Brazilian Barbecue 101: A Guide To Meat Cuts and How to Grill Brazilian Steakhouse Style
This is more than a Brazilian barbecue guide: it is a tribute to the Farroupilha Week, celebrated in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, south of Brazil.
September 20th is Gaucho Day. It marks the beginning of the Farroupilha Revolution, after which the gaucho came to be considered a worthy, brave, fearless and patriotic man.
Nowadays, most people don't focus on the historical reasons of the revolution. Instead, they celebrate the courage and bravery of our ancestors, expressing through many traditions their attachment to the land and their love of freedom.
Barbecue is one of these traditions and the theme of this blog. If you have been to a Brazilian steakhouse and fell in love with the experience and flavors, you will want to save this post for later and share it with friends.
Here you’ll find not only a thorough list of the most popular meat cuts served at steakhouses, but a guide on how to grill them in your own home!
So get your Brazilian grill and skewers ready to go. Don’t own one of them yet? Take a look at our collection.
- The Origins of Brazilian Barbecue
- Brazilian Steakhouses in the United States
- What is a Rodizio?
- Meat Cuts 101 - Definitions and Grilling Tips
- How to Have a Successful Brazilian BBQ At Home
- Meat’s Ideal Distance from the Heat
- The Salt, Sal Grosso
The Origins of Brazilian Barbecue
Cattle ranching first appeared in Brazil around the 17th century in the Pampa, a southern Rio Grande do Sul region consisting of large grassland fields, which also covered part of the territories of Argentina and Uruguay.
The region was home of the Sete Povos das Missões, a community created by the Jesuits. The purpose of this community was to bring together indigenous people in order to pass on to them the doctrines of the Catholic Church, until it ended in the year 1768.
The cattle herds raised there, ownerless after the wars over territories, were multiplying and enriching the land. As a cattle transport region, it was also a pathway for the tropeiros, drovers who traded some animals and food between the country’s south and southeast regions.
During brief camping stops, these drovers, called gauchos, created a unique form of barbecue in which meat was cooked slowly over wood on the ground and seasoned simply with salt.
From then on, the gauchos settled more and more in the land, being fundamental to put forward its development and stimulate the growth of the populations.
Fast forward to modern days, the barbecue culture spread in the 1940s as individuals from Rio Grande do Sul started to open restaurants throughout Brazil. And now it takes over the world.
Brazilian Steakhouses in the United States
Brazilian Steakhouses in the United States In the 1990s, the rodizio-style barbecue restaurants reached the American market, with the Rodizio Grill chain being the debut in 1995. Since then, the "Brazilian steakhouse" category has grown and gathered even more chain concepts (Eater.com).
What Does Rodizio Mean?
It means you’ll have waiters - most probably dressed as a gaucho - bringing skewered meat cuts to your table. Brazilian steakhouses usually have a green and a red card on each table. The green card up signals you want food to keep coming, while the red one up signals the waiters to stop bringing you meat.
The rodizio-style dining is a great way to sample a variety of different menu items, which is perfect in the case of Brazilian steakhouses. Why? Well, because you don’t want to go all in and fill your stomach with just one type of meat before you try everything the restaurant has to offer.
Brazilian steakhouses are all-you-can-eat, which means you pay a fixed price and eat as much as you want. Besides the rodizio of meats - and of the amazing grilled pineapple with cinnamon to balance out the salty flavors with a sweet, juicy treat - the restaurants also have a generous table of salads, side dishes and appetizers, all typical of Brazil.
Brazilian Meat Cuts 101 - Definitions and How to Grill them at Home
It’s common sense that many nations around the world have their own way to make barbecue. In the Brazilian way, meat is barbecued low and slow over the embers of a grill or churrasqueira.
Next, we will give you a list of a few cuts served at Brazilian steakhouses and a couple of things to be aware of if you are excited to learn how to make them in your own home instead of having to go to the restaurant any time you feel like eating an authentic Brazilian barbecue.
