It might be summer in Argentina right now, but a hearty beef parrillada (or mixed grill) is the country’s favorite meal year-round. Along with Uruguay, Argentina consumes the most beef per capita of any country in the world, usually around 100 lbs. a year per person, depending on your source.
“In Argentina, asado is a tradition whose rituals, mysteries and lore rival any organized religion,” says John Manion, the Brazil-raised chef-owner of Chicago’s El Che Steakhouse & Bar, which interprets asado for U.S. diners. “It harkens back to the gauchos raising cattle on the pampa, and it permeates nearly every facet of society.”
Wood fire and smoke are crucial to asado, which the home griller can achieve by letting hardwood burn down to coal, or using lump charcoal to begin with. A gas grill won’t cut it, no matter how powerful. Asados are often cooked over fire pits with the meat hanging on large tripods or angled iron crosses, but even a simple Weber kettle grill can work well.
“You don’t need a bunch of fancy equipment—I’ve literally seen a person grill over box springs in a park in Buenos Aires,” says Manion. “The key here is to position your coals on one side of the grill, then place your meat on the other side and let it cook low and slow. Asado should have a leisurely pace.”
Manion suggests adding unsoaked chunks of hardwood, such as hickory or oak, to the coals to create additional fire and smoke. “When the meat reaches an internal temperature of roughly 100°F you can finish it off over the ripping hot coals, making sure to let it rest before serving.”
In Argentina, beef is almost always grass-fed, which is leaner than grain-fed beef, but butchered to maximize fat rather than trimming it away. Importantly, the fat on grass-fed beef is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and beta-carotene, giving it a yellow tint and fantastic flavor compared to the relatively bland white fat on grain-fed feedlot cattle.
Here are some of the key cuts of beef for a traditional Argentinian asado with U.S. equivalents, although since cows are butchered differently in Argentina than the U.S., these are approximations.
Asado de tira (Short Rib): If you’ve had Korean galbi, you’ve had asado de tira. In the U.S. it’s usually slow-braised until falling off the bone, but when cut thin, it’s one of the best grilling cuts, with tenderizing fat but a toothsome texture and full beefy flavor. Ask your butcher for “flanken-cut” short ribs.
Vacío (Flap Steak): This is also called bavette in many butcher shops. It’s very similar to flank steak, but with better marbling for a richer texture. It has hearty flavor, but can be tough if cooked beyond medium.
Matambre (Rose Meat): Called rose meat for its pale color when raw, this is also very popular in Mexican taquerias as suadero. It’s cut from a muscle that runs from the chuck to the flank and is often stuffed and rolled as a dish called matambre arrollado.
Entraña (Outside Skirt): A favorite for its rich beefy flavor, entraña can be tough, and should be cut across the grain into thin strips for serving.
Bife de chorizo (Strip Steak): Cut from the short loin, you might find this labeled as New York or Kansas City strip, or, in other countries, sirloin or striploin. It’s the part of the T-bone or porterhouse that isn’t the tenderloin.
Lomo (Tenderloin): While tenderloin is highly regarded in much of the world (where cuts from the small end are labeled filet mignon), its extreme tenderness and mild flavor isn’t as revered in Argentina, where flavor reigns.
Ojo de bife (Ribeye): This rich, well-marbled cut isn’t cheap, but it’s a major crowd pleaser. It’s also hard to overcook—perfect for groups with a wide preference range of doneness. Ojo de bife usually refers to a ribeye steak cut from the prime rib roast, aka bife ancho.
Picaña (Coulotte): Ubiquitous in Brazil (where it’s called picanha), picaña is also popular in Argentina for its mix of tenderness with beefy flavor. It’s sometimes called rump cap or top sirloin cap, as it lies above the top sirloin and rump parts of the cow. Ask your butcher to leave the fat cap on.
Colita de cuadril (Tri-Tip): This is a small triangular roast cut from the sirloin that is finding more favor in the U.S. The Newport steak is cut from the tri-tip. It can be cooked low and slow, or seared over high heat to medium-rare. Slice across the grain to serve.
Chorizo (Fresh Sausage): These are usually pork and beef (sometimes just pork), coarsely ground or minced, seasoned with wine, garlic, and paprika. Mexican longaniza isn’t the same (it’s all pork, moister and sharper in flavor), but is a readily available substitute.
Morcilla (Blood Sausage): In Argentina, blood sausage is usually bulked out with rice or other grains, which softens the rich flavor of the pork blood. They also usually feature “warm” spices like cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. As they are pre-cooked in the production process, they just need to be heated through on the grill.
Mollejas (Sweetbreads): Mollejas are the most popular of the achuras (offal), along with chinchulines (small intestines) and riñones (kidneys). In Argentina, mollejas are almost always from the veal thymus gland (in U.S. butcher shops, you might see sweetbreads from lamb, and from the pancreas). Finish over high heat to create a charred crust that contrasts with their soft fatty interiors. Buy mollejas from a very reliable source and cook the same day you buy them.
Salsas Para Asado
Both these sauces are traditional—and delicious—with asado. Make both for more variety and color on the table.
