Most of us who enjoy steak tartare, preferably with a high pile of hot fries on the side, know it from eating it in a restaurant or a bistro and not from preparing it at home. But the dish is not difficult to make—after all, it involves zero cooking. In fact, making a batch doesn’t require much more than a butcher you trust, a very sharp knife, clean hands, and freezingly cold bowls and plates.
Tartare is served “dressed” with any number of possible sauces, which are enlivening and essential, but the dish is obviously all about the meat: you want the best, most vibrantly delicious beef you can find. The cut? A lean one, but the cut is less important than the quality. Riad Nasr, of the restaurant Frenchette, who, during his time as a chef at Balthazar and Minetta Tavern, might well have sold more steak tartare than any other individual in the history of New York City meat eating, makes his from whatever is at hand. “Filet is good,” he told me, “but really anything goes if the meat is beautiful and fresh.” Top round, eye of round, heart, strip. The color is important (bright, intensely red), as is the firmness of the tissue. And the smell should be appetizing, the healthy aromatics of a beneficently raised animal: grass-fed, if possible—a creature that has lived and roamed in the open air. You want to be happy sticking your nose into it. I once did a stint in the Tuscan butcher shop of the celebrated and flamboyant carnivore Dario Cecchini, where the senior butcher—“il Maestro”—assessed his beef by slicing off a piece raw and chewing it slowly and reflectively. Raw, the meat revealed to him the animal’s diet, its exercise, and its health. When it was good, the Maestro smiled. This, his smile conveyed, was the flavor of sunshine and green grass and nature.
Our palates tell us everything, Cecchini told me recently, “from the animal’s birth to the moment of this raw slice, including if it had an honest death.” By way of example, I got lucky in my tartare experiments, which were conducted this last summer when I was in Maine with my family, owing to a savvy local butcher, Anders Tallberg, at Maine Street Meats, in Rockport. Tallberg prides himself on his local farm animals (like the seven- to eight-year-old dairy cows from Springdale Farm), and sells meat that is so flavorful and healthy and popular that his customers have to order it a week in advance. Tallberg and I discussed, and experimented with, different cuts for a tartare. My favorite, I admit, was the tenderloin (which is almost banal in its obviousness), largely because it hadn’t been aged for more than ten days. You age meat for reasons of flavor development and tenderness. And, in New York at least, there seems to be an unofficial can-you-top-me competition among butchers to see who is prepared to age theirs the longest, as if to prove one’s commitment to taste over cash flow. But in a dish made of raw meat? You want fresh.
Raw meat, like raw fish, is a quiet food. It presents few contrasts on the palate—no burnt and rare, nothing caramelized, no rendered fat, no crunch. Its appeal, instead, is in how the meat’s flavors linger in the mouth, akin to how a good wine is sometimes said to have “length.” The Italians, respecting the subtlety of those flavors, prepare their raw beef like a plate of crudo—with olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, a lot of salt, maybe an herb leaf. What the French do is much more interestingly aggressive. When waiters prepare a tartare for you tableside, they can seem as though they’re just making it up with whatever bottle they have nearby: a big spoon of mustard, a splash of Tabasco, an egg yolk, a little olive oil (because why not?), capers, Worcestershire (which the French, unable to pronounce, always refer to as a “sauce anglaise”), even ketchup. Maybe there’s an analogy in Japanese preparations of raw fish, another quiet food. Yes, you can honor it by dressing it delicately, or you can summon all the condiments on offer and attack it with intensifiers: Soy! Wasabi! Spicy ginger!
The French approach is in the peculiar word “Tartar,” historically a Western noun to describe a Central Asian population and the empires of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Today, in cooking, we use the word to describe cutting up a raw ingredient with a knife, whether meat, fish (tartare de saumon, tartare de thon), or even vegetables. But it originally referred to a sauce, an early intensifier. According to Joseph Favre (1849-1903), the Swiss-born chef and a culinary theoretician who produced one of the great reference books of the French kitchen (the four-volume Grand dictionnaire Universel de cuisine pratique), sauce à la tartare was a common accompaniment to foods that were breaded and fried—an exotic-seeming preparation popular in France in the early nineteenth century, having come from the East, from some central Asian culture “over there somewhere”: i.e., those “Tartar” people. By 1894, Favre recognizes that the Tartars had nothing to do with either the sauce or the preparation, which, by then, was described as coming from Poland—à la polonaise. But, by then, the name sauce à la tartare had stuck.
The sauce, made with a base of a Dijon-mustard mayonnaise, isn’t so different from the fish-and-chips dressing that descended from it, that mass-produced dipping cream that comes in plastic tubs with snap-on lids that I enjoyed last summer with my haddock, which, as it happens, was also breaded and fried. But a handmade tartare, which I learned to do when living in Lyon with my family, is a revelation: it has bite and texture and a wonderfully acidic punch. The mayonnaise is whisked by hand and not a blender, then enhanced, at the end, with equal parts chopped shallots, capers, and cornichons. In the French kitchen, a sauce of this kind is described as relevée, from the verb lever, to elevate; the prefix re- adds emphasis. A sauce relevée heightens the dish it is added to; it is extra elevated. I first learned the word from my son George, who took up ballet in Lyon and continued to dance in studios in New York, where the word relever refers not merely to rising up on his toes, but really rising up. (The opposite term, plier, to bend, is also a cooking word: it describes how you fold dough when making puff pastry.)
