Meaty secrets and Argentine chimichurri sauce

by Terry B on January 9, 2008

Salt-tenderized steak with chimichurri sauce and a side of spicy roasted potatoes. Recipe below.

My Brazilian buddy Patricia over at Technicolor Kitchen recently surprised me with a present from the trip she and her husband Joao took to Europe this past fall: a lovely package of coarsely ground flor de sal ["flower of salt" or sea salt] from Portugal.

As much as I love food and ingredients, I hate to admit that my go to for salt is just the plain old salt shaker. It’s there. And it’s iodized—and who wants a goiter, right? We have kosher salt [somewhere] and some finely ground fleur de sel, but I seldom think of them when I’m ready to season a recipe. Patricia’s gracious gift gave me the kick in the pants I needed to think outside the shaker.

Next I needed a recipe to do it justice. Well, one found me. Poking around on various food blogs and search links [okay, I was scoping out links that had brought people to Blue Kitchen---happy?], I happened on a wonderful post from last August by Jaden over at Steamy Kitchen that involved coating steaks in a heavy layer of coarse salt for 15 minutes to an hour before cooking them, then rinsing and drying them before throwing them onto the grill or into a hot pan or broiler. I gasped just like you did just then—isn’t salting ahead of time supposed to dry out steaks?

Turns out it does at first, a little. But then reverse osmosis takes over, drawing salt deep into the meat, seasoning it throughout and making it amazingly tender. Or as Jaden puts it, turning cheap “choice” steaks into Gucci “prime” steaks. In her post, she thoroughly and wittily explains the science behind it and gives lots of helpful tips. So check it out later. Below, I’ll give you a highly simplified version of what may well become my go to method for preparing steaks. In fact, check out the Kitchen Notes below to see how else I’ve made use of this cool tenderizing technique.

Parsley? On steaks? Well, parsley is a key ingredient of chimichurri sauce. But here, it gets together with dried crushed red pepper, garlic and lemon juice to become something altogether different, lively and big. I first discovered chimichurri sauce at Tango Sur, a lovely little meat-centric Argentinean restaurant here in Chicago. Argentineans know thing or two about beef. I mean, we’re talking the land of gauchos and the pampas. So when the steaks arrived at the table, I ignored the side dish of sauce for a few bites and just savored the meaty goodness of a rare steak treated right. Almost out of idle curiosity, I dipped the next bite into the sauce. Oh. My. God. This was steak to the power of ten. I didn’t even remember the name of the sauce from the menu, but suddenly I was obsessed with it. The garlic hits first, but it is closely followed by the fresh, subtly peppery taste of parsley and the heat of the crushed red pepper; the lemon juice is a bright foil to the olive oil that holds it all together.

Noise, a crush of incoming diners and the late hour drove us from the tiny restaurant before I could get another look at the menu. A little creative digging on the Internet told me chimichurri sauce originated in Argentina, but spread throughout much of Latin America [indeed, my Ecuadorian friend and former colleague Cristobal fondly remembered his mother adding it to soups when I described it]. Further digging not only turned up a recipe, but showed me it was wonderfully easy to make—suspiciously so, in fact. Five simple ingredients and time to let flavors swap around. The first time I made it, I was skeptical that something so easy could deliver the transcendent flavor I’d found that night at Tango Sur. But deliver it did.

I’ve since discovered other versions of this amazing, big-flavored sauce, many using vinegar in place of the lemon juice and even crumbled bay leaves, but I keep coming back to the original. Once you try it, I think you will too.

I served these steaks with these spicy roasted potatoes and a mixed greens salad.