Mince as small as possible: 1 medium red onion, 1 yellow bell pepper, 1 red bell pepper, 2 Roma tomatoes, 1 clove garlic. Mix with ½ teaspoon ground cumin, ½ teaspoon ground black pepper, 1 cup olive oil, ½ cup cider vinegar, and salt to taste. Refrigerate at least two hours before serving.
Place in a food processor: 1 packed cup parsley, 3 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, 4 cloves garlic, ½ cup olive oil, ¼ cup cider vinegar, 1 teaspoon paprika, ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Pulse until uniform but not quite puréed. Taste and add more salt, if necessary.
Given the plethora of beef in a typical asado, it might seem excessive to add appetizers to the mix, but then your guests would be seriously missing out.
Provoleta is just a grilled slab of cheese, but the trick is getting a crisp browned crust without the cheese completely falling apart or melting through the grill grates. This is compounded by the fact that American provolone is usually younger and moister than Argentinian provoleta. If possible, let your cheese slices dry on a rack for a few hours before grilling, which will help create a protective crust. Ask for cut 1/2-inch thick rounds of provolone. Place a large cast iron pan or griddle on the hottest part of the grill for insurance. Brush cheese with olive oil and sprinkle with dried oregano and pimentón (or Spanish paprika). Grill directly on the grill grates until bottoms are browned and crisp. Flip (onto pan if cheese is falling apart) and cook the other side until browned. Serve immediately.
Empanadas can be filled with beef or chicken or mozzarella cheese mixed with onion, corn or greens. Thaw storebought puff pastry and roll into sheets about 1/8-inch thick. Cut into 5- to 6-inch circles. Add filling generously to one half of each circle, moisten edges, fold over and press to seal. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 400°F for 20–25 minutes or until golden brown.
Beef Empanada Filling: Cook 1 cup minced onion over medium heat until golden brown. While onion cooks, combine 1 lb. ground or minced beef chuck, 2 tablespoons lard, ¼ cup sliced green olives, 2 minced scallions, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, and 1 teaspoon ground cumin in a bowl with your hands. Add to the onion and cook until the beef is almost cooked through. Salt and pepper generously to taste, and refrigerate until cold before filling empanadas.
The name says it all: Chorizo and bread (pan). Grill fat, fresh Argentinian chorizo (or Mexican longaniza) and place in a section of baguette cut to the link length and split horizontally. Cut the chorizo lengthwise in the bun so any juices soak into the bread. Add chimichurri generously to taste. If serving as an appetizer, cut into bite-size sections. Choripán is also a good use of leftover chorizo or morcilla (aka “morcipán”).
“Malbec is a wine that never fails when paired with a good Argentinian asado,” says Sergio Casé, winemaker for Trapiche in Mendoza, Argentina. “Of course, there are different types of Malbecs,” he adds, referring to young versus aged, oaked or not, as well as the various altitudes and microclimates. This, he says, “allows a great variety of options when choosing a dish: not just grilled beef, but lamb pork, or dark-meat poultry, empanadas and even roasted vegetables, pastas and semi-hard cheeses. For asado, in my opinion, Malbec goes best with leaner and thinner meats, such as entraña or asado de tira.”
“Argentinian Cabernet is unique due to the fact that our terroir is located in high altitude areas with great diurnal variation,” says Casé. “This makes the Cabernet ripen slowly and maintain acidity, for fresh notes of black fruit, cassis and subtle spices, while the palate is full-bodied, broad and with good concentration. Cabernet goes better with cuts that have higher fat content because it has stronger tannins compared with the tannins of a good Malbec. I particularly like it with mollejas or bife de chorizo.”
“Torrontés is the best way to start your asado in my opinion,” says Alex Cuper, wine director for El Che Steakhouse & Bar, of Argentina’s signature white wine. “It’s floral and crisp, with a fantastic minerality. It also happens to pair so well with everything at the start of an asado like empanadas and provoleta. It also happens to be an amazing pairing with any and all shellfish, even if that may not be a traditional asado dish.”
“Argentinian Chardonnay is South America’s best kept secret,” says Cuper. “The high elevation, rocky soils, and intense temperature shifts create the ideal climate for Chardonnay, and the minimal use of new oak, or oak in general, helps make these wines unique. It gives the wine a really crisp, clean and elegant quality.” Cuper recommends tossing seafood on the grill as an excuse to open Argentinian Chardonnay. “They go well with all seafood, but especially shellfish. A good Argentinian Chardonnay with oysters gives ‘Chablis’ vibes to the pairing without the higher price point.”
What About Tannat?
“Uruguayans love beef and grill a lot of it, and Tannat is their rebuttal to Malbec or Cabernet,” says Cuper. “It’s big and bold, with a great tannin structure and we use it a lot at El Che to break guests out of their Cabernet routine. Tannat is a French grape in origin, usually with aggressive sharp tannins, used as a blending grape in small amounts. However, the climate in Uruguay helps soften those tannins and turn it into a really great monovarietal. I usually gravitate to fattier and richer cuts with Tannat.”
This article originally appeared in the Best of Year 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!