Beyond rib eyes, Tbones and strips
It’s taken me awhile to figure it out, but I’ve finally learned that 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 four 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, and the Big-Daddy, good-if-you-can-get-it, 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 usually 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.
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!
My wife and I had this a few days ago for lunch, in a beautiful Thai Beef salad at the “Long Grain” Thai restaurant on Elm Street in Camden (along with the best spring rolls and steamed pork dumplings I’ve ever tasted). We didn’t know the steak pieces we were eating was hanger steak – until we asked, and now my standards for what makes a great-tasting steak just 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!”
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 a quick call to Curtis Custom Meats in Warren brightened my day considerably: “We almost always have it,” they told me, and, yes, it’s also their personal favorite cut from the entire beef cow (and in fact, they’re the ones who supply Long Grain with their hanger steaks). 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.
The marinades… and grilling
Marinades are all a matter of taste, but I strongly suggest that for each of these steak cuts you should plan on 1 or 2 days of soaking the meat – either in a dish or a ziploc bag – in a good marinade. They can use some pounding, too – especially for the flank and skirt steaks. I’ve gotten used to marinating our steaks in a pyrex baking dish, loosely covered or uncovered, in the fridge, and then on the kitchen counter at room temperature for the last 4-6 hours or so before grilling.
For flank and flat iron steaks…
I have a tried-and-true marinade, for strips, sirloins, and rib cuts, which can work nicely for flank and flat iron steaks: 1 cup of red wine and about 2-3 ozs. of Worcestershire sauce, with crushed garlic, pepper, and sometimes a powdered rub of some kind. To tenderize (and release some aggression), I stab the meat repeatedly with a fork on both sides till the juices start to work into it.
For hanger and skirt steaks…
… I’d rather go with something Asian. And here’s where I’ll defer to the experts: 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:
- 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 overpower it, so it could be that Chang’s recipe is right on the money.
Grilling – a good hot fire!
Per David Chang, for hanger steaks: It’s important to get the grill nice and hot! Remove the steaks from the marinade and sear them on both sides for about 2 minutes each. Then lower the flame a bit and cook about another 3 minutes per side, testing for doneness with a knife – they should be deep red inside and near black on the outside. Remove the steaks to a platter and let them sit for 5 minutes – the deep red insides will cook for a bit more.
Cut the steaks into 1/4″ to 1/2″ slices diagonally across the grain, at about a 30 degree angle. This will yield the best tenderness and appearance.
Skirt steak grilling update: After all the marinating and pounding, our skirt steaks (pictured above) ended up about 1/2 to 3/4 inches thick. I grilled them for about 90 seconds a side over a hot flame (a Weber gas grill with the lid closed) and that was plenty of time! Still reddish in the center, seared on the outside. So, 90 seconds a side is plenty. Were they good? Yes, chewy in places, but very tender in other places, and great flavor in a steak salad.
* Thanks to Wendy Higgins who wrote in with some marinade suggestions and offering us her dentist’s view on hanger steak. She and her husband are striving to duplicate – or at least emulate – the Thai Beef flavor they experienced at Long Grain.
More to come…