Pan Seared Steaks with Chimichurri Sauce
4 servings

For chimichurri sauce:
generous 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
2 1/2 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For steaks:
4 6-ounce fillet mignons [or other individual boneless steaks]
coarse sea salt [fleur de sel, flor de sal]
freshly ground black pepper
canola oil

Prepare chimichurri sauce. Finely, finely, finely chop the parsley, the finer the better. And mince the bejesus out of the garlic. You want tiny, tiny particles that will blend together into a cohesive sauce. Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Can be made a day ahead. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Optional: Sometimes I use this sauce as is. This time, I used an immersion hand blender to further emulsify and blend the ingredients. Some recipes call for using a food processor, but I think you’ll leave a lot of the ingredients in the equipment.

Prepare the steaks. Heavily coat steaks on both sides with with sea salt. I used almost a teaspoon per side, per steak. Let stand for 15 to 20 minutes [or longer for larger, thicker cuts of meat---see Jaden's post].

Rinse steaks under cold running water and pat thoroughly dry with paper towels. Season on both sides with freshly ground black pepper. DO NOT ADD ANY MORE SALT. Heat a pan [or pans] large enough to hold steaks without crowding over medium-high flame [err on the high side].

When pan is hot, add enough canola oil [or other high smoke point oil] to coat bottom of pan. Add steaks to pan and sear on first side for about 4 minutes. Turn and cook to desired doneness, about 2 minutes for medium-rare for steaks 1-inch thick or so.

Transfer to plates and serve immediately with small dipping bowls of chimichurri sauce on the side. Alternatively, you can spoon sauce over the steaks before serving.

Kitchen Notes

Cooking methods. As I’ve said in the past, I’m a big fan of a really hot pan on a stove for steak. But you can grill or broil steaks too with this salt technique.

A little tenderness for tough lamb. I love lamb in just about any form, so I can rarely resist even the cheap cut chops I often find at one of our produce markets, even though they almost always cook up tough and chewy. Not anymore! I gave them Jaden’s salt treatment, waited about 20 minutes or so, and they cooked up tender and juicy. Thanks, Jaden!

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 1/9/2008

The godfather of rap shows what’s missing from much of it. The social and political power of Gil Scott-Heron, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?

You are here. And here. And here. A Chicagowide Festival of Maps blends science, history and some genuine masterpieces, at WTF? Food for thought.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

SteamyKitchen January 9, 2008 at 4:02 am

You’re welcome Blue Kitchen!

Gretchen Noelle January 9, 2008 at 12:40 pm

I adore chimichurri sauce with steak, chicken, french fries and on and on! Thanks for a new recipe to try!

Patricia Scarpin January 9, 2008 at 4:22 pm

My friend, I can see you put the flor de sal to some really good use!! The dish looks superb. I love it.
Joao is at home, with the flu, but once he is better (and starts feeling the flavor of food again) I’m making these steaks for him.
I once made a different version of chimichurri sauce but he didn’t like it because it was packed with cilantro. Your recipe will please him so much, since he loves parsley and garlic.

Terry B January 9, 2008 at 4:55 pm

SteamyKitchen—Glad you stopped by! I know I’ll be using your technique a lot. It might also be an interesting alternative to brining pork. Sometimes the sugar in a brine can give pork a hammy taste; also, this is so much faster for thosee of us who don’t often plan ahead.

Gretchen—Hadn’t thought of it on french fries. I have a tiny bit leftover that may get added to a soup or a stew soon.

Patricia—Thanks again for the lovely gift! I hope Joao is feeling better soon.

one food guy January 9, 2008 at 5:41 pm

I love garlicky, fresh chimichurri sauce with steaks. I’ve never thought to pre-salt steaks but if the results are as good as you say, I’m all over this one!

The picture of your chimichurri above looks great, although the steak doesn’t look much like filet mignon as your recipe suggests. Either way, delicious! Thanks! Thanks to Jaden too :)

Terry B January 9, 2008 at 5:45 pm

one food guy—That’s what the butcher called them anyway. They had some thicker cuts, but I went with thinner steaks so the salt could penetrate them faster.

