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Argentinian Steaks

GREAT GRILLED STEAK STARTS IN THE FREEZER

In Argentina, where cattle farming is a major industry and per capita beef consumption is the highest in the world (roughly 150 pounds annually—twice the U.S. consumption), grilling steaks over burning embers is not just a means of getting dinner on the table, but a nationwide ritual. This obsession has a name: churrasco, which refers both to the technique and to the huge slabs of meat cooked this way.

There are two immediate challenges to making this dish in your backyard. In Argentina, the steaks are huge—literally weighing in at 2 pounds each—which means they have plenty of time to pick up smoke flavor. And then there’s the fire. The traditional method calls for slowly grilling steaks over hardwood logs, which imbues them with smoke flavor.

To adapt this recipe for 1-pound steaks (the biggest size regularly available in our markets) and an American grill, you must employ some unusual strategies. Freezing the steaks is the key to developing the mahogany-hued crust that is the hallmark of this dish. Supercold steaks can spend more time on the grill without overcooking. But it’s the dehydrating effect of the freezer, along with an unusual rub, that creates a superb crust.

Finally, in Argentina, steak is served with bracing chimichurri—a mix of herbs, garlic, red wine vinegar, and olive oil that balances the richness of the beef. We found that hot water not only blooms the flavor of dried oregano (a standard addition to this sauce) but also tames the acidity so you can really taste the other ingredients.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Make a Really Dry Rub

Great churrasco boasts a charred crust. To drive off exterior moisture so that that deep crust can form, rub the steaks with cornstarch and salt. The salt also helps to season the meat. The starches in the cornstarch also enhance browning by adding more “fuel” for the Maillard reaction—when the meat browns, hundreds of new flavor compounds develop.

Use the Freezer as Dehydrator

The freezer is a harsh environment for meat. Even when well wrapped, steaks can lose moisture and become covered with freezer burn. But you can use this effect to your advantage. Freeze the rubbed steaks for a half-hour and they’ll emerge firmer and drier thanks to the evaporation of surface moisture. The chilled meat will also be less prone to overcooking.

Get Smoking

You need to use a lot of wood to produce sufficient smoke to flavor the steaks during the quick cooking time. Oak is the traditional choice for this recipe, but any wood will do. Place the lid on the grill for the first few minutes of cooking time to trap the smoke and help jump-start the flavoring process. A charcoal grill does a much better job of producing smoke, although you can use a gas grill by placing the packets with the wood chips directly on the cooking grate.

Create a Big But Balanced Sauce

Steaks in Argentina are traditionally served with a tart herb-based sauce called chimichurri. The sharp, grassy flavors of the sauce are the perfect complement to the fatty, smoky beef. It’s easy to make, especially if you have a food processor. Pulse the parsley, cilantro, oregano mixture, garlic, red wine vinegar, and red pepper flakes and emulsify with a fruity extra-virgin olive oil. Rest the sauce for an hour to allow the big flavors to mellow slightly and pass it at the table with the sliced steak.

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For the ultimate steak experience, rub, freeze, grill, rest, slice, and then sauce.

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Grilled Argentine Steaks with Chimichurri Sauce

SERVES 6 TO 8

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 10 minutes to make chimichurri sauce (let stand for at least 1 hour to blend flavors)
  • 35 minutes to rub steaks and freeze (soak and wrap chips and light grill while steaks are in freezer)
  • 8 to 12 minutes to grill steaks with lid on (to trap smoke)
  • 4 to 10 minutes to finish grilling steaks with lid off
  • 15 minutes to rest and slice steaks

Essential Tools

  • Food processor for making herb sauce
  • Wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet for freezing steaks
  • Wood chips (We like oak or hickory best.)
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil for protecting soaked wood chips
  • Tongs for flipping steaks

Substitutions & Variations

  • Strip steaks offer the best balance of beefy flavor and pleasantly chewy texture. If you’d rather try a less expensive cut, boneless shell sirloin (also called New York sirloin steak) is a good option.
  • Chimichurri sauce (which can be prepared three days in advance and kept in the refrigerator) is the classic accompaniment here. If you prefer, you can omit the cilantro and just use more parsley.

Flipping the steaks three times as they cook ensures even cooking and limits flare-ups.

SAUCE

  • ¼ cup hot water
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1⅓ cups fresh parsley leaves
  • ⅔ cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

STEAKS

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 (1-pound) boneless strip steaks, 1½ inches thick, trimmed
  • 4 cups wood chips
  1. For the Sauce: Combine hot water, oregano, and salt in small bowl and let sit until oregano is softened, about 15 minutes. Pulse parsley, cilantro, garlic, and pepper flakes in food processor until coarsely chopped, about 10 pulses. Add water mixture and vinegar and pulse to combine. Transfer mixture to bowl and slowly whisk in oil until emulsified. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.
  2. For the Steaks: Combine cornstarch and 1½ teaspoons salt in bowl. Pat steaks dry with paper towels and place on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Rub entire surface of steaks with cornstarch mixture and place steaks, uncovered, in freezer until very firm, about 30 minutes.
  3. Just before grilling, soak wood chips in water for 15 minutes, then drain. Using 2 large pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil, wrap soaked chips in 2 foil packets and cut several vent holes in top.
  4. For a Charcoal Grill: Open bottom vent halfway. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over grill. Place wood chip packets on coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 5 minutes.
  5. For a Gas Grill: Place wood chip packets on cooking grate. Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave all burners on high.
  6. Clean and oil cooking grate. Season steaks with pepper. Place steaks on grill, cover, and cook until beginning to brown on both sides, 4 to 6 minutes, flipping halfway through cooking.
  7. Flip steaks again and cook, uncovered, until well browned on first side, 2 to 4 minutes. Flip steaks once more and continue to cook until meat registers 115 degrees (for rare) or 120 degrees (for medium-rare), 2 to 6 minutes longer.
  8. Transfer steaks to carving board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes. Cut each steak crosswise into ¼-inch-thick slices. Transfer to serving platter and serve, passing sauce separately.

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