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October 08th, 2014

How to Barbeque like an Argentine

Hugo Lesser is an Anglo-South American living in Salta in north west Argentina. He is the founder of Estados, which sells beautiful luxury Argentine luxury leather goods.

Argentina is famous for it's barbecues or Asados, typically prepared on an Estancia (farm), perhaps by gauchos over an open fire, or in a dedicated barbecue building incorporating the cooking area (with chimney, roof, adjustable height grill, fire area, perhaps a bread oven below), and with preparation and eating areas. The Asado is a national obsession, and while its origins lie with the gauchos of the Pampas, over time it has developed its own norms and etiquette. When guests arrive for example, they should greet the asador, or barbecuer, first, and when the last cut of meat has been served, the asador again receives a toast and a round of applause.

Attention is dedicated to every detail of the process, from choosing the meat, to preparing, cooking and serving it. So far removed is the Argentine art of the asado from the typical British barbecue -(dust off the possibly rusty tin bbq once opr twice a year, fill it with cheap charcoal, light it using meths or fire-lighters, before burning small pieces of meat or sausages on it) that the time has come to de-myth the asado and bring the secret Argentine techniques to a wider UK audience. So here is how to barbecue like an Argentine pro in 4 easy(ish) steps:

Step 1: Buying the meat

There is no shortcut here, you must go to a good butcher or farmshop and invest. Argentines grill large cuts of beef, rather than steaks. Rump, sirloin, and rib-eye are ideal, or ask for a recommendation. Ask for cuts that weigh about 1-2 kilos (2-5 pounds), and ask the butcher to leave the fat on one side (more about this later). You need in total around 200g (7 ounces) of meat per adult. Argentines also typically eat choripan (pork sausage in crusty baguette) while waiting for the beef, so stock up on good quality pork sausages too.

Step 2: Preparing the fire

Heed the golden rule: wood not coal, and no 'fire-lighter' products. The reason for this is that wood smoke flavours the meat pleasantly, while fire lighters and petroleum based products do the opposite.

You will need a fire area next to or near the barbecue. Light a fire, using newspaper, kindling and small hardwood logs, at least an hour before you want to start cooking. After about an hour, you should have the first glowing embers, which you need to transport to under the grill using a small metal shovel. Keep the fire going, adding more wood as required, as you will need a constant supply of hot coals for the next couple of hours.

Step 3: Timings

It can be helpful when learning to work out your timings on paper before you start. Work backwards. For example:

Cut Size Eat at Start cooking at
sirloin 1.5kg/3”thick 2pm 12.45pm
rump 750g/2”thick 1.40pm 12.50pm
sausages 1.15pm 12.45pm

As a rule of thumb, for every inch thick the cut of meat is, allow 25 minutes cooking time at a heat that feels almost painful when you hold your hand just above the grill.

When it's time to start cooking a cut, place it on the grill over the hot embers, fat down (the fat will prevent too much moisture dripping out the meat, helping to keep it juicy), sprinkle some salt on top, then leave it well alone. Turn it over once, just for the last fifth of the total cooking time. Cook the sausages over fresh hot embers, turning them to brown each side.

Step 4: Serving

Argentines eat the sausages cut in half longways in a section of fresh, crusty baguette, either with no garnish or condiments, or with chimichurri (diced fresh parsley, basil, shallots and garlic, infused in olive oil and wine vinegar). The meat is typically served accompanied just by salads, though fresh-cut chips make an appearance sometimes too. Red Argentine Malbec wine is a must, as are good friends, who you should invite round a good couple of hours earlier to sit around and drink and watch the food cookings.

The last thing that I would say is that practice makes perfect, so don't let the barbecue gather dust for the rest of the year – if it's sunny, buy some meat, invite over friends and light a fire.

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