The relatively new Brazilian tradition of grilling picanha has come symbolize authentic churrasco.
By Suzie Castello
What is a picanha? In American butcher-lingo it has been tragically baptized the “rump cap”. It is a triangular cut from the top of the, that’s right, rump region of the cow, and just like our rumps, it has a beautiful layer of fat. It is not a muscle that moves much during the animal’s life, and so, remains tender. The picanha’s blanket of fat lends the meat flavor and juiciness while protecting it from human error that may occur during grilling. And because it is little known in North America and Europe, a picanha is a relatively cheap and plentiful national secret. Oops. Did I just say something I shouldn’t have?
When one thinks of churrasco, one often thinks of picanha. But oddly enough, it is a relative newcomer to the tradition. It only became popular after it was introduced by Hungarian butchers in São Paulo in the 60s serving immigrant workers at the Volkswagon plant looking to make tafelspitz*. Once Brazilians came to know it they naturally decided to grill it. By the 70s picanha became a sensation and the star of the show at any churracaria. Today it has come symbolize “authentic” churrasco.
If you can get your hands on a picanha, here are a few tips on how to handle the cut in order to get the most out of your grilling efforts.
The best way I can explain how to pronounce it is: pee-con-ya, with the emphasis on the con.
Chose an aged picanha if you can. Dry-aging is not common in Brazil, so I don’t have experience of having it that way. The wet-aged cuts in vaccuum packs are very common here. Great picanhas are exported in this way from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. In Spanish the picanha is called tapa de quadril.
The fibers run diagonally through the meat.
The ideal weight for a whole picanha is between 1.3kg and 1.5kg (2lb 13 oz. – 3lb. 4oz.). Anything larger than that is more than picanha, and surely includes a part of the tougher outer-thigh region running below the rump. The wide end of the picanha is the thickest and the toughest part. The tip is heaven.
To get the full Brazilian churrasco experience, use organic charcoal – the stuff that still looks like it came from a tree. Most Brazilians use reforested, eucalyptus charcoal lit with a couple of wads of newspaper and a good douse of clean-burning, sugar-cane alcohol. We don’t use briquettes or lighter fluid here. Your second option would to get adventurous and make a wood fire. Just be careful that you use a good tasting wood and let your embers burn down to a glow before you grill. Wood fires are hot. The third alternative, and probably the easiest, is a gas grill. It won’t add any flavors, but it also won’t wreck any.
Put some sausages on the grill as soon as you prepare your fire. As we don’t use lighter fluid, we prefer to get the fire going with some dripping pork fat. Fresh Brazilian pork sausage is made with the thigh meat and is very similar to fresh Italian sausage. These sausages are wide enough to take their time on the grill and drip enough fat to get the most timid fire raging. Think of them as a way to whet the appetite, yours and the fire’s.
Score the blanket of fat that covers the picanha.
Score the fatty blanket on the picanha by making criss-crossing cuts into the fatty blanket covering one side of the picanha. Fat behaves differently than meat when cooked. It loses more liquid and therefore shrinks more. By scoring the fat, you can prevent the piece from curling and dis-forming while it grills. I also imagine that it helps to free the liquid deliciousness in the fat allowing to run into the meat fibers.
A whole picanha ready for the grill, prepared restaurant-style
When preparing a picanha for the skewer cut against the grain. The picanha is a big piece of meat and should be cut again at home before it is grilled. If you’d like to serve it on a big skewer like they do in churrascaria restaurants, cut the picanha in 3 pieces on a angle perpendicular to the fibers running diagonally through the picanha. Then bend these pieces into semicircles, fat-side out, and place them on one large oiled skewer. This allows you to slice off delicatley tender pieces wothout having to remove the picanha from the skewer. You can then rub the exposed surface with more rock salt and grill it some more. Every slice will have that outer, salty, crusty grilled deliciousness of the first slice. This is how they do it in churrascaria restaurants.
Picanha cut into steaks to grill home-style.
When preparing a picanha in steaks cut with the grain. If you don’t have the large skewer, you need not fret. You can grill a picanha home-style in thick steaks. This way is not as flashy, but I think the results are superior. When dividing the whole picanha into steaks, cut the meat in the same directions as the fibers. When you slice the grilled steaks to serve you will be slicing across the fibers creating deliciously juicy morsels each with their own little fatty edge.
