Let’s start with an obvious statement: Steak birds is a bonkers name for a dish.
It’s a misleading turf and turf: bacon and beef are the two turfs, neither of which are poultry. The “steak” of steak birds (top round) is not a cut you’d order at Peter Luger. They look nothing like birds, unless you count “golf ball with a toothpick through its center” as sufficiently avian.
Steak birds sounds like a preschooler’s daydream, or some form of humiliation a bully would administer to a nerd. “What the hell are those?” is the most common question I’ve received about steak birds, and there’s no close second.
So, what the hell are they? Steak birds are bacon-wrapped, onion-filled, inch-diameter pot roasts, served in their own gravy, and held together with a sturdy toothpick. And they’re delicious.
Despite the nonsensical name, steak birds have culinary lineage. The exact origin is hard to pinpoint: Its general family of foods would be roulade, but many cultures feature some specific variation on seared, long-cooked, stuffed meat rolls served in its own juices. The German beef rouladen (filled with pickle, bacon, onion and Dijon) is a medium-sized option. The Italian braciole can range from bite-size to a full roast (plus, they can be stuffed with prosciutto!). The Belgian oiseau sans tête (veal bird without a head) is a fancy-sounding cousin. If you combine the unctuousness and labor intensity of these dishes with the convenient packaging style of rumaki, and cut out most of the fillings, you’ve got yourself a steak bird.
Like many great stews or short ribs, steak birds are a two-day affair—but there’s plenty of down time. The first day is for assembly (budget at least an hour for this), searing, and mellowing in the fridge. The second day is for the fat removal, gravy, and final simmer.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I learned of steak birds through my stepmother, who in turn learned the recipe from her mom in the 1960s. She confidently prepared them for my brother and I in our teenage years, even while anticipating our boundless angst and skepticism for something that sounded so weird. Not yet foodies, we were floored by these morsels, and they became a cult classic in our family. When I introduced my girlfriend-now-wife to her, I insisted steak birds be on the menu.
There are few fall dinners that provide more comfort than these kooky birds, once you can get over the inane name.
Yields about 50-60 birds, which serves 6-8 adults
- 2 lbs. top round steak, sliced thin, cut into 1-inch by 4.5-inch strips (you may find this labeled as “sandwich steak” in some butcher cases)
- 2 lbs. sliced bacon
- 1 large onion
- 2 quarts beef broth or stock
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- Seasoning salt, garlic powder, ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup flour
- Sturdy toothpicks
- Optional: 1 cup full-bodied red wine
Cut each piece of bacon in half, and lay the slices on a cookie sheet covered with wax paper. Keep the bacon cold after you cut it, so it’s easy to maneuver as you roll the birds. Avoid thick-sliced bacon.
Slice the round steak into 1-inch by 4.5-inch slices. Keep one halved piece of bacon out as a reference—it should be about the same size.
Place a piece of round steak on top of the bacon. Put one small piece of diced onion (about the size of your middle finger nail) on the tail end of the steak/bacon stacks. Sprinkle each bacon/steak/onion stack with a little bit of seasoning salt, freshly ground black pepper, and garlic powder. Since your hands will be covered in beef and bacon grease, I would advise using pinches of seasoning out of a bowl, as opposed to using individual shakers. Roll each stack, and secure with a toothpick.
Heat a large Dutch oven on medium-high heat with a little bit of olive oil at the bottom. Sear the bacon-wrapped vessels until the bacon is well-browned, about 7-8 minutes. You’ll need to do this in batches, so store the seared birds in a dish that will preserve the juices. Deglaze with beef broth. If you’re using wine, add it now. Add the remaining birds, their juices, and the remaining beef broth back to the pot.
Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for about 45 minutes. Take the pot off heat and let cool overnight in the fridge.
The following day, remove the congealed top-layer fat. Reheat everything over medium-low heat for 30 minutes.
Now it’s time to make the gravy. Remove the birds. Gradually incorporate 1/2 cup flour to the remaining liquid, whisking Continue to simmer and reduce, until you get the consistency of a a thin gravy; it should be thicker than au jus, but thinner than Thanksgiving turkey gravy. Add the birds back into the pot and keep on low until ready to serve. Serve atop mashed potatoes and ladle generously with gravy. Avoid eating the toothpicks.