If you are blessed to find yourself at a Cono Sur asado, it is a real treat and a beautiful tradition. Asado is a general term meaning roast, but it is most frequently used in the sense of an outdoor barbecue. Many families in this part of the world get together on the weekend for an asado.
There are typically two ways to do an asado. One is with an asador (an iron or wood stake or cross) and the other is using the parilla (grill) to suspend the meat near a fire, above coals.
Here’s the process for cooking with an asador:
Build up a good fire.
Wipe the iron stake clean with a rag.
Skewer your chunk of meat with the asador and secure the meat with wire so that it doesn’t slide down the metal stake.
Pound your asador with the meat attached into the ground near the fire.
You can adjust the metal stake as needed by leaning it forward or back.
Goat neck on the parilla and ribs on the asador.
Don’t put the flame directly below the meat. You want the flame adjacent to the meat. Use a heat reflector to direct the heat to the meat for cooking. In this image I am using an old wheel barrow to reflect the heat onto the meat. Alternately, scrap metal roofing, sheet metal, rocks, etc. work well.
Any parts that don’t cook thoroughly can be finished with the parilla (grill) method described below. Just remove the asador from the ground and place the meat horizontally across the parilla (grill).
When the meat is cooked, wipe off the bottom of the asador (below the meat) and remove the meat for serving or cut off slices of meat while it is on the asador.
An example of using sticks for an asado.
The other traditional method of cooking meat in the Cono Sur is using a parilla.
Here’s the proper way to use a parilla (grill) for a traditional asado.
Build a fire.
You will be cooking with the coals, not the direct flame.
Orient the bulkier side of the meat near the fire.
Start with the fat or bone facing down. These take more time to cook. In this photo I have a goat neck on the parilla with the bone side starting facing down.
Build a bed of coals by using a long stick to shift coals beneath the meat. Form the coal bed into the shape of a cradle. Place less coals underneath the middle of the meat and more coals along the outer perimeter. Also build up extra coals where the meat is thickest. This should help achieve a more even heat distribution.
Place your hand near the meat, just above the grill. You want to be able to keep your hand there for at least 10-12 seconds before you have to pull your hand away from the heat.
The fire is too hot when you have to pull your hand away in 7 seconds or less. Cooking at this temperature will not cook the inside well and may burn the outside. You want a slow cooking.
You will be rotating the meat until all parts are cooked. This will usually take several hours.
Ribs cook quicker than other parts of the animal and are a good cut to start practicing with.
New hot coals will need to be added underneath the parilla as the prior ones start to cool. Continue checking the heat with your hand and adjust the amount of hot coals accordingly.
This parilla is made from lengths of different gauge rebar construction steel. It is probably not the best metal surface to use for cooking but past use has left it coated with a burnt on layer of fat that acts much like the coating on “seasoned” cast iron cookware. So there is probably little direct contact or reaction with the metal due to the coating.
This is my preferred way to cook. It retains the moisture and liquids from what I am cooking. The lid shields my food from the smoke. As much as I love an asado, I suspect that the frequency in which people cook meat over a smoky wood fire in this part of the world is a contributing factor to the frequency of stomach cancer found in the region. Smoke is after all a carcinogen.
This is an unglazed clay pot that I bought for about $13 new. It is sitting on a grill with the fire adjacent to it.
Like the grill method above, build a fire. Then shift the coals under the pot. Never cook directly with the flame. Using a direct flame cooks the food too quickly, may burn the meal and covers the pot in smoky soot.