How to cook picanha steak in the style of Brazilian churrasco. Enjoy a flavorful charcoal grilled steak that melts in your mouth.
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Read on for relevant information and step-by-step pictures (2 mins)
What is Picanha Steak?
A picanha steak is carved from the top sirloin cap beef cut, also popular by the name coulotte. This is a triangular shaped muscle that caps the sirloin, hence the name. The cut is known simply as picanha in Portuguese, pronounced pee·kaa·nyuh. Traditionally it is cooked skewered over charcoals – slowly and with gusto.
It is the best loved Brazilian churrasco steak and for a good reason. A grilled picanha is tender and juicy thanks to its good marbling and generous fat band. The thick and firm layer of fat slowly melts and moistens the meat and adds to its already rich beefy flavor.
The only thing it needs in addition to the notes imparted during grilling is some salt.
What is Churrasco?
Churrasco is the Portuguese term for barbecue. In Brazil it refers to skewered meat spit-roasted over hot embers or near an open fire. The cooked meat is cut straight from the skewers and shared. This method of grilling originated in the late 1800s with the gauchos of the Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil. As many of them migrated north the churrasco tradition travelled all over the country and eventually churrascarias (barbecue restaurants) opened up everywhere.
True Brazilian churrascarias seldom use grill grates, rather they position the long, sturdy skewers equiped with comfortable handles onto especially built frames above the hot embers. The skewers are rotated and the meat cooks evenly and is perfumed by the fragrant smoke resulting from the dripping fat as it hits the charcoals.
Modern rodizio grills use an automated skewer rotation for churrasco (see below).
TIP: The three essentials for good churrasco are top quality meat, coarse salt and charcoal.
Where to Buy Picanha Steak?
Because it is not a common cut picanha is hard to find. Either ask a butcher for a whole top sirloin cap (or coulotte) or look for it online at meat retailers like Wild Fork Foods (where we buy ours, no affiliate reltionship).
A whole picanha typically weighs about 3 pounds and the fat cap has been trimmed to the perfect thickness. It will easily yield four thick steaks.
You can also seek out ready cut coulotte steaks, but they are often sold without the fat cap or a very thin layer of fat which is not ideal for churrasco.
What Seasoning to Use?
Picanha is so flavorful that customarily it is seasoned only with sal grosso, a sea salt with coarse crystals derived from the Nordeste part of Brazil (see our recommended products below).
The best substitute for it in the US is kosher salt. Because a liberal salt application is customary we recommend that you use the Diamond Crystal brand. It is the least salty of all flaky salts commonly sold at super markets and you can use it generously with this picanha steak recipe.
A tradition of the gauchos is to pull out two cooked skewers from the churrasco and hit one against the other which causes some of the salt to fall before the meat is sliced off the skewer.
How to Cook Picanha Steak
The best way to cook this Brazilian steak is over lump charcoals just like the gauchos and modern churrascarias do. It simply does not taste the same if a gas grill, a stove top skillet or a broiler are used.
Here are a few important tips:
- Skewer the steaks with the grain so that you can later slice against the grain for a more tender bite.
- The charcoal should be completely burned (no black fumes are visible) with the embers glowing and white ash covered.
- Position the skewers about 10 to 12 inches above the hot embers.
- Do not close the lid of the grill – picanha is all about open-flame grilling.
- Cook until the fat begins to bubble and both meat and fat acquire a nice brown shade.
You can fire-roast picanha steaks in one of three ways.
1.Traditional churrasco skewers. Remove the grill grates and suspend the skewers across, from end to end over the charcoals. For this most authentic churrasco method you will need special long skewers (see the suggested products in the recipe card).
2. Elevated solution. Use a grilling tool or aid such as in the picture collage above to keep the meat above the grill grate and high enough over the charcoals. If your grill has an adjustable charcoal bed, lower it as necessary to create the needed 10-12 inches of distance from the picanha.
3. Directly onto the grate. This is the most untraditional way, but you can grill the skewered picanha over indirect heat and then finish it over direct. To do this lay the skewered steaks onto a well greased grate a bit away from the hot embers. Turn often. Once the internal temperature is about 120 F move over the direct heat to finish.
