If rib-eye is the king of meats, then we’re about to introduce you to the queen.
Hugely popular in Brazil, picanha (pronounced “pee-kahn-yah”) is one of the most flavourful cuts of beef you will find. The beauty of a picanha is that it is an impressive, but relatively cheaper cut that can feed plenty and impress your guests at the same time.
Although you probably won’t find it at your local supermarket, picanha is usually available at any good butcher. If you do get your hands on one – and we insist that you do – read on to learn how to cook picanha.
What cut of meat is picanha?
Picanha is a cut of beef taken from the top of the rump. You might also know it as a rump cover, rump cap, sirloin cap or even culotte steak.
It is triangular in shape and surrounded by a thick layer of fat called a fat cap. Because it is not an overused muscle, this cut remains beautifully tender and juicy, producing an amazing flavour when cooked.
When buying picanha, the three things to look out for are its size, fat content and excess liquid. Generally smaller cuts are best – around 1kg to 1.5kg in size. Anything larger is likely to contain parts of other cuts as well, including the tougher outer-thigh region that runs below the rump. A good picanha will never be too big. You also want at least a 1.5cm fat cap, and not too much visible liquid in the packaging.
Cutting picanha into steaks
Placing it fat side down will make for an easier slice. When cutting a whole picanha into steaks, it’s important to always cut with the grain. Let’s repeat that. Always cut with the grain. That is, cut the meat in the same direction as the fibres. This will probably go against everything you know about steak, but trust us – once cooked and rested, what really matters is the final cut of the steak, which will be sliced against the grain for maximum tenderness.
How to cook picanha
However you choose to cook it – traditional barbecue rotisserie, grilled or roasted whole – bring the meat to room temperature and pat it dry with a paper towel first, just like a regular steak. Lightly trim off any visible skin or membrane from the bottom or sides.
When it comes to seasoning, picanha is a prized cut that produces a robust beefy flavour, so simple really works best, with just some coarse salt.
Place seasoned steaks in a heavy-based frying pan on high heat, fat side down first to render, before searing on both sides. Once a rich, golden crust has formed on both sides, turn the heat down to medium and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side for medium rare.
If cooking on an outdoor grill, make sure it is preheated and as clean as possible. (Pro tip: use tongs to wipe it with a wet paper towel so you don’t burn yourself.) To help ensure the steaks don’t stick, take a small piece of fat and rub it on the grill. Place the picanha steaks in a circular motion on the outer edges furthest away from the blazing heat – otherwise, the outside will overcook before the inside is done. Close the hood and cook the steaks at 120°C / 248°F for 6 minutes, then flip them. After 6 more minutes, bring the steaks to the centre of the grill and sear on both sides. Check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer, aiming for around 54°C 130°F for medium rare.
Whole roast method
Roasting the picanha whole then slicing it into steaks afterwards will allow you to enjoy the steak fairly rare. First, preheat the oven to 180°C / 355°F and put a cast iron pan on high heat. Score the fat cap slightly and rub it in with coarse salt. Sear the picanha, fat side down, without any added oil. As it cooks, beef fat will continue to be released into the pan. Drain out some of the fat (but don’t throw it away) and continue to render the fat until the outside is beautifully crisp. Turn over the meat and baste it with the reserved fat.
Transfer the picanha to the oven and cook it for 30 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 50°C / 122°F. Remove the beef from the oven and let it rest for 10-15 minutes. Once rested, carve it into steaks, then slice each steak against the grain and serve.
Brazilian picanha steak
Traditional Brazilian barbecues, known as churrasco, call for the picanha to be sliced, skewered and grilled over a barbecue. The picanha is cut into 3 or 4 thick pieces, with each piece folded over onto itself in a crescent shape and skewered with a long metal skewer. Think of it like Japanese yakitori but on a larger scale. The seasoned skewers are cooked over a charcoal cooker, known as churrasqueira, for about 15-20 minutes, turning two or three times to ensure even cooking and then carved to order.
Whichever way you choose to cook it, the taste, texture and presentation of picanha is fantastic. Pair it with a brightly coloured with a brightly coloured chimichurri sauce and a nice glass of red, and your dinner guests will be asking you for more of this ultra-flavourful steak.