Lockdown-friendly Halifax-style Donairs (Travel to Nova Scotia Not Required)

Sadly, I have never been to Nova Scotia.

I have never had the chance to have an authentic Halifax donair.

But I’ve made it to New Brunswick and had donairs there a few times. Greco’s does a good job, to my tastebuds at least. Nova Scotians would probably scream blasphemy at that.

Anyway, that will have to be my frame of reference until I can get a Blue Noser over to taste these. (Luckily, I have family who qualify!)

So, what the heck is a donair?

Well, if you’ve never heard of them before, odds are you don’t live in, nor have visited Atlantic Canada. But you’re possibly more familiar with Greek gyros. They’re similar. You could say they’re kinda the same.

The story goes donairs were created by Greek immigrants who found Nova Scotian tastes didn’t align with lamb meat and tzatziki sauce. So they spiced up some ground beef, roasted it the same way on big ol’ spits, and swapped the tzatziki for a sweet, creamy sauce made to compliment the spiced, shaved meat. Is that true? Maybe. Or I could have literally just made it all up. We’ll never know.

Anyway, thank you, whoever came up with the idea. You. Are. Awesome.

The key pieces are the donair meat, a pita, onions, tomatoes, and that sweet, sticky sauce that makes a real mess, even if you’re careful. The way it all comes together … Y.U.M.

Now, most of us don’t have big ol’ commercial vertical rotisseries at home to make a proper 60lb spit of donair meat. Besides, I don’t care how dedicated you are, one family would have serious problems ploughing through that much meat anyway. So, we’re going small, a bit over 2lbs. And we’re just using the oven to cook the meat, then finishing it in a frying pan when it’s time to eat.

I lose authenticity points. I don’t care.

This is perfect for making ahead, refrigerating or freezing, and pulling it out for a quick and delicious weeknight meal. Or to pack in a lunch if you’re going to be somewhere with access to a microwave to heat things up.

It takes a little advanced prep work, but the payoff is worth it. Especially when you can’t just hop your Lear jet to Nova Scotia to grab one on a whim. Particularly as most of the country sits in lockdown and travel restrictions. Thank you COVID-19.

Actually, yes, thank you … for convincing me to give this a try, instead of waiting for an opportunity to head east and buy one somewhere in Halifax!

On with the show …

Halifax-style Donairs

It's the official food of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Inspired by the Greek Gyro, but with simple toppings, and a sweet, tangy sauce that makes them wonderfully messy to eat. The ingredients are so simple that you already have most of them in your kitchen, the rest will set you back maybe 20 bucks. Make it ahead on the weekend and they're quick and easy to heat and eat any night of the week!
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time2 hrs
Cooling Time1 hr 30 mins
Total Time3 hrs 50 mins
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Atlantic Canada
Keyword: apple cider vinegar, donair, donair sauce, garlic, hamburger, onion, sweetened condensed milk, tomato
Author: Chris Pollard
Cost: $20

Equipment

  • Kitchen Aid stand mixer with dough hook
  • Rimmed sheet pan
  • wire rack (cooling rack)
  • aluminum foil
  • Wisk
  • Medium mixing bowl
  • Non-stick frying pan

Ingredients

Donair Meat

  • lbs extra lean ground beef (can use regular/lean, but I prefer less fat rendering out)
  • 7.5 tsp bread crumbs
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 4 tsp granulated garlic
  • 3 tsp onion powder
  • 3 tsp ground black pepper
  • 4 ½ tsp dried oregano
  • ½ tsp ground cayenne pepper (more or less, to your taste)
  • 3 tsp smoked paprika
  • 6 tsp liquid chicken boullion concentrate (dry should work fine if you already have that)

Donair Sauce

  • 300 ml sweetened condensed milk (one can)
  • ¼ cup white vinegar
  • 1 ½ tsp granulated garlic
  • 2 tsp apple cider vinegar

Donair Components

  • 1 pack pitas
  • 2 large beefsteak tomatoes (you want meaty tomatoes, not juicy ones)
  • 1 large sweet onion