Picanha (rump cap)
Picanha is the iconic meat of Brazilian barbecue. It’s grilled and folded into a “C” shape on the metal skewer. Also called the rump cap, rump cover, sirloin cap, it comes from an animal's hindquarter.
Its fat cap melts as it cooks, which makes Picanha a tender, juicy cut of meat, perfect for slow roasting and often prepared with just a hint of salt.
3 Ways to Grill Picanha
Whole Picanha in the Rotisserie
The roasting time for a whole, thick piece is 40 minutes at a distance of 40 cm (15 inches) from the embers. Always grill it with the fat facing up, turning it upside down to brown for about 10 to 15 minutes after grilling time.
Some people make very thin cuts in the fat in several directions, as if you were making flaps. This will help the picanha to better absorb the salt and juice from the fat, making it tastier and more tender.
Iconic “C” shape Skewered Picanha in the Rotisserie
Imagine yourself impressing your crew by raising that skewer off the grill and slicing a tender layer of Picanha in your own backyard…
The ideal is to cut the pieces into a “half moon” 2-inches thick, as is done in steakhouses.
How to skewer Picanha in the classic “C” shape?
Start by grabbing the 2-inch slice, skewer the downer edge from the fat side in, then fold the upper edge into the “C” shape so the meat’s surface touches each other, then skewer back the upper edge from the meat side out. You must leave the fat on the outside of the skewer, just like the photo above.
To prepare it, the process must consist of grilling for 5 minutes on each side, chipping all the half moons and then returning to the grill. Cooking it slowly allows the fat cap to baste the beef until it’s medium-rare. Working with internal temperature? When it reaches 122ºF (50ºC), rest the picanha before thinly slicing it across the grain. (Tip from The Manual).
Grilled Picanha Steak
Grilling time for Picanha steaks in the size of around 1.2 inches thick is 8 minutes for each side (approximately) and at a distance of about 8 inches from the ember. At this time, the meat should be medium rare.
Fraldinha (bottom sirloin)
Before we explain Fraldinha, let’s understand sirloin.
Sirloin is typically divided into two cuts: bottom sirloin and top sirloin.
Sourced from near the spine of the cow, running from the 13th rib to the end up the hip bone, both are a bit tougher than some other cuts of meat because they come from a more muscular area. (Mashed.com). This makes the sirloin well-suited to the slow roasting process.
Fraldinha is a bottom sirloin. Similar to flank steak, it's served in long, flat pieces with a pink middle and grilled crust. It's cut against the grain to make it as tender and delicious as possible.
Did you know? Fraldinha means “Little diaper” in Portuguese. The nickname comes from the position the meat is located, near the cattle’s groin.
How to grill Fraldinha?
Fraldinha can be cooked on a grill or rotisserie. The piece can be somewhat thin, so when using a rotisserie, you must skewer it in a way that it’s a bit compressed and not totally stretched. To do so, poke holes in the meat with the tip of the skewer lengthwise, as if you were sewing it. The sides may be a bit loose when the meat is raw, but it will get firm as it cooks.
A useful tip is to have this cut at room temperature and as a whole piece before placing it on the grill. This will avoid letting the meat dry up which will make it less tasty and less tender.
To salt, use crushed coarse salt, sprinkling over the meat without rubbing.
Alcatra (top sirloin)
Alcatra is a special cut of top sirloin, praised for its succulence and a hearty beef flavor. Large, long, and lean, Alcatra is one of the largest cuts served in the Brazilian rodizio.
Top sirloin is a good choice if you're looking for a good balance of marbled, flavorful and lean. It's also versatile and a good option for making at home, especially if you're shopping on a budget.
When making Alcatra at home, you can skewer the cut as a whole piece lengthwise, like the rodizio, or slice it in 2-inches widthwise. Both ways should be perfectly seasoned with coarse salt.
