What is Picanha?
“What is Brazilian Picanha” is quite possibly one of the most common questions I get as a Brazilian grill master. So I’ve gone through and compiled a wealth of knowledge regarding what Picanha is.
Picanha, known in the united states as Top Sirloin Cap, Rump Cap, or simply Sirloin Cap is a triangular cut of beef taken from the top of the rump of the cow, or the top of the sirloin roast. Picanha has a similar flavor and texture as sirloin as it is cut from the same roast but is a specific isolated muscle on the top of the roast. Another defining characteristic of Picanha cut is the thick fat layer on top of the roast.
When picanha is prepared, seasoned, cooked, and served correctly is has the reputation of being called the best steak found anywhere on the cow. Just because it is my favorite cut of meat, doesn’t detract from the fact that someone else might have a different favorite, but let me explain why I believe that statement to be true.
How To Identify Real Brazilian Picanha, and Is It Worth It?
Although picanha is revered all throughout Brazil and many places in Argentina and Europe, it’s more difficult to find here in the United States. In Utah I’ve developed a network of butchers that are well versed in the art of cutting Brazilian meats. For a while, I lived in Louisville KY and during my year and a half living there, I had the hardest time finding a butcher who could cut the picanha the traditional way. They would always get close to the proper cut but unfortunately would never actually cut it traditionally.
I went to every major and minor grocery store, I went to Hispanic butchers, Arabic butchers, and even specialty butchers (for lack of Brazilian butchers in the area). Many of them would get the sirloin roast prepackaged with the fat cap already removed. This was the challenge I imagine you might face as well. Major chain stores process the meat down as much as possible and finish the processing on site.
Those who knew how to cut the meat really disliked doing so because once you remove the picanha from the sirloin roast, you ruin traditional american cuts like round, rump, and loin which include the picanha in it’s cut.
I was able to secure the Picanha meat without the fat cap from most of those locations, but sure enough there wasn’t enough juices produced from the fat to dissolve salt from the outside of the roast and effectively season the whole picanha on the skewer. The one time I found a farmer/butcher who knew the exact cut I needed, (fat cap intact) it was the most expensive Picanha I ever purchased.
Although it seems counter-intuitive to keep this fat layer intact, the cooking process renders the fat in a way that the juices it creates continually bastes the meat. This gives the meat a mouth-watering sear on the outside while keeping all the tender juiciness on the inside. Picanha is the most prized and revered cut of beef amongst Brazilians. A good Brazilian friend of mine describe it as the most tender and sweetest muscle on the entire cow.
So yeah, I believe if it is absolutely worth the effort to seek out a butcher who can cut it properly.
Where Does Picanha Come From?
Picanha is the top portion of the Sirloin Roast. The top sirloin cap isn’t a muscle that gets used a whole lot so it has the luxury of staying tender. It rests atop of the alcatra roast which is another personal favorite in Brazilian Churrasco in regards to flavor and grilling. In our diagram, the Picanha is located in section 8.
The Picanha is noted to have been cut properly if you are able to take a look at the meat and are able to identify where two of the major veins have passed through the muscle. This is identified by a small indent in the meat itself and red plasma presents when squeezed.
Connected to the Picanha is a muscle called Coxao Duro (Co-Sha-ow Du-ru). The Picahna runs directly into the coxao duro with three major identifiers to be able to separate the two.
How to Identify Picanha vs Coxao Duro:
Method 1: Identify the three veins from the tip of the Picanha. The first will be located near the point of the picanha, the second will be about 4-6 inches from that, then a further 4-6 inches with be the third vein. In our diagram everything from the point to the third vein would be considered Picanha, everything beyond is not. The approximate locations are indicated by the 1, 2, and the 3.
Method 2: Feel the difference. Run your fingers from the point all the way to the cut end. You’ll notice that just beyond the third vein the meat begins to feel different, it isn’t as playable or malleable as the meat before you get to that point.
Method 3: See the difference in the grains. The meat grains before the vain are fine and delicate. The meat grains beyond the third vein become thicker and more tough. The grains are larger the the spacing between them appears to be as well. Looking at our diagram you can see that from the point to line 3 the grain is of one style. Everything beyond line three the grain starts to change and so does the texture and flavor.
In the United States this distinction isn’t as important because I’ve rarely found a butcher that gets this cut intact. the majority of the time when you order a Picanha roast from any kind of grocery store or bigger name franchise, the meat is delivered already processed down to a certain point. Most picanhas I receive from these locations barely include the second vein.
Picanha Vs Tri Tip: Is it the same?
Quick answer is No.
The longer answer is also no, but here is a little fun fact. The capping muscle has a left and a right side. The smaller side is where the butcher cuts the picanha and the larger side is where the tri tip comes from. Even though the two cuts come from a similar region they have different textures and flavors.
