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Cooking the Classics: Brazilian Churrasco

Cooking the Classics: Brazilian Churrasco

While waiting for the World Cup final, find out history and tips about a Brazilian delicacy: churrasco, barbecue most popular when served in the rodizio style.

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When most of us think of Brazil, particularly in this World Cup season, we imagine beaches, soccer, and dancing. If we associate some food or beverage with the nation, it's probably an alcoholic drink, like the caipirinha. What Brazilians eat is rather far down the list for anyone who has not been there. Brazilian restaurants are few and far between abroad, but when they do appear, they inevitably take the form of a churrascaria, which roughly translates as a steakhouse, but, is actually a temple to grilled meat of all sorts. Churrasco is the term for a barbecue, and it is most popular in Brazil when served in the rodizio style: waiters weave around the room bearing skewers of hot meat glistening with fat, and you can eat as much as you like.

Originating in southern Brazil, churrasco is a means of cooking just about any meats you like, as opposed to a special dish or single recipe. One can find portable churrasquerias, or huge halls with Viking-style fire pits, capable of grilling vast quantities to feed hundreds. Distinct to churrasquerias is the tendency to skewer most of the meats that one cooks, rather than layout of steaks flat and flipping them one by one. This is practical, but it also gives the pit master more control over temperatures. A metal skewer piled with steaks can be flipped all at once, or can be tilted to keep it warm but off the coals, and to let the fat roll off. It is also a key distinction that traditional Brazilian churrasquerias do not actually use a metal grill on which to lay the meat, but poise the skewered meat directly above the hot embers.

Churrasco refers to different things in different countries, as does the term asado, which differs from churrasco in that it is a way of grilling large quantities of meat by strapping it into a medieval-looking cage-like grill and lowering it onto an open fire, a parrilla, as well as the social event of attending a mass grilling. The churrasco is far simpler, but the variety of meats available, and the quantity, can be dizzying.

The favorite cut of meat for Brazilians to fire up on the churrasco is the picanha. This is hard to find outside of Brazil, because most butchers subdivide the picanha into other cuts of meat, for it is a cross- section of rump, loin, and round—the muscle that caps the rump/sirloin cut. It looks like rump steak wearing a hat of white fat, and when it is skewered, twice pierced so that it curves into a C-shape, the fat renders, running down through the meat and into the embers, flavoring it as it drips. But that is just the start when it comes to what can be grilled, without a grill, over a churrasco’s embers. In addition to picanha, you’ll find fraidinha (flank steak), chicken hearts, picanha that is sliced and covered with garlic, sausages of any sort, and sometimes pork and chicken, though beef is the star of the show.

The churrasco tradition has its history in South American gauchos, cowboys, who would gather together to butcher a cow and grill the meat together over a communal fire. This is the best way to cook it at home, as well—with a bunch of friends gathered over a fire pit or a barbecue with the grill portion removed. In some parts of Brazil wood is used, but most churrasquerias grill with charcoal. Finding the picanha cut, or asking your butcher to prepare it for you, is really the only tricky part. It can also take some getting used to, to balance skewers of meat without the assistance of the metal grill. You don’t want your steak falling into the embers too often (once or twice won’t hurt anyone!) Although it is not obligatory, a good Brazilian marinade for your steak will kick it up. Chimichurri may not be unique to Brazil, but it is certainly eaten there, and it enhances any steak. Combine sherry vinegar, olive oil, spicy paprika, cayenne pepper, minced garlic, black pepper, crushed cumin seeds (toasted first, if you have the patience), and large-grain salt, then rub all over your meat at least an hour prior to grilling. Then sit back and watch some World Cup soccer with your friends and family, enjoying a Brazilian delicacy cooked right at home.

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