If “toro beef” doesn’t exactly sound like a traditional meat cut or dish to you, you’re right. The term derives from the toro cut of the kind of tuna that’s prepared for sushi.
Yet beef chefs have drawn inspiration from their seafood counterparts to create dishes that have the fresh, buttery taste of classic sushi, yet are meaty to satisfy the carnivores among us!
Toro Beef Was Inspired by Sushi
Toro beef’s namesake – or should we say, name steak? – comes from the tradition of toro tuna in sashimi and sushi dishes.
The centuries-old Japanese technique of using fresh, uncooked fish has spawned a variety of famous dishes, along with species and cuts of fish used in them. Among the most prized is the toro cut of tuna.
Usually culled from bluefin tuna, the toro tuna steak is the fattiest part of the tuna fish, found near the navel of the fish. This fatty belly portion is richly marbled in fat, much like a prime cut of beef.
True sushi fans can tell you that toro is then further graded as either otoro, the most prized type because of its richer level of marbled fat, and chutoro, which is less marbled and therefore a bit below otoro in quality.
It’s this fat content that gives toro tuna its “buttery” flavor in raw-fish Japanese dishes. In fact, the word “toro” comes from “toro-ri,” which means “melt in your mouth.”
Toro tuna is usually saved for dishes like nigiri sushi, which uses a generous slice of tuna on top of small cakes of rice; or sashimi, which are fresh fish slices presented lightly dressed on a bed of nori.
In general, toro is considered too much of a delicacy to utilize for diced-fish sushi rolls.
Toro Beef’s Popularity is Recent
The use of toro beef – or at least, the practice of calling it toro beef – is a relatively recent development. But what links toro tuna and toro beef is the buttery, or “melt in your mouth” texture and taste that comes from its rich amount of marbled fat (not to be confused with a seasoning like yakiniku).
In recent years, chefs and butchers alike have taken to calling the fatty cut of beef on the cow’s underbelly “toro beef.” But not only is the term a new one, but the appreciation for using this type of beef in upscale recipes is also gaining traction.
So what exactly is a “navel cut?” It comes from the ventral, or abdominal, part of the cow. As with most mammals, the abdominal section has a high concentration of fat. If you’re one of the many foodies who love pork belly, you’ll appreciate “beef belly,” in which the cow version is very similar to its pig counterpart.
Previously, the richy-marbled meat cut from the beef navel was reserved for ground beef and pastrami. While both of these foods have their uses and their own fans, in general they are not considered gourmet.
But by processing the underbelly differently, a new kind of delicious beef cut has been discovered. The butchering process for toro beef treats this part of beef differently than the type used to create pastrami and other cheaper cuts.
For toro beef, muscles are separated and chewier fat removed, resulting in that “buttery” choice cut that is toro beef.
Try Toro Beef for Grilling
One venue which has helped put toro beef on the map in North America is the Gyu-Kaku restaurant chain. The Japanese barbecue franchise has dozens of restaurants throughout the U.S. and Canada.
This self-grilling style franchise offers diners the chance to experience yakiniku, or grilled barbecue, in which each table is able to grill cuts of meat of their own choosing, including the increasingly popular toro beef cut.
The addition of toro beef on the menu provides “a fattier cut of thinly sliced beef that has a lot of flavor,” noted one recent review.
The tableside charcoal grills at restaurants like Gyu-Kaku are a great way to experience the “melt in your mouth” quality of toro beef.
There, you will find professionally-butchered selections of the meat, paired with a sweet soy tare sauce. You can also order these cuts to-go, perhaps for your own backyard BBQ event.
Are You Daring Enough to Go “Tartare”?
Other cooks apply the concept of “toro” tuna to toro beef in different ways. For example, not only is the tender cut of the tuna fish replicated by choosing the most tender, fatty cuts of beef possible.
But they also play with the concept of sushi-style by harkening back to steak tartare (or “raw beef”) dishes. It may not be for the faint of heart when it comes to preparation, but the risks can pay off big.
“Carne cruda, or raw beef like steak tartare, is a classic accompaniment for dolcetto [sweet wine] in Piedmont in Italy,” notes the New York Times.
“Raw” toro beef differs from the French style of steak tartare. Classic steak tartare is usually a minced type of meat, seasoned with capers and Worchester sauce, and presented with a raw egg on top.
But the NYT’s preferred version of toro beef calls for a preparation that most closely resembles tartare aller-retour, in which the meat is lightly seared on the outside, leaving the inside raw.
To make this toro beef dish, you can, of course, ask for the toro beef cut from your butcher or from an Asian barbecue restaurant that provides raw grilling meat. If that’s not an option, choose beef deckle or fillet cuts.
A recent recipe shared by the New York Times calls for serving the lightly-seared cuts with charred oyster mushrooms, and served atop a salad made from frisee lettuce, scallions, and pickled vegetables.
After searing the toro beef, cut it into thin slices and place on top of the lettuce and mushrooms. Grated daikon radish that has been mixed with chili paste can be dotted over the entire dish.
To add even more Japanese authenticity, grate ginger over the composed toro beef dish. Serve with ponzu sauce, either bottled or homemade.
A basic ponzu recipe calls for combining equal parts citrus juice, soy sauce, and bonito flakes, along with splashes of rice vinegar and mirin, along with a bit of kelp. Steep the mixture overnight, then strain it.
It should go without saying that searing alone isn’t enough to keep this dish safe enough to serve to yourself and to guests. Make sure that the meat is completely fresh by choosing a trusted butcher or another purveyor of fine beef cuts.
Make sure your cutting implements, as well as your prep, cooking and serving surfaces, are all scrupulously clean. And as with other raw meat or seafood dishes, like sushi, it’s best for pregnant women, young children and older people to avoid these types of dishes.
Not To Be Confused With…
Given the way that words from other languages can resemble one another, it’s not surprising that the Spanish word for bull, toro, can sometimes get confused with the Japanese toro.
That’s especially true now that some Spanish breeders are pivoting from raising bulls for fighting to selling “toro bull” for eating.
You can certainly try out this “fighting bull meat” if you’re in Spain, but you’ll probably want to try it when prepared by a knowledgeable chef.
Otherwise, the meat is quite tough. When prepared correctly however, this version of toro bravo meat has won fans because it is highly flavorful.