On your mark…

Before we even begin, let’s remind ourselves that we are endeavoring to describe one of the most eagerly debated dishes to surface in recent times–in the United States, anyway.

“Picanha” is not an Amazonian fish

The literal translation of this word (from Portuguese, via Brazil) is “steak,” or even “filet steak”–and I have heard that debated. I would note that Picanha is not filet, that is, what most American butchers would call a cut of beef tenderloin. Some people define Picanha as merely a specific cut of beef, and others vehemently defend it as an almost otherworldly and clear-cut, definitive thing. Top Sirloin Cap is what is usually used, although I have heard people insist that even the actual cut is not available outside of Brazil. I ponder the notion that Brazilian cattle may be anatomically different than those of other countries.

Here’s how it goes. In Brazil, what we would call a “steak house” is referred to as a  ChurrascariaChurrasco itself translates roughly (and debatably) to what we would call “barbecue” or even “spit.” Rodizio and Churrascaria are not precisely interchangeable, but basically refer to the same thing. Of course, I have heard that contested as well.  The Brazilian steakhouse archetype has a semi-casual, hybridized style of service, combining a rough-hewn “all you can eat” buffet with flashy table service thrown into the mix. Even sans debate this does not fully encompass the uniqueness of the genre. I am almost afraid to wonder if there isn’t at least one steakhouse in Brazil that does not conform to this model, but I have no plans to visit Sao Paolo in the near future to find out. For the moment, we will embrace the suspension of disbelief so that we can move forward.

Knock yourselves out

While guests help themselves to plentiful salad items and other antipasto-like delicacies, waiters promenade from table to table with large, spit roasted pieces of meat, sausages and other items impaled on swords. They then carve the meat in front of the guest, presumably until he/she says “when!” In representative pictures, you usually see containers of coarse salt nearby, and a lot of people cringe at the idea of putting anything other than coarse salt on a Picanha. Would the moon go dark if some Gaucho whipped a pepper mill out from behind the Bolas in his Bandolier holster?

Only the beginning

I have forced myself to accept the modern fascination with what I call “authenticism.” As a point of debate, people come to stubbornly argue what is and what is not a legitimate representation of a particular dish. This applies to almost any dish that has crossed an international boundary.

Most of us are familiar with the perceived disconnect between food served in Chinese, Italian, French, Mexican, Japanese and other restaurants stateside as compared to how they prepare it in the “old country.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the recrimination “that’s not REAL Bolognese sauce (or whatever), and I should KNOW, because my Nonna is from the old country, and hers is not at all like that!” It is as if there is some robotic culinary mind-melding network in Italy that enforces McDonald’s type consistency in the preparation of Marinara.

I offer no product for sale, there is no guarantee of accuracy

In the United States, we are not so dogmatic about our signature items. Take one of our most familiar dishes; let’s say a hamburger. More than one “authentic” identity exists for the dish. The first departure is the addition of cheese. Still a burger. Lettuce belongs on a burger, but you see it in many forms, dressed, shredded, etc. Or even not at all. Perfectly acceptable. Sliced tomatoes; but if we are served a burger without tomato, we do not instantly call the Purist Police to file an official complaint.

Sliced onions are standard, but there are enough people that don’t want them that it’s not really a big deal if they’re not there. Pickle or no pickle? Of course, you can add bacon, avocado, a fried egg, and who knows what, and nobody will recoil in horror, crying out that some line has been crossed. What about the bun? Usually it’s soft, but firmer, more upscale Kaiser rolls are popular too, along with French rolls and myriad others. Sesame seeds? Sometimes, but not necessarily. Mayonnaise? That seems to be a regional thing. I’m sure you get my point.

No matter what happens–it’s still just a burger. There is no debate, no controversy, no oversight committee, no witch hunt to determine if this hot/cold sandwich complies with the universally accepted standard. And, by the way, who decided  to put KETCHUP on the bun instead of serving it on the side? Heresy! Do Europeans bicker over what constitutes an authentic American version of French Toast? Is there a particular sauce that should always be served with Hot Pockets?

Who has the most precise customs?

For some reason, once a dish has crossed the border, we speciously expect it to conform to some impossible and undesirable standard that doesn’t even exist in the dish’s country of origin. People who have traveled Italy know that dishes vary not only from region to region, but from restaurant to restaurant, home to home, and even from day to day, depending on the rotation of cooks. Food handlers are not cyborgs. At least, not yet. I’ll get back to you on that one.

So here’s what we’ll do

Let’s approach top sirloin cap in a couple of slightly different ways. Both methods outlined will incorporate sous vide somewhere in the process–either before smoking, or after. It might qualify as Picanha, it might not. No matter. We will also incorporate multi-ethnic elements to add a little personality and flair to the samples. Stand by to launch!


