Ask Casey: Hanger, Skirt, Flank, and Flatiron Steaks

Ask Casey: Cooking and Kitchen Questions Answered

What’s the difference between skirt steak, flank steak, and hanger steak?

First, I’ll be contrary and say these pieces of beef are all alike in one way: they’ve made their way up the steak food chain in recent years. Formerly tossed aside, bound for ground beef, or reserved for butchers themselves to eat, these under-appreciated cuts have been sneaking their way onto restaurant menus as chefs and customers alike see the value in using the whole beast and look for less expensive ways to get their steak fix.

If you’re used to picking your meat out of a shrink-wrapped array in a cooler case, go ahead and ask questions of the guy (or sometimes a girl!) behind the counter. Butchers are more than happy to explain what’s in their case—and offer recommendations on the right cut for your cravings and intended recipes.

However, there are subtle but crucial differences between each. Just like snowflakes, no two muscle groups on a mammal are exactly alike, and a look at these cuts is an excellent visual reminder of the incredible intricacy of anatomy. So I’ll break it down for you, and include an extra cut that’s one of my personal favorites: the flatiron. Here’s a rough map of where the cuts come from on the musculature of the cow, courtesy of my childhood friend Ed the Walking Steak (™ my dad, who never met a bad joke he didn’t like):

Skirt Steak

A thin, fibrous cut separating the chest from the abdomen, the skirt steak is actually the cow’s diaphragm muscle, and its hardworking location means it’s a chewy piece of meat. Out of the four cuts of meat featured here today, this is the only one I wouldn’t recommend tearing into without first smacking around a few times with a meat tenderizer and dosing in a marinade or dry rub.

Skirt steak is the traditional cut for fajitas, and it’s a great way to acquaint yourself with this cut if you haven’t yet sampled its flavorful charms. It’s a loooong piece of meat, though—the usual pound and a half is a few feet long—so portion it out and freeze what you won’t be marinating for a quick stir-fry when you need it.

Flank Steak

The flank steak lies on the belly close to the hind legs of the cow. Unlike the fatty-ish skirt steak, the flank is super lean on its own without too much trimming, but needs a little work to make it tender. Like skirt steak, flank steak takes to marinades like a fat kid to fries, but also lends itself to simple grilling. The secret to a tender flank is to slice it super thin. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered what “slice against the grain” or “slice across the grain” means in a recipe, flank steak provides the perfect tutorial: its muscle structure is evident, the long lines stretching down the cut. All you need to do is cut perpendicular to them. Voila!

Also like skirt steak, flank makes a mean fajita, and it’s also an excellent choice for bibimbap, stir-fries, or even an at-home Philly cheesesteak. Some butchers sell flank steak under the name “London Broil,” while others use that term for cuts from the round (that’s the butt of the cow). Once again, it pays to talk to your butcher to make sure you’re getting the cut you want.

Hanger Steak

According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his Bronto burger-sized compendium The River Cottage Meat Book, “hanger steak gets its name from the fact that it hangs down between the tenderloin and the rib.” Its placement deep inside the loin, encircled by the rib cage, makes it a relatively tender piece of meat on its own—along with the tenderloin, strip, and ribeye (all the constituent parts of that manly man steak, The Porterhouse), none of these muscles get much work on the cow and can just hang out (ha!).

Called the “hanging tender” by some old-school butchers and onglet by the French, this is one cut you might actually find on a steakhouse menu, as bistros have long preferred it as the perfect cut for steak frites. Because the cut is growing in popularity and there’s only one hanger steak per cow, its price is rising in the butcher’s case accordingly. Salt and pepper it liberally and throw it into a cast iron skillet or under a broiler until medium-rare.

Flatiron

A flat muscle off the shoulder blade, sometimes called a petite tender or a top blade steak, the flatiron has been around for a long time—Cutting up in the Kitchen, a butchery book from the 1970s, includes a description of this cut in its list of beef cuts from the chuck primal. (That’s the whole front shoulder section of the cow, essentially.) But by 2007, food scientists devised a new way to cut the flatiron, working around the thick connective tissue that formerly ran down the center of the old-style flatiron cut.

The result? A steak that’s super tender for something that lives so close to a joint, and which makes a gorgeous strip steak alternative when sliced thinly. Grill it up just like you would a hanger steak. Don’t forget the béarnaise sauce.

