The art of the asado

How to barbecue, South American-style. Vegetarians, look away now!

The South American way of barbecuing is very different from the approach in the UK. Firstly, they perform this slowly while in the UK it's usually quite a quick process.

Chilean gaucho barbecuing a whole lamb on an iron cross with wire at a country fair Chilean gaucho barbecuing a whole lamb on an iron cross with wire at a country fair

The typical Brit-style barbecue

At its worst in the UK, lighter fuel is waved over charcoal, set alight and, before the flames die down, chicken is placed on the grill. The skin is soon black and burnt and so gets taken off the grill and eaten. The meat is pink. It rains. We go inside and suffer food poisoning!

Slow and low in South America

In South America it's quite a long process, often enjoyed by families at weekends. Though family sizes are decreasing with each generation, being practising Catholics, forty-year-olds have five to seven siblings, although they themselves have fewer children, perhaps between two and four. Still, a family gathering with uncles, aunts and cousins quickly mounts up to twenty to forty people, so relatively large cuts of meat can be required which take time to cook. It helps that the sun shines for about 330 days a year in Mendoza, Argentina.

Rule one: separation of the ember-making area from the cooking area

One striking observation of a South American asado, which I have never seen in Europe, is that there are two distinct areas of the fire. One area is reserved for making the embers and one for cooking - they are adjacent but separate. This is absolutely critical, as it allows you to adjust and control the temperature of the fire.

Embers are usually made in a brasero: a metal basket raised on legs. Wood, not charcoal usually, is set alight in this basket. Embers form after 20 to 40 minutes and drop below the basket, and when they are covered with white ash they are ready for cooking with. New logs are continuously replenished as they burn to ensure a constant supply of embers. A series of tools such as small shovels with raised edges are used to transfer the embers to the cooking area.

At its most basic the cooking area is a metal grid - parrilla - on legs. The art is to match the temperature to the thickness of the meat so it cooks without burning. Thinner meat can be cooked more quickly than thicker cuts, so needs more embers and vice versa.

Brasero to the left for making embers, grill to the right Brasero to the left for making embers, grill to the right

Jugoso – perfectly cooked until 'juicy'

In South America most beef is cooked quite slowly so any fat turns a golden colour, the outside of the meat is light to dark brown and forms a lovely crust, the meat inside is of uniform colour and it is jugoso or juicy. Curiously, anything cooked a l'inglés (English fashion) in Chile and Argentina means cooked rare. Raised on French notions that black and blue is best, burnt on the outside and raw in the middle, it took me some time to appreciate this slower grilling of meat which I now rate very highly.

As the embers cool, hot reinforcements from the brasero are shovelled under the grill. The art is to maintain the correct temperature over the necessary time to perfectly cook whatever cut of meat, or vegetables, is being prepared. No flame should ever come into contact with what is being cooked because it will burn the food. Extinguish flames caused by dripping fat by pouring salt over the flames.

Order of play

While the larger cuts are cooking slowly for an hour or so, top-quality sausages, embutidos, and black pudding (morcilla), which take 15 minutes or so, are served. So are chinchulines (beef chitterlings). The thin entraña steak, what we call gooseneck skirt and the French 'onglet', is often served at this time too, sometimes in its protective membrane which turns crisp. This is highly prized in South America and there is only one per animal. In the UK it's often sold as cheaply as mince.

Top-quality sausages, chitterlings and black pudding are often barbecued alongside the steaks and are served first, to get the appetite going! Top-quality sausages, chitterlings and black pudding are often barbecued alongside the steaks and are served first, to get the appetite going!

Asado de tira (short ribs) take about 20 to 40 minutes depending on size and thickness. These, with their covering of fat which absorbs the lovely smoky aromas, are one of the finest things to grill. Sweetbreads, (mollejas) are also cooked quite slowly, for up to two hours until golden coloured and crunchy on the outside while still soft on the inside, and are very popular. Serve them with lemon juice. A nine-pound rib-roast would take about two and a half hours.

Potatoes are sometimes cooked in the coals, and peppers and onions can be grilled. Prick aubergines to stop them exploding and grill until soft inside then scoop out the creamy flesh and mix with garlic and olive oil.

Types of grill

There are a whole series of types of grill. Some purists swear by the basic flat grill on legs. A typical size in South America would be two feet by three feet on nine inch legs. Others like a sloping grill, raised at the back and lower at the front (as you see in a typical UK kebab shop, but gas fired, unfortunately). This arrangement lets the fat slide down the metal grill thanks to gravity and prevents much of it dripping into the fire, which causes smoky flames. Some say a little of the smoky flames adds flavour, but not to the extent that the meat is burnt in the process.

A further refinement to the sloping arrangement replaces the grill bars with upturned V-shaped channels which run into a reservoir at the front which collects all the fat. Some grills have winches so they can be raised or lowered.

A variation on the traditional iron cross method used by the gauchos for barbecuing whole beasts A variation on the traditional iron cross method used by the gauchos for barbecuing whole beasts

Asador or grilling on a cross

Some more properly define asador as a method of cooking a whole butterflied animal, sheep usually, but also pigs and goat. The traditional gaucho way is to tie a whole lamb on an iron cross with wire - some have two crosspieces, and incline it towards the fire. Start the fire one to two hours before you start to cook the whole lamb, which will take four to six hours.

Sliced grilled beef barbecue steak with chimichurri sauce Sliced grilled beef barbecue steak with chimichurri sauce

Accompaniments

Typically the meat is served with chimichurri, a type of salsa incorporating olive oil, parsley, oregano and red wine vinegar, or salsa criolla made from red peppers, onions, red wine vinegar and olive oil.

Definitions

I have rather muddled usage of these in my article above but the following is helpful:

In general British usage, barbecuing refers to a fast cooking process done directly over high heat, while grilling refers to cooking under a source of direct, moderate-to-high heat—known in the United States as broiling. In American English usage, grilling refers to a fast process over high heat while barbecuing refers to a slow process using indirect heat or hot smoke, similar to some forms of roasting.

Further reading

If moved to investigate further, I highly recommend:
Seven Fires : Grilling the Argentine Way by Francis Mallman
Published in 2009 by Artisan books.
ISBN 978-1-57965-354-5

Where to go next?

> Maps of South America

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