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Argentine asado: the ultimate barbecue

Argentine asado: the ultimate barbecue

by Katie Smith 21 June 2016

Ever wondered how to master the secret of cooking with fire? The Argentine asado is possibly the closest to achieving barbecue perfection. Katie Smith finds out why.

Argentine barbecue, or asado, is no ordinary barbecue – oh no! The asado is a celebration of the country’s iconic gaucho culture and its most prized product – beef. Such is Argentina’s reverence for beef that every part of the cow is honoured in an age-old ritual of fire and precision cooking. Every weekend households across Argentina gather together to share in this feast of fire-cooked meats, all washed down with plenty of Malbec or Fernet (an aromatic spirit) and Coca-Cola. The preparation and cooking of the asado is taken extremely seriously, and it's all down to the appointed ‘grand asador’ to deliver the much-anticipated meal. I spent a day with the asadors of the CAU kitchen to uncover the secrets to mastering Argentina’s legendary asado and – above all – achieving the ultimate barbecue.

First and foremost, when creating your authentic asado you need the right kind of fuel for your barbecue. Coal or wood are the best heat sources as they allow for a more controlled cooking temperature. Add wood chips to the coals for an extra smoky flavour when cooking your meat.

Most importantly, the Argentine asado is all about low and slow barbecuing – so don’t rush it! Start by lighting the coals on only one side, and allow the heat to gradually travel across the coals. This creates two levels of heat, thereby allowing you to cook at two different temperatures – thus avoiding unwanted charring and overcooking. So just sit back and relax with a glass of Malbec, as it is important that the coals are given plenty of time to reach their peak cooking temperature.

Beef cuts
Many of the beef cuts found in Argentina are different to what we enjoy in the UK
Tira de ancho
Tira de ancho is spiral-cut, which allows for even cooking

Prime Argentine cuts

In Argentina there’s a whole range of beef cuts that are relatively unknown in the UK. Here’s a quick rundown of the key ones to look out for.

Lomito

Fillet cut from the heart of the rump. The sinew that makes the rump traditionally tough is removed, resulting in a tender cut, with all the delicious, strong, irony flavour of rump steak. Due to the low fat content, this special Argentine cut is best cooked blue to medium-rare to ensure it is as moist as possible when served.

Tira de ancho

This spiral-cut rib-eye is perfect for cooking on the barbecue. The higher fat content of the rib-eye gives the tira de ancho a rich, creamy flavour, and the way it’s cut allows the meat to cook evenly and is great for sharing. Ask your butcher for a chunky slice of rib-eye and try this unique cut for yourself; just make sure the rib-eye is from the sirloin end so there are fewer muscles to slice through. Tira de ancho is best served medium so that all that delicious fat has time to melt and infuse the meat with juicy flavour.

Asado de chorizo

An Argentine steak cut from the sirloin. The meat is butterflied, revealing flecks of fat that impart a rich, buttery flavour to the meat as it cooks. This speciality should therefore be cooked medium-rare so that the fat has plenty of time to render down. Try brushing the meat with a marinade of smoked paprika, ají molida (mild chilli), garlic and parsley for a spicy kick that will cut through the robust flavours of the meat.

Tapa de cuadril (or picaña)

The top part of the rump. Barbecue whole or slice thinly and flash-grill whilst you wait for the barbecue to reach optimal cooking temperature. The joint is a great alternative for a Sunday roast as it can be left to slowly cook on the barbecue, releasing the juices from the fats imbedded in the muscle. Just be patient as this slow-cooking process ensures an end result that bursts with flavour.

Morcilla
Morcilla and chorizo cook quickly, and are often served as a starter before the larger cuts of beef
Barbecue
Ensure coals are moved to one side of the barbecue, creating both hot and cool cooking areas

Achuras, chorizo and chimichurri

For a truly authentic asado you can’t neglect the achuras (offal). Popular choices are mollejas (sweetbreads) and chinchulines (intestines), which act as great appetisers as they cook quickly and will keep your guests happy as they wait in anticipation for the main event. The same can also be said for morcilla (blood sausage) and Argentine chorizo (which uses less paprika than its Spanish cousin). Traditionally the chorizo sausage is cut in half lengthways, grilled and served in a crusty baguette with a decent slathering of chimichurri sauce to create the king of Argentine street food – choripán. Chimichurri is the staple condiment of the Argentine asado and is classically composed of a mix of finely diced red pepper, onion, smoked garlic, ají molida, sherry vinegar, flat leaf parsley, olive oil and plenty of sea salt. This sharp, salty sauce is all you really need to accompany the meat.

Asado essentials

All set to cook up an authentic asado at home? There are a few things you can do to ensure it’s good enough to rival any Argentine gaucho’s efforts.

It’s the overriding sense of community and a shared enjoyment in the whole process, from lighting the coals to serving the meat, that makes asado a fantastic culinary experience.

Katie Smith

  • Quantities: allow 500g of meat per person. Asado is all about the meat – it’s the Argentine way.

  • Salting: salt only the top side of the meat as soon as it hits the grill (ideally with coarse Spanish sea salt). This ensures the meat absorbs as much of the salt as possible and any which doesn’t will stick to the grill when the meat is flipped over during cooking. At CAU they also brush the side of the cut which first hits the grill with rendered down beef fat. This not only adds flavour directly to the meat, but also creates smoke when it drips down onto the hot coals below, creating a subtle smokiness that enhances the flavour of the meat further.

  • Cooking: out of total grilling time, the meat should be cooked seventy percent of the time on one side before being turned over for the remaining thirty percent. The reasoning being that when the steak is first placed on the barbecue it will take the heat longer to penetrate the meat, whereas when you turn it over the meat will have already warmed through and so requires less cooking time.

  • Choice of beef: wet-aged beef retains moisture and will be softer and tender than dry-aged beef, which produces a firmer steak. Grass-fed, Black Aberdeen Angus cattle that have grazed on the rich, fertile land of Argentina’s Pampas are, of course, the ideal choice. The fine grasses are easier to digest, thus providing the cows with a diet full of essential nutrients.

What makes the Argentine asado so unique and legendary within the world of barbecue is not only the dedication to top-quality ingredients, the variety of expertly butchered cuts and the time and care taken to cook them. It’s the overriding sense of community and a shared enjoyment in the whole process, from lighting the coals to serving the meat, that makes it a fantastic culinary experience.

Thank you to head griller Dom Ashworth, executive chef James Garland and the rest of the team at CAU for their help in putting together this feature.

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