It’s also important for the cut to have a nice layer of fat, so you grill the meat until most of it melts away, and the remaining fat becomes crispy.
Chuleta or ribeye comes from the rib section of the cattle, and it has a remarkable marbling with a good amount of intramuscular fat. Butchers can prepare them to be bone-in or boneless, but at Brazilian steakhouses you will most probably find it bone-in skewered. The USDA recommends cooking ribeye steaks to an internal temperature of 145°F.
A great cut for those who like eating meat right off the bone.
Hefty, a whole rib weighs up to 44 pounds. Can you imagine working with a piece that size on the grill? If you’re looking to get a Guiness record maybe. So let’s divide it into two parts.
The rib is made up of thirteen bones. The first five are considered part of the forequarter and have a good amount of meat. Depending on the breed, the cut has a bigger degree of marbling. Such a characteristic interferes with the texture, making it softer. The front rib can also be called beef ribs.
Extracted from the lower part of the cattle’s rib cage, this part is taller and has more meat. This rib area also has a layer of membrane. For the seasonings to be better absorbed by the meat, it is recommended to remove it.
Learning and remembering the parts of the cattle - specially the ribs - can be a little complicated, but here are a few other sources of learning:
Now, how to make Costela on the grill? For this particular cut, we find it more convenient to prepare a special article since it is a whole nother world of information which would make this one huge in length. So stay tuned.
Also known as tenderloin steak, filet mignon is lean, tender, and sold boneless. It comes from the area below the backbone, the same area as strip steak, T-bones, and porterhouse steaks, all of which are well-suited to the grill.
Although this meat cut is not so exclusive of the Brazilian BBQ, the rodizios often find a way to make it special by wrapping it in bacon, for example. Again, this is the benefit of rodizio-style dining: you can try as much, or as little, of everything as you like.
How to Grill Filet Mignon
On the grill:
- Cut the filet mignon into medallions in the opposite direction of the fiber.
- If you're cooking for more people, consider a standard cooking condition, to make your life easier and serve them all at the same time.
- In this case, the thickness determines the result of the meat. To have medium rare meat, cut pieces about 2-inches thick; for a well-done meat, make medallions 1-inch thick.
- Spread a drizzle of olive oil on each piece of filet mignon. Optional: add a few rosemary leaves in the oil before rubbing it on the meat (but remember to remove them before grilling, otherwise they will burn and make the meat bitter).
- Place the meat on the grill about 17 inches from the embers for 6 minutes on each side.
- Remove and let it rest for a few minutes before serving. Season with salt and pepper.
Filet Mignon in the rotisserie:
- No need to add oil to the meat
- Skewer the meat lengthwise. If the cut is longer than the skewer, cut one end to the ideal length.
- Place on the grill for 30 minutes, keeping the same distance from the ember as on the traditional grill.
Often confused with chorizo but with a milder flavor, linguica (pronounced ling-gwee-suh), is a type of Portuguese sausage commonly served in a Brazilian steakhouse.
It's made from ground pork and gets its flavor from spices like garlic, paprika, oregano, and cumin paired with a vinegar brine and smoke curing. The salt and vinegar brine helps mellow out the meaty flavor of the sausage, and it's smoked to make it even more flavorful and tender. (Mashed.com).
When making it at home, you can grill it or skewer it widthwise. Usually, it needs 40 minutes to cook evenly and to be crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. Ideally, it should be at a distance of 15 inches from the ember.
Try googling for meat shops nearby where you live to see if they offer some type of Linguica. It if arrives cold, it can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week or for up to 8 weeks in the freezer.
Pork loin – not to be confused with pork tenderloin — is a cut from between the spine and ribs and often trimmed in a way that leaves a fat cap on the top of the cut (similar to picanha) to help the pork stay moist while it roasts. (Mashed.com)
How to grill pork loin for the ideal time?
