therefore acting as a crude thermometer), I threw the mince into my Kenwood Chef fitted with the K blade, added 50g of the kebab seasoning, and mixed on a medium-high speed until it became sticky and of a uniform texture (just like pink bread dough, in fact). Then I added 50g of the ice-water and mixed for a minute more, also on medium-high speed. Apart from the hour or so in the freezer beforehand, it took less than 10 minutes to produce the meat mixture in accordance with Surfy’s Recipe.
Cooking was based on my previous experiments. The first time I made this recipe, I packed the meat mixture firmly into a non-stick loaf tin by hand, placed this in a baking tray half-filled with boiling water (making a bain-marie), then put the bain-marie into a pre-heated oven at Gas Mark 4. I let it cook until the inside temperature reached above 75°C. Once removed from the oven, I let it cool a little.
Then came the moment of truth. I cut a slice off the end using a knife and immediately saw that the texture was identical to shop-bought kebabs. The slice was firm and even-textured, and it had just the right “bite”. The smell and taste were also identical to that of commercial meat. Once completely cool, I used my bacon slicer to slice it up into strips. The cooked loaf was about 220mm x 110mm x 65mm (i.e. slices were about 2½ inches wide).
On my second try, I made it in exactly the same way, but this time packed it into a square, non-stick cake tin. The cooked loaf was about 220mm x 220mm x 35mm (i.e. the slices were just over 1 inch wide, and much more like shop-bought meat). I’ve frozen this batch by rolling it up, two slices at a time, in cling-film, so all I have to do when I want some is unroll what I need, then put the roll back in the freezer (I use this technique for Pancetta, which I buy in slabs, slice up, then freeze for when I need it).
Re-heating can be done either under the grill or in the microwave. Personally, I prefer the second cut of meat when I buy a kebab from a shop. The first cut is the highly-browned and often crispy layer right next to the grill flame, and it is sometimes so brown that the meat is very dry. The second cut is much more moist. Grilling simulates the first cut, microwaving simulates the second.
Making a kebab is simple enough. Just re-heat some meat as described, and heat a pitta or naan under a grill (or in a pan or the oven). Thinly slice a little cabbage and some Iceberg lettuce. Slice up a red onion, a tomato, and some cucumber. Place the hot meat on the naan or in the split pitta and add some of your favourite chili (and/or other) sauce, then layer on the vegetables. And that’s it.
I estimate that 1kg of lamb mince produces enough doner meat for up to ten kebabs – admittedly, perhaps not ones the same size as those you can get in takeaways, but that’s probably a good thing because eating one of those is sometimes a challenge, and even if you manage it you feel like your stomach is going to explode if you make any sudden movements. At £8 per kg of mince, plus £0.60 for the seasoning, each serving of meat comes to about 85p. Add another 50p for the naan or pitta and salad and you have a total cost of around £1.35 per kebab. The average takeaway price is £5.50-£6.00 (though when I researched that, I discovered my local takeaway has been overcharging me if their online price is anything to go by).
No one is ever quite sure what goes into commercial kebab meat. At the very least, the majority of meats aren’t 100% lamb, some have no lamb in them at all, and you can be certain that they don’t use the best cuts of whatever meat they do use. Indeed, there is the recurring suggestion that various body parts (and occasionally, if you read The Sun, non-food meats) end up in the kebab mix, and given that the meat is ground to a fine paste, none of that would be beyond the realm of possibility. Furthermore, commercial kebab meat is very high in fat (up to 22%), and in some cases, trans fats are so high that they must have been added to the meat during manufacture. And since we’re looking at commercial production, chemical additives (sodium phosphate, in particular) are used, and I wouldn’t be surprised if synthetic flavourings are also added by some manufacturers. In short, you simply don’t know what you’re eating – just that you’re eating a lot of it (and you know you shouldn’t).
The only fat in this homemade meat comes from the lamb. The Asda lamb I bought contains less than 20% fat in the first place, and a lot of that is rendered out during cooking. It contains no synthetic fats, and no chemicals for emulsification or preservation. Unless Asda is pulling the mother of all scams, when it says “lamb” on the packet it means “lamb” (in any case, you could mince your own if you are a tinfoil hat wearer and really wanted to be certain).
I estimate that each homemade kebab weighs in at no more than 800 calories, even on a large naan. On a pitta it’s closer to 500 calories. Indeed, the majority of the calories come from the bread and not the meat. It’s no more than a typical meal, and probably healthier since it contains quite a lot of vegetables and not much fat.
If you were on a 2,000 calorie diet, you could have one (or even two or three) of these as your main meal without any worries. A shop-bought kebab, on the other hand, could contain the full 2,000 calories in one go.
Could you cook it over a grill like they do in the shops?
Yes, of course. As long as you made sure it was properly cooked as you sliced it, the raw mixture could be formed on a spit, and rotated over or in front of an open flame to cook it. I haven’t tried it, but if you packed it tightly and then chilled it I’m sure it would be firm enough to put on a spit. Come to think of it, that’s how a takeaway I used to use many years ago did it – I watched him one day taking handfuls of meat mix out of a bowl, forming them into discs, and then throwing them on to the skewer of the large spit as he formed the “elephant leg” a layer at a time.
Can you freeze cooked doner meat?
Well, the recipe given above is cooked from fresh ingredients, and then frozen quickly afterwards. It’s then re-heated quickly when needed. There’s no problem with that, as long as you don’t let the cooked meat hang about at room temperature, where bacteria can start growing.
Thawing it and re-freezing it would be a complete no-no. The risk of bacterial contamination would be too high. You might get away with it, but it goes against all professional advice.
Freezing doner meat you bought in a kebab from a shop would be an even worse idea, since the meat on the spit was almost certainly frozen to begin with. You’d be re-freezing it. You would also be gambling on the cleanliness of the shop you bought it from, and you don’t need me to tell you what many kebab shops and their employees look like. A few dodgy practices might not hurt you if you ate freshly-cooked meat, but allowing any contamination to multiply during any extra cooling and thawing processes you had introduced would be asking for trouble.
A simpler solution, if you don’t want to make your own, would be to buy some frozen, ready-cooked doner meat. You can get it from most cash & carry outlets, and even some large supermarkets (I’ve bought it myself in the past, before I came upon this DIY recipe, and it is very good stuff).
What gives doner kebab meat its texture?
It’s all in the preparation. The meat has to have about 20-25% fat and it has to be very cold – almost freezing – when you do the mixing so that it can emulsify (i.e. the meat and fat are no longer separate). When you press it down into a mould or tray and cook it as described above, the texture is just right – not at all crumbly, but firm with a definite bite to it.