Saturday, April 14, 2012


Here's the basics of a brazilian style "Picanha", very popular in Brazil, although very simple, has it tricks to get it perfect.
Starting with the correct cut selection, known in Brazil as "Picanha", not very easy to spot in US meat market.
After couple years in US I finally identified the correct cut, which is called "Top Sirloin cap". Most markets sell top sirloin steak which includes the top sirloin (known in Brazil as "alcatra") and the top sirloin cap (picanha), both attached. Some other markets separate the cap of the sirloin but trim off all the fat (no good). So what you want is just the top sirloin cap (or the cap of the sirloin), untrimmed.
Just FYI, another cut that is commonly confused with "picanha" is the tri-tip. Tri-tip is not picanha. I believe it compares to the brazilian cut called "maminha".
Anyways, the real "picanha" should not weight more than 2.5lb, usually 2lb or less.
Here's an example, about 2-1/4lb cut. 

Another example with about 1-1/2lb.
Ass seem on the first photo of this post, one side of the "picanha" should have about 1/4 to 1/2in fat and the other side should be clean, all connective tissue and silver skin removed.
The second and only ingredient/spice of a traditional brazilian "picanha" is rock salt, no pepper, no marinates, just rock salt, seen below. I have used rock salt for ice cream making from my local grocery store with success, although I prefer the brazilian style shown. Look at your local brazilian market if you have one available.

Here's the "picanha" ready to cut.

Another tricky thing is to properly cut the steaks. The photo below shows the cut and indicates the direction of the muscle fibers. You supposed to cut the steaks perpendicular to the fibers, as shown.

Here's the other cut.
 And the cutting.

You want to cut steaks about 1-1/2in thick.

Meanwhile, setup the fire.

Now we are going to have a deep discussion about charcoal x gas grills. :-)
Back in Brazil, charcoal is the only way of barbecue ( At least 99%. More correctly translated to "grilling" since brazilian style doesn't include smoking, traditional of american barbecue, but a high heat grilling). That been said, if one wishes to reproduce the brazilian style 100%, it should be done with natural charcoal (lump charcoal).
Now few notes that I have learned over the years:

- Is charcoal better than gas?
I think it is. I think that charcoal generates higher temperatures and produce better flavors. This is a huge controversy. Gas grills are so popular in US and so much easier for the day-to-day use that even brazilians (all my friends in US) use it instead of charcoal.
The flavor differences between charcoal and gas are questionable. For instance ( I regret for that) I was attending a "churrasco" (brazilian name for barbecue) party at a friend's place and he had both charcoal and gas grills. We were using the charcoal grill and I suggested that we fired up also the gas grill to do a blind test. I took the lead to grill steaks using both charcoal and gas grills. We had about 10 brazilians tasting the results and after the blind test was done (I wans't part of the taste test) there wasn't any preference or definition on what was cooked on charcoal or gas. This was a big blow to me but I'm sticking to natural charcoal.

- Is natural charcoal better than brikets?
I think it is.

- Would I use a gas grill?
Yes, if I want to make hot dogs

- How to fire a charcoal grill?
Never use lighting fluids. I use Weber Lighter cubes.

 Once the starter is done, spread and cover with fresh charcoal.

Here are the 1-1/2 thick steaks.

As the charcoal get's hot, add salt to a pot and roll the steaks to fully cover. Do not let the steaks sit for too long on salt. From 5 to 15min is ideal, depending on your taste for salt. More than that it may dry out and get too salty.

A good side dish with "picanha" is Portobello mushrooms, just add black pepper, salt and olive oil.

I added a little of "herbs from provence" for extra flavor.

Charcoal is freaking hot, adding some oil to the grill. 

Steaks and mushroom on to the grill.

Flames are expected as the fat melts and drips onto the carcoal (this is a good thing. Smoke=flavor). Control it by moving the steaks around or lowering the charcoal tray, if possible.

Few minutes later and once the steak is completely sealed, turn it over.

Let it grill for few minutes more until the desired pinkness.

I like to set then upright, as seen below, to crisp the fat side (skills required). Once done, beat the steaks against the grill to knock of the salt.

Here's the "picanha". Let is rest for 5min.


Can't beat this!


  1. Also known as "culotte" in english. It is usually included in the top sirloin steaks available at the butcher shop. If you kindly ask your butcher to remove the muscle as a roast for you the next time they cut sirloins, they are usually more than happy to oblige.

    Additionally, I would suggest cutting the steak originally parallel to the grain. This way, when you cut your steak on the plate you are able to cut against the grain for a more tender piece of steak.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I believe there will be quite a big difference on how easy you will get the butchers to understand what cut the picanha is, depending where you live. Here in Seattle, it took several attempts before I could figure out that the "sirloin cap" is what they know.
    Also, sorry to say but everywhere I know cuts the steaks across the muscle, as seen on this video, link below. My experience is that cutting the steaks aligned with the muscle creates long muscle strings that will tight up under heat, making it harder.

    1. Hi Nilo.
      Could you point to me which butcher shop you go to get the picanha? I'm also in Seattle and I want to cook this for my wife's upcoming birthday.

  3. I was researching restaurants in San Antonio for my novel and found Texas de Brazil--which features picanha. I had no clue what that was. How thankful I am to find your site. Love your step-by-step instructions and the pics. Now I'm hungry to try it!

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