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It’s grilling season which means the coals are hot and so is the weather. Living in South Texas, just about anything can be grilled or barbecued, including pork, chicken, and even avocados! Some of the classic cuts of beef to grill down here include skirt steak and flank steak… but what’s the difference? We have everything you need to know about these often misunderstood cuts of beef along with some delicious recipes to get you inspired.
What is Skirt Steak?
If you have ordered fajitas then chances are you were enjoying grilled, marinated skirt steak. Skirt steak is a cut of beef that comes from the plate primal, found below the rib of a cow. It can be divided into the inside and outside skirt. The outside skirt is a little thicker, more tender, and more uniformly shaped than the inside skirt. The outside skirt steak typically ends up in commercial kitchens, so what you’ll find at the grocery store is usually the tougher and smaller inside version. Skirt steak is the most common type of meat used when making steak tacos, known as carnitas or asado, or the fan-favorite fajitas.
What is Flank Steak?
Often confused with skirt steak, flank steak comes from the abdominal portion of the cow and is less fatty than skirt steak. Typically about one inch thick and a foot or so long it can be tough and chewy if not cooked properly. The flat and elongated shape of flank steak, along with its visible muscle fibers, makes it ideal for marinating, grilling, and slicing against the grain to maximize tenderness and flavor. Marinating flank steak before cooking can help break down the proteins in the muscle, making it melt in your mouth. It is important not to overcook flank steak in order to prevent it from becoming tough and chewy. Flank steak is a good all-purpose cut of meat and can be grilled, roasted, broiled, or sauteed, and it’s great on top of a salad, as tacos, or even in a stir-fry.
Skirt Steak vs Flank Steak – What’s the Difference?
Flank steak and skirt steak are often confused, and while both can be prepared using similar methods, there are some differences in each cut of meat:
- Cut: Both cuts of meat come from the belly of the cow – skirt steak comes from the plate primal section just below the ribs of a cow while flank steak comes from the flank section which is under the loin section.
- Size and Shape: Flank steak is thicker and wider than skirt steak. Skirt steak is typically narrower and longer than flank steak. It has a tapered shape, with one end being wider and the other end narrower.
- Texture: Both cuts of beef contain tough muscle fibers and skirt steak really benefits from mechanical tenderizing, such as pounding it out with a meat mallet. When cooked properly, both skirt and flank steak should have a tender and juicy texture, especially when it is cooked to medium-rare or medium doneness.
- Taste: Both cuts of meat offer a nice beefy flavor. Since flank steaks are generally less fatty, they will be less flavorful than skirt steaks so they really benefit from a longer marination time.
Internal Temperatures for Steak
Steak doneness is truly a personal preference and the only way to truly know if a steak is done is by using a meat thermometer. The USDA says that 145 degrees Fahrenheit is the safe internal temperature for cooked steak but here are internal temperatures for various doneness.
- Rare (very pink): 120-130°F
- Medium Rare (pink): 130-135°F
- Medium (link pink): 135-145°F
- Medium-Well (slightly pink):145-155°F
- Well Done (very little pink):155-165°F
Note: The steak will continue to cook after it has been removed from the heat so take off the heat a few degrees before your desired doneness.
How to Cook Flank Steak and Skirt Steak
Flank steak is a thicker cut, so it can take longer to fully absorb its marinade, needing at least 4-6 hours. It is better, however, if left in the fridge to marinate for up to 12 hours prior to cooking. To get skirt steak tender, tenderize and then marinate it for 3-4 hours. If the steak was not mechanically tenderized by the butcher, you can use a meat mallet to tenderize it before placing it in the marinade. After marinating, the steak should be removed from the refrigerator 30-45 minutes prior to cooking to allow it to come to room temperature which promotes more even cooking and allow for the muscle fibers to relax creating a juicer steak.
- Grilling: While we prefer to grill outside using hardwood lump charcoal, skirt and flank steak will still taste great off of a gas grill or even on a cast iron grill on the stove in your kitchen. Preheat the grill to medium-high. Cook steak for approximately 10-12 minutes per side or until the internal temperature is at your desired doneness.
- Stovetop: Using either a cast iron skillet or indoor grill will yield the best results for stove-top cooking, but it’s important to heat the pan up prior to cooking the steak over a medium-high flame or setting. This will allow for a nice sear on the outside, cooking both sides for about 4 minutes each and until the internal temperature is at your desired doneness.
- Broil: Position an oven rack about 5-6 inches from the broiler unit, and preheat the broiler. Place your steak on a sheet pan with a rack while the oven heats up. When ready, turn the oven to broil and place the sheet pan in, checking on the steak after five minutes. Once the top side has caramelized and is bubbling a bit, turn the steak over for another 5-7 minutes, or until the internal temperature is at your desired doneness.
- Stir-Fry: This will be the quickest way to cook the steak since you will cut it into smaller pieces, cutting against the grain to ensure the bite-size pieces are tender. Make sure the wok or skillet is fully heated on medium-high heat by splashing a few drops of water, which should dance on the surface before turning to steam. Add a splash of neutral oil and then your cut-up steak, keeping it moving about in the pan so nothing burns. After 5-7 minutes you can add your other ingredients as this will cool the pan down a bit, allowing the interior of your steak to reach the internal temperature for your desired doneness without further scorching the outside.
How to Slice Flank Steak and Skirt Steak
Skirt steak and flank steak are tougher cuts of meat so it is important to slice or cut them against the grain to improve the texture and make them more enjoyable to eat. Cutting against the grain means slicing the steak perpendicular to the direction of the muscle fibers. Meat contains long strands of muscle fibers, and cutting against the grain means cutting across those fibers. By cutting against the grain, you are essentially shortening the length of the muscle fibers in each slice. This technique helps to break up the fibers and make the meat more tender and easier to chew.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Make-Ahead: Depending on your marinade, it can be made in advance and refrigerated without the meat for several days. The steak is best when cooked and served fresh and hot but to make the steak in advance, undertook it slightly to avoid it being overcooked when reheating.
How to Store: Cooked steak can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to five days. It can also be frozen in a freezer-safe container for up to 3 months.
How to Reheat: Cooked marinated steak can be reheated at 200ºF in the oven. Avoid using the microwave since this will overcook and dry out the steak.
Recipes for Skirt Steak and Flank Steak
Sure fajitas are delicious but there are so many other ways to eat flank steak and skirt steak. Here are a few recipes to get you inspired.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes! When steaks cook the heat pulls the juices toward the surface. Cutting too soon means all those flavorful juices end up on your cutting board instead of in your steak. Resting the steak it allows all those juices to be reabsorbed back into the steak keeping all the flavor in the steak instead of your cutting board.
Steak should rest for about 5 minutes for every inch of thickness.
Yes, but to avoid chewy and tough skirt steak, it should be cooked to rare or medium rare.
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