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Steven Raichlen's Salt-Crusted Beef Tenderloin Grilled in Cloth (Lomo al Trapo)

August  8, 2012

Every week -- often with your help --  FOOD52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Filet mignon has a midlife crisis, and stops being so boring.

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This recipe calls for 3 (edible) ingredients and has more in common with a crafting project than cooking. It will make your family and your dinner guests think you've finally gone too far, until they taste it.

It's called Lomo al Trapo (literally "beef tenderloin in cloth") and it goes a little something like this: Wrap a big hunky piece of filet mignon in two cups of salt sprinkled with dried oregano, tie it in an old rag and throw it in flaming coals. Exactly 19 minutes later you will have dinner. It sounds like a prank, but Steven Raichlen said it was genius, so I tried it. And he's right.

Steven Raichlen has been writing about barbecue for 20+ years, chasing it all over the world. In researching Planet Barbecue, Raichlen traveled to 60 countries, collecting obscure grilling techniques like smoking mussels over pine needles in France, and cooking fish saucy eggs in their shells in Cambodia. (Having accomplished basically everything on the world grilling beat, these days he's writing romance novels).

He'd be the first to tell you that this recipe isn't his alone -- the method is traditional to several countries in South America, particularly Colombia. But Raichlen translated it for and popularized it among English-speaking barbecue enthusiasts, so we're going with his version.

As Raichlen teaches us, Lomo al Trapo combines two genius techniques, to great effect: grilling in the coals and salt-crusting. Read on below for what each one can do for beef tenderloin, which Raichlen admits is "normally a pretty boring piece of meat."

Grilling in -- not over -- the coals

Cooking bare pieces of meat directly on live coals has something of an underground following in grilling circles.

It was Dwight D. Eisenhower's preferred steak-cooking method; a brief but colorful recipe from 1949 is reprinted in The Essential New York Times Cookbook. The hearth-cooking pioneers at Al Forno in Providence called theirs "dirty steak" because yes, it gets a little ashy, though not as much as you might think. Adam Perry Lang's hot new book on grilling includes an entire chapter on the technique, which he calls "clinching" (a boxing term for holding your opponent within arm's reach, like steak pressed up against coals).

Here, the smokiness -- the rugged ancient sport of it -- is combined with salt-crusting to create a more delicate result.



  lomo al trapo


There isn't much to the tenderloin, as muscles go, but a salt crust livens it up in so many ways:

• Naturally, it seasons it -- but not too much. The salt is packed on at the last minute and most of it is brushed away.

• The thick layer of salt seals off the surface, allowing the beef to simultaneously roast and steam in its own juices (plus salt and oregano juices).

• Salt diffuses the direct heat of the coals, while creating a miniature kiln. In doing so, it gives the beef a texture almost like sous vide filet. Instead of a bullseye leading from a rare center to a charred crust, you get an extended radius of medium rare, tender all the way to its well-seasoned edges.

• Not least of all, there's the "dramatic and visceral thrill of taking this thing that looks like a cast on a broken arm, cracking it open tableside, and there's this beautiful piece of meat inside," as Raichlen describes it.

You should know that you will lose a dish towel to the flames. But think of it as cleansing, an opportunity to ceremoniously burn your mangiest rag. Or, as described on this blog, use the leg of an old pair of jeans instead.

I'm tempted to advise against substituting cheesecloth, the most disposable of kitchen fabrics, because when we tried, the cloth was so flimsy that it burned away in large patches. But the salt crust held and the beef was still perfect. So if you want to spare your towels (and your jeans), you can use cheesecloth -- just don't disturb it till the crust has solidified.

This all seems quite a lot to commit to. Beef tenderloin isn't cheap. A practice run could set you back a good $25. As much as you want to be the badass pitmaster taming the burning log of meat, you're probably secretly terrified that you will bust open the salt to find only a well-done lump of smoldering disappointment and failure. Good news: You have insurance. You can push an instant-read thermometer through the salt crust to be certain.

Taking such precaution will only make you a little less of a caveman. But your guests will have turned into wolves by now, and forgotten all about it.

Steven Raichlen's Salt-Crusted Beef Tenderloin Grilled in Cloth (Lomo al Trapo)

Adapted slightly from Planet Barbecue (Workman Publishing Company, 2010)

Serves 1 hungry Colombian; 2 Americans

1 center cut piece of beef tenderloin, meticulously trimmed of all fat and silver skin (about 8 inches long and weighing 12 to 16 ounces)
2 cups salt (we used Diamond Crystal kosher salt)
1 tablespoon dried oregano

Other items needed:
1 square piece of clean cotton cloth, 16 by 16 inches (an old-fashioned cloth diaper or piece of cotton sheet works well)

See the full recipe (and save and print it here).

