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Picanha: What is it?

January 3, 2010

“Don’t take a butcher’s advice on how to cook meat. If he knew, he’d be a chef.”

-Andy Rooney

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?


Picanha, our "mystery meat of the day"

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:

Picanha Diagram

Picanha - this is where it comes from

US Beef Chart

This is how butchers in the US divide up a cow

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 🙂

Picanha, Churrasco-style

Picanha, Churrasco-style

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Kalosky permalink
    March 18, 2010 1:33 am

    Love the page…I have been following your travels for a while and this site, but I haven’t got around to emailing or commenting. It’s great to see you guys doing well. I am so jealous of the exotic foods you are getting to experience and explore. Keep up the work on site, it’s great knowledge. I will make it down there some day within the next two years, so don’t go anywhere and I will try to stay in touch more often. Miss you both, good memories with you two.

    • March 18, 2010 9:55 pm

      Aww, Adam, thanks! We miss you too. You’re always welcome wherever we are – you’d love it here, there’s so much to learn. Is Colorado still treating you well?

  2. April 13, 2010 9:01 pm

    Interesting that one site thought it was tri-tip. I had never heard of that before last week when my local butcher started carrying tri-tip and cooking it every Thursday. It doesn’t look like your Picanha but it is a delicious cut of meat.
    We cook it at 225 for 3 hours in foil – cut it razor thin, and serve it on a crustini with Dijon mayo! That is good eating.
    Love your blog

    • Alex permalink
      September 13, 2010 3:34 pm

      Tri-tip is not picanha, it is actually what we in Brazil call “maminha”.

  3. Neil permalink
    September 10, 2010 7:43 pm

    It’s a rump “cap” or “cover”. Very hard to find except in Argentinian or Brazilian butcher shops, which usually have lower quality meat. I’ve had such a time trying to explain to butchers what it is, only for them to tell me they can’t order it because then they’ve got nowhere to sell the leftover round.

  4. geoffrey swain permalink
    October 19, 2010 10:15 pm

    Here in Algarve we take pleasure in 1. Picanha 2. Maminha……they are available cuts of meat also grown in Europe…e.g. Picanha…top of the rump with the fat capping …. essential in the rotary grilling of the meat, as it bastes in it’s own ‘juice’…..and is not the same grilled as a flat piece of meat. Furthermore on the metal sword ‘spit’, it is cut as a slice, and goes back under the grill to rotate again for the next slicing….there lies the secret….take it cooked to rare as you prefer. Ideally the meat should be grown ‘on the hoof’ and not the ‘feed lot’…..the animal is thus free range to live it’s life.

  5. July 15, 2011 2:07 am

    Picanha is not necessarily the most expensive and tender meat cut.
    It is one of the most delicious one because of the fat cover that gives a lot of flavour to the meat.

    In Australia, you can find in Portuguese butchers and it is really inexpensive, but it might come from lower quality meat (not sure). Most of the time I buy it is really good. Only one time, the meat was not that great.

    Btw, you post was spot-on on serious gaucho eating stuff. I find it a sin to eat meat well done and adding anything else than salt.

  6. Mark Ellis permalink
    July 18, 2011 7:34 pm

    Hi, I had the same problem in the USA, but since I had the “anatomy” down on where the piranha lays, the butcher at the local grocer here in Centennial identified it has the cap of the top sirloin. It is an inconvenient piece of meat for American butchers and barbequers, so I actually could purchase it for $1 less than the rest of the sirloin when on sale. The butcher said he normally cut it up for kabobs or stewmeat–a travesty!!! I assure you, it “grilled” up very, very nicely! Same flavor, if not better with American, grain-fed beef. However, because American beef is so much fatter, have the butcher cut the cap of fat to 1/4 to 1/2 thickness. Otherwise, it you could end up purchasing a lot of fat.

  7. Lelo Alonso permalink
    August 30, 2011 12:43 pm


    Great job.

    Here in US, I usually buy the whole piece of top sirloin at Costco. The Picanha is the top part covered in fat. You can separate the Picanha with your own hands. Then you have to clean it a little bit,and its ready for the grill.



  8. Shaun permalink
    September 27, 2011 11:57 pm

    The Picanha is the cap of the Top Sirloin Butt Roast, more specifically, the Culotte muscle. As the Culotte is not removed from the roast to attain the Top Sirloin, it’s availability can be scarce.

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