I have a certain hostility to any recipe that begins with the words, "prepare grill for cooking" because I know it's a recipe that's been written without regard to the millions of city cooks who don't have this option. So when I recently did a survey of the major recipe web sites for ways to cook skirt and hanger steaks, and more than half of the recipes started with "prepare grill for cooking," I got a little frustrated. In fact these cuts of meat can be easily cooked in a fry pan on top of the stove, with a result just as good as a backyard grill. But a city cook may not know that and won't even think to try a skirt or hanger steak.
That was the case recently when I suggested skirt steak to my friend Frank. He's a skilled and adventuresome home cook and he was lamenting that he's always buying expensive cuts of beef and would like a less costly alternative, especially for weekday cooking. I suggested a skirt or hanger steak because they're full of flavor, quick to cook and very versatile but he had never cooked one. So this is for him.
What are skirt and hanger steaks?
In a brief cow anatomy lesson, skirt and hanger cuts come from the bottom or belly of the animal. The skirt is the diaphragm muscle of the cow. It's a thin (about 4" wide) and long piece of beef. There's an inside skirt and an outside one, the primary difference being that the inside skirt has less membrane, although any good butcher will automatically take care of this for you.
Here's what's useful to know about a skirt steak:
- It has a strong beef flavor.
- It's the cut of beef that is almost always used for faitas and Philly cheesesteaks.
- The cut toughens if it's cooked to more than medium.
- While the cut can be tough, if it's cooked only to either rare or medium rare, and then sliced, it is in fact very tender.
- The cut is usually less than half the price of a good strip or rib eye steak.
Hanger steaks are very similar. It's a smaller piece of the animal that is attached to or "hangs from" the diaphragm. This inexpensive cut (usually cheaper than an already inexpensive skirt steak) has been called a butcher's steak because butchers and chefs have long knowingly saved this juicy piece for themselves.
Both hanger and skirt steaks have a rich flavor and a slightly grainy, thready texture. I find that because these steaks have so much flavor that my craving for beef gets satisfied even faster than when I have a more expensive cut.
How to cook a skirt or hanger steak
Because these cuts have such a rich taste, they can stand up to a robust rub or marinade, which in this case is used for flavor, not to tenderize the meat. This can be as simple as just salt and pepper or something more elaborate and flavorful such as cumin, sumac, cayenne pepper, or a mix of ginger, garlic and soy sauce. Whatever you like. If you choose liquid seasonings (a marinade) instead of dry ones (a rub), you don't have to have the beef sitting in your refrigerator for hours, which is a common marinade technique. Ten minutes or so -- about the time it takes for the steak to come to room temperature -- is just fine.
If you're cooking a skirt steak and the butcher has sold it to you in one long piece, just cut it into manageable sizes so that they will fit into your sauté or broiling pan and cook evenly.
After you've applied your rub or marinade, there are three different ways to cook these cuts in a city kitchen:
- Broiling -- Broil the steaks about 5" below the heat source/flame for 3 to 4 minutes a side.
- Pan Sear Then Roast -- Use a large fry pan or sauté pan, preferably not non-stick so that you can put the pan into a very hot oven. A regular pan will also produce better browning, leaving behind flavors in the pan that can be the basis of a simple sauce. Heat the pan to very hot. Add a couple of teaspoons of canola or olive oil (or if you want to gild the lily, melt a tablespoon of butter). Sauté the steak for 1 to 2 minutes a side, enough to get a good brown surface. Then put into a 400F oven for 5 to 7 minutes.
- All Pan Sear -- In a hot fry pan (again, preferably not non-stick), add a couple of teaspoons of canola or olive oil (or butter; see above). In this method, cook entirely on top of the stove; 3 minutes a side for rare and 4 minutes a side for medium rare. Baste with the hot oil/melted butter a couple of times on each side.
Regardless which cooking method you use, remember to let the steaks rest (don't tent it or it will over-cook) for about 10 minutes before slicing.
See? Who needs a grill?!