A Native Turk’s Guide to Döner

By Cihan Evran

It is no coincidence that Döner is the go-to fast food in all around Europe. Whenever you are hungover or have had too much to drink it is the first fast food people go to. Under such circumstances your palate will not differentiate between savoury flavours of some great delicious delicacy when alcohol looms over your taste buds like a dark shadow. Or worse, you’re outside of Turkey longing for a properly prepared Döner, but the so-called “Döner” you are served looks like a malignant cancer cell. The path to a great Döner is arduous, but worthy. This is how I prefer my Döner to be prepared as all the other European variants lacks everything that Turkish Döner has.

Firstly, let us start with the meat. It is impossible to call Döner ‘Döner’ unless it is made from veal, or lamb or chicken meat. Any vegetarian option is not considered Döner and will under no circumstances, regardless of the spices and marinates one could use, taste like the real Döner. You should be able to see fat dripping and smell the gamey odour that comes off from that gorgeous looking meat, spinning on a large skewer turning prettier with each circle it completes around the burners. The meat should come from Turkey, preferably on the Black Sea region, where the weather is ideally cold in winter, warm and rainy in summer, and where the wind carries the sea air to the mountains, where cattle graze on green grass

You must always use an expensive cut of meat. It is an absolute sin to my Turkish eyes to see minced meat in Döner. And a blasphemy to my mouth. You should always use lean pieces of meat which have been pre-beaten and cut to the perfect shape. People do not pay to eat Sloppy Joe when they come to a Turkish restaurant. In order to get the real thing, start by acquiring thirty kilos of leg of lamb and then debone them using a long thin flexible knife and get rid of any pieces that you would not eat. The reason why you are employing that particular knife has to do with the fact that the cuts made with such a blade will follow the meat around the bone and not stick into the bone. Secondly, it is imperative that you should clean the meat thoroughly. You would not want any filth that may later alter the taste of Döner and more importantly your health. Thirdly, after you clean off all dirt start cutting the meat into no more one cm thick pieces. This is important as, the thinner the layers the more delicious will they taste. This will also be more economical in terms of grilling time. Fourthly, before doing anything else you should let the meat soak in a milk bath at least for 2 days which will reduce the toxins and improve the flavour.

For the milk bath you will need salt, white pepper and grated onions, mineral water and naturally milk, preferably obtained from a farm. You should not use dark pepper as it will darken the meat which is not what we are after. The third ingredient is a mixture of spices, which are secret to each Döner maker and the region where the Döner is made, but as I am kind enough, I will share some of the generic spices with you. You will need Turkish red pepper, paprika, coriander, oregano, rosemary, allspice, and garlic powder. This process is a must, since the marriage between the milk and the spices will tenderize the meat even further and give it a distinctive taste. The longer they remain together, the more beautiful they become. However, you should not overdo the spices since we want to take a bite into a delicious piece of meat and not into a wood. Döner meat is supposed to resemble an autumn leave and taste a bit gamey.

After storing the meat in the refrigerator for two days we can finally start stacking them up onto the roasting skewer. As the more culinary seasoned among you would imagine, we start by stacking the meat from bottom to top, growing thicker with each layer. That is, by the time you are done stacking the meat up, you should have a vase looking pile of meat which looks thin at the bottom and thick on the top. Before we begin stacking them up we will need another ingredient which is unfortunately forbidden thanks to the ministry of health in Europe but a non-omittable element in the making of proper Döner. Namely, the rendered fat from a sheep’s tail. This particular fat gives meat such a flavour that you would think you could devour that giant pile of meat all by yourself. This should not come as a surprise since anyone who knows his way around a kitchen would know that the most delicious cuts of meat come from the fatty parts of an animal. Each time you stack 5 pieces of meat on top of another you stack one piece of the above-mentioned fat into the skewer and repeat the process until such time you have reached the top. There you will want to take a second, and look at that beauty before we cherish it with more rendered lamb fat and some vegetables. You will want this because as the fat cooks at the top, all the lovely juices will keep flowing downwards to the meat, which makes the meat taste even more exquisite.

After you have fired up your griller you will want to place the meat onto the segment where skewer will start automatically rotating around the burners. For this you will need helping hands. Because all you have worked for up until this point could fall into pieces with a reckless blink of an eye. So, place that thing of beauty onto the griller and let time to do the work. You should not put the heat to the highest. Imagine as if you are cooking a stew and it has to simmer for the perfect consistency and taste. It is same procedure with Döner. You have to find the perfect balance and let it continuously rotate around the burners and cook evenly on every side. After the meat is perfectly crisped on the outside, we start cutting the outer layer of the meat. The first thing you will notice will be the inner layers, which are by this point still pink. But this is natural since with every circle the skewer makes, the meat will get crisp and maintain its juices, hence making every serving of Döner equally tasty.
Döner is served best in a bed of Turkish bread. Unlike the preconceived notions of many foreigners, the Turkish bread resembles more of French baguette, which is thicker in size but shorter in length. That is the perfect vessel in which the meat and its juices can be delivered into your mouth. Where Pita and other bread forms crumbles and loses their form promptly, the Turkish bread will keep its form and texture, thus making it ideal not only for Döner but also for other sandwiches style dishes. You should first start cutting the bread in half and respectively slice it from the middle, making a deep cut, but not so deep as to disintegrate the bread. Then you dunk the inside of the bread into the meat on the skewer, so that the bread soaks up some of the fat and therefore the flavour. Subsequently, you start placing the meat into the bread, followed by salad and chips. And it is done. This is how many Turks eat their Döner in Turkey. Nothing more, nothing less. I know how Döner in Germany is butchered as commercial producers here load it up with all kinds of sauces and salads which eventually destroys the overall taste of the meat, making the dish exhausting and unpleasant experience. So, have a go at my version of Döner. I promise it will be an experience you will not soon forget or regret.