A Santa Maria Style Grill To Satisfy Your Inner Pyro
If you love to burn wood, here’s your dream machine. Ñuke makes a range of handcrafted Argentinian grills and outdoor ovens. The Puma is their top-shelf Santa Maria style wood-burning grill. As with all wood-fired cooking, you’ll go through plenty of wood before you get to dinner. But if you’re a pyro at heart and like tending fire and food, you’ll love this stylish outdoor showpiece. Load it up with logs, splits, branches, lump charcoal, briquets or just about any other wood-based material you care to toss into the firebox.
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Puma is handmade in Argentina from two kinds of steel as well as ceramic refractory bricks to retain and distribute heat throughout the cookbox. The iconic Argentinian V-shaped grill grates are removable for cleaning and easily adjustable from 4 inches to a whopping 23 inches above the glowing coals with Puma’s large Santa Maria-style crank wheel. This attractive entry into the outdoor wood grill market comes with a rolling cart, fire poker, shovel, and enamel coated cast iron griddle. As Ñuke’s top-of-the line gaucho grill, Puma builds on the functionality and style of the simpler Delta gaucho grill, which we reviewed previously.
This grill is a heavy duty outdoor wood burner, incorporating a mix of stainless steel and powder coated steel components. The entire upper assembly is stainless, including the signature Santa Maria-style crank wheel, grill grate frame, V-shaped grates, and grease tray. To the left of the grill grates, the powder coated firebox or “stoker” (a.k.a. brasero) measures a generous 8″ wide x 17″ long x 5 1/2″ inches deep for lighting wood logs or big chunks of lump charcoal. There’s also a 4 1/2″ gap below the brasero, allowing plenty of space for your kindling or other firestarter. The brasero is bolted into the grill frame (the simpler Delta’s slides back and forth) so Puma’s brasero won’t shift when moving logs around, a nice plus. If you’re devotee of more steady-burning briquets, go ahead and light ’em up in the brasero like you would in a charcoal chimney, or fire ’em up right under the grill grates.
If you’re new to gaucho grilling, it’s like lighting a campfire: load up the brasero with firestarter and wood, then ignite and watch the flames. Slam the burning wood with your fire poker to shake loose some embers, then scrape them beneath the grill grates for cooking. You can also cook directly over the brasero with Puma’s custom fitted enameled cast iron griddle (plancha). You can use the griddle to sear shrimp or other small foods that might fall through the grates. Or cook vegetables in it, toast nuts, fry eggs or potatoes, or cook anything else you might cook in a cast iron pan or on a flat top. I also found that it’s deep enough to hold a generous amount of liquid, so you can make pan sauces in it (more on that later).
Some Santa Maria style grills have adjustable air intake dampers beneath the coals for heat control, but on the Puma, the front door is your damper. Open it up to let in more air and stoke the coals. Close it for a longer, more steady burn. The door is a godsend on windy days. During one of my cook tests, the wind picked up and if I hadn’t shut the front door, hot embers would have been flying all over the food and my back patio. Be mindful when opening and closing though: the door’s metal handle does get hot on the left side near the firebox. Grab the handle near the middle if you’re bare handed. Like the rest of Puma’s cookbox and firebox, the front door is lined with firebrick, which does a great job of retaining and distributing heat evenly throughout the entire grill.
You also get immediate heat control from the variable-height grill grates. Lower the grate and open the door when you need the highest possible heat for searing thinner steaks or vegetables right over the coals. Or raise the grate and close the door for low-and-slow cooking of thicker roasts and racks of ribs. Some high-end Santa Maria style grills have two or more grill grates with independent height adjustment. Puma’s grill grates rest in a single assembly that raises and lowers. No problem. If you have food of various thicknesses on the menu, you can adjust the cooking temp anywhere on the grill grates by making a thinner or thicker coal bed beneath the food. It’s easy to adjust the coals on the fly by opening the door and using the poker. The coal bed is positioned roughly at counter height (31″ high), so managing the fire and cooking on the Puma is as comfortable as working on an indoor stovetop.
Argentinian asados (barbecues) are all about gathering with family and friends, and Puma’s generous 475 square inches of grill space allows you to cook plenty of food at once for a big party. The dimensions of the grill grates are 30″ wide x 16″ deep, so you could even roast a small suckling pig on there. And the total available cooking area is much larger. Theoretically, with the 8 x 17″ griddle in place, the grill grates full, and food hung from the frame above, you could cook a massive feast in all areas of the grill simultaneously.
The traditional Argentinian V-shaped grill grates are one of Puma’s keys to fire management and flavor. These grates channel drippings away from the fire to avoid flare-ups, a huge plus when cooking fatty cuts. Grease and drippings are diverted into a grease tray at the front the grill, and the tray is easily removable so you can transform those drippings into the smoky flavored sauces of your dreams.
