Featured Cut : Picanha
Picanha (pea-cahn-ya) is one of the finest cuts of beef that you’ve probably never heard of. It’s a Brazilian-style cut, and probably the most popular in both steakhouses and backyards there since is was introduced by Hungarian butchers working at a Volkswagen plant in São Paulo. In North America, however, it seems this cut is largely unknown – possibly because most butchers here call it something really appetizing like “rump cap.” Picanha is one of my favorites because it is tender and flavorful, fun to grill, and great for sharing.
The picanha is a triangular cut that sits on top of the sirloin, forming the cap of the top butt. They generally weigh about 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 lbs, and have a nice layer of fat on the outside, which helps keep them moist when cooking and crisps up nicely to add plenty of flavor. It is best to cook the picanha with this fat still on it, and it can be removed on the plate at the diner’s discretion. One of the benefits of the picanha is that because of its wedge-like shape (a fat wide end tapering to a thinner point), it can be a good steak to share with someone who likes their meat a little more… well-done. With practice, it’s actually pretty easy to manipulate the relative doneness of the parts.
I have found that the picanha is best prepared simply (usually I follow the Brazilian model and add nothing but coarse salt an hour before grilling), but it lends itself well to sauces like a good chimichurri on the plate. South Americans tend to cut the picanha into thick strips and skewer them for grilling, whereas I generally prefer to grill the whole thing as one piece. What I do to cook one is lightly score the fat cap (being careful not to cut all the way through it) and give it a reasonable coating of coarse salt an hour before putting it on the grill. Once I have the grill going, I’ll begin cooking the picanha indirectly (not right above the flame, but to the side), with the fat-side up and with the thickest part closest to the flame. The cut will begin to plump and swell up quite a bit, and once it’s fat enough, you can generally stand it up on the flat end, with the fat-side facing toward the fire. When it gets just shy of being finished, go ahead and sear it over the hottest part of the fire – first with the fat-side up, and finishing with the fat down right over the flames. This may become exciting quickly, so it’s definitely best to pay attention, and have a good set of long grill-tongs at hand. Once it’s nicely seared, go ahead and pull it off, knock off any excess salt, and let it rest before slicing and sharing.