Yes, Steak Tartare Is Safe to Eat

By: Jeremy Glass  | 

steak tartare
Traditional steak tartare from Abe & Louie's restaurant in Boston is served on a salt block with a side of toasted crostini. Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

If you're the kind of diner that tends to shy away from restaurants that serve dishes like foie gras and escargot, then you probably have reservations about steak tartare, too.

But don't let the ingredients turn you off. Steak tartare is actually a delightful and surprisingly approachable dish with roots in French, American and even Mongolian cuisines. So, how did a dish requiring such bravery from those who first ate it end up a beacon of fine dining?

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What Is Steak Tartare?

First, steak tartare is a combination of raw beef mixed with any variety of accompaniments, but most commonly raw egg yolk, capers, pickles and other seasonings like Worcestershire sauce or Dijon mustard. The meat is cut into small cubes or is finely chopped in a food processor and then the seasonings are added. Steak tartare is usually served with a side of french fries or crostini.

An often-repeated myth is that steak tartare in its simplest form of raw meat can be traced back to 13th-century Mongolia where soldiers under Genghis Khan called Tatars, who were unable to sit down for real meals, consumed raw meat for sustenance.

The 17th-century book "Description d l 'Ukraine," which translates to "A Description of Ukraine," describes how horsemen would "cut the meat with two fingers of thickness" and place it under their saddles to both tenderize and "cleanse the blood of the flesh," thus making it safer to eat.

This myth has been debunked, though. "The Cambridge Medieval History" suggests the Tatars were simply using the raw meat to heal their horses' sores, noting the meat would have been inedible by the end of the day.

Fast forward hundreds of years to 20th-century Paris and the raw chopped beefsteak (called beefsteak a l'americaine) began appearing on menus at grand hotels across the country, cementing it as part of French cuisine — and as a "high class" delicacy to be eaten by the elite.

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Only the Best Beef Will Do

"Steak tartare can be made from raw ground (minced) beef or any red meat," says chef Ariane Daguin, CEO of D'Artagnan in Union, New Jersey, and pioneer in the farm-to-table movement. "Bison tartare and venison tartare are very tasty. It is usually served with onions, capers, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and other seasonings — often presented to diners separately — to be added for taste with a raw egg yolk on top of the dish."

Daguin says the type of meat used is typically up to who's making it (tuna tartare is also common), but the best-tasting tartare comes from the tenderloin.

But what about eating raw beef? We all know the risks and how easy it is for bacteria to enter the body, potentially wreaking havoc on the digestive system. So, is eating steak tartare dangerous?

Not necessarily. E. coli is still a very real threat to those who eat raw meat (particularly beef), as the types of harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness is killed only when beef is cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius). The USDA warns against eating steak tartare, "cannibal sandwiches" and other uncooked beef due to the risk of foodborne illness.

"The USDA recommends you cook all meat," Daguin says. "However, when basic hygienic rules are followed and fresh meat is used, the risk of bacterial infection is low."

McGill University's Office for Science and Society says if you trust the butcher and restaurant to take the meticulous steps ensure the cut of meat used is stored and prepared properly (single prep area just for tartare, special sanitation methods for knives and cutting boards, and serving immediately), eating steak tartare is perfectly OK.

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