Monday, January 4, 2010

Eating Asado Chileno: Chilean Barbecue

Where don’t they celebrate summer with meat (or something) roasted over an open fire? Even vegetarians find a way to gather around the grill, smell the aromas and hear the sizzle. And Chile is, of course, no exception. The asado is the prime summer event, north and south, urban and rural. But of course, in a country 2,700 miles from north to south, there is a lot of variety. Here are two versions of the asado Chileno.

The rural asado al palo – Spit barbecued lamb in the country

My first experience with an asado Chileno was the real thing; traditional, rural, and with deep historic roots. I was in Chile’s lakes region, 500 miles south of Santiago, just outside the Huerquehue National Park. I was on my first trip to Chile spending a week in a small family hostal and eating the same meals as the family. One day my mid-day meal was a lamb cazuela: potatoes, squash, corn, rice and lamb innards (lung, liver, tongue, etc.) in an abundant garlicky broth. Not to everyone’s taste perhaps, but delicious and unusual enough that I asked about it.

“We killed a lamb and these are the parts that don’t go into the asado tomorrow.  All our uncles and cousins are coming, and of course, you are invited.”
As you see below, the lamb, impaled on two long sword-like skewers, was roasted over a wood fire.  Don Fundor Castro, the patriarch and asador controlled the cooking by moving the skewers from higher to lower supports as needed.

 Don Fundor tends the asado

When the lamb was done, the fat was crisp and succulent and the meat was well done, juicy in the thicker cuts. The women and children (and the gringo guest, holding the skewer in the photo) sat a long table holding a salad of fresh lettuce from the garden, boiled potatoes, home made bread, and wine, while the men of the family ate standing, cutting choice pieces for each other and for us with their belt knives. It was delicious and I felt honored to have been included.

 Since then I have attended many asados, and even cooked a few, but this was one of the best and certainly the most memorable—and quite unlike the typical suburban Santiago backyard asado.

The urban asado a la parrilla—Grilled beef in the city

While very different from the rural asado above, the urban asado shares many of its features and is, in turn, very different from the typical North American backyard barbecue of ‘burgers or steaks on the grill. Like the rural asaderos, Santiagueños prefer large cuts of meat--roasts rather than steaks--and they cook at lower temperature than US grillers, more like the slow cooked BBQ of the southern US.  They use natural charcoal and season only with salt—no marinades, rubs or sauces.  As in the US, and unlike rural Chile, beef is preferred, although pork ribs, sausages and chicken may share the parrilla.  Lamb is not appreciated, at least by the inhabitants of the barrios altos--socially and geographically Santiago’s “upper neighborhoods”.  

Also in contrast to the US, Chileans have much more tolerance for meat with character, flavorful meat than must be chewed.  Chilean beef is, with a few expensive exceptions, grass fed and comes largely from dairy or dual purpose dairy/beef breeds (see my discussion in “Eating Chilean Beef”).  Some of the favorite cuts are short ribs (asado de tira) and tip of bottom round (punta de ganso).  “Variety meats” (kidneys, sweet breads, intestines) are traditionally included, but find few fans among urbanites.

Steaks are also popular, but even here the differences in grilling styles are apparent.  Chilean chef Roberto Marín sears his 1-½ inch T-bone for 5 minutes on each side, then grills each side for 15 to 20 minutes over “medium heat” (250-350° F.) for a medium-rare to medium result.  The US web site “Cooking for Engineers” sears the same steak for 2 minutes on each side, then moves it to an area of “lower heat” to finish, saying: In general it should take about 7-8 minutes to cook to medium rare.” And he uses an instant-read thermometer. This is not the Chilean way.

Ready to try it Chilean style?  Here’s a recipe from Chilean chef Roberto Marín’s excellent Secrets of the Patagonian Barbecue:

Beef loin, preferably a grass fed lomo vetado (rib eye), of around 8 lbs
Chorizos or other sausages
Salt, preferably coarse sea salt


parrilla, or grill, that can be raised or lowered (or with higher and lower shelves) and a poker or shovel to move the coals.


Natural charcoal, about 12 lbs.  Newspapers to start the fire

The Process:

1.  About 3 ½ hours before you plan to eat, start the fire by twisting newspaper into long tubes and wrapping around a bottle.  Pile charcoal around the paper and remove the bottle.  Drop a crumpled newspaper into the paper tower, and light.   The charcoal will light, but it will take time.  Be patient.  And start early.