In the first slide (top left), we see the sub primal as it came from the wholesaler. This particular brand refers to Piemontese beef, which is a thing unto itself. This ancient Italian stock is hypertrophic, which means it has genetic characteristics that actually prevent the accumulation of fat and marbling. The result is a very large, lean, muscular steer or heifer–up to seven feet tall and two thousand pounds. That is gigantic. In this country, most cattle are  slaughtered at about 1200 pounds for a few practical reasons. In Italy, you might see a Bistecka Fiorentina sixteen inches across.

In the second slide (top right) we see the “outside” of the muscle. Those familiar with the cut will notice the absence of the characteristic thick layer of fat that usually occurs in this cut.

The next two slides show the profile of the cut, with the noticeable long and coarse grain,


Acquire some top sirloin caps. They are usually somewhere between 2 and 3 lbs. You don’t usually see them whole in butcher’s cases. Many times, they are still attached to the rest of the top sirloin itself, even though the grains run contrary to each other. Let’s assume you persuade your butcher to provide you with one or two.

If they look at you funny when you inquire (the butcher, not the steak) try referring it as “coulotte.” Or, you can buy a whole top sirloin, and remove the cap yourself–quite easy. There are numerous YouTube videos explaining how to do it. This cut is usually fairly reasonably priced–I paid $7.75/lb because of the specialty breed. but even at that price, there is very little waste, other than that layer of fat.


Vacuum seal the culotte in an appropriate pouch. For those of you who are new to sous vide, the equipment usually comes with explanations of the basic requirements–or browse this website–if you look long enough, you will see it explained in a number of articles.

Sous vide process the protein at

129F/54CX6-8 hours.

As long as you exceed 6 hours, the cut will be pasteurized; once you have achieved this, there is a lot of flexibility in the time parameter. The temperature used will convert collagen to gelatin (tenderization), but it does so very very slowly. After your allotted time, remove the bag from the bath and plunge it into ice water. Leave cold  water running over it until it achieves


Do not attempt to chill the meat in a freezer or refrigerator, because they are not designed to promptly chill hot foods. Putting hot food in a refrigerator or freezer also puts the other foods at risk. Nobody ever thinks of that. Just because the refrigerator door is closed, that does not mean everything is okay!

This cooling process will take approximately 30 minutes. To be sure, turn off the faucet, wait a few minutes and see if the temperature of the water climbs above 70F/21C. If it does not, you are good to go into the refrigerator until the package achieves

40F/4C  – this should take at least two hours.

You want the protein to be as close to 40F/4C, even if that means going overnight. This assures that you can smoke the protein as long as possible without exceeding the original processing temperature. Sous vide is not for people in a hurry.


After thick slicing the cut WITH the grain and applying kosher salt, I skewered the three pieces shown (not very well) on the left. This part is Picanha style, so far. On the right we see the familiar skewered peppers, onions, and mushrooms, not only a a common Rodizio kind of thing, they also appear in almost any self respecting American barbecue event. People make a big fuss over cutting meat against the grain. Not that it is unimportant, the fact is, at some point in the process, meat MUST be cut with the grain. When Filet Mignon, New York/Striploin, and Rib Eye steaks are butchered, they are cut against the grain. But, once the diner takes knife in hand, he is cutting with the grain, by necessity. The important thing is to do your best to minimize the occurrence of long grain. In spite of that, Picanha is usually depicted as being sliced along the grain. There is no accounting for Gaucho style.

I use the Lipavi racks to keep everything secure–my otherwise able assistant neglected to fully insert the inner racks through both of the securing slots in the frame. That’s why they are a little crooked, but no matter. These racks make loading, unloading, smoking, processing, serving, shocking, etc. so much easier than trying to engineer it in real time. I use Lipavi racks (and containers) for just about everything.

I skewered a peeled pineapple, and also some large prawns, half of which I wrapped in bacon (not sv). Kinda sorta Rodizio style. In front of the skewered prawns in the Lipavi rack, you see a whole seasoned top sirloin cap, seasoned again with kosher salt. We will smoke it FIRST, and then process it sous vide–we’ll get that later in our little epic here.

Into the pellet smoker we go–these things work pretty good, and the digital controls make them much less labor intensive. We wanted to add as much smoke as possible, so we set the controls to


which is just about as low as you can go. There is also a little button to blow more smoke through the cabinet. This seems to lower the temp a little bit as well.

