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5-minute guide to Brazilian barbecue

By Joe Robinson, for CNN
June 13, 2013 -- Updated 1720 GMT (0120 HKT)
A night at a churrascaria (barbecue restaurant) is a quintessential Brazilian experiences.
A night at a churrascaria (barbecue restaurant) is a quintessential Brazilian experiences.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At a Brazilian churrascaria there can be more than 20 types of meat to choose from
  • The star of the Brazilian barbecue is picanha, a top prime sirloin
  • Lombo is pork loin on a skewer dressed in a Parmesan cheese coating

(CNN) -- Brazil may be the only country in the world where the food comes in bigger portions than on American plates.

That's particularly true when it comes to the carnivorous side of things.

It's meat by the wheelbarrow in the barbecue tradition known as churrascaria.

The Brazilian barbecue tradition hails from the southern part of the country, from a gaucho technique of cooking meat in the wide-open country after a long day wrangling cattle.

These days the wranglers come to you at the churrascaria, wielding skewers of meat from all manner of beast and bringing the cuts to your table one by one.

Brazilian barbecue is fueled by a fanatical devotion to high-quality meat and special cuts.
Brazilian barbecue is fueled by a fanatical devotion to high-quality meat and special cuts.

There can be more than 20 different types of meat to choose from in the course of a meal at one of the big churrascarias.

Each skewer-toting server approaches with a particular cut. You inspect and nod, as if it was a bottle of wine, and the waiter then slices off a chunk for you to savor.

When a couple of waiters vie for your taste buds, it looks like a fencing match will break out.

It can get hectic on the churrascaria floor, but it's worth it, because the slow-grilling Brazilian barbecue style known as rodizio produces some amazingly tasty food.

It starts with a fanatical devotion to high-quality meat and special cuts. The hunks of meat are stabbed onto the skewer and then slow-roasted rotisserie-style over charcoal to lock in the juiciness and flavor.

When the top layer of the meat is browned, it's sliced off fresh to serve.

The barbecuing is tailored to your individual tastes.

You get not only a wide selection of cuts, but also styles: rare (mal passado), medium rare (a ponto para mal), medium (a ponto), medium well (a ponto para bem) and well done (bem passado).

The star of this meatapalooza is picanha, a top prime sirloin that melts in your mouth. But there's a big supporting cast -- alcatra (top sirloin), baby beef, filet mignon, file com alho (filet mignon with garlic), maminha (rump steak), costela de Ripa (beef short ribs), and pork loin, sausage, chicken and plenty more.

Gallery: A look at Brazil's best beaches

Top 5 Brazilian barbecue cuts

Picanha

The hands-down favorite for Brazilians is picanha, a rump cut that's sliced in thin sheets and eaten with rice and beans. For anyone who wants to experience the Brazilian barbecue tradition, picanha is a must.

The meat comes from the top of the rump, the rump cap, which has two sides, one that's better known as tri-tip and the other smaller side, which is picanha.

Brazilians grill slabs of picanha with the fat on, and slice it off before serving. Good picanha is juicy, tender and triggers taste buds to demand more. It's a premium cut, juicy, tender and out of the normal steak experience.

Keep the slices modest and you'll be able to get up from the chair after the feast.

Baby beef

Known by the American handle (pronounced "bebe beefey"), baby beef is the second most popular cut in Brazil, just back of picanha.

It's seen as a delicacy and is priced accordingly, the most expensive of the churrascaria cuts.

Baby beef, as the name implies, comes from younger cows, though not as young as veal cows.

The savory meat comes from the tenderloin section and is more tender and lean than that of mature cows, which is a big attraction for Brazilian palates. It's a super-tasty cut, but will set your wallet back a bit.

Alcatra (top sirloin)

Alcatra is a top sirloin cut that's a traditional dish in Portuguese homes, served as a kind of pot roast, but the Brazilians reinvented it on the grill to create a flavorful style of sirloin.

The right seasoning, grilling and smoky flavoring gives this tender cut a flavor and tenderness you won't be able to stop thinking about.

It's a whole new slice of sirloin.

Filet mignon

The king of the steaks is part of a pantheon in the Brazilian barbecue universe. It's still a favorite, but has competition from picanha and baby beef. The great thing about the churrascaria style, though, is that you're not restricted to one slab of meat. You can have a couple slices of picanha, filet mignon and more, depending on how many extra belt loops you have. Known for its lack of fat and tenderness, filet mignon can be exquisite in the hands of a great churrascaria chef.

Lombo (pork loin)

It's not all beef at the churrascaria, where pork, lamb, chicken and even fish are also on the menu. Lombo is a pork cut worth sampling. The loin is sliced into slabs for the skewer dressed in a Parmesan cheese coating. As is done with the beef, only the best cuts of loin make it to the grill, so the pork is as juicy and tender as the high-end beef cuts.

Gallery: Savory barbecue from around the U.S.

Got your own churrascaria tips? Favorite cuts of meat? Share them in the comments section below.

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