Americans argue about few things more fervently or more frequently than barbecue: pork ribs versus beef, charcoal versus gas, dry rub versus sauce, east Texas's chopped, pecan-smoked brisket versus the hickory-char variety from Kansas City. But in all that haggling over ingredients, technique, and regional variations, we rarely stop to peer beyond our own borders and see what the rest of the world is throwing on their grills. And that's a pity, because the word "barbecue" isn't even American – "barbacoa" comes from an indigenous Caribbean language predating the birth of our nation, and the practice of cooking protein over a flame is far older than that.
As Chinese chef Martin Yan, host of the long-running show Yan Can Cook, once put it, "Man discovered fire. Five minutes later, he invented barbecue." And since then, we've developed as many distinct ways of grilling as languages – from Asia to Africa, Australia, South America, and the Caribbean – and each has undeniable merits of mixing up smoke, meat, sugar, and spice. Contemporary Korean barbecue, for example, taking its cues from the court culture of the Choson Dynasty, elevates short ribs – a cheap braising cut in the West – to the height of grilling luxury by way of clever butchery. Jamaicans have transformed chicken, that most basic of birds, into a national dish and international sensation through the generous application of an herb rub that could only have emerged from one of the most spice-rich rain forests on the planet.
Even with the most seemingly American cut of meat – the big, juicy steak – it turns out that our fast-and-hot sear isn't the only path to glory. Way down in pasture-rich Argentina, where they eat 118 pounds of beef per person, per year – nearly all of it grass-fed – weekend asados, or barbecues, revolve around pure, unadulterated beef, cooked low and slow to a decidedly un-American medium well, to bring out the meat's strongest flavors. And the old fishing cultures of western Europe, from southern France to Portugal, have pulled off the most inventive grilling trick of all: making fresh, whole sardines truly fun to eat.
So before you grill locally, think globally. Who knows? You might go all summer without buying a bottle of barbecue sauce. Launch Gallery >>
Photograph by Hans Gissinger - Food styling by Brett Kurzweil
Argentine Asado Steak
Argentina's entire beef industry is built around natural grasslands so lush and so vast Argentine gauchos never have to bother with the feedlots that have become a staple of most American cattle farms. Wild grass on the open range creates superlean meat with pronounced flavor. Since corn-fed American cattle produce a beef so marbled with saturated fat and so buttery-soft and mild-tasting, our grilling has gravitated toward a blast of initial heat that provides a crunchy texture and charred flavor on the outside while leaving the inside juicy and tender. But the gauchos figured out long ago that their grass-fed beef calls for the opposite treatment. They start by brushing embers out of the wood fire, one by one, over to a nearby grill. "This way, the heat remains gentle and even, with no direct flame or smoke to pollute the flavor," says Argentine rancher J.P. Thieriot. "Too much smoke particulate can make the outside greasy."
Everywhere from the family barbecues known as asados to top Buenos Aires steakhouses, Argentines follow the gaucho example of gently cooking their steaks to what we'd call medium-well and the Argentines call a punto. "In American restaurants if you ask for that, you're considered a heathen," says Thieriot. "But if there's really, really good meat, that point of cooking" – when reached in that style, through gentle heat – "brings out the highest expression of the beef." Most amazing of all, to any patriotic American steak lover steeped in our own great traditions, this heretical Argentine approach actually works, transforming even the leanest of grass-fed meat into a thing of tender, soul-satisfying beauty.
• 10–12 oz free-range grass-fed beef per person
• sea salt, preferably coarse
Find the right beef. "Grass-fed is the way to go, because the flavor of the meat is right there," says Stacey Sosa, owner of Estancia 460, an Argentine steakhouse in New York City. For authenticity, track down Argentine beef through distributors like Estancia (no relation to the restaurant). But American grass-fed beef also makes a fine choice, and most Whole Foods and good butchers now carry at least one brand. As for cut, Argentines prefer thin, intensely flavored hanger steak and so-called flap meat, but grass-fed versions of these are tricky to find. Instead, go with relatively well-marbled cuts like New York strip or ribeye.
Use hardwood charcoal. While the true asado tradition calls for an open wood fire suited to a sturdy backyard or campground firepit, the technique is easily replicated on a normal grill using hardwood lump charcoal. Let it ash over completely before you start cooking and establish a medium-heat fire – you should be able to hold your hand one inch off the grill bars for 2.5 seconds, no longer.
Cook it gently. Don't add salt at first – it draws moisture out of the meat, which is fine with heavily marbled U.S. beef but not with lean grass-fed. Instead, place the steak over the grill for about 3 minutes to let that side brown, then turn it and salt the browned side. Three minutes later, turn it again and salt the newly browned side. Continue rotating the steak every few minutes for about 12 minutes total cooking time. Keep a squirt bottle full of water to control any flare-ups, making sure that no direct flame or smoke touches the meat. The steak is done apunto when its interior reaches 150°.
Let it rest. Once it's off the grill, let the steak rest fully 15 minutes before carving. This is important with any good steak, but it's critical with a huge cut of superlean grass-fed meat taken beyond medium done. Cut through that steak too early, and all its precious juices will pour out.
Essential Sides: Chimichurri
• 1 cup water
• 1 tbsp coarse salt
• 1 head garlic, separated and peeled
• 1 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
• 1 cup fresh oregano leaves
• 2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
• 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
• 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Simmer water and salt in a small pan, stir to dissolve the salt, and then remove pan from heat. Finely mince all other dry ingredients and combine in a bowl. Whisk in the vinegar, then the olive oil, then the salted water. Transfer to a jar, close with a tight lid, shake to combine, and refrigerate. Chimichurri is best prepared one day in advance and will keep for up to three weeks.
Credit: Photograph by Hans Gissinger - Food styling by Brett Kurzweil