In ancient Attic Greek the g is hard, so that it is gyearow. In modern Greek things have softened a bit so that it is more nearly like gyroscope, a j-ish sort of sound. Either way it is γύρος, which means “turn”. Most of us have seen the large piece of meat on a vertical spit turning in front of a vertical burner.
There are a couple of misconceptions regarding this tasty delicacy. First off – it is not particularly ancient. It is, in fact, a relative of the Turkish doner kabob, which is 19th century. Remember – the Ottoman Empire occupied Greece until 1821 or thereabouts. Now none of the participants will admit it, but 90% or better of Middle Eastern culture is a derivative of Greek and Persian with local traditions for flavor. The Achaemenid Empire was only the first of many. The Achmaenids firmly imposed their culture on others, thereby giving a consistent base to the region. Ever wonder why Jesus and the rest spoke Aramaic? That was the court language of the Achmaenid Empire. The Empire of Alexander and his successors had a firm policy of integrating Greek and local custom. The Ottoman was the last of a cruel succession of Moslem Empires which mixed with the local customs. Anyway, the point is that the cultures and foods of the modern Middle East is an amalgamation of all of the previous occupiers and most of them are similar culturally and culinarily (and hate each other’s guts).
Secondly, people think that this thing is some sort of lamb roast. It is not, it is a lamb (usually) meat-loaf. There are three main parts to the construction of a good gyro as we tend to think of them in this country: the meat, the sauce, the bread. So, let’s tackle them one at a time.
The meat can be considerably varied, but here is one fairly easy method that will produce a satisfactory result. This will make a small loaf, just scale it up as necessary.
½ medium onion rough chopped
1 lb ground lamb (better if you grind your own). Do keep a fair amount of fat in the mix or the loaf will be dry.
3 fair sized cloves minced garlic
1-1/2 tsp dried marjoram
1-1/2 tsp dried, crushed rosemary
1 tsp kosher salt
6 or more grinds black pepper
Put the onion in a processor and turn into a mush. Put the mush into a tea towel and wring all the juice out of it and discard the juice. Throw the onion back into the processor and add all the rest of the ingredients and process for a minute or so until you have a paste. Put the mix into a meatloaf pan and really mash it down. You might also want to try weighting the mix down with another pan with a weight in it. Put the pan into a water bath and cook for about an hour and 15 minutes in a 325°F oven. This should put you around 165°F internal temp. Let the thing sit for about 20 minutes or so. This should get you to about 175°F internal temp. For the nice crisp brown outside that you get from the vertical roasters run the meat under the broiler for a few minutes per side. Get it nice and crispy but not burned.
Next, we will look at tzatziki sauce. Greek: τζατζίκι.You will want to make this ahead of time. If you can find Greek yogurt then there is no need for the first step. This stuff is also dandy over souvlaki or any other meze (appetizer). You can add other herbs at will. Particularly nice with dill or parsley. Think of it as Greek mayonnaise, they use it about the same way we do the mayo.
½ lb plain yogurt
½ medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped fine
pinch kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbs olive oil
2 tsp good rough red wine
4 to 6 mint leaves, shredded
Spread a non-fuzzy tea towel over a strainer over a bowl, put the yogurt into the towel and let it drain for 2 to 4 hours in the refrigerator. You don’t need the preceding if you have found Greek yogurt. Mix up everything and let it sit covered in the refrigerator until needed.
Pita bread. You can buy this if you want, but the fresh made is better.
1 pkg. Yeast
1 Tbs sugar
½ cup warm water
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt
1 cup warm water
1 Tbs olive oil
Bloom the yeast and sugar in 1/2 cup of warm water and set aside, covered, for 15 minutes. Dissolve salt in the remaining 1 cup of warm water. In a large mixing bowl, add flour and make a well in the center. Add yeast mixture and salt water. Knead with hands for 10 minutes in the bowl. Alternately put everything into a mixer with a dough hook for 3 minutes or until the dough climbs the hook. Add olive oil and continue to knead until all oil is absorbed. Shape into a ball in a greased bowl, cover, and place in a warm area to rise until doubled in volume, approximately 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Punch down the dough and knead for 5 minutes more. Preheat oven to 350°F, and lightly oil baking sheets. If you have a baking stone it is better, use that and forget about the baking sheets. Take pieces of dough slightly larger than an egg and mash out on a floured surface to a thickness of 1/4 inch. (For larger or smaller pita bread pieces, take more or less dough). 7″ rounds. After the initial shaping it is easier to pat the rounds back and forth between your hands like mini-pizzas. Place on baking sheets and cook on the lowest oven rack for 2-3 minutes, then turn the pitas over and bake for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a tray covered with a clean dishtowel, with another clean towel on top. When thoroughly cooled, pitas can be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator, or frozen. They are better fresh.
Slice up some onions thin. Shred some lettuce. Slice tomatoes into thin pieces. The bread should be room temp, the sauce cool, the meat warm and crispy. Cover the center of the bread with thin slices of meat and a bit of the veggies with a spoonful of sauce. Roll up the bread into a cylinder that can be handled. Enjoy.