Beyond rib eyes, T-bones and strips
I know now: Maine is serious steak country. Rib eye seems to lead the pack in popularity, with strips and t-bones (including Porterhouse) not far behind. But a beef cow is a veritable rainbow coalition of different cuts of meat, including a few that are often overlooked because they’re not always in the supermarket meat case or they have unfamiliar names.
I’ve been researching five specialty cuts that many restaurants now feature but aren’t always on sale at our local (Rockland area) supermarkets. They’re all kind of flat-looking, varyingly marbled, and have terrific flavor (if prepared right!): flank steak, flat iron steak, skirt steak,flap meat (or flap steak), and the Big-Daddy, most exotic and delicious King of Cuts, hanger steak.
Note that all of these steak cuts, for best flavor, must be grilled no more than medium-rare!
Flank is often sold here as London Broil, which is actually not a beef cut but a preparation method. And yet occasionally it also shows up as “flank steak,” so we know where it came from! It’s taken from a well-exercised part of the cow, so it’s mostly very lean and needs 1-2 days of marinating (and possibly some pummeling) before grilling. When you order Chinese beef stir-fry, or fajitas in a Mexican restaurant, chances are you’ll be eating flank steak. (Note that Hannaford in Rockland sells both London Broil and flank steak, though they’re essentially the same cut).
When serving, the steak needs to be cut diagonally across the grain in thin slices to deliver maximum flavor and tenderness. Flank appeals to me because it’s not so popular, it’s relatively cheap, and is a great way to test your best marinades.
Flat Iron steak
This cut comes from the cow’s shoulder muscle – specifically the top of its rotator cuff – and was “discovered” recently by university meat scientists looking for new and unusual cuts of beef to maximize use of the whole cow. When cut, it roughly resembles the shape of an old flat iron, hence the name, which has a curiously appetizing ring to it.
It’s well marbled, but like all four of these specialty cuts it needs a good acid-y marinade for at least a day to soften it up. Also, if you buy it with the stringy fascia running down the middle of the steak, it’s best to cut it out and have two narrower steaks.
This cut comes from the plate, the diaphragm just under the cow’s front stomach (you may recall a cow has four of them), and it’s fatty, marbled, stringy, and tough. But don’t let that stop you! Skirt steak is prized for its rich flavor, because it’s a close neighbor to the hanger steak, which sits near the kidneys: all of these various body parts, with that rich mix of bovine juices sloshing around inside the animal, affect each other with their flavors. Doesn’t that sound delicious?
Since it’s so tough, marinate it for a solid two days, pound it, pound it some more, and this steak will yield delicious thin strips after grilling, cut diagonally across the grain, for a steak salad, fajitas, enchiladas, and even bolognese sauce (when chopped into small pieces).
Note grilling update below: skirt steaks take very little time to grill – about 90 seconds a side!
Flap meat (flap steak)
Flap meat is sometimes sold as sirloin tips or, inaccurately, as skirt steak. It’s from the bottom sirloin butt of the cow, which might suggest that it’s lean and tough like a regular sirloin cut. Not so! It’s a beautifully marbled cut, and it’s relatively cheap at about $6 a pound. One large flap steak is perfect for two people.
We tried it for the first time last week, thanks to the eager encouragement of Jess Wiggin of Wiggin’s Market in Rockland – it’s one his favorites. I marinated it for about six hours in red wine and Worcestershire sauce, threw it on the grill, and soon enough we were dining in awe of the steak’s deep flavor and surprising tenderness. I thought it a very close rival of hanger steak (see below).
Flap steak cut into strips. photo by Arnold Gatilao, Flickr
The steak has an obvious grain. When serving, cut into strips through the grain on the bias and drizzle with drippings.
After discovering this cut a couple of years ago, my standards for what makes a great-tasting steak went up several notches.
The dentist of a friend who wrote me said, “Any time you see hanger steak on the menu? Get the hanger steak!” Smart man! I think it’s as good as beef can get – in any form.
The hanger, like its close neighbor and near-twin the skirt steak, is also part of the diaphragm under the first stomach. It gets its name from how it appears to “hang” from the diaphragm (when in fact it comprises the inner layer of that muscle), but it’s also been called “butcher’s steak” because many butchers keep it for themselves and won’t sell it. You can’t get it at Hannaford or Shaw’s, but Wiggin’s Meat Market in Rockland and French & Brawn in Camden regularly carry it. If they cut the steak in two, you’re all set; otherwise, it’ll come with its tough central membrane down the middle, which you’ll need to cut out.
Rare-medium-rare: perfect hanger steak! (photo © John Storey, Storey Photography)
Admittedly, knowing you’re eating “diaphragm meat” from the cow’s underbelly could be a bit of a buzz-kill, but if you’re a serious carnivore you can probably get past it. Again, when serving, cut on the diagonal into strips – as shown above.
My usual go-to marinade is a blend of red wine (1/2 cup) and Worcestershire sauce (1/4 cup), often with a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper. There are gazillions of other things you can add, but I don’t like overpowering the steak’s natural flavor.
If you’re feeling adventuresome, you might go with something Asian. This simple marinade is from David Chang, chef at Momofuku in New York, for 2 8-oz. hanger steaks (actually one steak cut into two with the central membrane removed), but also works fine with skirt steaks and flap meat:
- 1 cup apple juice
- 1/4 cup soy sauce, preferably light soy sauce
- 1/4 of a yellow onion, sliced very thin
- 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced or sliced thin
- 1 tsp. sesame oil
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
Marinate 24 hours or more (48 for skirt steak).
That’s pretty simple stuff. Consider, if you want, adding some grated ginger, maybe some hot pepper oil or chopped hot chiles, lemongrass and/or chopped cilantro. But then, hanger steak (and skirt, somewhat less so) is so loaded with its own flavor you don’t want to sabotage it. It’s your call.
There it is, for now. Once again, my books here —