As you can see from the image, Both are somewhat triangle in shape, and both have some fat attached to them. But it’s clear to see that the size of the cuts vary, the shape, the fat caps, and even the grains are different in presentation.
Both cuts are delicious and produce amazing beefy flavor when barbecued properly. Tri-Tip is a regional favorite in the State of California, but is a little more difficult to come by elsewhere in the United states. It seems to me that pitting Tri-tip against Picanha in a head to head competition would make for a good culinary test! I will post here after conducting one! Stay tuned for results!
Now, when speaking to your butcher, be sure to ask for Top Sirloin Cap, and not simply Top Sirloin. You know you’ve gotten the right cut if it appears triangular in nature, has the fat layer still on the top, and is roughly 2-3.5 lbs. Anything bigger and you most likely have a cut that includes more than just the Pichana.
How to Cut Picanha for Grilling?
Cutting Picanha For Grill Top Cooking
When preparing picanha to be cut into steaks for the grill top, it is recommended to cut the roast along with the grain. This pattern will change depending on whether the Picanha is taken from the right or left side of the cow.
Flip the Picanha fat side down to determine which direction the grains are running. Then taking an extremely sharp knife cut it along the grain to the desired thickness you prefer. Be sure to cut all the way through the picanha and through the fat layers so you produce several picanha steaks from the one roast.
This way when the diner consumes their steaks, they should be cutting it cross grain making the bite quite possibly one of the most tender on the entire cow. (that’s my opinion. 🙂 )
Cutting Picanha For Espeto (Brazilian Skewer Method) Cooking
When preparing picanha for the Brazilian Espeto (skewer), it is suggested to cut the raw meat across the grain before skewering. The by nature of cutting cross-grain you get the most tender meat when serving the meat table side.
Now to be honest, When I first started Grilling Churrasco I would cut along the grain, skewer the picanha, and serve cutting along the grain as well. I didn’t know any different at the time. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, or simple fear of change but personally I like this method better. Try it both ways and make that call yourself!
Cooking Brazilian Churrasco is one of the most rewarding and exciting methods of cooking that exist. Read a little more about What is Brazilian Churrasco and see if it is something for you!
How To Season Picanha For Grilling?
Once you’ve decided how you’re going to cook Picanha, and have cut it according to your preference, you’ll need to think about how you are going to prepare it.
Using Salt on Picanha
You can go the traditional route and only add salt. As boring as this sounds this is my preferred method of preparing picanha, whether it is cooking via grill top or by Brazilian espeto. The meat is so tender, juicy, and delicious adding salt only enhances the natural flavor of the meat.
So, the question is then asked, what kind of salt should I use? Well with this question, the kind of salt you use is super important. In the beginning I was using Kosher salt, because it was the only think salt I had access to. Then I switched to what Brazilians use. The name of the most popular salt used for Churrasco in Brazil can now be found on Amazon and it is called Sal Grosso (thick Salt). Once I discovered you can purchase the name brand Sal Lebre I switched right away and found the dinning experience to be much more like the one I had been experiencing in Brazil.
Only recently started testing a new kind of salt I had never heard of called Maldon Sea Salt Flakes. The secret to a good salt when it comes to Brazilian Churrasco is picking one that has a large surface area. Since this particular Salt is actually salt flakes, it is mostly surface areas. Not to mention because the flakes are thin, when the fat renders, it liquefies the salt and makes the seasoning of the Picanha effortless. No need to shake off the excess salt. I’ve been wildly happy with this choice and recommend it! Check out my Brazilian Product Resources Page to see all of my suggested products!
Using Chimichurri on Picanha
Another option that is popular in barbecuing Picanha is using a Chimichurri Marinade.
Chimichurri is an uncooked marinade and table condiment generally associated with meat, which originates from Argentina. Although individual recipes vary, it is usually made from some kind of combination of Chopped Parsley, Garlic, Onion, Vinegar, and salt.
It is common to separate some of the sauce to rub onto the Picanha. You can either cook right away or let the meat marinade for a time. After cooking take the rest of the the sauce and serve as a dipping sauce.
How Much does Picanha Cost?
Like many products in a free and open market, pricing always changes based on supply and demand. That being said, I’ve heard of Picanha costing as much as $12 a pound and as little as $5.40 a pound when buying in bulk or on sale. When I cater an event with 30+ lbs of meat I’m able to negotiate best pricing.
However, on any given day I can usually purchase Picanha without a discount from my local friendly butcher for roughly $7.99 lbs. On a reddit post a couple years ago, someone posed a question asking about the typical pricing for picanha and the results came back similar to my experience.
After thinking about how to present the topic on what is picanha, I think it might be a good thing to write an article about how to teach your local butcher to cook Picanha. This article will be coming soon. Either way, most butchers will charge the going rate as regular american cut sirloin steaks so for the time being, this could be an amazing advantage.