The Halifax donair is a popular east coast Canadian comfort food with a unique flavour that you won't find anywhere else! It's made with spiced ground beef, tomatoes, onions, topped with a uniquely delicious sweet garlic donair sauce, all wrapped up inside of steamed pita bread! Often compared to gyros, döner kabab, or shawarma, donairs are uniquely Canadian and so very delicious! In this post, I'm going to show how easy it is for anyone at home to cook this delicious dish right in your own kitchen!
I hope you enjoy this recipe! ❤️ If you give it a try, please let me know how it turned out for you in the comments section at the bottom of the page or share a pic of your om noms on Instagram and tag @dishesanddustbunnies! ❤️
*This post has been updated from an earlier version to include new photos and a few tweaks to the original recipe to make it even more scrumptious!*
Introduction to the Halifax Donair
Chances are that if you've never been to East Coast Canada or don't know a Maritimer personally, you've probably never heard of a donair before, and that's a shame because they are amazing! Many of us Maritimers consider it to be one of the east coast's signature dishes!
Well, if you're not yet familiar with the beloved Donair, allow me to introduce you.
Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia in Canada, is famous for its delicious donairs! They can be found at most downtown restaurants and bars or sold by street vendors throughout the city all hours, day and night. Although originating in Halifax, you can also find donairs all across Atlantic Canada in the pizza shops of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
Unfortunately, outside of the Maritimes, it's truly a challenge to find real authentic donairs. Being an East Coaster from New Brunswick myself, now living in the big city of Toronto, this yummy Maritime delicacy is very difficult to find in restaurants around here. So I've spent quite a few years working on my own homemade version!
What is a Canadian “Halifax Donair”?
What's so special about a donair, and how would I describe one?
A donair (similar to the doner kebab) is a type of sandwich or wrap that originated in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The meat is made with spiced beef or lamb that is roasted on a spit and then sliced into thin strips. It is served in a pita bread wrap with tomatoes, onions, and a sweet sauce made from condensed milk, sugar, and vinegar; an optional add-on is shredded mozzarella cheese.
Donairs have also been compared to the Greek gyros wrap and the Middle East's shawarma; however, the meat is all beef and seasoned with different spices. The meat is traditionally cooked on a spinning grill, much like the picture to the right.
Donair sauce is something that's unique to the dish. Its flavour is deliciously garlicky and sweet and is also often used as a dipping sauce for pizza crusts and garlic “fingers”. Garlic fingers are what we Maritimers like to call pizza dough topped with Mozzarella cheese and garlic – they're very similar to cheezy garlic bread slices… BUT even better! 😛
The thinly sliced donair meat is wrapped up in a pita with toppings such as diced tomatoes, diced onion, mozzarella cheese and topped with its traditional sweet and garlicky Donair sauce.
Why do Canadians call it donair?
Donair is the Anglicized form of the Turkish “döner”, which literally means “rotating” – which refers to how the meat is cooked on a turning spit. The exact history of how donairs came to be known as donairs is not known, but as the name is so closely similar to ‘doner', most believe this is where the name originated.
What are the differences between a donair, doner, gyro, and shawarma?
Actually, very little, but there are some very important differences!
A traditional ‘doner,' gyros, and shawarma are made in much the same way as the Halifax donair, but donair is completely different in flavour!
Doner, gyros, and shawarma are made with beef, lamb, or chicken layered upon a large rotating vertical spit which may be flavoured and moistened with suet or fat. The meat is then shaven from the inner surface of the spindle and served into a warmed pita (or flatbread), topped with vegetables and sauces.
There are a few differences that set the traditional Halifax Donair apart from doner, gyro, and shawarma:
- Donair is most often made with beef rather than lamb or chicken.
- Donair meat is seasoned with different spices than doner, gyros, or shawarma.
- Typically the only toppings used on donairs are diced tomatoes and onions. Occasionally, mozzarella cheese is also used as a topping. I've also heard that in some places, lettuce is is also added, but this seems to be very rarely used and not considered a traditional topping.
- Donairs are topped with lots of donair sauce! This sauce is uniquely Canadian and distinctly different from doner, gyro, or shawarmas sauces. If it doesn't use donair sauce, it's not a donair!
