It’s no joke that Americans love their beef. Whether we’re consuming their beef in the form of elegant New York steaks, crumbled onto pizza, or as a slider, it’s clear that this is a favorite. But in our seemingly boundless love for beefy meals, there does seem to be one intimidating exception: steak tartare. This “steak” goes beyond rare. Rather, it’s chopped raw beef that never touches a stove; what’s more, it’s also typically adorned with a raw egg. It comes to the table as a pile of red meat, sometimes pre-mixed with its ingredients, and sometimes separated to let the diner take fate into their own hands. This may make the average diner’s skin crawl, and for seemingly good reason. After all, haven’t we been taught to fear raw meat?
For those who have doubts, McGill University assures us that we can put most worries aside, assuming we trust both the butcher and the restaurant to keep things clean. Steak tartare is a staple of fine dining and must be made with the highest quality of beef from healthy animals, further lowering the risk of illness. As Forbes notes, Americans are only now warming up to raw meat. As our minds and palates expand, there are sure to be more opportunities to enjoy this historic dish. Here’s everything you need to know about steak tartare.
Despite its name, the earliest stories of steak tartare maintain that it wasn’t made with cow’s meat at all. The New York Times reports that this dish may have originally been made with horse meat, perhaps because the meat was much more economically viable for people at the time. But by the 8th century, the Catholic Church forbade the consumption of horse meat, enacting a culinary taboo that’s still in place in some societies. While there has been resurgences of horse tartare here and there, as per The Horse & its Heritage, modern diners now expect the dish to be made with beef.
For those who may be curious to try the antiquated version of tartare, the horse version is still relatively easy to find, though not in the United States. Instead, you’ll have to buy a ticket to France. As per the New York Times, there are specialty horse butchers in France, called boucheries chevalines. It’s hard to miss them, as prominent statues of horse heads adorn their storefronts. Proponents of horse meat maintain that, when procured properly, it’s very clean, lean, and healthy.
In modern times, steak tartare has come to be associated with fine French cuisine. However, it was long believed that the dish really came to France by way of the Mongols, once also known as the Tatars. As the tale goes, as the Mongol empire expanded from east to west, so too did their love for all cuisine chevaline. Mongols reportedly stored slices of horse meat underneath their saddles, as per the New York Times. The motion of the animal would tenderize the meat throughout the day, making it ready by the time dinner came around. Yet this theory has largely been debunked, as it’s believed that the tenderized meat was largely inedible and used for other purposes, such as soothing a horse’s saddle sores.
Nonetheless, there could still be some truth behind the story. As Showmoon notes, the Mongolians did have a taste for raw meat and it’s likely that their dietary habits were adopted throughout their expanding empire. It could very well be that steak tartare inspired the hamburger in Germany! Whether or not this is true, it is clear that steak tartare is a dish that has been beloved by many for a very long time.
There are several theories about the true origin of steak tartare. One line of thinking goes that the Tatars came to France and brought raw horse meat with them, while others believe that the raw meat dish was first introduced to Germany by the horse riding warriors and imported into France later (via New York Times). But as The Gourmet Journal points outs, there’s one other theory, albeit one that’s a bit more obscure. Some food historians believe that steak tartare was first made in Tahiti.
However, this is all based on speculation. The Gourmet Journal argues that French hotels in Tahiti had long served up tartare. Considering that Tahitian cuisine sometimes utilizes raw fish, there could be some basis in truth to this rumor (via Tahiti Tourisme). However you cut it, it’s clear that steak tartare is a cross-cultural delight that has been loved by many people for a long time.
Adding to the steak tartare confusion is the fact that the name doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the dish’s alleged point of origin. Vogue completely dismisses the idea that the name is linked to the Tatar people and instead points to another candidate: tartar sauce.
Tartar sauce, otherwise known as sauce tartare, is made by mixing mayonnaise with chopped pickles and onions (via Recipe Tips). While the sauce is most often associated with seafood dishes, it’s not hard to see why it would have once accompanied, and perhaps even defined, steak tartare.
Vogue notes that sauce tartare had its heyday in the 19th century when it was widely used in French cuisine. However, the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts notes that despite this ultra popularity, sauce tartare is rarely used in conjunction with steak tartare today, which has become a truly deconstructed dish. Steak tartare is typically served with raw egg, chopped onions, capers, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. There is some room for enthusiasts to tailor their tartare while still adhering to the classic experience.
It’s no secret that lots of people are chowing down on steak tartare, but everyone seemingly has their own take. For instance, the Belgian take on this dish includes a dash of mayo. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Belgian frites are also best topped with mayonnaise, in many diner’s estimations.
Known in Belgium as filet Americain, as per TasteAtlas, this variation calls for the highest-quality and freshest raw beef along with plenty of equally fresh seasonings, onions, and capers. Of course, it’s also topped with a raw egg. The mayonnaise helps add nuance to the savory dish and binds it together in a similar way to the egg. Just like steak tartare, filet American can be served already mixed or left for the diner to assemble themselves to their own preference. Filet Americain is served with bread to make a sort of deconstructed sandwich, though you may also want it served with classic Belgian frites.
While nowadays steak tartare conjures up images of luxury dining, at one point it was considered downright medicinal. Steak tartare was considered so healthful that it was even recommended for hospital patients. “Cookery for Invalids” refers to the dish as “hamburg steak.” According to the Charbar Co, hamburg steak consisted of raw minced beef mixed with spices, and can thus be considered synonymous with steak tartare.
