Picanha is a juicy and flavorful cut of beef that has a unique triangular shape, a fat cap, and intense marbling. It is truly a meat lover's delight!
Known under different names in the US (more on this later), picancha is a staple beef cut in Brazil that I discovered while on holiday. Not only are they culturally significant there, but are often served at Brazilian steakhouses, called churrascarias. Then once I got back home, I started to hone my skills in the traditional cooking methods of Picancha while also experimenting with my own recipes.
So in this article, we'll take a closer look at this sirloin cut of meat. I'll tell you all the exciting stories about how Picanha steaks got its name, how it became popular in Brazil, ways to prepare it, where to find it, and why it's become a favorite among meat enthusiasts. So, get ready as we explore this flavorful cut of beef together.
Picanha is a triangular-shaped cut of beef located in the top sirloin or sirloin primal section of the cow. The muscle sits on the rump and is covered with a large fat cap. It is a medium resistance cut that is very tasty and juicy. Picancha is also referred to as rump cap, rump cover, culotte steak, or top sirloin cap in the US.
It is covered by a thick fat layer and consists of the biceps femoris muscle. This gives it the flavor and juiciness that characterize Picanha. It creates a melt-in-your-mouth delight when you use the right cooking technique.
The Brazilian Picanha steak may not be quite as popular here in the US, but this cut of beef is genuinely in a league of its own. It's like the Kobe beef of South America - so juicy and tasty that each bite is a flavor explosion in the mouth. The unique shape and intense marbling make it a showstopper on any plate.
But the Picanha cut isn't just a pretty face - it's deeply rooted in South American culture and often enjoyed as a communal meal with loved ones. It's like the centerpiece of a family gathering - bringing people together to savor the rich and indulgent flavors.
And the best part? Picanha is like a blank canvas in the culinary world. You can prepare it in countless ways, each method bringing out different nuances in the flavor profile. It's like a chef's dream come true - a cut of meat that's endlessly versatile and always delicious.
When you prepare it properly, especially in the traditional churrasco style, the Picanha cut has a distinctive lean, beefy, buttery texture and flavor. The intense intramuscular fat throughout the muscle creates a mouthwatering experience.
I think it's comparable to the sirloin cut, an area in front of the rump cap (where the Picanha comes from).
The most common method is to cook Picanha steaks on the grill. But the traditional style is done on long metal skewers. There are also other common methods. However, this is not stew meat because of how tender and buttery it is.
You don't particularly need a Picanha recipe to make a dish from it. The preparation is effortless: you can use a whole piece of 2 to 2½ pound beef picaña for up to three people. For the most basic cookout, all you need is coarse salt as the only ingredient. But your favorite steak seasoning is welcome too!
To cook Picanha steak, take it from the fridge approximately one hour before preparing it.
Then, sprinkle it with some coarse salt, like kosher salt.
The most appropriate method for cooking Picanha should be done at two temperatures.
First, over medium indirect heat, place the Picanha cut fat side down on the grill. This will allow the excess fat to melt and the rest to caramelize.
Then, flip it over and, at a higher temperature, allow it to form a crust.
When the Picanha reaches the cooking point of your choice, remove it from the heat and let it rest for five minutes before cutting it.
Tip: To make it using the traditional churrasco method, you'll need to cut the steak into smaller pieces and attach them to long metal skewers. The cooking can be done on a grill using the method above or on a smoker.
Another way to cook Picanha steak is to pan-sear and bake it. The pan-searing method is ideal if you have cut it into individual steaks or it's a single piece just as you bought it.
Here the preparation is minimally complicated.
Place a frying pan over very high heat without oil (the fat cap from the piece will be enough). When the pan is hot, add the seasoned steaks fat side down and leave it for up to three minutes.
Then turn the individual steaks over and cook. But these will need less time than the fat cap part. It's just about sealing it.