Ask Casey is proof positive that there are no stupid questions—just stupid quips that Casey thinks are funny while she’s figuring out your food-related quandaries. Ask me anything! Email me and I’ll answer it here.

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Comments

  1. says

    This was really helpful. When I moved to France, I had a hard time figuring out steak, and that was when I realized there were lots of different cuts that required different amounts of heat, etc. What’s more, the animal is cut up differently in France, so that adds to the complication.

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Alexandra, that’s a great point. Depending on who’s butchering the animal, the cuts can be very different – not necessarily for the T-bone or the oxtail, but for these inner, weirder cuts. Another good reason to talk to the people who are preparing your food!

  2. Sheryl says

    Even though I don’t eat beef, I found your explanations throughly entertaining, especially the photo! I will pass this on to my meat-loving husband, who is usually in a quandary about which cut to buy.

  3. says

    These all are my go-to cuts of meat! Skirt Steak is personal favorite out of the bunch. Try to go with grass-fed, grass-finished though to cut down on the fat. I find that you don’t have to marinate or tenderize if you do a nice coating of Olive Oil, Red Wine, Pressed garlic salt and pepper about 15-30 minutes before grilling. Put those ingredients into a Rubbermaid container, add steak and shake it up!

  4. says

    Thanks, well written and informative article…
    I was introduced to the hanger steak fairly recently, and it’s very delicious…For all the kosher eaters out there, as with skirt, and flank, because of the Koshering process, and the many folds in the meats, there is a lot of salt, and many (kosher) people complain of how salty skirt steaks are..but my butcher taught me a secret, to soak in water for 30 mins (and then drying), and it really made a difference

  5. says

    This post made me so hungry, seriously. I haven’t had a good steak in a long time, and my mouth was watering thinking about the last flank steak I cooked up in Jersey.

    A lot of people don’t know that the reason fajitas even exist is that the skirt and flank steak cuts were considered undesirable by the cattle barons of Texas, and so were given to the caballeros (Mexican cowboys) as part of their payment for working a cattle run. It’s also why so much of Tex-Mex cuisine is made up of things like barbacoa (with meat coming from the head of the cow or pig), tripas (intestines) etc. All these “nasty” bits were given as part of the caballeros pay, and they had to do *something* with them. Luckily, it resulted in a fair bit of regional cuisine and history. True story, when I was a kid, “fajita meat” or skirt steak, went for about 34 cents a pound down here. Until fajitas started appearing on pan-American restaurant chain menus. Then they jumped to 3 and 4 dollars a pound.

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      I love Ed too – I just knew there was a reason I’d been holding onto him all these years!

  6. says

    Great tutorial Casey! I have never learned where all the cuts of meat are from, not being a beef eater, but it’s nice to know. I sometimes study the meat charts in the back of restaurants when I’m waiting for the chef. It’s better than studying the OSHA fact sheets. :)

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      I often think about putting a meat chart like that in my kitchen, but one glance at the pile of unframed posters makes me realize I’ve got enough art already. They’re so cool, though.

  7. vania pinto says

    I would love to see the sutffed cow photo on my kitchen – but am, actually, an informatic illiterate… How could I have it? The explanation about the location of the hanger steak was very good. Since I don’t know the name of this cut in Portuguese, I’ll have to draw it for my butcher…
    Thanks!

  8. says

    I was wondering out of the 4 cuts of beef, flank, skirt, hanger or flatiron which cut would be best to make a steak pinwheels?

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Jim, I would choose flank steak for pinwheels. It’s not too fatty or stringy for that particular recipe!

  9. victor says

    Thank you..that is really god info re really similar looking steaks..one more question please (sounding like Oliver Twist) what is the difference in taste between these great cuts..do any have after tastes? I did notice a funny taste with the flank, and the flap tasted most like skirt.
    Thanks

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      You might notice a more gamey or “iron” taste to these cuts, Victor, because they’re muscles that worked a little harder on the cow than, say, a filet (which basically sits in the middle of the cow, protected by all the other bones and muscles, so it doesn’t have a chance to develop chewiness or a strong flavor without the process of dry-aging). They’ve all got great beefy flavor on their own, but skirt in particular takes very well to marinades.

  10. Tomek says

    I have a question. What is the difference between a Hanger steak and a Skirt steak besides the location. Would it be correct to say that the skirt steak is tougher – and maybe more flavorful? Or is the Hanger just as flavorful, tough, but not as tough as a skirt steak? I’m trying to distinguish the two.

