Picanha steak is the highlight of any Brazilian BBQ. Find out everything you need to know about one of South America’s best meats and learn the best way to grill it with our recipe.
Today I’m breaking down one of South America’s best kept secrets: Picanha steak.
The beef cut is the highlight at any churrasco (Brazilian barbecue). If you haven’t had it before, you’re going to want to hit up your nearest Brazilian restaurant immediately.
It’s known as picanha in Brazil and through other parts of Latin America, but you might know it as sirloin cap, rump cover, or rump cap. Whatever you choose to call it, you need it at your next BBQ grill-off.
What cut of meat is picanha?
Picanha is a triangular cut of meat that sits on top of the rump of the cow. It comes with a fat layer above it that helps create a beautiful tender and juicy flavor when cooked.
Meat from the cow’s rump area is popular in Brazil, and it’s easy to see why. It has a texture and taste similar to sirloin and is packed full of juicy and tender flavor.
Picanha comes from a cut of meat that sits on top of the rump of the cow. It comes with a fat cap, which can help provide more flavor. The good news for those who don’t want the fat is that this layer can easily be removed. However, some South American countries keep the fat cap on for added flavor. It’s your call.
Despite this layer of fat, the meat itself isn’t infused with a lot of meat, making it a challenge to keep it moist and tender. Cook it right and you’re on to the most incredibly delicious beef cuts.
Picanha vs. tri-tip: What’s the difference?
Picanha and beef tri-tip are two different cuts of meat, coming from different areas and primal cuts of the cow. This means that both picanha and tri-tip have different tastes, textures, and uses. They are not interchangeable (despite what you may have heard!).
These two cuts of beef are often confused, partly because of the fat cap and their proximity to the sirloin. Picanha actually has a smaller fat layer than the tri-tip, so if you are trying to source some yourself, be sure that you understand this distinction.
Picanha comes from the top of the rump, forming part of the round primal. The rump cap contains a rich amount of fat and, because it is not a well-worked muscle, it contains a lot of marbling. This makes it beautifully tender
Tri-tip comes from the tip of the bottom sirloin, which forms some of the loin primal. It doesn’t contain much fat, which means it contains a rich beefy flavor.
Where can you buy picanha?
Outside of South America, Picanha is known as sirloin cap or rump cap. However, many butchers in North America or Europe tend to break this cut down into other types of cut, like loin, rump, or round. They also tend to discard the iconic fat cap that sits on the meat. This can make buying it a challenge, but not impossible.
If you can find a local specialist butcher that offers full animal breakdown, you can request picanha through them. You might have to phrase it as ‘sirloin cap with the fat cap on’, but they should get your drift!
If you’re lucky enough to be able to get some, aim for a weight between 2 and 3 lbs. I’d be suspicious of anything larger than this, which is likely to include other bits of meat.
For grilled picanha, we are going to keep the fat cap on. The 30 minutes that it’ll spend on the grill will be enough to allow the render without it turning rubbery. It will then provide a lot of the natural flavor that we want in the meat.
Only use salt and ground black pepper to season the beef. The meat is so rich in natural flavor that anything more will overwhelm it. No marinades, no rubs. Just salt and black pepper.
How to grill picanha
My full recipe is below, but a whole picanha will need to be seared for 3-4 minutes on its fat side down.
After this, you slice it against the grain into thin strips and cook them on the grill like you would for a regular steak. You should do this with the fat still on the meat.
Don’t try to cook picanha in your smoker with the fat still intact. The fat cap doesn’t render in the same way as brisket does. It will turn to a rubber-like consistency which will tighten the more it’s exposed to high temperatures in the smoker. Instead, be sure to save it for on the grill over the coals. If you decide to try smoked picanha, remove the fat cap altogether.
Don’t use any artificial briquettes or fire starters in your grill. Use lump charcoal only. Briquettes will taint the meat, ruining its flavors and aromas.
An important step is to score the layer of fat on top of the picanha. What this does is help prevent the meat from deforming when the fat shrinks. It also allows the rendered fat and liquid to dissipate through the meat as it cooks.
One of the best things about picanha and Brazilian barbecue is that it’s all about the meat’s flavors. This means that there’s no need to marinate it or use any seasoning beyond salt or pepper. Just like with Texas-style barbecue, all we want is the natural flavors and juices of the meat.
Apply a little bit of rock or coarse salt to it before grilling, and that’s it. This will help lock in the juice and nothing more.
Grilled Picanha Steak
- 4 lbs beef top sirloin cap defrosted
- kosher salt
- crushed black pepper
- Preheat your grill to high. Prepare the steak by scoring the layer of fat on top. Do this in one-inch squares.
- Rub kosher or coarse salt into the beef's fat layer, ensuring you get it into the crevasses created by you scoring the fat. Season with freshly ground pepper.
- Sear the steak on the grill with its fat side down. Grill for 3-4 minutes.
- Remove the steak from the heat and place it back on a chopping board.
- Slice into medium-thick strips and apply a sprinkle of more salt on each strip.
- Put each steak strips back on the grill and cook for 20-25 minutes, turning every 5 minutes.
- Use a meat thermometer to monitor the internal temperature. When the internal temperature reaches 130°F, remove the steaks from the grill.
- Leave to rest for 5 minutes. Serve up and enjoy.