Thinly sliced raw meat. That phrase doesn’t exactly have a three-Michelin-star vibe to it, but that’s what carpaccio is. Thanks to fancy restaurants and modern refrigeration, consuming raw meats and fish is more popular than ever.
While the popularity of carpaccio, tartare, and sushi represents a remarkable shift from the “well-done everything” style of just a couple of generations ago, there is still a misconception that raw foods can only be served at places that make fancy food.
Having worked in restaurants for over two decades, I’ve noticed a sense of mysticism that surrounds food service. People will readily consume raw fish, oysters, and meat when it’s served over white linens but are resistant to the idea that they could make it at home.
Making carpaccio involves no magic or special training, just a general understanding of food safety and the confidence to make it happen.
The Basics Carpaccio is raw meat or fish, thinly sliced, sometimes pounded, sometimes seared. It’s typically topped with salt, pepper, oil, acid, and something savory. The idea is to mechanically tenderize the meat by slicing it thinly across the grain or hitting it with a meat mallet. Then, you top it with complimentary flavors. A balance of salt, acid, and fat lets the flavors of the raw meat or fish shine.
The quality of the meat or fish is paramount. This is not to say that there are only certain types of meat or fish that is safe to consume uncooked, but rather the quality of the meat is the point of carpaccio. If the meat or fish is less than great, you’re better off just cooking it. Eating that flesh raw lets you enjoy the subtle flavors and textures that are lost or changed when heat is introduced. Properly handled wild game, fish, and local meats are prime candidates for raw preparations. If you source it yourself, you know exactly how old the protein is and how it was cared for.
Now for the proper care part. The risks of foodborne illness increase when the meat or fish is not heated or cooled to a certain temperature. This is a blanket statement for all undercooked foods. This includes sunny-side-up eggs, medium-rare steaks, sushi, and ceviche—basically all the good stuff. That increase in risk is mostly about oxygen exposure and temperature.
Pathogens exist everywhere. We consume them daily in inconsequential amounts. But it's the size of the dose that gets you. Generally, raw meat and fish needs to be cooled to 40 degrees Farenheit or lower as soon as possible and kept below that temperature or lower until ready to consume. Warm environments speed up the breeding of bacteria, which increases the odds of consuming a higher dose of something that will upset your stomach. Get your meats and fish cooled ASAP—it’s just good practice.
The other thing that helps breed bad bacteria is oxygen. The greater the surface area, the more of the protein is exposed to oxygen. The more oxygen, the more the bacteria can breed. This is easily mitigated by heating the exterior of whole muscles (searing), trimming, or not exposing the protein to oxygen in the first place (leaving fish whole, skin on). Basically, the more you cut something up, the more it is exposed to oxygen. I leave fish destined for raw preparations in the round (whole) until I cut them during final preparation. I’ll trim any meat that looks oxidized before eating it uncooked.
While many commonly consumed game species like deer, elk, duck, and goose are great for carpaccio, it should be noted that there are some species that should never be consumed raw. Bear, feral pig, and any other species are vectors for trichinosis and should always be cooked to a safe temperature.
Preparation A classic carpaccio dish would include cutlets of veal, sliced, hammered, and topped with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon, and maybe some parmesan. You could do the same with hamachi, yuzu, and wasabi greens for a flavor profile from the other side of the globe. Duck, capers, orange peel. Venison, porcini, and nettles. The core concept is the same: high-quality meat or fish, and a balance of salt, fat, acid, and savory elements.
You will also want to use tender or mostly tender cuts. Cuts of meat that have lots of connective tissue and tendon will still be chewy no matter how much you hammer them. Tenderloin, backstrap, any part of the round, and some of the shoulder on a deer or elk will work beautifully. With fowl, the breasts are perfect for carpaccio. With smaller fish, there isn’t much of a difference throughout the fillet. On a large fish like tuna, the center of the top loin will be your prime cut. Trim any chewy stuff from the meat: skin, fat, veins, and make sure you remove any bones from the fish.
Whatever you decide to make carpaccio out of, slice it thinly. How thin will depend on the texture. You can get away with thicker cuts from softer proteins like fish, but denser meats need to be cut thin and pounded thin. Hammering at a slice of meat with a meat mallet will break up the tissues, rendering the meat tender. The key if you go this route is to apply even pressure and remember that you are not trying to make the meat into a paste, just soften it up.
I like to place sliced meats between two sheets of plastic wrap before pounding them out. This prevents any mess and allows you to transfer the paper-thin cuts onto a plate without mangling them.
To sear or not to sear? Searing the meat is optional; I do it about half of the time. It adds additional texture to the dish and also heats up the exterior that is exposed to oxygen to a temperature where most pathogens would not survive. Either way, sear before you slice. Pro tip: whether you sear or not, place the meat in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes before you slice into it. The meat will firm up, which makes getting super thin slices a lot easier.
Now that you have your meat or fish, seared or not, hammered thin or not, you need to top it off. As I mentioned before, it's all about finding a balance of flavors. I like to keep it really simple, usually just some good olive oil, salt, fresh pepper, and citrus zest as a base. From there I'll add in some elements that fit the season or whatever mood I’m feeling.
A good way to start it is by trying some of the meat before adding anything. Taste some of those subtle flavors that are lost in cooking and add whatever you think will complement it. I enjoy making venison carpaccio a few times every season. It has all the classic elements of carpaccio, but with a little more earthiness thanks to the venison and other ingredients.