I have on more than one occasion cut the picanha the wrong way and it was still delicious. Like I said, picanhas are really hard to mess up.
Picanha steaks on the grill
Roll the pieces of picanha in rock salt and nothing more. The tradition of churrasco celebrates the flavors of the meat. Marination or extra seasoning is reserved for cuts that are less tender and flavorful. A picanha already has all the flavor and tenderness it needs. A a little rock salt will seal in its juiciness and enhance its natural goodness. I have found that using table salt or kosher salt I have to use a large amount to do the job of sealing in the juices leaving the meat too salty. Rock salt heats up and reacts like a cooking surface on the meat. It also doesn’t penetrate nearly as much as finer salts resulting in a lightly salty crust. I don’t use anything fancy. I like the kind used for making ice cream.
Grill the steaks fat-side up for a few minutes until a little juice leaks out of the top of the steaks. If you are grilling on the big skewer, both sides are the same, there is no fat-side. Turn the steaks onto their sides to grill for a few more minutes. Finally grill fat-side down moving the steaks away from the hottest part of the fire to avoid over-cooking and to reduce the chance of the fire flaring up from the dripping fat. Grill to your desired doneness. I use the finger poke to know if the meat is done. Try not to puncture the meat when grilling.
Finishing the picanha steaks fat-side down
Remove the finished meats and tap them with the side of a knife to knock off any extra rocks of salt. Let the meat rest a few minutes before slicing.
Don’t be worried about serving the picanha all at once. Just as in the churrascaria restaurants, meats are served a little at a time, as they come off the grill. First serve the sausages sliced for everyone to enjoy a little at a time. Then serve the pieces of picannha as they finish cooking. There isn’t the idea of “that’s my steak, this one is yours” in churrasco. All the meat is sliced and served very socially. Guests can chose the slices that are more rare or more well done. As the picanha was cut into three or four pieces, each steak is a little larger than the other allowing you to control doneness.
Picanha as a part of the churrasco experience.
All this polite sociability may break down when it comes to the tip of the picanha. The tip is special. This precious piece will cook a lot quicker than the larger pieces. Either remove the tip early from the grill and hide it for yourself while the other larger pieces finish, or save the tip to grill last only offering it up once all the guests are sated. As a last resort you could invent some story claiming that according to Tupi-Guarani myth the tip of the picanha traditionally goes to who’s manning the grill.
A slice of picanha dipped in farofa
When talking about the flavors of churrasco, I think the real magic happens on the plate. With other types of cooking the magic happens perhaps in the mixer or the fry pan or the oven. A piece of superior quality meat, from a well-raised animal, grilled to perfection is a beautiful thing. But more than four bites of the same thing, even a beautiful thing, can get boring. With churrasco, a piece of picanha or other cut grilled to reveal all its inner lusciousness, meets its best friends in the playground that is your plate. It finds farofa, the crunchy absorption master made of manioc meal toasted in bacon fat. Think crispy-nutty grits that nab runaway meat juices. Its other best friend is molho à campanha, a kind of vinegary salsa of tomatoes, onions and sometimes bell peppers, that adds freshness and its own tangy juiciness to the mix. These three make a beautiful mess in your plate. Meat slices become encrusted in the molho à campanha-soaked farofa, silverware is forgotten, fingers get licked. This experience is what makes churrasco truly unique.
I make a corrupted version of this great triumvirate. Instead of a traditional molho à campanha, I make a salsa of tomatoes, mango, onions, cilantro, lime juice and jalapeños. Even after 13 years of living in Brazil I can’t shake my California roots. Sometimes we even make tortillas. What’s shocking is that there are quite a few of my friends here that now serve this salsa with their churrasco. Like those Austrian butchers, I guess I’m working on a new version of “authentic”.
*The Wessel family is credited for introducing the picanha to Brazil
Suzie Castello is an American writer living and raising a family in a small town in the mountains just outside Rio de Janeiro. She writes about finding ways to cook, with the regional ingredients, dishes that tell her life story, from childhood in the States to travels abroad, and anything new discovered along the way. She is also the Editor of Da Minha Cozinha, a Portuguese-language blog about honest home-cooking.