One ingredient that you’ll find on almost every Brazilian restaurant menu is Carne seca. When the menu includes English translations this is often translated literally as ‘dry meat’ – I can’t imagine many people would pick that from the menu! A better translation that you also see used is ‘Jerked Beef’. Before I got to Brazil I thought jerked beef was just beef jerky – dry, salty strips chewed by cowboys in the olden days.
Happily, since those early days I have been enlightened. Rather like that dubious story that Eskimos have 50 words for snow, so Brazilians have several terms for dried, salted meat. Not all the accounts I have found agree, but I will try to explain the differences between the main types.
Carne de Sol
Also known as Jabá, this is a speciality of Northeastern Brazil – a region that for most of the year is hot and very dry. Meat (usually beef) is salted and then dried over the space of a couple of days. Originally the drying process was carried out in the sun (hence then name ‘carne de sol’, which translates literally as ‘Sun Meat’), but today it is more commonly dried in a covered location as the drying process is driven mostly by exposure to wind and low humidity rather than sunshine.
The end result is meat with a dry, salty surface that protects the soft, succulent interior – the meat doesn’t require refrigeration and will keep for weeks. When it is ready to be used, the carne de sol is soaked in water for a few hours to reduce the levels of salt – then it is ready to be fried or stewed and used in a variety of classic Northeastern recipes.
Carne Seca is common throughout South America where it goes by a variety of different names. Originally it was given the name charqui (sounds like ‘sharky’) by the Quechua people and referred to dried, salted llama meat. The word charqui is where the word ‘jerky’ comes from. Carne seca is more heavily salted than carne de sol and dried for longer.
Now things get a bit murky. Some people use the words Carne Seca and Charque interchangeably, while others say that Charque has a higher salt content and therefore should be treated as a different thing entirely. To confuse matters more, some people also use the term jabá to refer to carne seca. But what the hell – in all cases we’re talking about meat that has been dried and salted to some extent or another. Generally they are soaked to remove the salt, then stewed or shredded and the end results are seriously tasty!
Home made Carne Seca
So, I’m living in a fairly hot, fairly dry region and I love Carne Seca – it occurred to me the other day that I could probably have a go at making it myself. How hard can it be? Well, it turns out that it’s actually fairly simple. Here is how my first effort went:
I chose a cut of beef that Brazilians call patinho (sounds like ‘patch-EE-nyo’). In English this cut is called Beef Knuckle or Sirloin Tip. It is a lean cut, sold at a mid-range price. I cut the patinho into steaks about 3cm (1 inch) thick and then covered all sides of the meat with a very coarse salt that is used for barbecues (sal grosso).
After 24 hours I checked the dish – the salt had drawn a lot of liquid out of the meat. I poured the liquid away, brushed off the salt, covered the meat in fresh salt and then covered it and waited another 24 hours.
I repeated this process 4 times. Less and less liquid was drawn out of the meat each day and by day 4 there was almost nothing. Now it was time to hang the meat up to dry and that required a little improvisation.
I had read somewhere that despite the high salt levels you can still have trouble with insects at this stage. The advice was to cover the meat with a screen or some netting. Lucky for me I had a mosquito net that I had never used.
I hung the meat out in the early morning and took it back in when it got dark. After 2 days it was nicely dried and ready for storage or cooking.
In this state the meat can be stored without refrigeration for months.
I have to admit that as this was my first time I was not hugely confident that it was going to work, so I wasn’t going to celebrate until I’d actually completed the final steps of cooking, eating and not dying of food poisoning.
I tentatively cut one of the steaks into smallish cubes.
To desalinate the meat you either can soak it in water over a fairly long period, changing the water 3 or 4 times, or there you can use the quicker method. The quicker method involves rinsing the meat in water, then cooking it for 20 minutes in a pressure cooker. After 20 minutes you change the water and cook in the pressure cooker for another 20 minutes. Depending on the levels of salt in the meat you can either stop now or change the water and repeat once more.
Once you’re happy with the saltiness of the meat you can either add it to stews or you can put it in a food processor and hit ‘pulse’ a few times to shred the meat. The carne seca can then be used in all kinds of delicious recipes, such as Carne seca acebolada and Esondidinho.