There was an interesting little piece in the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal this past weekend about Argentinean and Uruguayan barbecue titled, “Love and Barbecue,” by Katy Mclaughlin (includes a photo of mine). To sum it up, the author describes her transformation from being one who would admonish anyone who ordered medium well steaks or grilled inferior cuts to a lover of the Argentinean style of barbecue. Although Mclaughlin only had to head to Queens to come to these realizations, I had to travel almost halfway across the world.
Before I moved to Argentina I had almost the same ideology that Mclaughlin once had. I too couldn’t see why anyone would want their steaks cooked over medium. With the flames that shot out of the grills I previously cooked on, steaks would have burned to a crisp if they were cooked for more than a few minutes each side. Same hideous creature would be placed in front of me at a restaurant, if requested medium well, and sometimes that happened without making such a request. Roast cuts were meant for slow cooking. If beef ribs came out tough, they didn’t bother me but I didn’t enjoy them either. I have always been a fan of beef jerky so it wasn’t just about toughness.
So what really changed my perspective upon settling down in Argentina? Not the steaks or parrillada mixta (charcoal heated platter of mixed meats) at parrilla restaurants. They were the gateway to realizing that grass fed beef tastes so much better than grain fed. Not to mention, I also realized that steaks don’t always have to have a deep char-grilled taste to be excellent. What did it in for me was my first asado at an in-laws’ house. A morsel was passed to me, sliced directly from a huge chunk of meat on the grill that I thought, at the time, had no place being cooked directly over hot coals. Once that little piece hit my mouth, I didn’t want to finish it. Crispy salty crust on one side, juicy yet slightly tough texture of fully cooked meat on the other. Plus a little buttery fat mixed in. I’ve had roasts seasoned only with salt and cooked in an oven or smoked on the grill. This wasn’t the same. This was meat that should have been used for stewing but turned out like a grilled bife de chorizo only with much more flavor. Alright, I’m getting a little too dramatic here but it really did open up my eyes. Things really progressed when I was able to have my own parrilla grill to play with and learn this fantastic method of barbecue.
Not all grilled meats in Argentina are tough nor do all Argentineans like all of their meats to be chewy. There are many who like undercooked silky melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin steaks. There are many who believe that certain cuts commonly used for ground beef or stewing should only be used for those purposes. Others enjoy tough chewy meat because that’s what they grew up on. However, for the true lover of barbecue in Argentina, the whole idea is about taking any cut of meat or offal and cooking them to be as palatable as possible. A challenge. Pride. Respect. Credibility. Especially tough cuts that offer much more beefy flavor than those that are tender. If it has some toughness, so what? That toughness actually allows you to savor the flavors longer than some melt in your mouth piece that just breaks apart with no effort. (Matambre on the other hand…) For steaks, medium well to well done can turn out great but it all depends on two things. How it is actually cooked and not being a close-minded ass who rolls their eyes just because they know a steak will be cooked over 130º F.
To wrap this up, I’m not trying to instill beliefs on anyone. To say which way is better or worse. I will not go back to the U.S. and start ordering well done steaks because the result will not be the same. It’s all about having an open mind, learning and trying new things. Prejudice is expected, but you might just come across something that will change your whole outlook on things, for better or worse.