Picanha

The national steak of Brazil and how to find and prepare it at home.

Brazil was my part-time home for about 10 years and during that time I learned about this delicious cut of meat, which was served everywhere.  Outside of Brazil this particular cut has proved more difficult to locate.  I reasoned that the cow is not any different and I have finally found a local purveyor that can get you the “sirloin cap but with the fat cap still on”  This very flavorful and tender cut is referred to in Brazil as picanha!  The word is derived from the wooden pole that South American cowboys used to move cattle along.

Picanha pre-preparation, should be 2-3 lbs, and smaller is better.

WK Price Farms has the picanha already, and they serve the Grand Strand area, where I live now.   I believe responsible harvesting includes locally sourced meat, which is good for the environment, good for local business, and a better life for the cow.  You know, farm to table.

Here’s how to prepare what is sure to become your favorite steak.

Remember: start your project at least a day early because you need to do an overnight dry brine.  If it’s frozen you will need to take it out of the freezer a few days prior and move it to the fridge.  On day four prepare for dry brining (below) and put in the fridge one more day.

Prep: 

Trim silverskin membrane on the non “fatcap” side and around edges but leave the fatcap on.

Turn the meat fatcap down and make sure the meat grain is running up and down as you face it and locate the 3 vein holes that go across from right to left.  Yes, when it’s cut in a moment, it will be with the grain.    

The Picanha is the part from vein hole #1 to vein hole #3.   If you are not able to locate these, just skip down to the “Easy Version”

The areas to the outside left and right of the vein holes is called colchao duro (pronounced colshun duro which means “hard cushion”) – which is fine to eat but it is not as tender as the inside 3 cuts which are the actual picanha.   You want to make sure you don’t get confused later about which pieces are the best.  It’s also why outside of Brazil many people think the sirloin cap is tough.

The whole piece of meat is sort of a triangle but there is a clear “point” of it.  That point will be on the left or right as you face it (not the top or bottom). If you look at the picture of the whole packaged picanha at the beginning, the point is to the right.

That pointy side includes the small end colchao duro (and will eventually become one or two short pieces). The opposite side should be around the same length as the picanha but it will likely be thinner when cut.   That being said, if the butcher cut a larger than necessary “picanha” that may not be the case.   Regardless, the 3 center pieces you cut (as defined by the vein “holes”) will be the actual picanha.

So place the fatcap side down on the cutting board, and orient it so that you are cutting with the grain.  My first cut goes right through vein hole number 1 going my second cut is right down through vein hole # 3.  Now you should have 3 large pieces – 2 outside colchao duros and the center is all picanha.  

Depending on the size the picanha center piece should be cut (in the same direction as the previous cuts) into 3 equally thick pieces, probably an inch to 1.5 inch thickness.   The colchao duro should also be cut (in the same direction) but just remember which is which if it’s not obvious by size and shape.  

Easy Version: orient the meat so the pointy part is to your right, the fat is facing the cutting board.  Use the knife to cut with the grain, you can simply slice from right to left in equal size slices and designate the center cuts as picanha.

Next step is Dry Brine:

Apply kosher salt or rock salt on both sides of the steaks.

After salting, place the steaks on a rack in a sheet pan and put them in the fridge overnight.  Do not cover.

Wait 12-24 hours, and they should have a mahogany color and “candy” shine.  This is the result of the dry brine and how it is supposed to look:

These are not yet grilled, they were just flipped over after the dry brine, and the lines are from the rack.

A little before you are ready to start grilling, pull out the sheet pan and steaks so they can come to room temperature while you preheat the grill.

Depending on the type of grill, you want to make sure you are able to cook on indirect heat and not directly over flame (or over a very low setting).   That is for phase 1.  For phase 2, you will need to be able to cook over the direct high heat. 

Phase 1:

On our gas grill we have 4 burners.  The right 2 burners we put on high, and then the left two burners the most left is very low and the inside left is off (for now).

As the grill gets warm, you can season (and reduce stickiness) by getting the very smallest piece of colchao duro with a pair of tongs, and rub the fatcap side along your grill grates.   I also like to find a corner of the grill (hot side) and put a piece of mesquite for a little smokiness, but that is not necessary on a charcoal grill.

Now bring all the steaks to the grill, and put them on their edge, fatcap side on the grill facing down, on the hot side of the grill for about 30 seconds to score the fat and start the rendering process.

Immediately move them over to the indirect heat side and give the picanha pieces the best spots: on the left side (cool side) where there is no flame, but as close as possible to the hot side of the grill.  Make sure the fatcap end is facing the hot side of the grill as you place them.  Then you can fit in the colchao duro, and those pieces can go further left or back as needed, but all steaks should now be on the low heat side.

We are slow cooking these at low heat (for the first round), so this should be only a few minutes until the internal temp is 80 degrees fahrenheit. 

Then flip the steaks but do it in a way that keeps the fatcap towards the hot side.  Once flipped, it should be only a few more minutes until the internal temp is 110 degrees fahrenheit.  Then pull off the steaks and put them on a clean rack.

Slow cooked picanha, pre-searing

Phase 2:

Bring the entire grill up as high as it will go (500 degrees or higher).

While the grill is coming to the new temperature, take a paper towel and pat dry the steaks. Then brush the steaks with a light coat of olive oil.  

Once the grill is hot, sear all of the steaks for 1 minute and then flip them over for 1 more minute.  

Pull them off of the grill and let them stand on the clean rack for about 5 minutes.   They should now have an internal temperature of 120 to 125 degrees.

Next, we are going to cut them against the grain (for tenderness), into half inch thick or short strips.  It is very important that you leave the little fatcap on each of the strips:

You can serve with Chimichurri sauce if you like but really it will need nothing at all and be tender and delicious! 
I recommend eating that little piece in one or two bites, and most definitely with the fat.

And now you know a little more about Brazil and you can bring a little home!   You can also go to a Brazilian restaurant* and they will serve this specialty!  Or you can just go to Brazil!

Here I am near my home in Fortaleza, Brazil circa 2001, holding my son Avery and my niece Dreielle.

*if you are at a Brazilian style “rodeo” restaurant, they will bring the picanha to the table on a skewer, still in the steak form (horseshoe shape on the skewer) and they will slice it for you when you say which temperature you prefer.

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