Argentineans. The undisputed kings of cooking meat over an open flame. With one the highest rates of beef consumption in the world, few cultures have such a storied romance with meat. If you’ve ever been to a classic Argentinean asado, you know it isn’t your average hot dog and hamburger affair. It’s an bona fide celebration of all things protein, from chorizo to morcilla to the tenderest cuts of churrasco and tenderloin.
So it stands to reason that Buenos Aires native Pablo Liberato, who moved to the United States 20 years ago, knows a thing or two about the art of hosting a barbecue. Not only did he grow up eating meat from cattle that grazed on the legendary Argentinean Pampas, in 2007 he figured out a way to bring South American style beef to the U.S. when he opened Gaucho Ranch in Miami.
Specializing in organic and natural grass-fed and free-range beef, the meat he imports (which doesn’t actually come from Argentina because of that country’s strict trade restrictions, but from neighboring Uruguay, where similar cattle raising traditions exist) is free of antibiotics and growth hormones. “It’s leaner and lower in cholesterol,” he adds, “which means that cooking it is a little trickier too.” While much of his business focuses on distributing to chefs and restaurants, Liberato also sells directly to the public and delivers anywhere in the U.S.—his way of spreading his culture’s love of beef. To further spread the love, NBCLatino asked him to share his best advice for grilling meat just in time for the Fourth of July.
Pick cuts carefully. “You want cuts that have a good proportion of fat to meat,” Liberato says. The best are, not surprisingly, some classic Latino cuts like vacio (or flap), entraña (or skirt), Brazilian picaña (or top sirloin cap) as well as ribeye and New York strip steak. Whatever the cut, steaks that are about 1-inch thick should be cooked 3 to 4 minutes on each side over high heat, then flipped once more for 2 minutes on each side over lower heat. For grass-fed beef, which tends to be leaner, the cooking process is about 30 percent shorter; so be careful not to over cook, he says.
For hamburgers, grind your own meat. “Or at least ask the butcher to do it,” says Liberato. “Whatever you do, don’t buy the pre-ground meat. You have no idea what that contains.” The best cut for grinding? “I love brisket,” Liberato says. “But chuck is also a popular choice.”
Start a fire naturally. In Argentina, Liberato says, cooks use charcoal, while Uruguayans often use firewood. Each yields a different taste, but the key is to avoid using lighter fluids or pre-treated briquettes “because whatever chemical is added to them will affect the taste of the meat. So just light the fire naturally, using matches and paper to ignite it.”
Forget the barbecue sauce. “When you have good meat,” Liberato says, “all you need is a little salt and pepper.” Of course, when exactly to season the meat is the subject of great debate between Liberato and his friends from other Hispanic backgrounds. “In Argentina,” he explains, “we let the meat sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes and, during that time, we season it. The salt sits on top of the meat and helps create a salty crust that I think is delicious. But I debate this with my Uruguayan friends who prefer to salt the meat once it’s on the flame because they think letting the salt sit on the meat dries it out.” Two schools of though to be experimented with, but the most important point remains: “Barbecue sauce?” Liberato says. “Nada que ver!”
Don’t let the flame touch the meat. “I know you see it on television, the flames touching the meat,” Liberato says. “But that’s actually very bad because it creates harmful carcinogens. Always use indirect heat.”
Use tongs. Never use a fork to turn over your beef, Liberato says, because you’ll let out all the juices. The best way to tell if a steak is ready? “Use a thermometer,” Liberato says. Remove it from the grill when it reaches 125 degrees. The temperature will rise another five degrees or so after it’s off the heat. Once the meat reaches the desired temperature, remove it from the heat and let it sit in a warm place for about five minutes before cutting into it. This will allow the juices to redistribute.
Take your time. This, Liberato says, is his most important piece of advice. “Don’t rush. If the fire takes longer to start, let it take longer. If the beef isn’t cooking fast enough, don’t increase the heat—let it take it’s time to cook. Sit back. Eat a piece of chorizo or an empanada and have a drink. Enjoy the process and go with the flow. That’s what an asado is all about.”