From this point on, I just checked it every hour. I expected an hour to be enough, but ended up going 2. 5 hours, which gave us a lot of smoke flavor. The pineapple picks up a surprising amount of that flavor as well. Pineapples are a good value–at $3/each, you can get quite a lot out of a pineapple.

After those 2.5 hours, you can see we have terrific color without anything being overcooked. The large piece is now removed, bagged, and bathed at


while I finished putting everything else together. As it turned out, that large piece stayed in the tank overnight. People freak out when you tell them that, and always expect it to dissolve after more than just a couple of hours. I have been trying to get a piece of meat to do that for quite a while,  and it is not as easy as some might caution us. Again, the conversion of collagen to gelatin at that temperature is excruciatingly slow–as we will see.

The skewer (actually an over-sized chopstick) wants to wander away from the tough pineapple core–the best way to avoid this is to make sure the pineapple is well squared on the ends. Then, I used a rubber hammer to tap the skewer all the way through…

I have a confession to make. The low smoker temperature that we used will not achieve the color evident in these vegetables. So, after cutting them, I laid them out on a cookie sheet, sprayed with Pam (no shaming), and put them in the oven broiler. After a few minutes, the peppers started to blister and the mushrooms started to wilt. That’s not cheating. That’s making it happen. Salt just falls off, so don’t bother. Let them cool, and then skewer them.

Those who know me have heard me lament the futility of putting food on sticks only to remove it later. Using a spit/rotisserie/smoker is an exception–it makes everything that much easier to handle and move around. Looks cool, too!

Again with the skewering. It really makes a difference to lubricate everything (even the skewer). Oil distributes heat evenly and prevents the prawns from getting a sort of papery texture to them. The bacon is blanched in the oven until soft, cooled, cut in half, and carefully wrapped around the prawns. Take your time, make sure the skewer punctures the bacon on both ends.

Oregon is the only place I’ve ever seen those greens. They call them Upland Cress, and sell them “live,” roots still sunk in some sandy growing medium. I guess that’s a counter point to Water Cress, not really sure. They’re bitter, which is fine, very refreshing and vibrant. Stuff them underneath the aligned prawn brochettes, and drizzle with a little EVOO, S+P. They’re good wilted like spinach too.

It’s hard not to love the way this looks. I made a sort of pesto/chimichurri out of asparagus and the omnipresent garlic cloves with EVOO, S+P. Balsamic syrup, somebody is going to have to come up with a new black drizzle. Kecap Manis works too.

Once everything was done, and after that long day, we gobbled up some bbq, shocked and stored everything else. Not for nothing, but for a reason. People seem always to assume that there is some shame to rekindling today what was prepared yesterday. This is untrue.

I had made Tempura somewhere in the last couple of days, I always make too much. I had some potatoes left from it, so, in the spirit of conservation, I made myself a novel early morning respite. Refrying the potatoes, and availing myself of some of that sweet and sticky Thai chili sauce, I pan seared a chunk of beef from the night before. It came out like this.

Notice how well the color of the beef was preserved. Who can tell this was cooked yesterday?

Later, as is my wont, I devoted myself to setting up a plate of all the stuff I had cooked the day before. I was busy making banana cream pie filling and a couple of other things at the same time, but I managed to put together this sleep inducing indulgence.

It’s all there: the greens, peppers, onions, mushrooms, pineapple, prawn, the asparagus puree and the beef that I pan seared to an IT of 127F just like I would otherwise. Again, shingled out, this is no leftover.

I try to stay busy. While I was doing all this, I prepped some other beef items to go into the tank. I removed the cap that had gone overnight in the tank, shocked it to 40F/4C

and into the smoker it went, again @

40F/4CX3 hours, which was how long my ensuing nap lasted.

This is it–mind you…2.5 hours in the smoker yesterday. Overnight in the tank @127F/53C, shocked all the way down to 40F/4C, and then smoked AGAIN today for 3 hours.

I make formulaic rubs sometimes, and sometimes I put one together on the fly. I calculate out the salt–2 teaspoons/lb. of meat, and then put whatever else I want in there. Then, I just make sure I use it all. This one has paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, and dried parsley, as is my custom.

I would say the suspense mounted, but I could tell pretty how much how it was going to look, because I gave it a pinch. And here you have it:

How can this be? This is the beauty of sous vide.

We’re not done–I’m not even close to being out of top sirloin caps. This one will probably get shocked and sliced thin on the deli slicer that I invested in. Now that they are available for about $300 to get started, I highly recommend them. We spend more money than that on knives in a year, most of us.

But we will stop for now, while I ponder another variation/model. It’s almost August, so I have some local sweet (white) corn in the fridge that I need to catch up with. We will figure out a way to work it in.