TIP: Ask any Brazilian and they will confirm – if the picanha is not skewered it is not churrasco steak, even if the flavor is identical.
What Temperature to Cook Picanha Steak To?
Picanha tastes best when cooked medium-rare to medium. The corresponding steak doneness temperatures are 130-135 F to 145 F. But taking temperature is not common for picanha.
The cowboys of South Brazil who pioneered the method of fire-roasting skewered picanha observe the meat and actively turn the skewers to expose all sides to the heat. When the external fat cap turns golden brown, they take the skewered steaks away from the churrasco. They carve thin slices from both sides and then place the newly salted remaining beef back over the embers to cook further.
How to Carve Picanha Gaucho Style
To carve the Brazilian steak picanha simply stand up the skewer over a wooden board or a platter and cut thinly straight down, against the grain and shaving off some of the fat. Be sure to use a comfortable, sharp knife.
Each bite will be perfectly juicy and well seasoned – grilled beef perfection.
Because the inner part of the steak will still be quite underdone, season with a bit more salt and return it to the charcoals. Pull it out again in a few minutes, slice again and so on until there is none left.
What to Serve with Grilled Picanha
Traditional sides for Brazilian fire-roasted top sirloin cap steak are green leaf salads simply seasoned with oil and vinegar, potato salad, campeiro salsa, yuka fries, cheese bread or bread rolls (freshly baked).
Prepare the side dishes before you begin to actively charcoal grill. When the steak is ready for first carving you will already have the sides prepared. Then simply continue cooking and carving and enjoy the shared experience of churrasco.
You Might Enjoy
- 1 whole picanha (about 3 lbs)* or 4 pre-cut picanha steaks
- 4 tbsp kosher salt**
- Prepare a charcoal grill by bringing about 10 lbs of lump charcoal to glowing white ash covered embers. This will take about 30 minutes.
- While the charcoals are getting hot, prepare the picanha. If you have grill ready steaks proceed to the next step. Pat it dry with paper towel and trim any excess fat - the fat cap should have a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Remove any silver skin fom the bottom side of the picanha. Cut it in half to get two smaller picanhas. Take one of the smaller picanhas and remove each of the three tips. (Save for picanha tip skewers). Slice the chunk of meat left in the middle into two steaks - with the grain. Repeat for the other half. You will have 4 steaks.
- Start with the largest picanha piece (they will not be equal in size) and fold it into a C shape. Thread it with a large stainless steel skewer. Do the same with a smaller piece (smaller pieces cook faster and placing them at the bottom helps hold the larger ones on top while carving in vertical position). Depending on the length of your skewers you should have two or four picanha steaks threaded per each.
- Liberally salt with kosher salt or sal grosso (see notes). Do not forget to salt the fat cap.
- Place the skewer(s) over the hot charcoals, about 10-12 inches above. As the fat begins to drip the flames should not touch the meat. Turn every minute and wait until the fat is bubbling and both meat and fat turn a golden-brown color.***
- Remove from the grill and holding the skewer vertically over a cutting board very thinly carve the sides of the picanha churrasco steaks, including a bit of the fat. Enjoy immediately. Season the remaining (most likely undercooked meat) with a bit more salt and take it back to the charcoals. Once golden-brown, repeat. Do so until there is no meat left.
*Also known as top sirloin cap or coulette.
**We recommend Diamond Crystal brand which many of the churrascarias in the US use. In Brazil a locally produced sea salt known as as sal grosso is the prevalent choice. If using another kosher salt brand use less so you do not oversalt.
***Traditionally temperature is not taken, rely on these visual signs for a medium-rare to medium cooked picanha steaks.
Be sure to read the post for more information as not all the relevant tips can fit within this recipe card.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 487Total Fat: 30gSaturated Fat: 11gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 16gCholesterol: 169mgSodium: 3954mgCarbohydrates: 2gFiber: 0gSugar: 0gProtein: 52g