It’s about the most primal, albeit not necessarily attractive, image you can conjure: dirty, disheveled, muscular cavepeople in rough animal skins and furs partaking of the uncooked prize from the latest hunting endeavor (or perhaps another predator’s leftovers). Fast forward to today. Our more “civilized,” better dressed, contemporary selves follow the maître d’ and sit down to intricately painted dinnerware and linen napkins to partake of, you guessed it, raw meat. And then pay big bucks for it, to boot. Sushi, steak tartare, carpaccio: they’re considered delicacies of sorts. And while sushi has caught on in the last twenty years or so, Saveur still calls steak tartare a “forbidden pleasure.”
For some of us, raw meat of some variety is regular fare. For others, well, it just gives us the willies. Our culture, among the biggest meat lovers, seems to have the hardest time envisioning it in its more “natural” state. We have grills the size of Texas, after all. The closest we usually get to the primal side is using a spit. But raw meat in some form or another has a hold on virtually every other culture. Raw fish dishes, in particular, are common in many Asian cultures. A number of Middle Eastern cultures enjoy recipes with raw goat meat. Inuit cultures eat raw fish and reindeer as a regular and primary part of their diet.
Proponents of raw meat claim that any kind of cooking reduces the healthfulness of meat. And then there’s the issue of cooking-associated toxins like HCAs and AGEs. Yet, let’s face it. We don’t live in primal times. Conventionally raised and mass processed meats carry a higher risk of bacterial contamination (think E. coli and salmonella among others), and that’s serious business.
But not all meats carry the same threat. Those who eat raw meat as a regular part of their diets often seek out small farms and game butchers to ensure healthier conditions and the likelihood of healthier meats to begin with. Sushi connoisseurs choose restaurants that have strict “sushi grade” standards for their fish. The FDA doesn’t regulate that label, but it does require that all raw fish other than tuna be frozen at temperatures cold enough to kill parasites. Some chefs freeze the meat to 70 degrees below zero and claim there’s no detectable difference in taste or texture.
Harriet V. Kuhnlein, Professor of Human Nutrition at the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at McGill University in Montreal believes that raw meat is a healthy option, provided it’s clean: “Every time you process or cook something — anything — you are likely to be losing nutrients at every step. As long as this meat is still microbiologically safe, it is at its best raw or frozen fresh.”
There are a few groups who are strongly advised against eating raw or undercooked meats: pregnant women or those trying to conceive, young children, “the elderly” (not our word), patients receiving chemotherapy or those who are taking immunosuppressant medications, and people with weakened immune systems.
So, what to do if you’re interested in giving raw meat a try? Source matters. We suggest you shop carefully. Ideally, you should know the farmer and the processor. When going raw, cleaner is even more important. Put your meat in deep freeze if you want to have that added peace of mind about parasites. (Freezing is acceptable to most raw foodies, but they do contend that freezing kills the natural enzymes of foods.)
Consider using alcohol based dips and especially marinades (port wine, vodka, etc.) that may help kill bacteria. Citrus based marinades are thought to be somewhat helpful in this regard, but don’t count on them to do as much as a good ounce of alcohol. Better to mix the two if your taste calls for it. Finally, if the head is willing but the stomach is weak, try searing the meat and leaving the middle uncooked. Add a flavorful dip, and you’ve got yourself the best of the primal and contemporary in one tasty tidbit. We’ll call it primal fusion.
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