Meet the discada, ‘like a cast-iron skillet on steroids’

Noelle Carter
Los Angeles Times

Discada. Cowboy wok. Disco. Gwok. Plow disc cooker. Cajun wok. Disc grill. Outdoor wok. Disc.

Familiar with any of these names? If not, don’t sweat it. Until recently, I was one of many outdoor cooking enthusiasts who had never even heard of the terms. However, if you are familiar, you’re one of a small but growing number of passionate cooks who revere discada cooking, a style found in pockets of the American Southwest but similarly replicated around the world.

So, what is “discada”?

The name is one of a number of terms given to cooking outdoors on a converted plow disc — yes, those same discs mounted behind tractors and used to till and prepare the ground for farming; the term also refers to a mixed meat dish traditionally prepared on a plow disc that is popular in northern Mexico. Do an internet search and you’ll turn up chat rooms and online forums, social media pages and dedicated websites, as well as a few commercial producers and custom fabricators.

“I’ve known about this type of cooking since I was a little kid,” says Mike Montana. “I remember my father and much older brother having a 20-inch little disc. It was pitted, a rinky-dink little thing.”

Originally from Luling, Texas, Montana now runs a popular discada site on Facebook. Started about five years ago, the site counts over 1,500 members who share everything from tips to recipes, as well as custom and commercial discada setups.

While he wasn’t much of a fan of discada cooking as a kid, Montana came to love it after he entered the professional barbecue circuit. “When you’re at competitions, you kind of want to eat something that’s not been smoked or put on the grill after a while. The disc cooker’s perfect. It’s easy to make breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever we want, really quick.”

History: While cooking on a plow disc may sound unusual, it’s nothing new. Discada cooking in the Southwest dates back more than a century, with much of the lore reaching back to the construction of the railroads in the late 1800s.

“A majority of the railroad workers coming through New Mexico and Texas were Chinese,” says Montana. “When they would take their lunches, they’d use a wok. We didn’t have the same woks they had, but we had these plows. We filled in the disc holes and turned them into cookers.”

While wok cooking may have inspired some discada cooking in the American Southwest, David Hartford, founder of Southwest Disk, a New Mexico-based company that sells the discs, stresses that plow disc cooking is found in many places throughout the world. “They do it all over. In Finland it’s a real big thing,” Hartford says. “I sell a lot in Uruguay, and it’s really big in Argentina and Mexico. Ever since discs have been used to plow fields, it’s been there.”

Hartford also stresses that a cook shouldn’t approach a discada the same way as a wok. “A wok is really thin metal. It’s good for flash cooking,” he notes. “A disc is a lot thicker. You’re looking at almost a quarter-inch thickness.” He recommends approaching a discada in the way one would cook using a skillet or frying pan.

Recipes: As for dishes, it’s easy to find recipes for almost anything using a discada. Fajitas, chicharrones and other Southwestern dishes are popular, as are recipes for dishes such as chili and gumbo. But you’ll also find methods for crab cakes, popcorn, pizza and pancakes.

“It’s great with heat regulation,” says Hartford. “I’ve topped one disc with another and it works just like an oven.”

“I cooked at a UT (University of Texas at Austin) tailgate on my giant disc,” says custom discada fabricator Luis Buentello. “In one day we did breakfast tacos, fajitas and then deep-fried chicken wings — in minimal oil. Just like that. The people next to us were like, ‘I gotta have one of those.’”

One note when cooking: Because of the material and thickness of the disc, I’ve found it doesn’t heat evenly all over. While the center is great for higher-heat cooking, the outer edges of the disc work well to keep cooked foods warm. A lot also depends on the power of the heat source underneath.

Seasoning: Discadas are generally made of pressed carbon-steel plow discs, and typically range from 22 to 24 inches. Like cast-iron cookware, they “season” over time as they are repeatedly heated, absorbing oil and flavor through the metal’s “pores.” As they are used, the discs take on a darkened patina as layers of seasoning build up.

And like a well-seasoned cast-iron pan, discs are relatively easy to clean: after using, wipe out the disc to remove excess food. The first time I used a new disc, I was amazed at how easy it was to clean, even without a layer of seasoning. If any food happens to stick, add some water and heat until the food comes loose, then scrub and wipe clean.

Look online, and you’ll also find a variety of discs to choose from, from very shallow discs to deeper, more spherical options. You will also find discs with scalloped edges, often called “Roman discs,” traditionally used to break through hard-packed ground. “Shallow discs are good for anyone who likes to saute, sear or blacken. They’re good for fajitas, and also for tortillas, since the tortillas won’t slide down the middle,” says Buentello. Deep discs, he notes, are better for deep-frying, or when making a sauce-based dish or gravy. Some discs also come fitted with a raised lip around the edge; the lip helps to contain food, keeping it in the disc as you stir the dish while it cooks.