The legend behind the Traditional East Coast Canadian Donair (aka Halifax Donair)
Different regions claim to have “invented” the doner, usually as variations of earlier Turkish kebabs, which were adapted to Middle Eastern cuisine such as the shawarma, but in today's post, we'll focus on Halifax's famous donair!
The popular pizza place “King of Donair” in Halifax, Nova Scotia, claims to be the famous dish's inventors. The basic gist of the story goes that in the 1970s a man named Peter Gamoulakos from Greece immigrated to Atlantic Canada and wanted to set up a traditional restaurant with his country's food. He tried selling traditional gyros but unfortunately had little success with the locals. The tzatziki sauce was apparently too sour, and the lamb was too unusual!
So Peter began experimenting and adapted the traditional wrap on his menu to the tastes of the east coast Canadians by using beef for the meat, some familiar spices, and a sweet garlic sauce. The Maritimers loved it and the Donair was born!
If you'd like to know more about the origins of this delicious wrap, check out this awesome article! It's a neat story and quite epic! lol
How to Make a Homemade Donair – Overview
In the recipe at the bottom of the page, you'll find the full instructions on making delicious homemade donairs, but first, here's a quick overview of how easy it is to make this recipe.
Making the meat is actually quite simple, and you don't need to have one of those “spinning meat grill things', also known as a rotating spit!
All you have to do is combine ground beef with the spices in the recipe along with some bread crumbs and form it into a tightly packed oval-shaped loaf and bake in the oven at 300°F for 2 ½ hours. It's essential that the loaf cook for this length of time in order to get the closest taste as possible to an authentic donair.
Once the meat has cooked, it needs to be chilled overnight in the fridge. Chilling the meat overnight makes it much easier to slice thinly and to portion it out, plus it gives more time for the flavors to develop.
The recipe you'll find at the bottom of the page will create enough meat for about 6 good-sized donairs, so I like to portion the meat into separate zip-lock baggies and put them in the freezer. This makes it convenient and easy for the next time we're craving a one!
I've been making donairs according to this recipe for years now and have tested this over and over again to get a flavor that's as close to the authentic Halifax Donair as possible. I'm quite proud of it!
Many of us Maritimers who've moved or relocated across the country think of this as homestyle comfort food, and it helps ease the homesickness just a little bit!
How to Assemble and Serve the Halifax Donair
Detailed instructions on preparing and assembling a donair can be found in the recipe card at the bottom of the page, but first, here's a quick overview of how to do it.
- Heat the slices of donair meat in a frying pan with a little cooking oil.
- While the slices are warming up, take a piece of pita bread and quickly wet both sides under running water. Now quickly, put the pita on top of the meat in the pan while it's cooking. Once the pita has been over the meat for about 1 minute, flip it over and let the pita steam for another 1 minute on the other side. I know this sounds like a weird step, but it's necessary to make sure the pita is soft enough to wrap around all that delicious meat!
- Place the pita on top of a square of aluminum foil, then top with donair meat, diced tomatoes and onions, along with a generous helping of sweet donair sauce! Fold it, then wrap it up in the aluminum foil, and close the ends. Place the donair in the oven for about 10 minutes to keep warm until you're ready to serve.
- When you're ready to eat, peel the aluminum foil away as you eat the donair. Make sure you have lots of napkins in hand – donairs are famously messy and delicious! Proper etiquette calls for using your hands! lol
How to Store Donair Meat
When stored in an air-tight container or baggie in the fridge, donair meat will be good for about a week.
Donair meat freezes very well, and it makes it super convenient to have on hand when you're craving your fix! I like to store individual portions of the meat in small zip lock baggies, then place them all into a more giant bag. Frozen donair meat should keep in the freezer for about 3 months.
Other ways to use Donair Meat
Below are some ideas on using the meat in recipes other than the traditional wrap. As time permits, I'll post these recipes on the blog, so be sure to check back soon!
- Donair Pizza
- Donair oven sub sandwiches – served open-faced is best!
- Donair egg rolls – Greco restaurants back home make these!
Don't forget to keep an eye out for my upcoming recipes for donair pizza, donair oven subs, and donair egg rolls – all using this delicious donair meat!