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Tomek, I’d say that would be fairly accurate – it’s mostly a matter of taste as to what people perceive/prefer, but the skirt has a tougher, “ropier” texture than a hanger steak, which tends to be more “steaky” in texture. Does that make sense?

  11. carole Oneal says

    I have a question I wanted to do something a little different for Christmas dinner.
    I have purchased in the past a steak that had been rolled and stuffed with spinach, feta, grilled red pepers then cut & tried in a pinroll and grilled. What I want to do is make it a roast that tied and stuffed. This is my question what type of meat should I used as it need to be most tender and tastiest for Christmas! HELP I would hate to mess it up with family coming

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Carole, I’d have a butcher butterfly a top round or sirloin steak to do a rolled roast – they’re economical but tender cuts, and your butcher will be able to cut the roast so it is one large, flat piece of meat. Then you can fill, roll, and roast it yourself.

  12. Bobby says

    I routinely use all three cuts. To answer an earlier question about skirt or hanger, I’m choosing hanger as having better flavour. I get it from a mexican meat market and they usually slice it really thin, which is good, but sometimes I ask them to cut a thick piece for me. You have to try one if you get a chance, in my opinion the flavour is the most unique of all the cuts and is probably my number one choice on the cow, period. It’s that good.

  13. Steph says

    Hi Casey,

    Just saw a great recipe for beef stew (Jacque Pepin’s recipe) cooked in wine. It calls for flatiron steak. Can I substitute hanger steak?

    Thanks!

  14. Casey Pons says

    Ms. Barber; (Love the name by the way…)
    First Time Caller/Listener.
    So, over the last couple of nights I have prepared Flat-Iron steak, and Skirt steak in basically the same methods; Marinating in a sweet/salty/acidic Asian Lime based marinade (overnite) and broiling them quickly to M.R. (125-127ish). Then, using them in a Thai Beef Salad recipe. The texture, tenderness, flavor, juiciness was like night and day between the two.
    I was wondering where I gone, completely wrong, thinking they were basically from the same (anatomical) location on your cute little fluffy moo-model.
    Hense; finding myself here, for some definitive info-mation about why they were so unlike each other.
    In summary, (after reading) your very informative and effective article, I did one specific thing waaaaay wrong with the (Skirt Steak) over the (Flat-Iron) cut. I did not cut the Skirt steak on (enough) of angle bias to follow the direction of the grain. It was like chewing a (delicious) bicycle tire-tube. Upon inspection, after my first few cuts, I (found) the grain direction and adjusted my slicing movements (angles), which helped considerably, but was no equal in any means to the Flat-Iron steak in any qualifying category. The Flat-Iron steak was one of the most tender, flavorful cuts of meat I have (ever) had. The Skirt steak, (as you mentioned), needs some considerable tender loving care to be a true star.
    Great informative article, once again, Ms Barber.
    Next on the experiment horizon tour; Hanger and Flank steaks. Oh, Boy…
    Thank you very much for sharing, that huge brain! ;~}

  15. Casey Pons says

    PS. After consuming the remainder of the Skirt steak (strip) left over from the night before, I placed the (previously broiled) remaining portion in a baking dish, along with the (reduced) marinade from the initial session, and reheated at about 175-180 degrees for around an hour or so. Then, when slicing this time, I rotated the strip a complete 90 degrees, and it was “Like Butta” compared to the previous night.
    Two observations; The direction of the grain on the Skirt steak seems to run in inconsistent directions, and you have to be aware with every new slice. Or, the wine consumed the previous night, was not the (non-alcohol) variety I thought it was.
    The second reason for the additional tenderness was, what an additional 45-60 min at 175-180 will do to coax a Skirted (thang), into a beautiful young lady.

  16. fatloserboi says

    Fantastic article.. For true beef steak lovers, this articles explains that striploin, tenderlion and ribeye aren’t the only choices… Good stuff my friend!

    I love steak… nom nom nom…

  17. Rick Diaz says

    Thank you for your help. You have cleared up my thoughts on this subject. Too
    many experts have been unable to explain the differences of these muscles. hanks again, I’ll pass it on to my co-workers and especially the Sales Reps. I do business here in Texas w/ Sysco & Ben E. Keith…………..
    Rick

  18. belen says

    Hello
    I enjoyed this article and learned much about the different cuts of less inexpensive cuts of meat. Thank you. Is there a printable version (with photos) of this article posted somewhere on your site?

