Let's talk about two seriously under-rated cuts of meat that have gone from throw-away scraps to high-price steaks in recent years – we're talking about flank and skirt steak. Both of these cuts of beef feature robust, deep, beefy flavor because of the hard-working nature of the muscles and a heavy grain that makes for tender and delicious fajitas, steak sandwiches, or dozens of other tasty meals.
There are a few differences to consider when choosing one over the other for your barbecue and we're going to break down the differences in the cut, the way to cook, and why you would pick flank steak vs skirt steak or the other way around.
What is Flank Steak?
Flank steaks are a wide, rectangular cut with clearly pronounced muscle grain. The grain will run length-wise. Flank steak comes from the abdominal muscle of the cow so it's a tough cut of meat. Flank steak needs to be cut thin, against the grain. When cooked properly the flank will have a lot of flavor and great texture. It's best cooked quickly in a hot skillet and served on the rarer side of medium-rare.
What is Skirt Steak?
The skirt steak comes from below the ribs running back toward the leg. Butchers sometimes call it a hanging steak because of how the meat hangs off the ribs. Skirt steak will also have pronounced muscle fibers, but they run along the short side. Skirt steak will have more marbling than flank and it is somewhat more tender and flavorful. Skirt steak takes to a marinade well and is excellent on the grill. It also needs to be cooked quickly over high heat – be careful not to overcook.
Inside vs Outside Skirt Steak
You'll often see skirt steak sold as inside or outside skirt. The outside skirt is cut from the outside of the ribs, while the inside skirt comes from the inside. Outside skirt is considered to be the better choice and is more tender. Inside skirt tends to be tougher, making it more suitable for recipes like stir-fry. If your skirt steak isn't labeled as inside or outside, it's most likely outside skirt steak.
The Difference in Meat Structure
The main difference between flank steak and skirt steak is their muscle fibers. Flank steak will typically have grain running along the longest direction of the cut, giving you shorter pieces of meat when cut against the grain. Strip steak tends to have grain running the short direction, giving you longer, thinner cuts.
One thing you're going to hear a lot is that you have to cut both of these steaks against the grain. What that means is that the long strings of muscle will run in one direction and you'll cut the steaks perpendicular to the direction the threads of muscle run.
When Would You Pick One Over the Other
Though these two cuts of meat are often used interchangeably, there are times when one is superior to the other. The key thing to remember is that skirt steak gets marinaded while flank steak does not. This is due to the structure of the muscle fibers which allow marinades to penetrate the tough fibers of the skirt steaks. Flank steak is denser and doesn't take on much flavor from a marinade.
If you have a recipe calling for a marinade, choose skirt steak. A marinade that includes an acid like orange juice or lime juice will help to break down the tough muscle fibers and result in a more tender cut.
Which is Better for Fajitas: Skirt Steak vs Flank Steak?
Skirt steak is the go-to choice for tender, delicious fajitas. Skirt steaks benefit from a marinade that includes citrus and herbs like cilantro which add flavor and help tenderize the meat. Simply saute onions and peppers in a large skillet, toss in the sliced skirt, and cook for a few minutes. Serve with Spanish rice and tortillas for a South of the Border feast. Skirt steak is also an ideal choice for stir-fry or try your hand at the somewhat misleadingly-named Romanian tenderloin -a popular Jewish meal common in New York City.
How to Cook These Cuts of Meat
Either of these pieces of meat must be cooked in a particular way. In both cases, you'll want to cook them as little as possible. This is particularly the case with preparing flank steak that will become inedible and tough at anything more than medium-rare.
It's All About the Sear
The most popular way to cook skirt steak and flank steak is to do a quick sear in a very hot cast iron pan. This cooking method locks in the moisture and gives the meat amazing flavor without letting it cook so long that it dries out.
Go Against the Grain
With both flank steaks and skirt steaks, you'll want to slice the meat against the grain in very thin strips. If you cut the meat too thick, it will have a meaty chew and be tough. The good news is that it is fairly easy to see the grain structure in both flank steak and skirt steak unlike some cuts like London broil or tri-tip.
The Ideal Temperature
Because flank steak is cut super thin before cooking, a meat thermometer isn't going to be very useful. Instead, you'll want to pay close attention to the meat and only cook it for three to five minutes on each side. Both cuts make excellent stir-fry because you'll cook fast and hot while constantly moving the meat in the wok.
When you are grilling skirt steak, a meat thermometer might help, but we recommend using an instant-read meat thermometer to get the perfect temperature. You'll be aiming for a rare to medium-rare level of doneness which is a temperature of about 120 to 125 degrees.
A trick we've learned to get the perfect skirt steak is to pull it around 117 degrees, then cover and let the skirt steak rest for about five minutes. The rest will allow juice to reabsorb into the meat and the temperature will increase a few degrees. If you pull the steak at 125, you run the risk that it will overcook a little.
Smoked Skirt Steak for Tacos and Fajitas
Skirt steak is a very thin cut, usually only about three-quarters of an inch thick. Smoking a skirt steak is a great way to add layers of flavor for making taco and fajita meat. What we like to do is to make a marinade using lemon and lime juice, cilantro, sliced jalapeno peppers, and Bearded Butcher Blend Zesty Lime Seasoning.
Making Spicy Smoked Skirt Steak
The Mexican-inspired spicy marinade and the fiery flavor from the mesquite give this skirt steak the perfect combination of flavors for taco Tuesday – or any day of the week.
- Let it marinate in the refrigerator overnight, then drain it.
- Smoke at 180 degrees on a mixture of oak and mesquite. Mesquite adds a spicy kick to the steak.
- Smoke for about one hour, sear on a hot griddle just for a minute on each side.
- Use a good, sharp knife to cut thin slices of meat.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is flank & skirt steak the same?
No. The two cuts of meat come from different areas and have different structure. They are often interchanged in many recipes but they are unique cuts. If you happen to find one or the other for a good price, you can use them in recipes interchangeably. Both have lots of beefy flavor and are best when cut thin.
Which is more expensive flank steak or skirt steak?
Skirt steak is more expensive than flank steak. Currently, skirt steak runs an average of $15.49 per lb, while flank steak comes in at a more affordable $11.99 per lb. Most of the time, you'll find flank steaks already thin-sliced while you'll likely buy a skirt steak as the whole muscle.
Is one better for grilling than the other?
Skirt steak is a good choice for grilling or barbecue. Flank steak should be cut into thin slices before cooking, making it a poor choice for the grill. Skirt steak benefits from marinade which can help to tenderize the steak. Using fruit juices, like orange juice, is a good choice. When it's properly cooked, skirt steak makes a tender and delicious meal.
Which is more flavorful?
Skirt steak is slightly more flavorful than flank steak, but not by much. Both cuts are hearty and beefy. Skirt steak takes to a marinade better than flank steak does, so you will be able to get even more flavor from that cut. Both cuts have a rich beef flavor that goes great with bold flavors like cracked black pepper.
Why cut steak against the grain?
When you cut a steak against the grain, you are cutting the muscle fibers across the length. When you cut them this way, the beef will have a tender texture. If it is cut with the grain, you'll need to bite through the fibers, making the meat much tougher. With flank steak and skirt steak, the grain is easy to identify and it makes slicing the meat much simpler.
What's the best way to cook flank steak?
The best way to cook flank steak is to cut it into thin strips and cook it hot and fast. We particularly enjoy using a griddle to cook flank steak. Skirt steaks are also great on the griddle. It gives both skirt and flank steaks an excellent sear.
Skirt steak vs flank steak - Which is better for the smoker?
Both flank and skirt are great on the smoker.