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Forget the frying pan – asado is the ultimate way to cook a steak

Forget the frying pan – asado is the ultimate way to cook a steak

Chef Diego Biondi shares (almost) everything about the art of asado.

In this ritual, the asador is the star.

For Diego, the sous chef at Momo Soho in New York, asado is an orchestra, and the asador is the conductor, in charge of the whole thing. 

It lasts for hours. Everyone talks, drinks wine, eats cheese, and salad, waiting for the conductor to get the main event ready: the meat. 

Asado is a centuries-old tradition, and like so many other family meals, it's about more than just food. It’s a time to catch up with family and friends, a time to relax, and a time to admire the skills of the asador.

It's also tied to something else: a tradition of rearing cattle. Today, at any given moment, there are more than 52 million cows in Argentina, many of which are reared in the Pampas. This makes beef easy to come by.

Cooking it, however, is a different question entirely. But Diego says a low-burning wood fire, with family and friends all around, and all the right sauces and accompaniments are certainly a good place to start.


The trouble with cooking the perfect steak

Of course, each asador has their own recipe and method but Diego says that there are two crucial components that all good asados have in common: fire and meat.

The technique for lighting the fire requires a special talent. Diego says that "many use newspaper, make a small chimney in the middle with the paper balls and then put the charcoal on top. It's quite a ritual."

There are various techniques for lighting the fire and everyone has their own particular trick. In fact, "the discussions about which method is better can be endless", Diego warns.

But the objective is always the same: the fire must be controlled to cook the meat at a slow pace.

For Diego, the biggest difference is in cooking with the embers, not the flame. "We cook with the heat of the embers, that is, once the charcoal is lit, the flame is extinguished and the embers remain lit, with that heat we cook, so to speak. We cook on a very, very slow fire," he explains.

The second factor is choosing the correct cut of meat.

Diego explains that while most people are used to cooking thin cuts with little fat but these dry out and become tough when cooked over the embers.

"In Argentina, we prefer asado de tira, which has bones and a lot of fat or vacio. When the meat is cooked for a longer time, the fat melts and the muscle absorbs the fat and when the meat is ready it is very juicy and extremely delicious," Diego says.

For Diego, after that, the next conversation is about the accompaniments. He says relish such as salsa criolla and a great chimichurri are non-negotiable, as are chorizo and blood sausage.

And then, of course, good bread, some cheese, empanadas and wine. A lot of wine.

"At least 12 bottles of wine for sure," Diego laughs.


Grill master

Diego's eyes light up when he talks about asado and the meat. But can this feeling ever be recreated in the US? 

Chefs are like magicians who are unwilling to reveal their tricks. But Diego does offer some advice.

"A very dry wood instead of coal should be used for the fire," he says. "In Argentina, quebracho wood is the go to as it adds a unique smoky flavor to the meat.

"I always take the meat out of the refrigerator so that it reaches room temperature before I grill it, it is very important. It allows the  meat to relax so that when it touches the hot grill it doesn't contract, because if it contracts, it's finished."

These tips give us good ideas of what it's like to cook like a true asador but perhaps the real secret of asado is the passion with which it is done.

"We cook with a lot of passion. I cook with a lot of passion," Diego concludes. Ultimately, when it comes to getting asado right, it seems like that's the secret ingredient.

José Guillermo Perez

José is a food, coffee, and travel writer currently residing in Brazil. He has lived in three different Latin American countries, where he worked as a barista and sociologist, among other things. He has written for Orgullo Latino since 2022.

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