Flank Steak 101
Even though many of us have reduced the amount of red meat in our diets, beef is still very popular. At The City Cook, one of our consistently most popular searches is for ways to cook less costly cuts of meat, especially steaks.
The easiest way to cook steak is to sear it on a grill or under a broiler. A little salt. A blast of heat. And a $20+ a pound piece of prime beef. How hard is that? I love rib eye as much as anyone (although a New York strip is my personal favorite), but it's very costly and high in fat.
If you're looking for beef's irreplaceable flavor but with less fat and at a lower price, the good news is that there are alternatives: especially skirt, hanger, and flank steaks.
The Cow's Anatomy as a Cook's Guide
Costly rib eye, filet mignon, sirloin, porterhouse, and strip steaks come from the sections of the cow that have the least amount of movement and do the least amount of work, where the only work done by the animal's body is essentially to breathe in and breathe out. As a result, these muscles have more fat and a texture that is tender even when briefly cooked, as with grilling. In fact, these luxury cuts should really only be quickly cooked because they are absent the muscle, collagen and complexity of chuck, brisket, and short ribs that blossom in flavor after being braised, stewed or slow roasted for several hours.
But the cow also generates budget steaks -- skirt, hanger, and flank steaks -- that have enough rich and complex flavor to stand up to their costlier counterparts. These just take some knowledge to buy and different cooking methods to get equally satisfying results.
Each of these is different and today we're talking flank steak.
Buying Flank Steaks
The flank is located behind the rib cage, beneath the loin, and in front of the rear legs. It's a single, boneless, thin piece of muscle that usually weights between one and two pounds. Because the meat is thin, it takes well to marinades, which can add flavor and also help tenderize the meat before it's cooked.
Flank steaks are commonly about a foot long, about 5 or 6 inches wide, and about an inch or so thick. When buying a flank steak it's important to choose one that is as uniform in thickness as possible (the reason for this will become evident in a moment), although you should expect it to be thicker in the center than at the ends.
Flank steak usually costs about half the price of a strip steak or rib eye and a typical one-and-a-half pound steak will feed four to six persons. Shop around for sales and specials and if your freezer has room, you can stock up as the meat can be frozen for several months.
Although flank steaks are large, not every butcher or meat department will cut them in half. But you can. What I do is either buy a large two-pound steak, and then cut it in two, freezing half for a future meal, or I cook the whole steak and use leftovers for lunches or the next day's dinner (if I don't mind having beef two nights in a row).
Cooking Flank Steaks
Flavors that compliment flank steak's rich, meaty flavor include soy, chile peppers, cumin, sesame oil, rosemary, garlic, or red wine, and a combination of these ingredients make good choices for a marinade or sauce. Most marinades should include olive or vegetable oil along with an acid such as citrus juice, wine, or vinegar; plus spices or aromatic herbs. The steak can stay in a marinade for a few hours or up to a day, always refrigerated.
I recently discovered tomato vinegar, a flavorful alternative to red wine vinegar in marinades and barbeque sauces, to deglaze a pan, or added to salad dressings. See our link to an article with more information about it.
Flank steaks (and also skirt and hanger steaks) taste best when cooked to medium rare; cook it too well done and the steak becomes tough and tasteless. To this end, and contrary to the conventional wisdom of always bringing meat to room temperature before cooking, some chefs suggest that a flank steak be pan seared while it's still cold, right out of the refrigerator, so that you can achieve a tasty brown crust on the surface without cooking the interior beyond medium rare.
The best way to cook it? Fast and on top of the stove. This is important: once it's cooked, cut flank steak into thin slices and against the grain and it will be tender to chew and not stringy. And choose a flank steak that is as uniform as possible in its thickness is so that you don't end up with a steak that is well done on the ends and rare in the center.
Its beefy flavor and thin size makes flank steak perfect for fajitas, added to salads, as the centerpiece for open-faced steak sandwiches, or as an alternative for a more budget-busting steak when you're craving beef for dinner. It's also an excellent match to a tomato-sauced pasta, a side of couscous or farro, big flavored greens like broccoli rabe or kale, green salads, aromatic pilafs, or roasted vegetables.
Having a satisfying steak doesn't need to break the bank or have a charcoal grill in the backyard. Instead try flank steak for a budget-friendly and city kitchen alternative.
See our recipe for Red Wine and Rosemary Marinated Flank Steak. But try to plan ahead because being able to marinate the meat for at least 4 hours prior to cooking will mean a more tender and flavorful result.