Love at first bite. That’s really the only way I can describe my introduction to asado, with juices running lightly down my face. It was a few years after graduating college and I was visiting my best friend from college in Argentina.
On my last night, she and her Argentinian husband hosted a dinner party and asado was — as it almost always is in Argentina — the star of the show. I socialized and drank wine, keeping one eye on the process as her husband built a wood fire and heated his parrilla, his cast iron grill.
As the meat was cooking, he sauntered over and joined us in having a glass of wine, giving me the perfect opportunity to ask him a few questions about his process. It wasn’t until I naively asked, “So, it’s kind of like our barbecue?” that I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
While asado and barbecue do share a few similarities, asado is an almost sacred process that’s just as much about the socialization as the meat cooks as it is about the technique. There’s a purity about the technique and that allows the finished dish to truly shine.
And shine it does. Asado is Argentina’s pride and joy. It’s the national dish, and for good reason.
Asado is a Symbol of Argentina’s Rich Culture
It’s more than just a delicious meal. Asado dates back to the 1500s when conquistadors brought bullocks and cows from the northern part of South America. Those animals were abandoned in the Pampa plains and later became a primary source of food for inhabitants. Gauchos, born from local natives and European settlers were poor but proud. They survived by gathering wild bullocks and cows and selling them in cities.
Because they didn’t have much money, they were forced to eat a lot of meat. It was an abundant resource. Many people believe that this is why Argentinians are so skilled at cooking meat, and it’s at the heart of the history of making asado.
But what started as a means of survival has become synonymous with the experience. It’s all about coming together. The asador might be the one cooking the meat, but everyone who attends contributes to the gathering.
What is Asado?
This is almost a trick question because asado is both the name of the dish and the process used to cook it. The word is derived from “asar,” which is Spanish for “to grill.” Although asado is cooked using fire and a grill outdoors, it is distinctly different from the barbecues we’re used to. Not only is the process treated more like an art form, the portion sizes are far larger than you might expect — a little over 21 ounces for women and more than 28 ounces for men.
There’s no one or two pieces of meat being cooked here. The asado involves cooking kilos of meat at a time.
When you consider the culinary culture of Latin America, this doesn’t come as a huge surprise. After all, Argentina is among the biggest meat consumers in the world. Asado is typically made with beef, which is South America’s most consumed meat. Some cooks may use pork, lamb, mutton or even chicken.
Common Cuts of Meat Used for Asado
I quickly learned that this is no fast affair. Asado is enjoyed leisurely over the course of several hours as everyone gathers together and has some wine and nibbles while everything is still cooking. This also opens the door for a variety of different cuts of meat to be served. Some require more time and will be served last. Others are faster and will be among the first dishes.
The tradition is to eat the whole animal, starting with its less noble parts and ending with the best cuts. Some of the most popular meat used for asado include:
Flank: Tender, juicy and flavorful
Skirt: Thinner with more marbling than flank
Beef rib: Cooked over low heat for a long period, this is often served last
Rib cap: Can be a little touch, but packed with flavor
Short rib: Cooked slowly over low heat to render the fat and tenderize the meat
Pork sausage such as chorizo
Blood sausage, which is closely related to blood pudding from the United Kingdom
Sweetbreads (Thymus gland)
Chinchulin (first part of small intestines)
Vegetables such as eggplants, zucchini, peppers and onions
Ways to Try Asado at Home
I was lucky enough to watch the entire process from start to finish as an experienced asador did all the cooking. I noticed some of the nuances that differed from our barbecues and grilling. For example, my friend’s husband didn’t use any lighter fluid to get the fire going. He explained that it could alter the flavor of the asado. Instead, he grabbed a few pinecones to help get his fire going.
If you haven’t had the thrill of watching first-hand, you might want to try making asado at home. To do it right, you’ll need six essentials:
Fire: Authentic asadors often use wood from the quebracho tree. Any combination of firewood and red-hot coals will do.
Parilla: This is an Argentinian grill. It comes in all shapes and sizes, usually with an adjustable height so you can regulate temperatures.
Meat: Argentinians plan for one to two pounds of meat per person.
Side dishes: While everything’s cooking you might want to have some appetizers and light nibbles. Salads and breads are ideal sides to round out the meal.
Wine: Lingering over a great glass of wine is an authentic part of the experience. Red, white or whatever you fancy.
Friends and family: At the heart of it, asado is about the social gathering. Invite neighbors, family and friends to come together and make lasting memories.
Traditional asadors rarely season their asado with anything other than salt. However, it’s usually served with a zesty Chimichurri, studded with chilis and herbs or a salsa criolla, another tangy and fresh condiment.
The first meat that goes on the grill usually consists of sausages and animal organs. These are typically the first meats off the grill too.
Next up, any thick cuts. Anything that needs more time to cook should go on early in the process. Thinner cuts and veggies should be added to the grill last. Then it becomes about timing, which differs depending on the meat you’re cooking.
Another interesting difference is this: Unlike the grillmasters I’ve observed in the past, an asador doesn’t fiddle with the meat as much as it cooks. This frees him or her up to make the rounds and spend a little time with everyone who is gathered before starting to serve the courses. As the asador serves, a helper should serve whatever sides you’ve prepared.
Channel your inner asador by putting the meat fat up, bone-side facing down for most of the cooking time. Only turn it once and avoid cutting into it. That’ll help preserve the juiciness that inevitably will run down the faces of your guests. But believe me when I tell you that it’s well worth it.
At the end of my asado with my friends, one of the other guests called out, “en aplauso para al asador.” This call for applause is the perfect show of appreciation after all the love and work that went into this amazing meal. And as we all clapped for him, I also applauded the experience, which was one I’ll never forget.