If you’ve ever visited a Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascaria, you’ve likely been offered a cut of succulent, melt-in-your-mouth tender, skewered steak called picanha. I’ve had a lot of steaks, but the first time I tried picanha, it was a totally new experience for me. It was easily one of the best cuts I had ever tried.
The first thing I thought when tasting picanha was, “How do I make this at home?” Good news for us – it’s cheap, fast, and difficult to mess up. So what exactly is Picanha and how do you grill it? Let’s dive in.
What Cut of Meat is Picanha?
Picanha is the most prized cut of beef in Brazil, but it’s relatively unknown to American butchers (a good secret to have when it comes to checkout). Picanha translates to rump cap, or top sirloin cap.
As the American name indicates, picanha is the top layers of muscle over the rump area closest to the skin. It’s not a muscle that gets much use during the cow’s life, so it remains very tender and covered with a thick layer of fat. Picanha retains this fat layer for cooking, while American butchers often trim the fat unless a customer asks for it.
The cut is triangular, with the widest part of the muscle being toughest and the tip being the most tender, coveted piece.
Tri-Tip vs Picanha
Tri-tip is often mistaken as trimmed picanha, but the two cuts are actually anatomically different. They both cover the rump and are triangular, but they make up two opposite sides of the capping muscle. The larger, tougher side is the tri-tip, and the opposite side, which is smaller with a thick fat cap, is the Brazilian picanha. If you aren’t able to find real picanha, tri-tip is a good substitute, but the two are different cuts of beef.
Where to Buy Picanha
The best, most reliable, and probably the cheapest place to get your picanha is your local butcher shop. There’s a chance the butcher at your local grocery has the overlooked cut on hand, just be specific about what you’re asking for so you don’t get any unwanted, tough, outer-thigh meat.
If you prefer to buy grass-fed or specialty beef, like American Wagyu, there are options available online. Porter Road has dry aged picanha, but if you really want to go all out, Snake River Farms offers an American Wagyu picanha.
How to Order at the Butcher
If you’ve decided to go the old-fashioned way and brave the butcher counter, here’s how to make sure you’re getting the right cut. Ask for the top sirloin cap or culotte – yep, like the pants – with the fat intact.
The fat lends a lovely blanket of flavor and juiciness, and it protects the meat from any mistakes you may make while grilling. If you can find it, go for a picanha that has been aged for the most flavor and a premium churrasco experience.
Now that you’ve acquired your rare and little-known Queen of beef cuts, let’s get her ready for the grill. Remember, we get all the flavor from grilling the picanha with the fat cap, so don’t trim any of that goodness off. If any tough membrane remains on the opposite side of the cut, remove it.
Season your cut minimally, with just a little rock salt (or whatever kind of salt you have available) for flavor and heat distribution. We are celebrating a tender and flavorful cut of meat, so no marinades or fancy rubs are needed.
Another optional step is scoring the fat cap so it doesn’t shrink and disfigure the meat. This also creates little avenues for the liquefied fat to seep into the meat fibers. Yum.
How to Cook Picanha
For the best flavor, use natural charcoal or a low-burning wood fire. Propane works fine too, but charcoal/wood will impart a little more flavor. Prep your grill by rubbing a little of the fat cap on the grates to keep your steaks from sticking.
There are two ways you can go as far as cutting your picanha. You can serve it up restaurant style, curled around a long skewer that you slice thin strips of beef off, or you can keep it simple and cut them like steaks. The grilling methods are a little different for each, so let’s get specific.
Definitely the most visually impressive way to serve your picanha, skewering your cuts is a good option for dinner parties, barbecues, and cookouts.
- Cut the picanha in serving-size sections against the grain.
- Pinch each section into a semi-circle, fat side out, and thread them onto a long metal skewer.
- Pat down the meat with rock salt.
- Grill for at least a few minutes on each side until the meat has reached your desired cooking temperature.
- Let the meat rest before serving thin slices straight off the skewer.
If you want to go the simple route, it’s perfectly fine to cut your picanha into steaks. Here’s how it’s done:
- Cut the picanha into steaks, slicing with the grain. This way, the final cut when you’re slicing into the finished steak will be against the grain.
- Roll the steaks in rock salt.
- Grill with the fat side up, then each side, and finish the steak with the fat side down, away from direct flame. A reverse-sear method or sous vide with a quick sear to finish will also turn out a beautiful, juicy steak.
- Don’t puncture your steak to test for doneness. Puncturing the steak while it’s grilling will release those delicious juices. Instead, prod a steak gently with a finger to see how firm it is.
- Let your steaks rest before slicing and serving!
What to Serve with Picanha
The beauty of churrasco comes together on the plate. A perfect steak deserves a supporting cast of flavorful and complimentary sides. Because our picanha has very little seasoning, there are lots of directions we can take this meal. A few of my favorites:
- Traditional: the Brazilian sides of choice are farofa, made of crunchy cassava meal and often cooked in bacon fat, and molho à campanha, a coarse salsa of tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers.
- Cuban: I love picanha paired with sweet, fried plantains and savory Cuban black beans.
- Tex-Mex: serve your picanha with a side of chimichurri sauce, and serve it alongside rice, refried beans, pico de gallo, and avocado. Or load it all into a tortilla for an out-of-this world taco!
To Sum Up
I hope I’ve convinced you to give picanha a try. It can be tough to find, but it’s totally worth the hunt! Serve it at your next cookout, and you’ll have all your guests asking about this mysteriously wonderful cut of meat.