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):
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.
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.
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.
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.