    Thanks in advance for your response
    Belen

  19. says

    Great explanation worth printing out for future reference. Who would have thought the Flatiron is the top blade steak I’ve been avoiding in the meat case for years. Thanks!

  20. Jay Michaels says

    These are crap cuts of meat. They have always been crap cuts of meat. It’s not out of some eco friendly using all of the cow less waste trend. They used to put them in dog food but recently beef producers realized that there were untapped markets of idiocy. So some spin doctors have sold the idea to morons that these are good and inexpensive frontiers to explore. They still charge the same for them in restaurants as a NY strip for the novelty of eating something everyone on Food Network is cooking with. Don’t be fooled. It’s still dog food.

    • josh says

      I hope everybody agrees with Jay Michaels so I can continue to be able to show up late to the farmer’s market and get incredible beef at bargain prices.

  21. Mac says

    Mr. Michaels’ evaluation is too absolutist in tone. When did Chacun à son goût cease to be the golden rule when it comes to cuisine? Perhaps the restaurant price he has been charged is the problem. On the other hand, the flank steaks I’ve just purchased for preparation as very slow-cooked Braciole were not cheap. Perhaps not so many agree with Mr. Michaels’ assessment; that is, popular demand accounts for both the home and restaurant pricing. The essential, of course, is the marinating and pounding that precede the cooking of the Braciole rolls. Thanks for the good information on the four “chewy” pieces of beef.

  22. Val Bianco says

    I have cooked well over a hundred whole filet roasts, countess steaks of all varieties and every possible cut of roast. I defy ANY beef lover to eat a seared medium rare spencer steak (primal end of rib eye) and tell me it is not more flavorful than filet and more tender than strip. I just had one for lunch that I paid $3.69/lb for in a local Pittsburgh grocery store. As good a piece of beef as I’ve ever eaten. It’s slightly leaner than rib eye which actually concentrates the beef flavor.

  23. Casey BarberCasey Barber says

    Commenters: just a reminder that per site policy, rude behavior and name-calling will not be tolerated here. You’re welcome to your own opinions and can express them here in a civil and constructive way, but I reserve the right to delete malicious comments that do nothing but insult others.

    • J Farrell says

      Thanks for that. I always cook 8 oz. tenderloin, 12 oz strip or 12 oz rib eye on the grill. Each cut is dependent on what someone is in the mood for. I’ve been considering a skirt steak, marinated and cooked quickly on a high temperature in the grill. I fear being disappointed. I noticed the hanger steak as a new addition to the menu of a local BYOB. Reasonably priced but again a gamble. Thanks.

    • Emma says

      I enjoyed your article up to the derogatory comment about a fat kid to fries. I would assume that families looking for budgeting ideas to improve their diet may well be overweight. It is also ironic that you comment on rude behaviour and name calling will not been tolerated here. I am sure you are in breach of your own site policy as you may or may not agree this comment serves as nothing more than an insult to others.
      On a positive note it would be great to see sugestions on how to cook the meat as flank is beautiful until you over cook it at which point becomes a different meal altogether.
      Regards,
      Emma

  24. zoon zoon calgary says

    Casey described 4 steaks for their own value and use. She never said to replace your choice cut of steak with any of the above. So to all the haters, chill.

  25. SK says

    I just had a hanger steak this past Saturday for the first time ever. I ordered it at a great restaurant and it was cooked by a professional. I do not eat beef often normally when I do it is a T-bone or Porterhouse. The hanger steak was the best beef I have ever had. I am sure it was all in the preparation but I would pay twice as much for this cut. It has a more intense flavor. The restaurant is a 2 hour drive but I hope to make that drive more often for this steak.

  26. Shawn says

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve enjoyed all these cuts out at restaurants before but have always had trouble remembering which is which when I go to the butcher. The flat iron and hanger have become my new favorites to grill.
    I’ll definitely bookmark this page. Thanks again.

  27. Steve says

    I purchased a flat iron steak at a local supermarket in Angels Camp Ca. Yesterday. Didn’t do anything to it other than some salt and pepper and rubbed it with oil and a bit of garlic. Threw it on the grille until medium rare and it ended up as one of the most tender and tastiest pieces of meat I’ve ever eaten. So I just can’t accept that this is a garbage cut.