Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleishers, where he is currently director of butchery education. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. Next up: how to make steak tartare at home.
Another week, another thermometer with the mercury reaching 90° F. And, if you’re like me, the last place you want to be is hunched over a 500° F-plus grill, or even worse, stuck inside a hot kitchen. But if salad and chilled soup just aren’t cutting it and you need a bit more protein, then I’ve got the answer for you: steak tartare. Sure, you could pick up a meat stick or a pack of beef jerky, but then you’d be missing out on a pleasure that’s far too overlooked. So let’s forget about going out for sushi and instead stay in for raw meat!
The origins, like most dishes of this nature, are a bit nebulous. Stories of a marauding tribe in northeastern Mongolia date back to the 5th century A.D. A coupling here and there, and we’ve got a group that came to be known as the Tatars or Tartars. Stories abound in the meat world of strips of animal flesh (horse, most often) being “cured” under their saddles in order to tenderize and make them palatable. I think we can all agree that horse sweat and palatability are fairly mutually exclusive.
Another scenario is that these marauders were so feared that their strength and energy were assumed to come from their consumption of raw meat. Whose isn’t? There was that one vegan Olympic weightlifter (Kendrick Farris) this year. But one Olympian does not make a marauding horde! Outliers, folks. The fact is that dishes centered on raw meat appear in almost every culture worldwide. And why not? It’s easy. You need only some quality meat and a pair of sharp knives to enjoy this perfect summer snack.
Yes, I said knives. The most important component of steak tartare is the way the meat is chopped. A grinder, in my opinion, is too much of a workhorse (pun intended) for this job. Mashing and pulverizing the subtle textures and chew you’d get from hand-cut meat may be perfect for a burger, but not for tartare.
I learned of a special knife/scissor technique a few years back from my friend and colleague Jeff Di Picciotto, director of product for the Culinary Lab at Momofuku in New York City and creator of the highly informative and fun Fudehouse. You’ll feel a little awkward and clumsy at first, but go slow and you’ll soon pick up speed. I first slice my top round London broil (more on why I chose this cut later) into thin strips. Once I have all my strips, I begin to slice. You’ll need two knives for this task. Hold one knife in the normal surgical-grip style and one in the reverse-pistol-grip-style. Make contact with the sides of the blade while simultaneously pulling one knife toward you and pushing one knife away from you over the strips of meat. I like to pull the surgical grip hand toward me and push the reverse-pistol grip hand away. Continue this method, picking up speed until your raw meat is the desired size. I like something around the size of your standard dress-shirt button. Like I said, it’s awkward at fist, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be a tartare-slicing master.
This, of course, is what really matters. You’ll want a lean-ish (cold chunks of fat are not the most appetizing) sinew-free cut of beef that’s from older, pastured cattle, the kind that moves around a lot, working those muscles and thus developing tons of natural flavor. Stay away from feedlot beef, which is a good idea in general. And please, if you have a shred of decency, stay away from tenderloin as its price belies the truth of this textureless, flavorless cut. In fact, if you ever feed me beef tenderloin, it better be smothered with pâté and mushrooms and wrapped in dough. But I digress.
I find the best cuts for tartare come from the round, especially top round and eye round. They posses a bit of intramuscular fat and come from a fairly heavily worked section of the animal. For a slightly different and multitextural bite, you can try a bit of top sirloin. This comes from higher up on the leg, more the rump. You’ll need to make sure that your butcher (or you) removes any sinew and connective tissue, as this section is comprised of a few different muscles. Another not-often-heard-of cut that’s perfect for tartare is the merlot. Located in what’s known as the heal, it sits nestled in between the major muscles of the leg. It’s got an intense, beefy flavor that you may find odd for such a lean cut. Think of your tartare plate as you would a cheese or charcuterie board, highlighting flavors and textures that differ from section to section. I’d stay away from freezing the beef to make it easier to cut. The cuts listed above should have enough firmness to easily slice (unlike tenderloin), and it’s the difference in texture through hand slicing and chopping that we’re looking for, something that freezing might alter.
Like oysters, tartare is pretty great as is, needing little more than salt to make it shine. Still, it’s the perfect vehicle for an enhancement or two. You could go all classic and do it up with a single serving, accompanied with the yolk of an egg and the usual suspects mixed into the meat. But as I mentioned above, why not create a tasting dish? Keep the meat unadulterated and offer up mixing bowls of salt, pepper, cornichons, pickled onions, capers, shallot, parsley, relish, anchovies, maybe some shaved cheese? Really, anything you’d like. And for added seasoning, why not try a condiment or two? Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, hot sauce, olive oil and, yes, even ketchup. Why not? You’re going to serve some fries with this, I hope. And all of this should be piled on top of a piece of crusty, slightly toasted baguette. Don’t even think about using a cracker.
Forget about sushi night, let’s start tartare night!