My first firing went pretty smoothly, despite a windy day. I did notice that the left side of the upper frame assembly was getting blasted with heat from the burning logs. Flames were pounding on the metal there, and it heated up so much that the metal expanded and made the grate assembly stick on that side. When I tried to lowered the grates, they were cockeyed!
Turns out the owner of the company, Matthew Brothers, had a similar issue with his early test model. It was simply an alignment issue.
Matthew noted that the grate frame can be easily adjusted or leveled by loosening the bolts on the frame cable and adjusting the cable length. That quickly solved the problem for me. But consumers shouldn’t have to worry about alignment issues in a new grill, right? So I asked Ñuke if they addressed the issue. In response they actually hired a dedicated Quality Control staffer at their Argentina factory to make sure minor issues like this never arise again! Ñuke also reiterated their customer service policy: if any customer has any cosmetic or mechanical issues, they will fix the problem and if necessary send replacement parts or a replacement grill. That’s top notch customer service.
The traditional wood used for Santa Maria barbecue is red oak. Pitmasters in the Central Coast of California say it’s one of the distinctive flavors in Santa Maria style tri-tip. I couldn’t get my hands on a tri-tip (it’s hard to come by here in the Northeast), but I had a northern red oak tree that I took down on my property a few years ago, and I’ve been burning the oak logs ever since. Those red oak logs were perfect for my first cook.
I settled on skirt steak and made fajitas with Meathead’s Amazing Red Meat rub. Now, remember, as with all wood grills, you have to burn a bundle before you get to dinner. It’s all part of the fun. If you love burning wood and hanging around a campfire like I do, you’ll love cooking on the Puma. Just plan ahead and keep loading the fire box with logs.
My fire starter was just newspaper and then I layered smaller twigs, larger branches, splits and logs on top of that, replenishing the logs as everything burned down. A quick scrape of the coals under the grates with a spin of the wheel to adjust the grate height, and I was off to the races.
I threw a chorizo sausage on the grates alongside the skirt steak, onions, and peppers. Because…why not? Everything turned out fantastic. And I gotta say, Argentinian sal parrillera, the quintessential Argentinian barbecue salt that every asador swears by, was perfect for finished the steak. I finished it with sal parrillera just before slicing. This salt is like the asador’s all-purpose kosher salt with medium grains and a clean hit of sodium. Highly recommended.
For my next cook, I made some weeknight cheeseburgers, also with Meathead’s Amazing Red Meat rub sprinkled on the outside. This time, I thought, let’s see how Puma handles good old briquets! I removed the grill grates, fired up a chimney right in the cookbox, then dumped out the glowing coals and let the grates heat up before adding the beef patties.
The V-grates channeled all the grease into the grease tray and I had zero flare ups. Browning on the meat surface was good and got better when I rotated the patties several times. Briquets also made it easier to supply steady heat to the food. It’s good to know that Puma works equally well with wood and good ol’ briqs. If you prefer briquets, get some extra woodsmoke flavor the same way you would in a kettle grill: Add a few wood chunks directly to the coals.
The bacon cheeseburgers turned out fantastic.
Next time I fired up the Puma, I tried lighting a big campfire-style teepee of logs right in the cookbox (with the grill grates removed). That worked beautifully because the fire burned a bit faster and coals were ready for cooking sooner. I made fajitas again. What can I say? My family likes fajitas!
Later on after that cook, I hung some inexpensive meat roasting hooks from the upper frame to season them before my next cook. I’d been dreaming about hang-roasting a chicken and the hooks were the ticket.
The spatchcocked bird, dry brined with Meathead’s Amazing Poultry Rub and splayed open on the meat hooks was an awesome sight. It took several hours to cook through, and I’m sure the neighbors were wondering what the hell was going on over at my house. But oh man…
The chicken came out incredibly juicy. The skin got deliciously crisp. I periodically basted the bird with the fat captured by the V-grates and channeled into the drip tray. It was so easy to use the drippings while cooking!
If you have a few hours to kill on a Saturday afternoon while you’re mowing the lawn, try this method of hang-roasting meat. It’s a great way to spend time outdoors like a caveman and be the hero come dinnertime.
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To test Puma’s griddle, I made shrimp scampi. The griddle is custom made to fit right into slots in the brasero, so after you have some wood burned down to coals, you just lay the griddle on and start cooking. For the scampi, I sauteed an obscene amount of garlic in olive oil, then tossed in some butter, lemon wedges and fresh parsley along with the shrimp. A bit of white wine for the sauce (and some for the cook), and this meal was underway.
I added a bit more butter then let the sauce simmer down while cooking the pasta inside on my stovetop. As you can see, Puma’s griddle is deep enough to make enough pan sauce to coat a pound of pasta.
