By Lisa Flueckiger, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Meat is the key to most Brazilian meals and you won’t find the ritual in a purer form than at a local’s churrasco (barbecue). Cariocas take a deep pride in their approach to the humble barbecue, and knowing how to do it right is priceless if you want to try and dispel the long-held notion that Brazilians barbecue the best.
Chicken hearts and sausages notwithstanding, the king of the grill is undoubtedly picanha, the unmistakably tasty rump cap or sirloin cut of beef with a thick layer of fat that is sold by the dozen in Rio’s butchers and markets. This is the capping muscle above the sirloin and is usually bought in 1.5kg-2kg chunks, has a triangular shape and the fat makes it perfect barbecue fodder.
Buying a good piece of meat is the most important place to begin, though. Chuck Cassie, a Canadian expatriate who has been perfecting how to grill picanha over the last few years, recommends the butcher over the supermarket for the tenderest pieces, such as Ipanema-based Ki Carne (Rua Visconde de Pirajá 251, Ipanema).
When charcoal grilling the picanha (always preferable to using gas), the beef should first be set on the grill with the fat layer facing down and cooked over the hottest coals for around ten minutes to seal the fat layer. Sprinkle water over any flaring flames so as not to overly char the beef.
Next, the picanha is turned over so that the fat sits on top, grilling for around 20 minutes on a lower heat. Thanks to the sealed fat, it will gradually bleed through the meat which according to Cassie “makes a huge difference” and will give you “the most tender steak you’ll ever eat.”
From here, thinly slice and serve as finger food or cut the picanha into steaks and barbecue for longer until they are the way you like. Rock salt can also be added onto the meat before and during the grilling, but in general if the meat is good enough, a lot of seasoning is not needed.
For many Brazilians, barbecuing picanha is an art. “The process of the picanha goes all the way back to how the cow was raised. It is a much more extensive process than just throwing the meat on the grill,” Cassie explained. Doubling up on coals and meat is also advisable, since the key to a good Brazilian summer barbecue is going on as late as people want to stay.
When barbecuing at home it is important to put the meat directly on the grill and not on a skewer as frequently seen in Rio’s meat restaurants. “Restaurants look at the volume, not at quality. [The way they grill it] is not the best way to cook a steak,” Cassie told The Rio Times.
If the picanha fat isn’t as thick as it could be (usually it should be a couple of centimeters high), Cassie deploys a trick called “picanha invertida”, where the meat is cut open and turned upside down, with the fat inside the loaf. Whatever the method, however, as barbecue season draws near, there will be plenty of opportunities to practice the art.