The Argentine barbecue or asado is more than just a meal; these food-centric get-togethers constitute an important part of Argentine social life. Considered the default means of celebrating birthdays, special events, and holidays, or simply just an excuse to gather with family and friends, asados tend to be long, drawn-out affairs with copious amounts of food, drink and conversation. If you’re invited to an Argentine asado, prepare yourself for a non-stop parade of various cuts of meat, offal and sausages.
[Asado at Estancia Los Dos Hermanos, Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina]
The Main Differences between American Grilling/Barbecue and Argentine Asado
American grilling and barbecuing philosophies and techniques differ substantially from those used in the Argentine asado. Here’s a quick comparison of American grilling and barbecue and Argentine asado:
Fuel: Charcoal briquettes or gas — wood or natural lump charcoal
Time/Temperature: High heat, quick cooking [grilling] or long, slow cooking [barbecue] — always long, slow cooking
Smoke: considered to add another dimension of flavor — considered undesirable
Seasonings and Condiments: Various marinades, rubs and sauces — salt, chimichurri and salsa criolla
Preferred Foods: Burgers, hotdogs, steaks, brisket and pork ribs — pork sausages, offal, beef short ribs and large cuts of beef
Argentine asado can be tough to recreate elsewhere because butchering methods vary by country, producing different cuts of meat. Many typical cuts of beef in Argentina don’t exist in the United States; however, if you live in an urban area where many Argentines have settled, it may be possible to locate an Argentine butcher shop.
Parrilla vs. Asador
Argentines prepare asado using one of two methods: asador or parrilla. Asado al asador typically involves roasting very large cuts of meat or entire animals (e.g. suckling pig, lamb, kid goat). The asador (pit master) makes a fire on the ground, and he places the meat on large metal crosses to roast a few feet from the flames. Substantial quantities of wood are often necessary to prepare asado al asador, as the huge pieces of meat require hours and hours of cooking time. This method is also preferable when there are large quantities of people to be fed.
Asado a la parrilla is prepared on a grill. Although some parrillas are smaller and/or portable (ideal for camping, picnics or those who live in apartments), many people have large prefabricated grills made of brick. The parrilla usually features a hand crank that allows the parrillero (grill master) to control the distance of the meat from the embers. The parrilla works well for sausages and individual cuts of meat, and large parrillas can even accommodate a suckling pig or lamb.
The Preparation of the Meat
Argentines prepare the meat for asado very simply; they don’t typically go for fancy marinades, rubs or sauces on their grilled meats. The asador or parrillero will season the meat with coarse salt or spray it periodically with brine as it cooks, but the true flavor of the asado comes from good grilling technique and quality meats. It’s also worth noting that most Argentines prefer their meat cooked medium well or well done.
[Two asadores drinking mate to pass the time while the meat cooks]
The Most Common Cuts of Meat at an Asado
At a typical asado, at least three or four of the following items will be prepared for guests. Sausages and offal generally make an appearance first, followed by other cuts of meat.
Chorizo [pork sausage seasoned with salt, black pepper, paprika, ají molido, garlic and white wine]
Morcilla [blood sausage]
Salchicha parrillera [thin sausage wrapped in a large coil]
Achuras [offal]: chinchulines [small intestines], mollejas [sweetbreads], riñones [kidneys]
Tira de asado [short ribs]
Tapa de asado [rib cap]
Vacío [flank with the meat of some adjacent cuts]
Bife de chorizo [strip steak]
Matambre [flank steak]
There may also be grilled chicken, pork or lamb offered as well.
Regional specialties include lamb [Patagonia], kid goat [Province of Córdoba], beef roasted with the hide left on (photo) [Province of Buenos Aires], and freshwater fish [Northeast region].
The Sides and Condiments: Playing Second Fiddle
Argentine asados revolve around the meat, but there’s usually at least one or two token vegetable or non-meat dishes on offer. The parrillero may prepare provoleta, a grilled, gooey slab of provolone cheese sprinkled with oregano, as an appetizer, or empanadas may be served. A simple ensalada criolla (a salad of lettuce, tomato and onion dressed with oil and vinegar) or ensalada rusa (potato salad with peas and carrots) is a popular accompaniment to the meat onslaught. Potatoes or bell peppers roasted on the grill make an occasional appearance as well. There’s always crusty French bread available for those who want to make a choripán (chorizo sandwich).
Although many English-language food blogs and websites play up chimichurri – a sauce made with oil, vinegar, garlic, parsley, and spices – as the condiment no Argentine barbecue can do without, the truth is that I’ve been to many asados where it was never even offered. Many Argentines enjoy chimichurri on a choripán or as an accompaniment to offal, but it’s not used all that often on steaks or other cuts of beef. In addition, it doesn’t have to be neon green and packed to the hilt with parsley; my preferred version of chimichurri has a brownish-red hue and not much in the way of parsley. Lastly, the vast majority of Argentines do not use chimichurri as a marinade.
Salsa criolla, a condiment featuring a mix of bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and garlic, introduces bright, fresh flavors that help cut through the richness of the grilled beef, chicken or other meats it usually accompanies. Again, like chimichurri, this condiment is not a must-have, but many Argentines enjoy a couple spoonfuls on their meat.
Dessert: A Sweet Ending
After gorging on meat for hours on end, it’s often difficult to find room for dessert. However, should you find yourself capable of making a superhuman effort, asados often end with fruit salad or flan with dulce de leche.
[Photo credits: Katie Metz de Martínez, all rights reserved]