The scampi turned out great, and the sauce was perfect for soaking up with some crusty Italian bread.
In all these cook tests I had zero problems with the grate leveling issue from my initial burn-in. I also found it helpful to build the fire in the main cookbox with the grill grates removed and the assembly up and out of the way. That method established the thickest coal bed in the least amount of time. When I was ready to cook, I just transferred the burning logs to the firebox and continued lighting the wood in the firebox while cooking on the grates over the embers.
Another tip: be careful when scraping Puma’s grates clean. Gravity is the only thing keeping the grates inside the frame assembly. That’s great for removing and cleaning them but trickier when scraping. If you scrape back and forth like a madman, the grates can pop out of position. No big deal: Just push them back in place. I had better luck keeping them place by scraping more gently in one direction instead of back and forth.
The Santa Maria grill market has become increasingly crowded in recent years as backyard cooks look for bigger and better wood grilling options. The designs of these grills range from the most bare-bones party-style thin-metal pits with fixed grill grates (ranging in price from a few hundred bucks to over a thousand) all the way up to large heavy-duty brick-lined pits on rolling carts with multiple compartments and variable-height grates with interchangeable grates and griddles, built-in rotisseries, sturdy lids, and even offset fireboxes for more controlled low-and-slow smoking (ranging in price from about a thousand to well over ten thousand bucks).
Puma sits comfortably in the middle of the pack. It’s not the cheapest model out there but at this price point with this construction, functionality and set of features, including the entire cookbox lined with heat-retaining firebrick, the adjustable front door to manage the fire, the dedicated firebox/brasero (also lined with firebrick), the rolling cart, and of course the variable-height V-grates and signature crank wheel, Puma makes an attractive package. The enameled cast iron griddle, fire poker, ash shovel, and tool hooks (all included) are icing on the cake.
Note that Ñuke’s poker and shovel are too long to hang on the built-in tool hooks but they can be stored on the lower shelf of the cart. I also found the tool hooks a bit wide for my favorite spatula and tongs, but if yours have leather hanging straps, they should hang on the hooks just fine.
The fire poker is essential for slamming your burning logs from the top down to shake embers loose so you can scrape the embers into the cookbox under your food. The shovel is equally handy. When you burn down this much wood, you’re left with a lot of ash. I find it helpful to have a dedicated ash bucket nearby. A small steel garbage can does the job, and when it’s full, I dispose of the ashes in the woods behind my house.
I started testing Puma in March and we had a ton of rain that spring so it took a while to do some sustained cook tests. But I can tell you that Ñuke’s rain cover performs admirably! It’s highly recommended if you live in a rainy climate or plan to store Puma outside permanently. Ash + moisture + steel = rust. The most rust-prone area is the brasero, but it’s 1/8″ thick and shouldn’t rust out anytime soon. If it does at any point, it’s easily replaceable.
Ñuke’s packaging and shipping materials were super sturdy. Puma’s crank wheel came pre-mounted and got a little out of whack during shipping. It was easily straightened, but the crank wheel is arguably the most visible bling on a Santa Maria style grill. Hopefully Ñuke’s new QC staffer takes extra care in packaging to make sure the wheel stays straight and secure. Or better yet, pack it separately for consumers to attach. It’s simply a matter of tapping in a slotted roll pin to hold the wheel in place.
Ñuke provides both printed and online assembly manuals. It didn’t take long to assemble the rolling cart. You’ll need 2 people to lift the firebrick-lined grill onto it. After that, you’re all set to fire up the most elaborate and beautiful outdoor wood-grilled meals you ever dreamed of.
Ñuke warrants against any defects in the manufacturing and workmanship to the original purchaser for a period of one year from date of purchase bearing sales receipt.
We thank Ñuke for providing a Puma for our tests.
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Cooked On It
We have hands-on experience testing this product. We have also gathered info from the manufacturer, owners and other reliable sources.
Grill, Combination Grill and Smoker, Pig or Lamb Roaster
475 square inches
Mid-Size(about 23 burgers)
136 square inches
Headquartered in Miami, ÑukeBBQUSA is the exclusive US importer of Ñuke Argentinian-style gaucho grills and wood-fired outdoor ovens. Hand-crafted by Argentinian artisans, the Ñuke lineup brings a modern style and functionality to the centuries-old traditions of grilling on the Argentinian pampas (prairies). Ideal for those who love to play with fire, Ñuke grills bring the authentic flavors and excitement of cooking with real wood or natural charcoal to any backyard or restaurant.
Dave Joachim - Editor of AmazingRibs.com, David Joachim has authored, edited, or collaborated on more than 45 cookbooks, four of them on barbecue and grilling, and his Food Science column has appeared in "Fine Cooking" magazine since 2011. He’s a perfect match for a website dedicated to the “Science of Barbecue and Grilling.”