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Piquant Picanha: Steaking out a muscle you’ll love



Piquant Picanha: Steaking out a muscle you’ll love

Photo by Fábio Alves on Unsplash

Move over, sirloin, rump and rib-eye – picanha has hit town. As for you, fillet, take a back seat.

If sirloin is the paso doble, refined yet simple in execution, and rib-eye is a saucy salsa, pleasing to both eye and senses, then T-bone must be flamenco with its mix of dance, snapping fingers and clapping, ever a confusing steak to cook. Rump, ubiquitous as it is and prized by many, must be a freestyle Spanish dance, made up of a bit of this and a bit of that, and a cut that often defies the cook to get it tender all over. Fillet. Well. A simple foxtrot maybe. Nothing too complicated, easy to learn.

But… Enter the picanha, a cut of beef that’s as feisty as a flamenco queen burning up the floor to El Tango de Roxanne from Moulin Rouge. The picanha has one particular thing (among others) over the rump: Unlike the rump, it is made of only one muscle, which makes it much easier to cook to perfection. But there’s more to it than that.

Until this week, I’d never heard of a picanha cut of beef. But there’s nothing like a learning curve. Here’s what transpired.

A little taste of Brazil came into my Karoo kitchen this week, courtesy of my local Spar butcher having got hold of a cut of beef called the picanha. This cut, which is a single muscle from the rump next to the tail, includes a thick layer of fat, and this “cap” of fat is essential to the cut’s flavour and quality.

The term derives from “picana” (no “h”), the name of a pole that was used by farmers in the Alentejo area of Portugal and Spain when herding cattle. They’d prod the beasts at the tail end. Wikipedia informs us that the term, when shipped to Brazil, came to be used for the now famous cut of meat, its spelling slightly changed over time.

Picanha – the beef cut – is slowly making its way into our butcheries and supermarkets, and on to the occasional restaurant or steakhouse menu, but it deserves to be far more widely known and appreciated. I tried it this week for the very first time, and am immediately won over.

Butchers everywhere, listen up: we need the picanha to catch on. It is a sublime piece of beef if you’re looking for a steak packed with flavour as well as being juicy and tender. Home cooks and restaurateurs, if you don’t know the picanha, it’s time to investigate it and get it on your menus. Spur steak ranches, you too.

It transpires that it’s also called rump cap, rump cover, top sirloin cap, coulotte/culotte, and is not to be confused with the top sirloin, which is the cut a little further along the beast’s back, as in further away from the tail. Meat cuts are difficult to understand at the best of times, and complicating things further is that cuts have different names in different countries; butchers in different countries cut up the beast in different ways, and the same cut even has more than one name in some countries.

But in Brazil this cut is the picanha, and it abuts (pardon the expression) a cap of fat which sits next to the tail, and to cut off the fat would be a travesty. More technically, it’s the M. biceps femoris muscle and its cap of fat. Traditionally, I read to my horror, butchers have been in the habit of cutting off and discarding the layer of fat right at the tail. And in the US, butchers generally cut off the fat when selling a slab of picanha, unless the customer requests that the fat stay on. Americans, as we increasingly know, do not always get things right. But enough of politics.

Perhaps surprisingly, what Brazilians call the picanha is a part of the traditional British topside cut, a favourite for the ubiquitous roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. The picanha is only a small part of an American cut called the round, which stretches right across the beast from tail to underside. In France the Brazilian picanha cut is a very small part of the amusingly named “rumsteck”, which includes the sirloin. But cook a slab of picanha, taste it, and you’re likely to agree that Brazilians get it right.

Many steak fans prize the sirloin above all else, including rump, because the rump consists of more than one muscle and is consequently difficult to cook evenly; like a T-bone, one part requires slightly different cooking techniques from another, yet it is one piece of meat so you’re inevitably going to have part of it more tender than another. The picanha, being one muscle, with its generous layer of fat, avoids that problem, and the cooking of it this week was proof of it. The rump, by comparison, comprises five muscles.

If you see fat on meat as a negative, something to be avoided or done away with, you’re missing out on the flavour and tenderness that it brings to the meat while cooking. And the fat has everything to do with how the picanha is cooked, traditionally, which is something I did not know until I learnt so this week through lots of googling and then putting everything I’d read aside and getting into the kitchen.

Just one thing: cheap it is not. At R159.99/kg from my local Spar, it comes at a not-so-pretty price. Having said that, the 1.2kg picanha I bought would have fed four easily, so that weighs in at R40 a portion. It’s a cut for when you’re feeling flush or generous.

So, in front of you, you have a more or less triangular piece of beef called a picanha. It has a thick layer of fat on top and, beneath, a membrane. The latter you can remove carefully with a sharp knife (don’t stab the flesh), but do not interfere with the fatty side.

First, salt the fat side and the underside very well. Picanha experts point out that you should not use anything but salt on the meat, as it has a delightful flavour all of its own. It is, however, a great choice to eat with a traditional chimichurri sauce, from Argentina, so we’re mashing up our cuisines a bit here.

Now, I made a mistake, it turns out. Before having done sufficient googling to find out more about how to cook it, I had already cut my slab of picanha into steaks of about 3cm thickness. Traditionally, however, the picanha is cooked whole, first on the fatty side, then on the underside, over a very high heat. No matter – I followed the top-and-bottom rule anyway, and everything came out just fine.

Once salted and left to stand for an hour or two, at room temperature and uncovered, you score the fat from one end of the fat to the other, and then across. I salted it a bit more once this was done.

Then, put a pan or skillet on a very high heat (I use gas) and wait until the pan is very hot. Then put the meat in, fat side down, and leave it for four or five minutes, for the fat to become beautifully crisp and golden brown.

Then, turn it to cook on the opposite side for three or four minutes.

Now, remove it to a board over a tray or whatever arrangement you like to avoid the running juices ending up on the floor.

With a very sharp knife, cut the slab of muscle into steaks about 3cms thick, and return these to the hot pan to cook them side-on in the way that’s more familiar to us. The pan must be super-hot so that you quickly seal in the blood. You’ll need to use your instincts here not to overcook it, as the remaining cooking will go very fast.

Yes, it is a very different way of cooking a steak from what we know, but this is the way a thousand latina and latino cooks advise it be done all over the internet. Having done it this way, I doubt that I’ll ever cook a steak another way again. I’m a total convert.

I made chimichurri sauce to accompany it. I’ll publish the recipe alongside this. Now excuse me while I start bothering butchers all over the place. The message needs to get out. DM


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