Instructions

Prepare the donair meat

  • Set up your stand mixer with the dough hook.
  • Add ground beef and all seasoning to the bowl and mix on medium-low (3-4) for 5 to 7 minutes. Scrape down the sides on occasion, as needed.
  • When the texture of the meat has changed from a ground beef consistency to a homogenous sausage meat texture, it should be thoroughly mixed. You should see a change in appearance while it's mixing. It will start to naturally form a bit of a ball of meat on its own.
  • While that's mixing, line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Or don't, but it makes clean-up super easy if you do.
  • Tear off an extra piece of aluminum foil that will be large enough to cover the loaf of donair meat.
  • Preheat oven to 350°F.
  • Dump the meat onto a clean working surface (counter or cutting board) and knead out all the air that you can, forming the meat into a solid loaf.
  • Pick up the loaf several times and throw it down from about shoulder height to help beat out any air pockets that may be in the meat. This is both fun and therapeutic.
  • Finish forming the meat into a solid loaf and transfer to a wire rack on top of the baking sheet.
  • Cover the meat fully with aluminum foil. Press the foil tightly to the meat, but do not wrap the foil UNDER the meat. You want any fat that renders out to drip off into the baking sheet below.
  • Bake for 2 hours in the middle of the oven. Make your donair sauce. (See steps below.)
  • Remove from oven and let cool.

Prepare donair sauce

  • To a medium sized bowl add one can of sweetened condensed milk and granulated garlic. Wisk together.
  • Add the white vinegar and quickly whisk it in to combine.
  • Add the apple cider vinegar and whisk in quickly. You may want to taste before and as you add it. I did this to MY taste, and my daughter agreed with me. You could stick with plain white vinegar if it's what you have. We really liked the extra tangy flavour of the raw apple cider vinegar, even if it isn't 'traditional.'
  • Cover sauce and refrigerate until you're ready to eat.

Assembling your donairs

  • Once your loaf of donair meat is cooled, use a sharp knife to shave very thin slices off. It helps a lot to cut one end flat, so you can stand it up easily. I also jabbed a couple of skewers down the middle to help stabilize it while I shaved the meat. If you have a meat slicer, you could also just use that to shave slices off. I thought of it too late.
  • Coarsely chop the onion.
  • Coarsely chop the tomatoes. ¼ to ½ inch chunks are good.
  • Heat a non-stick frying pan (I like to use my largest one, to fit more meat at once) over medium to medium-high heat. Add meat in a single layer and fry quickly to re-heat and brown the meat strips.
  • Put your pita on a plate and microwave for 20 seconds on high. Flip it and go another 10 seconds. It should come out warm and soft. Some people also choose to dip them in water and fry in a frying pan to steam/heat/soften the pitas. I'm good with the microwave cheat, personally.
  • Flip the meat to sear the other side.
  • By the time the pita is hot, the meat should be just about ready to go.
  • Add the meat to your pita. Spoon on a little donair sauce.
  • Add a handful of onions and tomatoes, as much/little as you want.
  • Top with more donair sauce.
  • Roll it up and enjoy!

Notes

Yes, if you did this right, it will be delicious and messy. Sauce should drip all over. Probably why they traditionally wrap them in double layers of foil. Keep it over a plate and you’ll be fine.
I used about a half teaspoon of cayenne in mine. Personally, I like spicier, but my wife is very sensitive to that kind of heat. It was a good middle ground. I found it to have enough heat to satisfy, but not so much that she found it too spicy. Left to my own devices, I would probably give it ¾ tsp of cayenne. I like an enjoyable heat, not a barely tolerable heat.  YMMV.
If my Nova Scotia fam gets to trying this out, I’ll report back on how it stacks up to the real deal!
REHEATING UPDATE: While microwaving the pitas works fine, it’s not as good as my ‘next-day’ discovery. Laying the pita on top of the donair meat in the frying pan while it reheats is BETTER!  Put the meat in the pan (medium heat), lay the pita on top, press it down with your hand a bit. About 30 seconds later, pull it off to a plate, flip the meat, the flip the pita and lay it back on the meat. It heats it and steams it all at the same time, giving you a warm, moist, soft pita to roll up around your fillings. And it piggy-backs on something you’re already doing anyway … so zero time or energy wasted!

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