Lydia January 9, 2008 at 9:30 pm

I’ve tried Jaden’s technique, and it really works! And how lucky you are to have some real Portuguese flor de sal — it’s my favorite of the sea salts.

one food guy January 10, 2008 at 3:13 am

My mistake! In any case, they look and sound delicious!

Andrea January 10, 2008 at 4:44 am

Oh! The whole reverse osmosis thing reminds me of a chicken recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. They had salt in the rub and they said normally it would dry the meat out but after a certain amount of time, it has the opposite effect and brings moisture back into the meat.
And I hate CI for making me spend so much money on the mag but not letting me get onto their website without paying. But I found someone blogged about that chicken recipe here (It’s great!)–
http://whatwearecookingnow.blogspot.com/2007/09/spice-rubbed-picnic-chicken.html

Toni January 10, 2008 at 6:36 am

I’ve never actually done this, but the Thanksgiving turkey I had this year at a friend’s house was cured this way, and it was as moist and tender as a bird can be. The sauce looks great! I’ve eaten steaks in Argentina, but I don’t think they came with this sauce. Scratch that restaurant off the list!!

Terry B January 10, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Lydia—I think next I’m going to have to see how it might work on pot roast, see if it will make it more tender and help it stay moist.

one food guy—Thanks for visiting! I’m going to have to spend more time exploring your interesting looking blog.

Andrea—Thanks for the link!

Toni—First Andrea talks about chicken and now you mention turkey. I hadn’t even thought of this for poultry.

Donald January 10, 2008 at 6:07 pm

I have used the salting technique on cheaper cuts for some time now. I’m pretty sure that I picked it up watching one of Alton’s shows.

I found out about using good salts and what a difference they can make in your dishes. Now that you’ve discoved good salt I’ve got some suggestions for you. Try Maldon smoked sea salt. I have a link to Lobels on my post “Just Plain Steak”. I used it to cure my steaks. Even though they were Natural Prime cuts, the salt added a great flavor and smokiness. Also, look into Hawaiian red and black salts. I use the red for pork and the black for poultry. Really good.

I use the old Fleur de Sel or Himalayan pink salt to use after cooking on vegetables.

I think, for a period my wife thought I was salt-obsessed because it seemed almost every other day a new package of some kind of salt was arriving. :-)

Terry B January 10, 2008 at 6:20 pm

Donald—I think your wife may have been on to something. I’m not quite ready to follow you around that bend, but I’m happy to start exploring more salts.

Susan from Food Blogga January 10, 2008 at 11:18 pm

I first made chimichurri sauce about two summers ago and was instantly smitten. It is also delicious on tofu, shrimp, and rice and grilled vegetables.

Kevin January 11, 2008 at 1:41 am

Nice looking steak dinner!! I like the sound of the chimichurri sauce and I will have to try it.

Terry B January 11, 2008 at 2:11 am

Susan—Shrimp! Chimichurri would be a natural for shrimp—just think of shrimp scampi, right?

Kevin—Welcome to Blue Kitchen! Let me know what I think when you try it.

Suzana January 11, 2008 at 6:47 pm

Terry, that’s a really nice chimichurri sauce version! I love it with shrimp or vegetables – I’ll have to try it on tofu (thanks, Susan!).

Flor de Sal it’s a major hype here in Portugal atm. After years without being able either to find it or to pay for it (IMO it’s still a bit overpriced…), we can now find it easily and also flavoured with thyme, rosemary or lime. I know you’re not much about baking bread but it’s delicious sprinkled over fresh baked bread.

Terry B January 11, 2008 at 7:08 pm

Suzana—On bread—wow. I could even see brushing the unbaked loaf with butter or egg white or something and sprinkling the flor de sal on it before baking. Although that might make it kind of pretzelish.

greeneggsnham January 11, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Hi Terry,

My name is Shannon and I’m the editorial assistant at Foodbuzz.com. I am very impressed with the quality of your posts and to that end, I’d like to invite you to be a part of our newly launched Foodbuzz Featured Publisher program. I would love to send you more details about the program, so if you are interested, please email me at Shannon@foodbuzz.com.