Roberto Marín tell us:

Rural grillers and their guests are equipped with a saintly degree of patience that allows them to calmly endure long, leisurely hours while they wait for the hardwood to take light and slowly turn to white hot coals.  Urban grillers, on the other hand, are an impatient breed.  Forget about carefully building fires to transform wood into glowing embers.  They break with time honored tradition using gas grills or rushing the coals with blowers or hair dryers, or when technology fails, to huffing and puffing as they take turns blowing on the coals.

2.  When the coals are no longer flaming and are covered with a film of white ash, spread them evenly and adjust the grill height so that can hold you hand above the coals for about 1 to 2 seconds; high heat, 350 to 450° F.  Put the roast on the grill and sear the meat for about 5 minutes on each side.

3.  When the meat is seared, salt it liberally and raise the grill to a height where you can hold you hand for 3 to 4 seconds; medium heat, 250-350° F.  Put it fatty side down for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, adjusting the grill and adding charcoal as necessary to maintain the temperature.  (If you start a second batch of charcoal after about 20 minutes, you will be ready.)

4.  After about an hour, put the chorizos on to cook.  When they are cooked through and juicy, make choripanes (chorizo + pan, "bread") for your guests by putting a chorizo in a roll (preferably a Chilean marrequeta), with a bit of pebre.  They still have an hour to wait for the main course, but and should be ready for a snack.

5.  When pink drops appear on the upper side of the lomo, turn the meat and continue to cook for another hour, after which pink drops will again appear on the top side.  It should be al punto, juicy and medium/medium rare.

6.  Rest the meat for 10 minutes, slice and serve with pebre (Chilean salsa) and salads.

If some of your guests prefer well done, common among Chileans, please do not cut off slices and return them to the grill.  They will quickly turn dog-biscuit brown and develop a dry, mealy texture.  Meanwhile the juices will run out of the un-rested remaining portion, forming an unappetizing pink puddle around the now dry roast. 

Instead, cut the raw loin into steaks, sear each side and grill to each person’s preferred doneness.  Or make antichchos, shish-kebobs, another Chilean favorite.  


Other asados Chilenos

Asado al disco:  Not an 80s dance but a outdoor cooking technique that originally used a “disk” from a agricultural implement.  Sausages, vegetables, shellfish, cook in wine or just their own juices.  Disks with legs are widely available.


asado al disco

Asado Parado:  “Standing BBQ,” originally an Argentinean technique popular with lamb in the far south, suckling pig, and goat (as in the photo) in Argentina.  Goat (chivo) is also popular in Chile’s norte chico and norte grande.

Chivo asado parado


Instructions (in Spanish) for grilling a variety of Chilean cuts of beef or click here for a computer translation. The site also contains a useful chart of Chilean, Argentinean, US, etc., names for cuts of meat; pictures of the cuts and recommendations for wine pairings

Secrets of the Patagonian Barbecue, by Roberto Marín.  Excellent cookbook, including beef, pork, chicken, and fish on the grill, Chilean style. Also available in a bilingual edition.


  1. Hi Jim-
    This is a great book! I know it up close because I have worked with the publishing house for years. The publisher (Hernán Maino) has learned much from Dr. Marín and has taken the asado to new heights... he has even designed his own vertical spit (an older version is shown on the cover).

  2. Margaret,

    Agreed, and his other cookbook, the bilingual Secretos de la Cocina Chilena/Secrets Of Chilean Cuisine is especially useful for newcomers to Chile. It includes pictures and recipes of many of the classic Chilean Creole dishes, and the introduction has photos and discussions of lots of fruits, fish and shellfish likely to be unfamiliar.


  3. im looking to buy a disco but cannot find one anywhere..... any one have any ideas?

  4. Try Easy or Home Center (assuming you're in Chile). I've seen them there--of course this isn't exactly asado season, but they may still have them.

    Good luck - Jim

  5. What if Im in the U.S? any tips as to where to find one here?

  6. A disco? Sorry, I have no idea, but a paella pan or wok on the grill or over an outside fire would do the job.


  7. Dear Jim
    Thank you for sharing our culture to others. I am Chilean and proud of it.


Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim