Carne de Sol
“Salt is the policeman of taste: it keeps the various flavors of a dish in order and restrains the stronger from tyrannizing over the weaker.”
-Margaret Visser, 20th century author
Carne de sol (also called jabá) is a type of specialty meat found mainly in the northeast of Brazil – in Portuguese, it literally translates to “meat of the sun”. It’s made by heavily salting an entire side of beef and leaving it outside to air-dry for up to 4 days – nowadays, commercially produced carne-de-sol is more often left in controlled-temperature rooms with a lot of ventilation (consequently, some people call it “carne de venta”, or meat of the wind). Unlike jerky, carne de sol is not fully dehydrated – it still retains about 65% of its original moisture, so although it’s mildly preserved, it’s not shelf-stable. This technique requires an extremely dry climate to allow a dry crust to form quickly while keeping the inside semi-moist, meaning that it can’t be prepared in just any region of the country.
I had been briefly introduced to carne de sol at Mocotó Restaurante in São Paulo – though it’s served very differently up here in Ceará. Instead of being pre-sliced and dripping with butter, most places cut a large chunk and sear it on a flat top. The “steaks” have a very distinctive shape, called “mantas” – it looks like three separate rectangles connected at the bottom. This is because during the drying process, the meat is scored to help the interior dry and to prevent it from going rancid.
Conservation of meat by salt, sun and wind dates back to ancient times and has only relatively recently been overtaken by such preservative methods as refrigeration and freezing. When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil, the indigenous people were not accustomed to preserving foods. The Portuguese, however, had centuries-old traditions of drying and salting food like cod and raisins. Most anthropologists agree that preserving meat is probably one of the first tricks the early settlers taught the indigenous population.
Carne de sol wasn’t some great gastronomic epiphany – like most of the food in Brazil, it was developed as a solution to a problem. Carne de sol became an important part of the diet in areas where workers had to live close to the downtown areas and slaughterhouses. During times of meat surpluses (before refrigeration), they needed to figure out a way to keep the meat from spoiling in an area that was incredibly hot and windy. Ironically, these same conditions have also prevented carne de sol from becoming industrialized – you simply can’t do it just anywhere. The Northeast of Brazil also has an abundant supply of marine salt.
First, the meat (usually beef – sometimes goat or lamb) is butchered according to standard Brazilian butchery. Each part is scored uniformly along the muscle blocks and then across the grain to allow the salt to penetrate more evenly. The pieces are salted with coarse marine salt and stacked on top of each other for 4-6 hours. The pile is inverted (so the salt penetrates both sides and the pressure is even) for another 4-6 hours. Afterward, the meat is washed of all the excess surface salt and hung outside in a well-ventilated space to dry for 12-24 hours. When the meat is ready, it’s usually portioned into more marketable cuts and rubbed with oil to remove the last bits of salt from the exterior – it also helps to improve the appearance of the product. One thing I found really interesting is that if the meat is abnormally dark colored with a higher pH, it usually means that the animal was stressed before it was slaughtered. It also means that salt won’t penetrate normally and it spoils much more quickly than “calm” meat. Happy cows, please!
Carne de sol is still manufactured at the artisanal level in inadequate facilities and without proper control of processing procedures. Consequently the characteristics of the product vary considerably from one region to another and one town to the next. I’ll admit, with all of the strict sanitation training I’ve been through, seeing meat hung in the markets here without any refrigeration… most often crawling with flies… kinda makes me a little queasy. However – carne de sol is delicious, and I always apologize to my intestines after every meal =)
After spending Carnaval weekend at the beach in Canoa Quebrada (which is a really cool little town in southern Ceará), we drove about 5 hours north-east to the city of Sobral, where Alex’s dad lives. It’s a really, really small town situated in the valley. We went for lunch at a really small, humble place on the outskirts of town called Aragão. I wasn’t expecting the place to be decorated in “Best of” awards, but it was – dating back at least 12 years in a row. Apparently, this little restaurant is where every type of person can go for lunch – the doctors, professors, and lawyers along with the construction workers and craftsmen. We ordered their signature dish called “Mistão” to share. Mistão is basically just a mixed grill of different types of meat – theirs had a giant pork chop, carne de sol, and half of a chicken, along with the standard baião-de-dois (rice and beans mixture) and farofa.
In the photo above, the dark meat on the left is carne de sol, the pork is at 12 o’clock, and the chicken is between 3 and 6 o’clock.
The pork chop and the chicken both had this salty, crunchy, dark brown crust, and an incredibly tender, moist, flavorful inside. I was surprised, because most of the meat we’ve ordered from small restaurants in Brazil has always been a little overcooked and dry. I’m not even kidding, it was amazing. We greedily devoured the plate, and I think I accidentally bit my finger as I was licking it clean, hoping for one last taste of the meat. I was totally enthralled by the flavor of the pork, and Alex – who normally hates chicken because it’s so bland – was drooling as the neighboring table received their plates. We called the waiter over and asked “How did you make this so delicious?” (We were really thinking What’s your secret? Is there crack in the batter?)
The woman smiled, and then described the process: “We get a big – really big – pot and fill it with a lot of oil. We get it really hot, and then we drop the pork in. Afterward, we drop the chicken in. Then we rub them with salt. We grill the carne de sol on the flat top. That’s it.”
We instantly got it – deep frying the pork chop renders the pork fat into the oil, which is soaked up by the chicken – which is why the chicken tasted so good. The carne de sol must have been top quality, because it was perfectly tender on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Another fat kid’s dream meal – and another 4-hour sleep coma followed.
I feel really sad that most of you will probably never get to taste carne de sol – the USDA would never approve it for sale in the US. Luckily, my diligent researching has uncovered a recipe for “faux carne de sol” – you can make it at home without the 4-day drying process, and it supposedly has a similar taste and texture to the real thing (though I really recommend coming here!).
- about 2lbs of sirloin (or your favorite cut of steak)
- sea salt
First, you need to remove any bones from the meat and butterfly it so that you end up with two pieces that are about 1″thick each.The meat should be room temperature.
Give your steaks a little massage. Rub the salt into every part of the meat. Be liberal! Cover the meat with cheesecloth or a clean, thin towel, and let it rest on a windowsill (or somewhere else sunny and out of the reach of pets) for up to an hour.
Next, wrap each piece individually in plastic wrap, then stack them and wrap them all together really tightly. Freeze for 12 hours, remove, and immediately place on the grill. Cook over a medium flame for about 15 minutes – you can eat it right away, or let it cool to use in other recipes.
If any of you are adventurous enough to try this, please take a picture and let us know how it goes!