Picanha: What is it?
“Don’t take a butcher’s advice on how to cook meat. If he knew, he’d be a chef.”
Back in elementary school, my friends and I used to play a game during lunchtime called “What mystery meat am I eating today?” I feel like I’ve been playing a slightly less terrifying version of that game since we first went to a churrascaria a month and a half ago : what the heck is picanha? This cut of beef is EVERYWHERE here, and the locals describe it as “the primest of the prime steaks.” It’s always the most expensive cut at restaurants and butcher shops. It’s definitely delicious – so why, with all of my knowledge of meat fabrication and butchering, do I not recognize this cut?
Most people I asked said it simply “doesn’t translate.” Alex said he thought it was the “top sirloin butt steak”, according to the NAMP buying guide. The first english website that I pulled up said that picanha, or “rump cover” as they call it, is one of the most valuable cuts of the cow and for that reason is divided into three separate cuts in the US because of pricing issues. Another site insists that it’s the tri-tip steak. However, a more reputable site had this diagram:
This site actually imports picanha from southern Brazil and has a pretty good explanation of where exactly it comes from: it’s a specific cut of rump – beef which comes from the top of the hind quarters of the animal. Picanha is actually from the Round section and the correct name for it is actually the rump roast, though in the U.S. the fat is usually cut off the top. In England, it’s the top part of the Silverside and Topside sections. Really? I grew up eating rump roast, and I never remember it being this delicious…. I guess we can add this to the list of “foods that suck in America”.
This cute chart is a rollover-flash animation which shows the way Brazilian butchers divide up a cow. It’s in Portuguese, but it’s fun to look at, and not too terribly hard to decipher if you’re patient.
Meat Cuts Chart – I came across this chart (which opens into a PDF file) that decodes the different cuts of meat used by butchers around the world – this could come in really handy for avid travelers. According to this, picanha is the Silverside’s End/Rumpsteak. I’d be really curious to see if anyone could get a butcher in the US to properly cut the picanha – if anyone feels up for the challenge, let us know how the adventure turns out :)
This is how you’ll find picanha in almost every churrascaria : cut into thick (2″-3″) steaks, speared with a long metal sword-like skewer, seasoned liberally with only coarse sea/rock salt, and slow-roasted over the open flame of a barbecue pit until the fat melts into the meat and gets nicely crispy on top, all while the meat inside stays nice and medium-rare. The smell of the fat crisping is almost unbearably delicious – it’s almost painful to realize that American butchers probably sell this prime fat to be made into tallow or animal feed.
Most people here eat picanha with the standard churrasco accompaniments: white rice, farofa, and a vinaigrette (oil, vinegar, herbs like parsley and cilantro, brunoise of bell peppers, tomatoes, etc). The general rule for cooking picanha here is keep it simple. It’s delicious enough on its own, so don’t mask the natural flavor with too much seasoning, intensive cooking methods, or overfabrication.