Many of the raw-beef preparations that you get in New York City are made with variations of a sauce tartare, plus a couple of the “modern condiments.” The raw beef that I ate twenty-five years ago at Les Halles, on Park Avenue, was made (though I didn’t know it at the time) by a man who would become a friend, Tony Bourdain, who prepared his with a classic sauce tartare, plus a little hot sauce. The one my wife and I ate recently, under quarantine conditions, at Pastis downtown, was also classic—plus a little ketchup.
For my purposes, I wanted a throwback taste, a flavor of turn-of-the-century bistros, with gas lights and mirrors and a hand-written menu—no American ketchup, or English sauces, or Mexican chilis. I made a classic sauce à la tartare. I folded it into the meat, adding nothing else except salt and pepper.
Frederick, George’s twin brother, eyed the final preparation uncomfortably. He loves steak tartare but doesn’t like it with a sauce. It’s the raw meat he likes, iron-red, uncompromisingly itself. Also, until this moment, his tartares had been prepared out of view, in a restaurant kitchen somewhere. This one had been made in the open by his father. Frederick was suspicious.
I gave him a spoon. “Try it,” I said.
“It’s not red,” he said, warily, which was true: the beef’s earlier vibrant color had been dulled by the sauce to a not entirely appealing pink.VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKERFighting COVID-19 with Ancestral Wisdom in the Amazon
He slipped his spoon into the mound of meat and carved out the smallest of small bits. He looked at me. “Will it make me sick?”
He tasted it. “Wow!” and he instantly dipped his spoon back into the meat, deeply. The rest of us joined him, one by one (George, ever cautious, was last), and we remained there, at the counter, eating, standing up. The raw meat, the subtle fat, the prickly acidities of the sauce, the pure flavor. It was raw but also, surprisingly, better than raw. It wasn’t the best-looking tartare I’ve eaten, but it was certainly among the best-tasting. Was it the meat or the sauce? Or simply that I was eating it with my family? It was transporting in every sense. It took us all to another place, another time. A hearty time.
Classic Steak Tartare
- 1 ½ lbs. lean beef, tenderloin, filet, or eye of round, preferably grass-fed, small-farm, fresh
- Salt and pepper
- 1 shallot
- 3 Tbsp. capers
- 7 cornichons
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
- ½ to ⅔ cup grapeseed or other mild vegetable oil (e.g., sunflower or peanut; not olive oil)
- Vinegar or lemon juice, to taste
1. Place beef in the freezer for 30 minutes. This will stiffen the meat slightly, to facilitate cutting. Place a medium-sized mixing bowl and a sharpened knife in the freezer, too.ADVERTISEMENT
2. Cut meat across the grain into slices no more than quarter-inch thick. Freeze slices for 5 minutes. Re-sharpen your knife. Remove the meat and cut your slices into long strips, no more than a quarter inch wide. Freeze for another 5 minutes. Re-sharpen your knife. Cut your long strips into segments no more than a quarter-inch. Thoroughly season with salt and pepper. Place meat in your cold bowl inside a larger bowl filled with ice. Refrigerate.
3. Finely dice shallot, capers, and cornichons, keeping the ingredients separate. You want equal quantities of each.
4. Make mayonnaise. Put the egg yolk in the bottom of a glass bowl. Add mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Using two forks, mix thoroughly for a minute or two. When it begins to froth, and while still mixing, add a small dribble of oil. Mix vigorously to emulsify, then add another small dribble of oil. Repeat. Replace the forks with a whisk. (Many chefs like a loose mayonnaise, with not too much oil, in which case you can get away with using only a fork, though the mixture still needs to be thoroughly emulsified.) Carry on adding oil in a very small thread while whisking vigorously. Don’t add more until the ingredients appear fully emulsified. When the mayonnaise is complete, taste and adjust seasoning. Fold in the shallot, capers, and cornichons with a spatula. Taste. Add, if needed, another splash of acidity (vinegar or lemon juice). Mix sauce into your meat.
5. Using a fork, fashion the tartare into portions on plates.
6. Refrigerate if not eating immediately. Serve within 2 hours, preferably with ingredients of a contrasting texture: toast, oven-roasted slices of bread, French fries, a bitter green salad.
And to drink? My wife Jessica Green says, “For this classic dish, I recommend a classic wine—Bordeaux. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Try a Cru Bourgeois from the Médoc, like Chateau Greysac. The dark fruit pairs beautifully with beef, and the fresh acidity will balance the richness of the dish. Complex and savory meets complex and savory—you can’t lose.”