But make no mistake, as “Cookery for Invalids” makes no suggestion of cooking the beef. Instead, the author recommends processing the meat into a kind of paste, supposedly making it easier for patients to digest. The dish should look like it’s cooked, though it’s difficult to imagine that many patients were fooled. Today, even though steak tartare is enjoyed in many a fine restaurant and butcher shop, it will most likely never come with a doctor’s recommendation.
The beautiful thing about steak tartare is that change suits it quite well. Sure, there are a few core principles to the dish, such as the fact that it must be served raw, have some sort of modifier, and should be accompanied by savory toppings. Other than that, there’s not much dictating what this dish “should” be. Anthony Bourdain himself enjoyed adding a bit of ketchup to his steak tartare, according to Vogue. Sure, ketchup on steak is bound to raise eyebrows, but the rugged chef stuck to his guns on this one. While ketchup may seem counterintuitive, Bourdain’s addition is reminiscent of über traditional steak tartare that is not often seen anymore. A dab of ketchup can add a wonderful and slightly sweet acidity to the symphony of flavors already within good steak tartare.
Steak tartare was even heralded as the dish of the moment in 2014, as per Vogue, which asserts that in New York City one could eat steak tartare every day and never have the same meal twice. The myriad variations include tartare incorporating miso, chiles, scallions, and mint. While steak tartare is a classic recipe, it lends itself to experimentation that helps to keep this good thing great.
Okay, we want to make it clear that there is nothing appetizing about cannibalism. However, maybe the fine people of Wisconsin may disagree — at least when it comes to sandwiches. Of all the unique names that steak tartare has been graced with, the Midwest’s “cannibal sandwich” takes the cake– or, uh, hand. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, a cannibal sandwich comes with all the trappings that steak tartare is known for but a few key differences. For one, the tartare must be pre-mixed. The concoction is then served on a thick slice of rye bread and open-faced. This meal is most often found at holiday parties. Just as a rose by any other name smells as sweet, the sandwich can also be found under less-controversial names, such as tiger meat.
Beloved as it may be by some, this dish has still encountered controversy. As per Wisconsin Public Radio, not everyone in Wisconsin can stomach the idea of raw meat. Perhaps the cannibal sandwich even edges out the infamous fruitcake as the state’s most unappetizing dish on the Christmas table. Nonetheless, WPR asserts that, beyond the controversy, the dish is a piece of Wisconsin history and culture that is well worth preserving.
Given the country’s long history with the meal, it should come as no surprise that some of the best steak tartare around is to be had in France. Les Fines Gueules of Paris is heralded by TasteAtlas as among the best places to truly enjoy authentic French dining. The establishment’s steak tartare is widely acknowledged as part of its culinary cred. It only takes one glance to see that the restaurant simply does tartare right. Served with a fresh salad and olives, this is a well-rounded meal sure to satisfy.
The restaurant sources all its beef from a renowned butcher, further amplifying its flavors. Among many glowing Tripadvisor reviews, one patron commented that the restaurant’s steak tartare completely changed their opinion of the dish! If you’re a bit hesitant to try raw beef, try it at Les Fines Gueules if you’re ever lucky enough to be given the chance.
Las Vegas is a place of both luxury and ingenuity, so of course, there are going to be some seriously decadent culinary delights available in Sin City. Las Vegas Magazine noted that there’s no shortage of mouth-watering tartare available in the city that can seriously make or break a dining experience there.
At Bazaar Meat, headed by chef José Andrés, steak tartare is a straightforward yet indulgent dish that’s further elevated by the choice of meat. The restaurant opts for sirloin paired with the French Savora mustard, as well as a medley of sauce, and warm rolls. One Tripadvisor review says that this steak tartare can’t be defined by words alone; instead, it must be tried. According to the restaurant’s official menu, plant-based friends can even opt for the beefsteak tomato tartare so they can join in on the dining fun.
It’s no secret that two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out a new wave of creativity in many home chefs. In times of trouble, turmoil, and days long spent at home, dishes as varied as whipped coffee and butter boards have captured our imaginations, not to mention our social media feeds. Though it’s a bit more demanding in nature, butchers have noticed that there was an increased interest in steak tartare during the pandemic. As per Food & Wine, many of them noted that customers would come in with questions not only about buying luxury beef but also about how to prepare it raw.
If you don’t come from a home that typically prepared tartare, you’re probably going to be just rather nervous the first time you make this classic dish at home. Yet if you are still looking to serve up steak tartare in your own dining room, besure to head to a dedicated butcher shop instead of your local supermarket’s meat department. A butcher can tell you more about beef you’re buying and can give tips on how to properly and safely work with raw beef.
Despite steak tartare’s long history and consistent popularity, there’s still room for misunderstandings. In 2021, chef Dominick Purnomo of Albany’s dp, An American Brasserie, turned to TikTok after a customer reportedly sent back their tartare because it was too raw. In the video, Purnomo threw the tartar into a frying pan and began to cook it. It was unclear whether or not the cooked beef made its way back to the customer’s table, or if the diner actually went ahead and ate the very altered tartare. The chef’s reaction soon went viral, with the short video racking up millions of likes and views.
The comment section of the video was surprisingly diverse, as some suffered along with the chef and lamented the diner’s ignorance. Others said that the diner’s misstep was the result of ignorance, but that the critiques were steeped in classism.