Tandoori Whatnow?

Over the weekend, I built a tandoor.

In retrospect, I probably overengineered it.  It’s a heavy, rolling clay oven that I likely could’ve accomplished almost as well with a Weber kettle and a little cleverness.  But still, having a nice, big, bespoke “oven” for making kebobs and naan is pretty neat.  A bit of a unitasker but hey, I’ve always wanted one, and this turned out to be pretty cheap by the time I was done.

The first step was to find a container.  A little poking around on the internet led me to believe that the best container was a 55-gallon drum.

Turns out it’s pretty hard around here to find a used, metal 55-gallon drum.  Plastic?  Sure.  $5.  But I’m not building a grill out of plastic.  A metal one that used to contain something highly toxic?  Yeah.  Sure, $10 from a scrapyard.  But I don’t’ want to hang edible materials in anything that sued to contain used transmission fluid.  Brand new one that costs about $130?  Sure.

But a cheap used one?  Not so much.

I set aside my plans to build a dual-use 55-gallon tandoor/drum smoker, because…well, it probably wouldn’t’ve worked anyway.

Second choice for some people on the intertubes was a beer keg.  This was also too daunting to find.  Nobody who owns one wants to part with it, if only for legal reasons.  I guess both the breweries and law enforcement are not fond of people owning their own kegs.

So this left me with a quandary.  What to encase this in?

Firebrick in the Barrel

Whilst I was at home depot buying lightbulbs, I noted that their summer stock of grills was marked down. Way down. I ended up buying a cheap charcoal barrel smoker.  It wasn’t huge, but it was about $30, metal, had a nice window carved out of the side for airflow, and was already painted a not-terrifying color (unlike a 55-gallon drum came with no “DANGER” labels, and unlike a keg had no advertisements for Miller-Coors). And I knew it was going to be safe on the interior. And it came with a lid! This would work well.

The only downside is that being a smoker, it had a removable firebowl in the bottom and not any sort of solid surface.  I would deal with this later.Next, I needed a clay cooking vessel and a firebox.  Conceivably I could use one thing for both, but I wanted a little extra height and a little more insulation for the firebox.  So I purchased two sixpacks of firebrick – which were deceptively heavy – and a 15” terracotta flowerpot, and a few masonry wheels for my angle grinder.Using some scrap lumber I had at home and a couple of cheap metal casters, I built a wheeled cart to set the thing on.  I was a little concerned about using wood in a grilling rig, but I figured I was going to insulate this thing well enough that it wasn’t going to be a problem.

Also, I knew it’d be far too heavy for the measly aluminum legs it came with.

Next, using my angle grinder, I trimmed the firebrick so I could line the “bottom” of my barrel with them.  I then sliced the bottom off the flowerpot, creating a conical “chimney.”

Aside: I love my angle grinder.  It’s loud, dangerous, makes a terrible mess, and I’m ridiculously inaccurate with it, but, man, I carved bricks with it.  Bricks!


The firebrick "firebox." Note: I am inartful with caulk.

I poured an awful lot of sand into the barrel (now conveniently mounted on the cart) to both insulate the firebox from the bottom, and to raise the level of the firebrick to be even with the “window.”  I lined the firebox with the brick, and then with some stove/fireplace caulk, sealed them in place.  With my remaining bricks, I built “walls” for the firebox.  I upended the flowerpot over the walls, caulked that in place, sealed any remaining gaps with chips of firebrick and caulk, insulated the whole thing with sand, and then I was ready to go.

Laboriously, I pushed it out into the driveway.  It’s still heavy, remember.

I wiped down the inside of the pot with cooking oil.  I wasn’t sure if this was necessary, but why not season the thing, right?  Some nice hardwood lump charcoal went into the firebox, and I lit it.

And waited.

And waited.

Okay, I’d forgotten how long it takes to get charcoal started.  I’m spoiled by my instant-on propane grill.  And hardwood doesn’t have the chemicals one finds in your average briquette, so it takes even longer.


I soon discovered that in order to heat a lot of ceramic up to a good radiant temperature, you need a fair amount of fuel.  And a fair amount of time.  And a fair amount of air.  Once I figure all that out, I was able to get a pretty hot fire going.  I jumpstarted the process a bit with a hairdryer.  I think a good forced-air system will be the next addition to this project.  Once that happened the tandoor turned from a “reasonably hot ceramic grill” to “raging tandoori inferno”, as I hoped it would.

And it stayed hot for a loooong time.  The outside remained relatively cool – it heated up, but it wasn’t accidental-second-degree-burn hot, just “don’t hold your hand there for too long” hot.  Well, the bits of ceramic sticking out the top were really hot, but I’m not in the habit of touching a stovetop either so I doubt this will be a problem.

First up, my favorite tandoori dish: boti kebab.

A pound of cubed lamb
Two tablespoons of ginger-garlic paste
1c of drained yogurt (I like a good whole-milk greek, but that’s just me)
1tsp turmeric
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp coriander
chili pepper to taste
Squeeze of lemon
Salt to taste.

Boti kebab hanging in the tandoor
Boti kebab hanging in the tandoor

Toss everything but the lamb together in a bowl, forming a nice coating.  Add the lamb and marinate for an hour or two.  (You can cook this on a grill or under a broiler, I suppose, but where’s the fun in that?  Go build your own tandoor.)

I bought some cheap BBQ skewers, $4 at my local hardware store, and bent the tips so they were slightly J-shaped.  Threading the lamb cubes on, I made sure they wouldn’t slide off.  Using another skewer as a crossbar, I hung them in the tandoor and let them cook for about 3 minutes.

The result was pretty danged good for a first try.  The lamb was moist and done perfectly…except on the top two cubes of each skewer, where the tandoor hadn’t gotten hot yet.  This was my own fault – not enough patience and not enough charcoal.  But the parts that weren’t up at the top were juicy and delicious, stained a lovely orange by the turmeric.  Not quite the quality of my local Indian restaurant, but pretty damn close and pretty damn good for a first try.

More experiments forthcoming.