At first glance, Peruvian lomo saltado looks like something my mom might have invented to clean out years of fridge and freezer buildup. There are chunks of beef, mingling in a dark-brown sauce with onions and scallions and peppers and cilantro and garlic and...tomato? And are those soggy yellow things French fries? Appearances, as we well know, can be deceiving.
Lomo saltado is, in reality, a deeply thoughtful dish made with a set of ingredients and techniques that reflect the mix of cultures that contributed to its existence. It's an example of chifa cooking, a term that describes the Chinese-Peruvian hybrid cuisine created by Chinese immigrants who moved to South America more than a century ago, as well as the restaurants where that food is served.
This particular dish combines indigenous American ingredients, like potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, with Chinese ingredients and techniques, like soy sauce and stir-frying. Some versions call for tossing the French fries directly into the wok to coat them in the sauce, while others put the fries on the side to maintain their crispy texture. As you can see in the photos, I've kept them on the side, but there's no right or wrong way to do it.
The secret to great lomo saltado is twofold. First, select an appropriate cut of beef. Second, stir-fry it properly, which can be tricky to do on a home range. Well, maybe it's threefold: Third, fry your French fries so that they're the best they can possibly be, but I'll link to our article on how to make delicious, crispy McDonald's-style French fries instead of writing about it here.
Finding the Right Cut of Beef
Lomo is the Spanish word for "loin," but since a cow has multiple cuts that are referred to as a "loin," it's not all that revealing of a term. Are we talking about the short loin, the tenderloin, or the sirloin (which itself can be split into the top and bottom sirloins)? The truth is, we need to consider all of the above—and more.
What we want is a tender and quick-cooking cut, one that's low in tough, collagen-rich connective tissue. These quick-cooking cuts are better suited to being briefly seared or grilled, since there's not much time for the heat to transform the meat. Prolonged cooking does little more than dry these sorts of cuts out. Tough, collagen-rich cuts of beef, like the chuck, brisket, and shanks, on the other hand, are generally best suited to the stewing pot, where long exposure to gentle heat will melt that chewy collagen into silky and soft gelatin.
The toughness of any cut of meat is largely the result of how much the animal used that muscle during its life. Harder-working muscles build up more collagen, helping to make them stronger and thus tougher. Muscles that the animal relies on less are weaker and retain an inherent tenderness.
For lomo saltado, that means good choices include strips of tenderloin (also called the filet mignon), sirloin, and other popular cuts of steak, like the strip. The tenderloin is the most tender of the bunch, but it's expensive and not as deeply flavored as some of the other options. Still, if buttery-soft pieces of meat are what you're after, it's the way to go.
The sirloin will work, too, but keep in mind that it can be more prone to growing tough and dry if exposed to heat even a minute longer than intended. My personal favorite quick-cooking cut is skirt steak, which has a bit more chew but packs one of the biggest payloads of beefy flavor.
While wandering around the internet, trying to find out whether I could learn any Peruvian wisdom on the best beef cuts for lomo saltado, I came across a video of the chef Gastón Acurio, in which he visits a butcher who tells him that a cut called the huachalomo is the one to get.
Huachalomo is from the chuck, a very tough primal cut that includes the cow's shoulder and neck. But the chuck is made up of several different muscles, a few of which are tender if separated from the rest. Despite lots of web searches and pleas for help on social media, and despite a trip to my local Colombian butcher, I was unable to find out what exactly the huachalomo is. One possibility is that it's the teres major, a part of the chuck that is sometimes called the "faux filet" for its tender texture.
The teres major would indeed be a good option for lomo saltado, but you'll have to be careful not to get just any part of the chuck—after a brief discussion with the Colombian butcher I visited, he cut me some chuck that he said would be good for lomo saltado, but it made an inedibly gristly batch.
No matter which piece of beef you end up buying, make sure to cut it properly by slicing it into thin strips against the grain (meaning, perpendicular to the direction in which the muscle fibers run). In the photo above, you can see me doing it with a beef tenderloin. In the photo below, I do it with a skirt steak, first dividing it into manageable sections and then crosscutting those sections against the grain into strips.
Peruvian Lomo Saltado: Step by Step
The key to great lomo saltado is to stir-fry it properly. This is no easy task in most home kitchens, since they don't have the firepower to sufficiently heat a good wok and keep it hot. Truth is, you don't even need a wok—you can use a large cast iron or stainless steel skillet—but what you do need is an understanding of how to make a stir-fry like this work at home.
The answer is to stir-fry all of the ingredients in small batches. Exactly how small depends on how hot your burner is. At both work and home, I'm lucky enough to have high-powered burners that give me some real heat, though it's still not as much as a wok really requires. On my burners, I was able to successfully make this dish by splitting the beef and onions into two batches each. Many home ranges will have an even weaker output, possibly requiring that you divide the beef and onions into thirds. The number of batches ultimately won't change anything except the time it takes to make the recipe.
The reason for stir-frying in small batches has to do with the unique flavor high-heat wok cooking imparts to the food, which is sometimes called wok hei, a term that describes the unique flavor of deep-searing and the combustion of oil and fat droplets. Put too much food in the wok at once, and the pan's temperature will drop, the food steaming itself instead of searing. You'll get no wok hei that way.
Only after everything has been properly stir-fried does it all go back into the wok at once for a final tossing.
