While not popular in the US or the UK, raw beef dishes are considered a delicacy in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. But are they safe to eat?
If you’re worried eating a blue steak runs the risk of catching E. coli, read on to find out how raw beef can be both delicious and, when appropriately prepared, entirely safe to eat.
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Is it ever safe to eat raw beef?
Most of us have spent our entire lives being told to avoid eating raw meat at all costs, and it is true that there are some health risks associated with uncooked beef.
Raw beef can harbor specific foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Shigella, and Staphylococcus, all of which can lead to a bad case of food poisoning.
We’re told to avoid raw meat because the cooking process, as long as it goes above 145°F (63°C), kills off those bacteria, reducing our chances of infection.
Steak cooked to medium-rare 135°F (57°C) or rare 125°F (52°C) reduces the number of potential bacteria but isn’t as effective as cooking to 145°F (63°C).
However, these USDA food safety guidelines are blanket recommendations focusing on the raw meat sold in supermarkets where most of us buy our food.
Most steak enthusiasts would consider steak cooked to 145°F (63°C) to be overdone, and there is a vast gulf between the steak tartare you order in a restaurant and the minced beef in the meat aisle.
Fresh beef steak, stored under 40°F (4.4°C) and handled with the proper attention to food safety, will harbor a significantly lower concentration of bacteria than supermarket minced beef.
This is because standard minced beef can come from several different carcasses, has been stored for long periods of time, and has a much larger surface area than beef steak.
So, if you’re ordering steak carpaccio from a reputable restaurant, the risks are relatively low. The same applies to a blue steak, where even a short period of searing reduces the bacteria on the steak’s surface where they tend to concentrate.
However, pre-minced beef and most beef bought straight from the supermarket is not safe for raw consumption.
Raw meat and parasites
Along with bacteria, parasites are one of the significant concerns with consuming raw beef. Most of us have heard horror stories about tapeworms and Trichinosis and would prefer not to feature in one of them.
However, when it comes to parasites, not all meats are created equal. While raw chicken is treated as borderline toxic, most people are entirely happy to eat sushi.
The reason for this is the different ways in which these animals are raised, the meat is stored, and the compatibility between humans and the parasites these animals can carry.
Raw chicken naturally tends to harbor significant concentrations of Salmonella and (E. coli) while raw pork, particularly from animals raised in factory farms, carries Trichinosis and worm cysts, both of which can infest humans.
In addition, pork and chicken have an unpleasant texture and taste when raw compared to beef, which is why you don’t see any pork or chicken tartare served in restaurants.
By comparison, beef harbors relatively few parasites that can live in the human digestive system, and comparatively low levels of bacteria. The number of prized raw beef dishes from around the world is also evidence that raw beef can taste delicious.
Tips for eating raw beef safely
If you’re interested in trying a raw beef dish, like delicate Italian carpaccio or spiced Ethiopian Kitfo, how do you do it safely?
There is always going to be a health consideration attached to eating raw meat, and while you can’t avoid that, there are ways you can lessen the risk.
The easiest step is probably not to prepare raw beef dishes at home. Reputable restaurants offering raw beef dishes have stringent food safety precautions in place to ensure maximum cleanliness.
However, if you are planning on making something like steak tartare at home, there are a few steps you should take to stay safe.
Find a reputable source
The supermarket meat aisle is a bad place to start if you’re looking for the freshest of beef. This is especially true if you’re making a dish from raw beef mince.
Your local butcher will be able to source fresher beef for you and will be able to tell you where that beef came from.
Factory farmed cattle are fed a regular diet of growth hormones and antibiotics to overcome the unnatural conditions in which they are raised. If you’d prefer to avoid meat filled with additives, and are looking for a source of ethically raised beef, then your local butcher is a great place to start.
If you need raw beef mince, then buy a cut of meat and mince it yourself. Mince has a larger surface area than a single cut, and bacteria tend to concentrate on the surface of the meat, so mince it as close to eating as possible.
Keep it cold
We’ve spoken before about the temperature danger zone and the importance of keeping meat below 40°F (4.4°C). Proper storage is critical in keeping bacterial growth to a minimum, and this is a hugely important factor in the safety of raw beef.
Once you have your cut of beef, keep it chilled below 40°F (4.4°C) at all times and eat it as soon as you can to limit that bacterial growth as much as possible. While freezing might seem like a good idea, the freezing process degrades the quality of the meat will harm the taste and texture of any raw meat dish.
Make sure you know how to tell if raw steak is bad
Thankfully, raw beef develops an unpleasant taste and slimy texture that makes it relatively easy to spot if it has gone off. The trick to eating raw beef and having the experience be as safe and enjoyable as possible is sourcing the freshest meat possible.
If you’re planning on eating raw meat that has been stored for more than around a day or two, the risks rise drastically, and the quality of any dish you make will drop.
If your beef has a sour smell and has developed an unpleasant taste and slimy texture, it’s time to throw it out. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Raw beef FAQs
Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s address some of the most common questions associated with raw beef dishes.
What is steak tartare?
Steak tartare, originally called steack à l’Americaine, is a dish developed in France in the early twentieth century. It gets its name from the fact that it was originally served with tartare sauce.
At its most basic, steak tartare is made from raw minced or chopped beef with a raw egg yolk on top and served with toast. Variations on the dish include mixing the beef with capers, gherkins, and onions to enhance the beef’s delicate taste.
Similar dishes are found across the world, from Thailand’s koi soi, a raw beef salad served with fish sauce, garlic, lime juice, chilies, and herbs; to Holland’s ossenworst, made from lean spiced beef pressed into a sausage and thinly sliced.
While raw meat isn’t a staple of the US diet, the Pittsburgh rare is a method of preparing steak that uses very high heat to char the outside of the steak almost black while leaving the center raw.
Can I order raw steak in a restaurant?
Ordering steak raw is still an unusual ask in the US and the UK. Most restaurants and steakhouses will be wary about serving raw meat to customers and the potential fall out.
The best thing to do is check in advance with the restaurant and, if they won’t serve you raw steak, see if they’ll cook it as blue as possible for the next best thing.
How can I tell if raw steak is bad?
What makes raw beef dishes sought after is their light and delicate taste and texture. If you’re served raw beef that has a noticeably unpleasant sour smell, an unpleasant sour or bitter taste, or a slimy texture, err on the side of caution and don’t eat it.
Wrapping it all up
It’s unlikely that raw beef for weekday dinner will take off anytime soon, but ordering beef carpaccio in a restaurant doesn’t mean you’re taking your life in your hands.
As long as it comes from a reputable source and is as fresh as possible, eating good quality raw beef shouldn’t cause you any harm. You can even make your own raw beef dishes at home as long as you observe the proper safety precautions we’ve set out above.
Are you a fan of a blue steak or steak tartare? What is it you like about it? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!