Growing trend: While discada cooking may still be a niche thing in many parts of the States, it’s growing quickly. Hartford, who made his first discada setup while his son was in the Boy Scouts, has been in business for about 20 years, and quickly focused on the online market. “We went from maybe one or two discs a week to, well, now it’s 30 or 40 discs a day. And I ship all over the world, as far as Europe and Asia.”

Brothers Hunter and Griff Jaggard founded Houston-based FireDisc in 2010. They also started small, catering to a local market. Now, the company is perhaps the most recognized commercial discada company in the country, available in 700 stores in 44 states, including Home Depot and Cabela’s.

Of course, as with anything involving the outdoors and live fire cooking, there is a passionate market for custom creations.

Buentello has created thousands of custom renderings for customers, and has fabricated hundreds of discada setups. His creations, with options that can include 200,000 BTU jet burners and discs as wide as 48 inches, range from about $450 to more than $1,200. He ships all over the United States, as well as to customers and military outposts all over the world.

A burner comes with some of the discadas, but you can also purchase the disc separately and use it over any heat source, indoors or out. Southwest even offers a Roswell Disk with tripod legs to cook directly over coals or a campfire.

One warning: Once you’ve invested in one, you’ll probably want more.

I’m still breaking in my first discada and I’ve already ordered a second.

I can’t wait to take it for a spin.

Steak fajitas

Time: 45 minutes, plus marinating time

Serves: 4 to 6

2 to 4 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, or as desired

5 cloves garlic

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

3 green onions, chopped

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1/2 cup canned or fresh (skin removed) diced tomatoes

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup orange juice

1/2 cup canola oil, plus more for cooking

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

21/2 pound skirt steak

Sliced bell peppers and onions, for serving

Small corn or flour tortillas, for serving

Crumbled queso fresco and/or Mexican crema, for serving

Pico de gallo or salsa, for serving

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the chipotle chiles, garlic, cumin, green onions, cilantro, tomatoes, lemon, lime and orange juices, oil, salt and pepper. Puree.

Rub the marinade all over the skirt steak, then place in a large resealable plastic bag with the marinade and refrigerate 2 to 4 hours.

Remove the bag from the refrigerator 1 hour before grilling to allow the steak to come to room temperature.

Heat a discada or grill over high heat, and coat with a thin film of oil. Grill the steak until medium-rare, 4 to 6 minutes on each side. (For lower-heat burners, it might be easier to slice the steak prior to grilling to insure the pieces sear properly and don’t simply simmer in their juices while cooking.) Remove the steak and slice crosswise across the grain into thin strips. Meanwhile, grill the sliced peppers and onions until charred and softened.

Remove the steak and vegetables from the discada. Lightly oil the discada and warm the tortillas on both sides. Serve immediately, along with the steak fajitas, vegetables, cheese and pico de gallo.

Note: From Noelle Carter.

Pork Chili Verde

Time: 11/2 hours

Serves: 4 to 6

4 poblano chiles

6 Hatch chiles (or 4 Anaheim and 2 jalapenos)

1 pound bacon, coarsely chopped

2 pounds tomatillos, peeled and quartered lengthwise

2 onions

1/3 cup garlic cloves, peeled

1 cup beer

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1 bunch green onions, chopped

21/2 pounds pork tenderloin, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes

4 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons lard or canola oil

1 quart chicken broth, more as needed

Roast the chiles: Heat the discada until hot. Roast the chiles until blistered and charred on all sides. Place in a plastic bag until cool enough to handle, then rub off the charred skin (do not wash, or this will remove flavor). Seed and coarsely chop the chiles, then set aside.

Heat the discada over medium-high heat until hot. Add the bacon and cook, stirring frequently, until the fat is rendered and the bacon begins to crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the tomatillos, onions and garlic cloves. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender and the tomatillos begin releasing their juices, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the beer, scraping up any flavoring from the surface of the discada. Remove from heat.

Puree the vegetables, along with the chiles, cilantro and green onions in a food processor (this will probably need to be done in batches).

Season the tenderloin cubes with the salt and several grinds of pepper.

Heat the discada over medium-high heat until hot. Add the lard and brown the pork on all sides. Add the vegetable pure, along with the chicken broth. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pork is tender and the chili is thickened, 15 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and serve.

Note: From Noelle Carter


Time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4 to 6

1/4 cup canola oil

1 onion, thinly sliced lengthwise

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 jalapeno, chopped (more to taste)

2 cups coarsely chopped tomatoes

4 zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch slices

4 ears corn, leaves and silk stripped, and cut crosswise into 1-inch slices

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth, more if needed

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano

Crumbled queso fresco, for garnish

Heat a discada over medium heat until hot. Add the oil, then the onion, garlic and jalapeno. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are translucent, 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir in the tomatoes, zucchini, corn, salt, pepper and cumin, along with 1 cup broth. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 7 minutes. Add additional broth if needed. Stir in the oregano. Remove from heat; check seasoning.

Place the vegetables on a serving platter, sprinkle with the cheese and serve immediately.

Note: From Noelle Carter.