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Brian H. February 27, 2015
My grandparents used this technique for brisket, pork, and turkey for an annual Model T barbecue they hosted for several years. They dug a pit with a backhoe, filled it full of mesquite (property in Wickenburg, AZ) and burned it to coals (took all night). The next day they took the seasoned meat, wrapped it in foil, then in burlap, and closed it up with bailing wire. Then they dropped the packages down onto the coals with a hook. After that, they'd pull a large sheet of steel over the pit and cover the sheet with dirt (backhoe/bucket loader required). Several hours later they'd feed several hundred people. It was fantastic. Thanks for sharing this - nice to know you can do it on a much smaller scale!
TerryB5520 February 26, 2015
Can I do this in the fireplace? Seems fi could.
Kristen M. February 26, 2015
Yes, seems like you could!
Janet S. February 26, 2015
Could I do this with other tenderloins? Pork or venison?
Kristen M. February 26, 2015
I haven't tried those, but as long as you watch the internal temperature (I'd want 140F for pork, and 115F for medium-rare venison) it'd definitely be worth trying.
Sini |. August 14, 2014
I just love this!
Cristina S. January 16, 2013
Is there a good way to do this in the oven?
Kristen M. February 26, 2015
Hi Cristina, so sorry I'm just seeing this. I bet you could try this in a very hot oven (like 500F), as long as you keep an eye on the internal temperature.
ginabchaos December 25, 2012
Made this for family for Christmas Eve - and yes - everyone was waiting for a disaster as they witnessed the charred dish towels - it was FABULOUS! I did a larger tenderloin on a gas grill and cut it into two pieces (total 3#). Took about 10-12 minutes longer in total. Will make this again, thanks!
jkingsle August 15, 2012
I cooked this the other night, right after seeing the article! WoW! Absolutely delicious and will go into high rotation on my BBQ. The only slight downside is that you don't get the caramelization on the meat that you would get from searing it, although the rest of the texture and taste is really terrific!

Has anyone tried to scale this recipe up and go it on a whole center cut fillet? Any change in cooking times, etc?
Foodiewithalife August 12, 2012
This is a great party trick and a nice way to convince my boyfriend to make dinner.

maria_campodonico August 12, 2012
Does it work on a gas BBQ too????
Kristen M. August 12, 2012
Yes, on the recipe page there are instructions for making this on a gas grill: http://www.food52.com/recipes/18568_steven_raichlens_lomo_al_trapo
maria_campodonico August 12, 2012
What if you have a propane BBQ? Does work as well on it?????
katespreen August 12, 2012
My friend and I "ruined" a dish towel with this process a few years ago. You'll want to have a stack of throw-away dish towels just for this procedure. Make sure it's thick because it will burn through easily. It's so much fun to prepare, sit around the fire pit sipping your favorite concoction and watching it burn, and then devour. We made small slits in the tenderloin and stuffed them with garlic. I'm thinking next time stuffed with garlic and fresh jalapeno. Can't wait for fall!
singing_baker August 12, 2012
going camping next week and I am so trying this out! My family is going to think I've gone insane haha
MrsWheelbarrow August 9, 2012
I see this appearing at the rented beach house ... Only need to pack oregano, twine, salt and a mangy towel.... brilliant!
Kristen M. August 9, 2012
Perfect! (And so kind of you to not rely on their mangy towels).
amyeik August 9, 2012
This sounds like hobo-pack extraordinaire, camping genius in the suburbs, with the merlot of the beef-world. Can't wait to pull it out...
Kristen M. August 9, 2012
The merlot of the beef world -- love that.
mcs3000 August 9, 2012
Ok, Kristen, you may have topped yourself. Love everything about this post.
Kristen M. August 9, 2012
Thanks mcs3000! You should see Raichlen's Caveman Ribeye with Hellfire Hot Sauce -- that might even top this.
Kristy M. August 8, 2012
I seriously thought Kristen had lost her mind when she told me about this process. Then I tried some. It's SO GOOD.
Kristen M. August 9, 2012
Thanks for keeping your skepticism to yourself until the big reveal!
aargersi August 8, 2012
this is wicked cool!!
Kristen M. August 9, 2012
I thought so too! Emphasis on the wicked.