If you want to conclude the summer BBQ season with a beefy bang, what’s the best steak to grill? Chances are good you’ve never even heard of it. Picanha offers the tenderness of a filet with the full-on flavor of a New York strip at a more palatable price point.
But unless you’ve traveled south of the equator or gorged at a churrascaria, you’re probably unfamiliar with the coveted cut which is in short supply stateside.
We chewed the fat with Gabriel Llaurado, co-founder of Meat N’ Bone, the Miami-based online butcher shop that offers not just one, but five different types of picanha (including multiple wagyu options), to find out what makes the signature cut of Brazil (and a favorite throughout Latin America) so special, why it’s so hard to find in the U.S., and tips and tricks for grilling the steak to perfection.
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What Is Picanha?
Located at the rear of the cow, picanha is a proud member of the sirloin family. There are two per animal (one on each side of the rump), each around two to four pounds.
So why isn’t picanha readily available at your local supermarket? It all comes down to regional butchering styles. “In the U.S., the picanha is referenced to the rump, round or loin,” says Llaurado, who notes that the fat cap is removed and the beef is then cut into steaks or ground into burger meat. But in Latin America, the preference is to keep that cap, a defining feature of picanha, intact. The impressive layer of fat (which is trimmed down to around 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch) renders into the otherwise lean meat like a hot stick of butter while it is cooked.
(Though picanana is often confused with tri-tip which lies just beneath it, the popular California won’t have a fat cap.)
American Wagyu Picanha, $75 from Snake River Farms
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How to Grill Picanha
While tracking down picanha may require some effort, cooking it is easy peasy. You can go full-Brazilian by cutting the beef into Pac-Man-shaped slabs and spit roasting them over an open flame. If grilling isn’t an option, simply throw it in the oven. Whatever path you choose, your bound to end up on the road to steak success. “I’ve never seen anyone mess up a picanha,” Llaurado attests.
His preferred method is on the grill (ideally over coals but gas is great as well) keeping the steak intact: “The main benefit of cooking it whole is you will be able to trap the juices in.”
Don’t Trim the Fat Cap
A main reason why cooking picanha is virtually foolproof is that signature fat cap which provides a protective layer that distributes flavor while keeping the meat juicy. While you should feel free to give the bottom of your steak a trim, leave the top alone! “If you took the fat cap off picanha, it just becomes dry meat,” Llaurado warns.
Just Add Salt
Though rubs and marinades are staples in domestic BBQ, South Americans prefer to showcase the quality of their beef by seasoning it with nothing beyond a generous dose of salt. Pat down your picanha with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture then start sprinkling. “You don’t have to overdo it,” says Llaurado. “Just use your hands and rub the salt against [the meat].”
Crank up the grill to high heat to ensure a crispy crust on your picanha.
“We start with the fat cap up because it really allows you to monitor how you’re searing the steak,” advises Llaurado. “For first timers, it’s good because they know that they’re not going to burn the steak.” Let it sit for four minutes. Flip. Another four minutes. You’re golden.
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Apply Indirect Heat
For the remainder of the cook, move the picanha over to indirect heat for another 20-40 minutes depending on the size of the steak. This time it’s fat side up for the full duration—no need to flip. “You’re going to have that fat dripping inside the steak and that’s what’s going to give it a lot of flavor and a lot of juiciness,” says Llaurado.
Keep a thermometer handy to monitor the progress of your picanha. “It’s hard to know if it’s cooked inside,” Llaurado notes. “You’re going to have some grill marks. You’re going to have some burn going. If you have a thermometer you want to be at anywhere between 125 to 130 and that’s medium rare.”
Thermapen Mk4, $99 from ThermoWorks
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Slice and Serve
Once your meat hits your desired temperature, Llaurado recommends two methods for serving picanha. You can simply remove the whole shebang from the grill, let it rest for 10 minutes to let those juices circulate, then start cutting against the grain. (Note, eating the fat cap, which at this point will be soft on the inside with a crisp exterior, is encouraged.)
Llaurado, whose wife happens to be Brazilian, prefers to go slice by slice straight from the grill.
“Traditional South American BBQ is about sharing and it’s about continuously cooking,” he says. “You’re not sitting down to have a meal. You’re always eating.”
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Header image courtesy of Tatyana Sidyukova / Getty Images