Other Recipes You'll Enjoy:
The Donair Meat
- 3 lbs lean ground beef
- ¾ cup Italian style bread crumbs
- 1 tbsp ground black pepper (I like to use a little more, usually 2 tbsps, depends on your tastes though!)
- 1 ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 3 tsp paprika
- 2 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp salt
Ingredients to assemble Donairs
- Pita bread (for the wrap)
- diced tomatoes
- diced onion
- Donair sauce – Click here for my Donair Sauce recipe – you might want to make double since 1 recipe of the sauce is good for about 3 donairs. The more, the better!
- Mozzarella Cheese – this is an ingredient that's been “controversial” in the world of donairs. See my note at the bottom of the recipe.
Other things you need
- aluminum foil – for wrapping the donairs. You need to tear off 1 big sheet for each donair you plan to make.
- You're going to need a big stack of napkins… this is part of the experience! haha
How to make the Donair meat
- Preheat the oven to 300°F
- Using a stand mixer (if you don't have a stand mixer see my note below), combine all ingredients and mix well for 10 minutes on medium speed with the paddle attachment.
- Once everything is very well combined, form the meat into a tightly packed oval loaf.
- Place the loaf foil-lined baking sheet and cook in the oven for 2 1/2 hours.
- Allow the meat to rest and cool down to room temperature. Wrap in plastic wrap and allow to cool in the fridge overnight. NOTE: If you can't wait overnight, see my note at the bottom.
- The following day after the donair meat has chilled, cut the loaf into thin slices. I emphasize – thin slices are best.
- When you're ready to make the donair wrap, move on to the next section. You're ready, aren't you… I know you are!
I usually portion out the meat for individual donairs and put them in the freezer for when I want to make some. This recipe is enough to make 6 good-sized donairs.
To make a Donair Wrap
- Before starting, make sure you have all your toppings ready to go. Also, make sure you tear off a big sheet of aluminum foil for each of the donairs you plan to make. Make sure they're big enough to hold everything!
- Take a portion of donair meat and heat the slices up in a frying pan with a tiny bit of oil on low heat. You just want to heat the slices up and not brown them too much – just a little darkened is nice.
- While the meat is heating up in the frying pan, take a pita and quickly wet both sides under running water. Now take the pita and put it on top of the meat while cooking. Once the pita has been over the meat for about 1 minute, flip it over and let the pita steam for another 1 minute on the other side.
NOTE: I know this sounds like a weird step, but it's necessary to make sure the pita is soft enough to wrap around all that meat – plus, you get a bit more of that donair flavour where it's good!
- Take the pita and place it on a square of aluminum foil.
- Top the pita with donair meat and remaining toppings as desired.
- Top with donair sauce. Click here for my Donair Sauce recipe
- Fold the pita around the meat and roll it up (like a giant taco, then fold over). Wrap the aluminum foil around the donair and place it into the oven for about 10 minutes to warm. (I usually set the oven to 350°F to warm them – this is great when you have cheese in them – so melty so good!)
- Repeat these steps for however many donairs you're making.
- Peel the aluminum foil away as you eat the donair. Make sure you have lots of napkins in hand – donairs are famously messy and delicious! Proper donair etiquette calls for using your hands.
If you don't have a stand mixer to combine the meat, that's ok. Use a food processor to make the beef very finely ground, and then you can mix in the remaining ingredients on pulse for a few minutes. Then mix by hand so that it's very thoroughly combined.
If you absolutely positively can not wait to have your donairs and don't have the time to chill the meat loaf overnight, you can use it immediately. In my experience, chilling the meat overnight allows the flavours to develop better, and it also makes it easier to cut into thin slices… and it's best with thin slices. I've made donairs in a rush when I just couldn't wait to get my fix, and they still tasted great… but I still feel chilling overnight creates the best texture and flavour.
Many donair purists insist there is no cheese on a donair. I put cheese on mine sometimes, and it's delicious – so do a lot of other people… Even the original makers of the donair (King of Donair) allow customers to add cheese if they want – let's not argue with King of Donair – if they say it's ok, then why not??
- Prep Time: 20 minutes to assemble and prepare individual donairs
- Category: Main Dish
- Method: Oven/Stove Stop
- Cuisine: Canadian
Keywords: beef, Halifax Donair, Trailer Park Boys, comfort food, wrap,