Step 1: Stir-Fry the Beef
Set your wok or other pan over the highest heat your stove can manage, and leave it there until smoke begins to curl upward from its surface. Add some oil and let that oil begin to smoke heavily.
This is a good moment to stop and discuss fire safety. Wok cooking is high-heat cooking, and when you do it right, you won't just be flirting with setting things on fire—you may actually (intentionally) set the food on fire, provided you're using a gas range.
Now, you don't have to. There are plenty of very prudent reasons not to want flames shooting up from a pan in your own home. If the idea makes you nervous, simply lower the heat to more manageable levels; you won't get the same flavor, but you also won't be attempting something that can be downright scary and potentially dangerous.
If you are willing to try to do a real stir-fry, flames and all, then you'll want to think through your kitchen ventilation in advance, since it will get incredibly smoky. You should probably also read up on kitchen fire safety, so that you're prepared to respond if anything does go wrong.
Okay, back to the beef. At this point, both the wok and the oil should be billowing smoke. Season the beef all over with salt, and add just enough to the pan so that it sears intensely without steaming itself. Spread the pieces evenly so that there's plenty of space around each, and leave the beef alone for 30 seconds or a minute, letting that first side sizzle and char.
Now start tossing the beef, tilting the wok downward toward the flame so that the mist of sizzling oil catches fire (or, again, don't, if it's out of your comfort zone). It will likely be dramatic, with big bursts of fire as the oil combusts. As big as those flames get, they won't last long, and they'll usually die out within a few seconds of catching. If you keep tossing the beef, you can keep igniting it. This is one of the keys to the very best flavor.
As soon as you've seared the beef very well on at least one side, and it no longer looks raw anywhere, transfer it to a heatproof platter to rest. Repeat this stir-frying step with the remaining beef.
What you'll notice after a few minutes on the platter is that the beef will release juices. Those juices are critically important to lomo saltado's sauce, so make sure to keep them.
Step 2: Sear the Red Onion
With the beef done, it's time to return the wok to the burner and get it smoking-hot again with even more oil. And, once again working in batches, sear the red onion.
You have a very specific goal here: to get some deep browning and char on parts of the onions slices, but still leave them with some lingering crispness. A good lomo saltado will not be full of mushy vegetables. Instead, they should be crisp-tender when it's complete.
The key to this texture comes down to two factors. The first is the size of the onion and other vegetables; they should be cut thickly enough that there's little risk they'll grow too soft in the time it takes to sear them.
The second is the small-batch stir-frying. Overcrowd the pan, and you'll steam the vegetables in their own moisture instead of searing them. So add just enough onion to the wok in each batch that it will sizzle and fry in the smoking oil.
As soon as you have some good browning on the onions, transfer them to a platter as well, and repeat with the remaining onions.
Step 3: Stir-Fry the Remaining Vegetables
At this point, we're getting to the end game. When the wok returns to its super-heated stage, with smoke billowing off it, sear the scallions. They soften quickly, so work in whatever batch size is necessary to avoid steaming.
After that, add the pepper. This will ideally be thin strips of ají amarillo peppers, a Peruvian chili pepper that's floral and fruity. They're not easy to find fresh in US markets, but a good Latin grocery or supermarket will often keep bags of whole peppers in the freezer section. Simply defrost, remove the seeds and stems, and cut the peppers lengthwise into strips. In the event you can't locate any ají amarillos, a mix of jalapeños and red bell pepper makes a great substitute.
Finally, add the tomatoes. The tomatoes are difficult to sear given how watery they are, so you'll need to decide whether you can do this while the scallions and peppers are in the wok, or whether you should break it all down into smaller groupings to increase your chances of a good sear.
What you absolutely don't want are the tomatoes turning to total mush on you, so no matter what, avoid overcooking them. This is a good time to add the final aromatics—minced garlic and ginger—tossing them for a quick sauté.
Step 4: Put It All Together and Finish the Sauce
Now for the finishing move. Return everything to the wok, including the beef and all its juices, along with the two other important sauce and flavor components: soy sauce and vinegar. I started my testing on this recipe with distilled white vinegar, which works fine, but a Peruvian friend suggested I use apple cider vinegar instead, which has a slightly softer acidity and more rounded flavor. A flavorful brown sauce should form as the beef juices, soy sauce, vinegar, and oils all blend together.
Season the mixture with salt, some freshly ground black pepper, and a nice big pinch of minced fresh cilantro, and you're done. Get it out of the wok and onto the serving plates.
Step 5: Want Fries With That? And Rice?
You're nearly done. Lomo saltado absolutely must come with French fries; leave them out, and it's not lomo saltado anymore. If you want, you can toss them into the wok with everything else. This way, the fries come out soggy (kinda bad) but coated in sauce (kinda awesome). Or, pile them off to the side to keep them crispy, and dip them in the sauce as you eat.
In Peru, the fries are often prepared as thick steak fries, using a yellow potato. Go with whatever kind of fries you want, keeping in mind that homemade are best. We've more than got you covered on how to make perfect thin and crispy ones.
A proper plate of lomo saltado isn't complete without rice. Adding one starch on top of another starch may seem like overkill, but it's part of the spirit of the dish. To the Chinese who helped create lomo saltado, no meal is complete without rice. And to the Peruvians who also helped create it, the same can be said for potato. Neither is wrong, which is why putting both on the plate is so right.