Then, put it in a preheated oven at 350 degrees and let it cook for 40-50 minutes or when it reaches an internal temperature of around 145 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on your taste. You will need an instant-read meat thermometer to determine how well it's cooked. If you don't have one, you may go for the Alpha Grillers thermometer. It's affordable and easy to use.
It's okay to stop cooking at around 130 degrees if you like it medium rare. This is still safe to eat although I'll recommend 145 degrees, which is the safest minimum cooking temperature.
Finally, let the Picanha roast rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Tip: The best thing to do is to keep the natural fat cap layer of the Picanha since this is one of the most important factors for its flavor and juiciness.
On average, Picanha steaks range from around $15 to $30 per pound in the United States. However, some truly expensive steakhouses can sell it for up to $60 a pound, especially if it's dry-aged. It depends on where you are getting it. It's best to check with your local butcher or restaurant for more specific pricing information.
I typically get my Picanha steaks here in the US from my local butcher. But this is only made available upon request. Also, you must ensure your butcher knows what this is in the first place. It's a custom cut of meat, and you may not find it readily available at your regular grocery store.
But here are a few more places where you might be able to buy Picanha steak:
Look for local meat markets or butcher shops that specialize in high-quality meats. They may carry Picanha steak or be able to order it for you.
Brazilian grocery stores - If you live in an area with a large Brazilian community, you may be able to find Picanha steak at a local Brazilian grocery store.
Some Brazilian or South American restaurants may offer the Brazilian Picanha steak on their menu. You can also ask if they sell the raw meat to take home.
Tip: As always, it's a good idea to call ahead to check availability and pricing before making a trip to any of these places.
Picanha meat is the richest and juiciest of the three cuts, thanks to its thick fat cap. Top sirloin steaks, taken behind the short loin, are the leaner, more affordable option with a good beefy flavor. The top sirloin is also a triangular-shaped cut of meat with a layer of fat on top that's similar to Picanha. While it has a beefy flavor and a tender texture, it's not quite as rich or juicy as Picanha.
And the tri-tip, which is taken from the bottom sirloin subprimal cut, is a bold, beefy cut that's leaner than the Picanha beef but still quite tender. Which one you prefer really depends on your taste and cooking preferences!
There are a lot of stories about the Picanha steak, from how it got the name to how it became immensely popular in South America.
As you may have guessed from its name, this cut does not have its origin in the US. The Picanha or Picaña got this name because Brazilian cowboys or ranchers used a stick with which they pricked the animal in the rump section – exactly where the top sirloin cap is – to get it moving. This stick was called a picana, and the actual action is called "picana do bicho," which means "prick the animal." Hence, the name.
At first, the Picanha steak was little known or appreciated. However, it is said that an extravagant millionaire ordered an Argentine rump steak in a restaurant in the city of Sao Paulo. This cut never reached his table as it had run out. Instead, they offered him a triangular cut with a fat cap.
Upon trying it, the man was amazed by the flavor, and after that, he ordered the same cut in every restaurant. And for this reason, it began to gain ground until it became the most requested beef cut by the Brazilians.
Here in the US, the beef cut is still somewhat unknown compared to other popular cuts. Or should I say it's not generally known as Picanha steak in the US? It's known by other names. It's also called the sirloin cap, the top sirloin cap, the rump cap, and the rump cover. The French are also fond of calling it the culotte steak. In Spain, they call this part of the cow tapilla de veal, and rump tapa in Argentina. So there you have it!
During my time in Brazil, I learned that Picanha is a culturally significant dish there. With further research, I also learned that Picanha comes from the top sirloin of the cow and is characterized by its thick fat cap and intense intramuscular fat. This results in a juicy, tender texture and rich flavor that sets it apart from other cuts of beef.
Back here in the US, it's also called by that name by Brazilian steakhouses and some specialized online stores. But should you find a steak labeled or called rump cap, rump cover, culotte steak, or top sirloin cap, then that's it! Thankfully, it's getting popular now and you can find them in some physical stores or online meat shops. And best of all, it's a bit more affordable than related steaks like filet mignon despite the similarities.