Also, thanks for posting about such a cool dish and scientific process! I’m a huge science nerd, so I love these factoids. At least I’m applying that knowledge and nerdiness to something yummy, no? =)

Cheers!

Shannon Eliot
Editorial Assistant, Foodbuzz.com
shannon@foodbuzz.com

Terry B January 11, 2008 at 10:00 pm

Shannon—Thanks! As you can probably tell from my WTF? Random food for thought sidebar, I can get nerdy over all kinds of factoids and shiny objects. Consider yourself emailed.

Christina January 12, 2008 at 4:15 am

Hi Terry. My fiance, an Argentinean born in Brazil, always salts his steaks. He uses a kettle grill and salts as he’s grilling, and I’ve never had such good steaks as what he grills up. He turns a brisket on the grill into one tasty hunk of juicy flesh. Before meeting him, I didn’t know that was possible!

I love chimichurri. It’s such fun stuff! It tastes good just about everywhere you sprinkle it. Thanks for such a great post.

By the way, your photography–smashing. What kind of lighting are you using to get such nice, white light in each photo?

marie January 12, 2008 at 6:56 am

You’ve inspired me to make a chimichurri sauce! I love all those ingredients, and sounds delicious on almost anything!!

Terry B January 13, 2008 at 12:12 am

Christina—Thanks! Whenever possible, I like to use window light. In the winter, though, it’s in short supply. So lately I’ve been mostly working with a reflector umbrella with a plain 100-watt lightbulb in a clamp-on lamp pointed into it. Thank goodness for digital photography’s adjustable white balance and a piece of white card.

Whatever light source I use—even just a plain table lamp in a pinch—I generally try to have it come from above and slightly behind the subject—and maybe a little to one side or another. This directional light gives food and plates some form and creates nice highlights and shadows. Of course, I always use a tripod—the exposures are generally two to three seconds long.

And finally, once I’m in PhotoShop, I’ll sometimes adjust the levels to kind of blow out the highlights and maybe apply a little cooling photo filter, if necessary. It gives the shot a nice high-key, slightly cool [color temperaturewise] look that imitates window light.

marie—I recently stirred a little leftover chimichurri sauce into some vegetables and sausage that I’d sautéed and then added a little water to the pan to steam. It was excellent—suddenly much livelier tasting.

canarygirl January 13, 2008 at 9:16 am

Ooooh, chimichurri! Yum! My hubs *loves* chimichurri on steak, and I am going to have to try out the salting technique! Thanks for the recipe and the new technique for tender steaks! :)

Mimi January 14, 2008 at 12:26 pm

The whole reverse osmosis thing intrigues me! I will try it, but I am a bit concerned because I have found that a lot of meat lately has been injected with water. It seems every time I deal with beef, it shrinks no matter how I cook it. Any suggestions?

Terry B January 14, 2008 at 3:33 pm

canarygirl—As much as I enjoy chimichurri “straight” on steaks, I’m really intrigued now by the idea of using small amounts to flavor sauces, as I described in my comment to marie above. Going to have to explore this more.

Mimi—I’d heard about injecting water into ham and turkey, but hadn’t heard about it being used in beef. Your comment got me curious, and I found this article in the New York Times. Meat processed by injecting water and chemicals, including salt, into it is euphemistically called enhanced meat. Meat producers claim it makes meat more tender and flavorful. It also means that they can sell you water at meat prices. Sounds like a few ways you can avoid this are to read packaging carefully, ask your butcher and don’t buy meat at Wal-Mart, where the majority of the meat is “enhanced.”

Carne al fuoco - il piacere del barbecue April 1, 2008 at 10:23 am

COOL POST…

..AND COOL BLOG TOO!! ;-)

We love Asado y Chimichurri

GREETINGS FROM ITALY!
CARNEALFUOCO – ricette barbecue community

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