Ben O'Donoghue
43 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Billy Law

Argentinean asado

In the early part of the twentieth century, Argentina produced grain and beef of the highest quality, so it’s not too much of a surprise that Argentineans continue to consume a lot of meat.

An asado is a very popular, traditional method of cooking meat, originating in the Pampas regions of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. Typically, a wood fire burning on the ground or in a pit is surrounded by metal cross-stakes upon which the meat is rested, splayed open to receive the heat. The preparation is simple: the meat is merely seasoned with salt before and during the cooking process. It’s a slow method of cooking, and the heat and the meat’s distance from the re need to be controlled. The meat juices and fat are never allowed to hit the fire because the smoke will affect the flavour of the meat, and often the fire is cleared from underneath the meat during the proceedings. The meat is generally transferred to a tray and typically served with chimichurri, a herb dressing.

Meat served at an asado is eaten in the following sequence: morcillas (blood sausages), chorizos, chinchulines (intestines), mollejas (sweetbreads) and other organs, followed by the ribs and steaks. Food cooked à la asado is when a parrilla (grill) is placed over coals that have formed from the fire and the meat is then cooked over the slow heat of the coals.

One of my kitchen porters used to reminisce about the asados back home in South America. They would build a big fire on the beach and skewer a whole strip loin on a star picket and then knock it into the ground next to the fire. As the fire burnt down they would move the star picket and the meat closer in until it was cooked. Now that’s a barbecue!

South American churrasco

Churrasco is a Spanish/Portuguese word that defines the grilling of meat over a wood or coal re. The denition varies across South America, from Central American countries such as Nicaragua, where it is used to describe long strips of tenderloin beef cooked on skewers and served with chimichurri, to Argentina, where it describes a large cut of beef that forms one of the courses cooked on an asado.

The true identity of the churrasco finds its origins in the southern regions of Brazil, where the gauchos (cowboys) of the Pampas regions would cook their meat over coals on spikes, as opposed to the grills found in Argentina and Uruguay. This style of cooking found its way via highway eateries and truck stops to the large cities, where the cooking technique became more sophisticated. Typically, the meat is not marinated but simply seasoned with a paste of salt and water brushed onto the meat as it cooks. It really is flame-cooked meat at its purest!

How to cook the perfect steak

Most barbecue lovers are meat junkies, so it stands to reason that most barbecues involve cooking the odd steak. I know there are some criminal meat cooks out there, as I have witnessed some major acts of steak slaughter.

Follow these simple steps and you’re guaranteed to end up with the perfect steak every time. It’s worth remembering though that the quality of the meat is a huge factor in the tenderness and tastiness of the end product.

The selection of the right cut is important, as you’re going to need a cut that is tender. The cuts that are best suited to the high heat of direct grilling are of course a well-marinated skirt steak or cuts such as sirloin, porterhouse, T-bone, rump or tenderloin (fillet). All these cuts have a broad surface area that takes advantage of the charred flavour from the high heat.

I recommend that the steaks be allowed to return to room temperature prior to grilling. This not only makes the cooking time shorter but also means that you lose less moisture from your meat.

Season your steaks just prior to grilling with coarsely ground rock salt or quality crystal salt and freshly ground pepper, or with spices if that’s what you’re using. If added early on, salt will draw moisture from the protein of the meat, which will in turn dissolve the salt. The coarse salt helps to protect the meat from sticking to the grill and also gives a lovely crust to the meat.

Your fire should be built or the gas arranged so you have a hot area and a cooler area so you can move your steak from the high heat to a more steady, lower heat. This is more important if you’re cooking large, thick steaks as opposed to thin, quick-cook steaks. Be sure that your grill is clean and free of oil and fat, as they will impart a tainted flavour to your grilled meat. I never oil the steaks or the grill as oil cooking over a high heat will burn and flavour the meat. A hot re and some seasoning are all you need to stop the steak from sticking.

Now it’s time to cook your steaks. The golden rule is to never overcrowd your grill, as too many steaks will absorb the heat and lower the cooking temperature of the grill, especially if you’re cooking on gas. Arrange your steaks in a row, in the order in which you plan to cook them. Organisation is the key to grill control.

Allow your steak to seal on the first side for 2–3 minutes, then rotate it 90 degrees so you end up with crisscross grill marks for presentation. You should only turn steaks a maximum of three times (this was something I was taught from a young age as a grill chef). Moisture from the steak will push up through the meat away from the heat. The trick is to create a balance between the two sides of the meat. Heat seals the meat surface, reducing the moisture’s chance of escaping. If you allow the steak to remain on one side for too long, all the moisture will push out the other side and you will have a dry steak.

As a general rule, when cooking inch-thick steaks, turn them over after about 5 minutes and repeat the crisscross cooking on the other side. You will require a little less time on the second side, as the meat will be hotter; allow 3–4 minutes. Give the meat a final turn for just 30 seconds, just to heat the other side once again and to balance the movement of moisture.

To tell how cooked your steak is, the best method is to touch it. You should never cut a steak to check this. I use the finger to thumb method, which replicates the feeling of ‘done-ness’. To do this feel the fleshy pad at the base of your thumb which should feel different depending on which finger is gently meeting your thumb. As a rough gauge; thumb and index finger = rare to medium–rare; thumb to middle finger = medium–rare to medium; thumb to ring finger = medium to medium-well-done; thumb to pinkie = medium-well-done to well-done.

The last step is the most important: the resting of the meat. When you cook meat, the protein contracts and the moisture heats up and moves from areas of high heat to lower heat (osmosis). Resting the meat after cooking allows the meat proteins to relax and the moisture that was moving outwards to return and settle within the meat. Rest the meat for half the time you took to cook it.

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