When it comes to what you put on the grill, the quality of the ingredients matter.
Gas grilling would be an offense in Argentina. In Argentinian grilling is always done using wood. When preparing the Argentine grill, Argentinians start with a fire made of wood. You’ll notice on every Argentina bbq, a little corner or nook that is built-in for the wood to burn. Once the coals become hot, they are placed underneath the meat for cooking purposes. When the meat is cooked over a wood fire, the flavours are enhanced making the need for marinades or rubs unnecessary. The meats develop wonderful smoky flavours that are not overpowering. The next time you grill, think about using wood fire and be prepared to taste the difference.
One of the most striking differences is that Argentinian bbq grills have a wheel crank that raises or lowers the grill. If you look closely at the grills, you will notice a second difference. In Argentina, the grills are V-shaped. This helps capture and contain the fat drippings and oils. Instead of the fat dripping into the fire and causing flare ups, the fat slides through the V-shaped grills and slides into a slot. This fat can be reused for basting the meat and it also makes the cleaning process much easier. Fire is the enemy in Argentinian grilling. This is one of the secrets of Argentine grilling techniques. Contact with direct flames leads to burning, or “over carbonization” which results in burnt and bitter flavours. This is not great for the meat or for your health.
The most important step while cooking the meat is the first contact between the food and the grill. You want to keep the meat in contact with the grill so it creates a thin brown crust. The art is to cook the meat with the right amount of grilling so that you have a nice crust without burning the meat. This takes practice but it is worth the effort to get the most juicy flavours out of the meat. One tip to remember is: to remove the meat from the fridge before cooking so it reaches room temperature.
Argentine grilling means that the meat is cooked long and slow. In Argentina, the asador typically cooks a variety of cuts of meat over long periods of time for large groups. With meat that is lean from the grass fed cows, one would expect it to dry out. But instead, what is surprising is that the meat is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The asador moves the hot coal under the meat and adjusts the grill to regulate the temperatures for maximum juiciness. This cooking technique on lower heat for long periods, transforms even the leanest of grass-fed meat into tender and delicious beauties. The wait is long and the aromas can be painfully delicious.
When you start with good products and the meat is cooked long and slow, you will find that you will rarely need to add any condiments to your meat. Some salt and bay leaves would be fine. In Argentina, the most popular sauce for Argentinian grilling is chimichurri. This sauce is made of parsley, garlic, oregano, red pepper, vinegar, and olive oil. The chimichurri can be put on top of the meat as a final touch just before eating. By keeping the condiments and sauces simple you put the meat front and centre. The taste of the meat isn’t masked by thick and strong flavoured sauces. For your next barbecue, consider using only salt and herbs. If you choose, you can also make chimichurri sauce at home. It is best to prepare it a day or two before the barbecue as chimichurri sauce ages with time and becomes much more flavourful.
While beef is the king of the barbecue, you will be surprised to see more diverse cuts in Argentina. Argentine grilling goes beyond hamburgers and hot dogs. When we were invited to asados, we were quite surprised to see the variety of offal or organ meats that made up about half of the meats on the grill. Offal or achuras in Argentina are quite popular. You will find chinchulines (cowintestines), morcillas (blood sausages), mollejas (sweetbread) and a variety of other organ meats. These are delicious Argentine indulgences and can add to your grilling experience. When preparing for your barbecue this summer, be creative and ask your local butcher for non-ordinary cuts and pieces of meat. If you don’t have a local butcher, visit the meat section of the ethnic food stores near you. This is a great alternative and the vendors will be happy to help you find tasty innards for your Argentinian bbq.
Preparing the meat and grilling is not a haphazard affair in Argentina. There is a ritual and process that is observed and respected. First, there is a designated grill master, called the asador. Traditionally male, many asadors learned their techniques from their fathers and grandfathers. It is an honoured role and the asador takes charge of the grilling process from start to finish. The process starts with getting the coals ready. Long and slow cooking is key. When it is time to cook, the most common appetizer served is chorizo. This is a pork/beef sausage that easily becomes a choripán sandwich when eaten with bread. Following the chorizo, the offals are served and finally the various cuts of meat. Once the meat is served and everybody has tucked away a considerable amount, someone calls out for “un aplauso para el asador”. A round of applause for the asador.
Everyone claps to show their appreciation for the asador who has been cooking in 90+ temperatures for several hours. Consider creating your own rituals around your grilling routine. Show appreciation for the meal and the shared moments. And, why not applaud the grillmaster!
The Argentine asado or Argentinian barbecue is a detailed and lengthy affair. We are not talking about the experience at a restaurant where your waiter brings your food. What we are talking about is the traditional Argentinian grilling experience with locals in their homes. If you visit Argentina and get an invitation to an asado, do not miss the opportunity. The asado is such an important part of the culture that the local TV hosts won’t say if it will rain or shine on Sunday. Instead, they will tell you if you’ll be able to eat an asado outdoors or not. Eating at the asado typically starts between 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm and guests can remain seated well past 6:00 pm eating several rounds of dishes. Fresh green salads and potatoes were constantly passed around. The food was washed down with a never ending supply of beer and Malbec wines for the adults.