Not sure if the steakhouses marinate the pork loin, but you will find many recipes for it online.
In order for the meat not to lose its juiciness, it’s recommended to wrap it in aluminum foil. But if you marinate the meat for a good amount of hours, you may not need to do so.
Here are a few tips on how to grill pork loin, considering you are grilling a whole 5lbs piece with a fat cap:
- Light the brazier to medium temperature.
- Place the loin on the grill or on the skewer at a height between 12 to 16 inches from the coals.
- The average time under these conditions is approximately one hour to 80 minutes.
- If opt for grill and not skewer, turn around the meat halfway through or when you see that it is well done.
- Once golden on both sides, remove and serve.
Another valuable tip is to make a hole on the side of the meat and press with a knife to know that it is ready when the liquid inside comes out transparent.
Cordeiro means lamb, and you'll find it at many Brazilian steakhouses in the form of bone-in steaks and chops cut from a rack.
What’s the grilling time of lamb?
The lamb offers various cuts for the barbecue. However, steakhouses usually serve carré or lamb ribs.
Because it is more delicate, lamb meat should be roasted at low temperatures, over a flameless ember and for a longer period than other meats (2 to 3 hours on average).
The lamb rib is an exception in terms of preparation: as it has a lower fat content, it should be done over high heat, at a distance of about 12 inches from the heat. Flip halfway through to make it golden brown. (minervafoods.com).
Frango is a Portuguese word for chicken, and many Brazilian steakhouses have some version of it on the menu. Options range from skewered bacon-wrapped chicken breasts (like the picture above) to sweet and sour marinated drumsticks. The chicken is normally grilled 15 inches away from the coals for 50 minutes.
Oh, but we’re not done with chicken.
Another option, very authentic to the churrasco experience but at first not so attractive, is the chicken hearts.
Just like other cuts, the hearts are grilled on skewers and served as an appetizer or with the other meats. For crispy and juicy chicken hearts, skewer them on sticks or on a skewer and leave them grilling for 30 minutes at a distance of 12 inches from the ember.
Cupim (beef hump)
Pronounced ku-pin, this cut is very unique to Brazilian cuisine, and therefore it might be unlikely to be found at any butcher shop or steakhouse in the United States.
Cupim comes from a special breed of cow called Brazilian Zebu that have a hump between their shoulder blades, much like a camel. That hump is where cupim comes from.
How to Have a Successful Brazilian BBQ At Home
Now you have a wide list of options to try every time you want to innovate your BBQ at home. Two things to have in mind in order to have a successful Brazilian barbecue: the meat’s distance from the heat - not to mention the heat itself - and the salt.
What is the ideal distance of each meat on the grill?
As we mentioned, the time varies according to the distance from the coals, in addition to the weight and cut.
In summary, meats weighing less than 3.3lbs should be grilled at a distance of 6 to 12 inches from the fire. Meat above that weight should be roasted and placed at a distance of 17 to 23 inches from the fire.
If we think about thickness, steaks should be at a distance of 6 to 12 inches from the coals. The whole pieces, in turn, are placed at a greater distance, between 17 to 23 inches.
When it comes to temperature, 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit at home grill is essential.
The Salt, Sal Grosso
Despite the variety of meats, most Brazilian barbecue is flavored simply with salt. Of course, this isn’t table salt — it’s sal grosso, a coarse rock salt. The texture and flavor of sal grosso accentuates the natural flavor of meat, although the crunchy texture might be strange to the American palate.
Going simple on seasoning also allows you to feel the nuances of flavor from the wood or charcoal. It’s a new tasting experience for you meat lovers. If you don’t enjoy it as much, feel free to go try your regular spice mixes. At least you’re innovating in the style!
If you want to go full Brazilian style BBQ, you can experiment making some of our traditional side dishes and appetizers. But this topic also deserves its own blog article.
Hope this guide will help you in your journey into Brazilian cuisine. Share with friends and have fun!