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

Casey Barber

by Casey Barber on February 27, 2012

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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{ 51 comments }

Jay Michaels December 9, 2013 at 4:20 pm

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 March 17, 2014 at 3:11 pm

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.

Mac January 3, 2014 at 2:08 pm

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.

Val Bianco January 12, 2014 at 1:45 pm

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.

Casey Barber Casey Barber January 21, 2014 at 7:27 pm

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 January 31, 2014 at 8:53 pm

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 March 2, 2014 at 5:48 pm

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

zoon zoon calgary January 26, 2014 at 2:32 pm

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.

Oscar February 10, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Learn to cook the meat before you buy it.

SK February 10, 2014 at 2:08 pm

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.

Shawn February 15, 2014 at 10:03 am

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.

Steve March 21, 2014 at 9:36 pm

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.

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