Serious Eats

The Food Lab's Guide to Inexpensive Steak for the Grill: 5 Cuts You Should Know

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

So y'all read about the four high-end steaks you should know&mdahs;that'd be the strip, the ribeye, the T-bone, and the tenderloin. But today, we're here to talk about something a little different and a lot more exciting: inexpensive steaks for the grill. What I'm talking about is the butcher's cuts.

The pieces of the steer that you won't find in the fancy-pants steakhouses or the styrofoam trays in the refrigerated cases in the supermarket (well, at least not most supermarkets). The pieces that chefs love to use because not only are they more inexpensive, but they've got character.

See, the high-end steaks are all cut from the same general region of the steer—along the ribs and spine on its back. Why? Because the muscles in that area—the Longissimus dorsi and the Psoas major do little to no work during the steer's lifetime. They are large, tender, and remarkably easy to cut into big, juicy, meaty steaks.

The butcher's steaks, on the other hand, come from all over the steer, and they're not quite as easy to extract. Many of them are whole muscles that must be trimmed by the butcher just-so if you want them to be tender and large enough to cook as steaks. There are also not many of them on a steer. For every 20 pounds of ribeyes and T-bones you can get off a steer, you'll get perhaps 1 or 2 pounds of these butcher's cuts.

These butcher's cuts tend to be more packed with flavor because of the work they do, yet because they're not as marketable to the general public and require a bit more skill to cook and serve correctly, they remain much cheaper than their mainstream counterparts. This is good news for you, particularly because all this week, we'll be posting an in-depth look at them. How to shop, how to trim, how to cook, and how to serve to maximize their flavor—and your dollar.

Let's start with a brief overview of my five favorite inexpensive steaks: the hanger, the tri-tip, the short-rib, the skirt, and the flap meat.

Hanger Steak

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Also Sold As: Butcher's steak, hangar (this is an incorrect spelling but appears frequently), arrachera (Mexico), fajitas arracheras (South Texas), bistro steak, onglet (France).

Where iI's Cut From: From the plate section of the cow (the front of the belly), it "hangs" off of the cow's diaphragm, hence the name. U.S. meat-cutting classification of NAMP 140.

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What It Tastes Like: Strongly beefy with a distinct minerality, it can occasionally come off as tasting livery to those with palates that are sensitive to that flavor. For my money, it's one of the tastiest cuts on the cow. Because of its loose texture, it takes well to marinating. I generally rub mine in a mixture of olive oil with garlic, fresh herbs, and peppercorns for a day or so before wiping it dry and grilling. When butchered into individual steaks, it has a triangular cross-section that can make it bit difficult to cook evenly. It takes well to high heat, and should be cooked no less than medium-rare (otherwise it stays fleshy and wet), and no more than medium (or it gets tough and dry).

More on Hanger Steak »

Tri-Tip

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Also Sold As: Santa Maria Steak, Newport Steak (when cut into individual steaks), aguillote baronne (France), punta de anca, punta de Solomo, or colita de cuadril (Latin America), maminha (Brazil).

Where It's Cut From: The bottom sirloin, from the muscle group that controls the steers back legs (it applies its force to the steer's kneecap).

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What It Tastes Like: Very lean with a mild flavor somewhat reminiscent of eye round, though with a more pronounced juiciness and beef flavor. Because of it's severely tapering shape, it can be extremely difficult to cook to the right doneness the whole way through. The smaller end inevitably overcooks to a degree. It's extremely popular in Santa Maria where it is cooked over red oak wood. It takes well to smoke and spice rubs and should not be cooked past medium rare, unless being used in a braised dish such as chili.

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Short Rib

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Also Sold As: Kalbi (Korean), Jacob's Ladder (U.K., when cut across the bones), asado de tira (Argentina)

Where it's Cut From: The ribs. Short ribs can be cut numerous ways, but come from the area of the ribs a bit further down towards the belly than rib steaks or strip steaks (which come from closer up towards the back). When cut into long slabs with bone sections about 6 to 8-inches in length, they are referred to as "English cut". When sliced across the bones so that each slice receives four to five short sections of bone, they are known as "flanken style." Korean restaurants will often butterfly the meat while still attached to the bone, allowing them to unfurl into long, thin pieces that pick up marinade well and get far more tender than whole ribs.

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What It Tastes Like: Extraordinarily rich, beefy, and juicy, it's one of the most well-marbled cuts on the animal. The flavor is very similar to the spinalis dorsi—the ribeye cap, which is the tastiest part of the ribeye steak. Some people may find it to be almost too rich, but I personally love the flavor when served in reasonably-sized portions. Unless sliced very thinly against the grain, short ribs can be quite tough—most people are familiar with them as a slow-cooking cut used primarily for braising. For my money, short ribs are are the greatest steak value available. All the flavor of the best ribeye steak, at perhaps a quarter of the cost.

More on Short Ribs »

Skirt Steak

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Also Sold As: Fajita meat, Roumanian Strip (New York).

Where It's Cut From: The outside skirt is the diaphragm muscle of the cow, cut from the plate. It is the traditional cut for fajitas, and is generally sold to restaurants. Inside skirt is part of the flank, and is the more widely available form of skirt.

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What It Tastes Like: Extremely rich and buttery with lots of fat and a loose, strongly grained texture. It practically bastes itself as it cooks. Skirt steak is thin, so it must be cooked over very intense heat so that it can char on the outside before it overcooks in the center. Unless it is cut correctly, it can be inedibly tough and chewy. It must be cut into sections, then sliced thinly against the grain. Skirt can also be braised into dishes like Cuban ropa vieja, where it pulls apart into long, stringy strands.

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Flap Meat

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Also Sold As: Faux hanger, bavette (France), sirloin tip (New England).

Where It's Cut From: The bottom sirloin butt—the same general region where the tri-tip comes from.

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What It Tastes Like: Extremely loos in texture with a sweet, beefy, minerality, it can also come across as livery some times, particularly when stored in a vacuum-sealed bag. It's coarse-grained and soft to the point of mushiness when raw or rare, so should be cooked to at least medium-rare. Like skirt and hanger, it must be cut closely against the grain to minimize toughness.

This week we'll feature a different one of these cuts every day with complete cooking tips and recipes. Ladies and gentlemen, start your grills.

More on Flap Meat »

DISCLAIMER: Since a lot of folks seem to be jumping in saying "x is not cheap," or "I can't find y" in the comments, I figured I should just explain right in the article that because of regional availability and pricing, not ALL of these steaks will be available or inexpensive in your given market. Hopefully at least a few of them will be both inexpensive and available to you, but I've never been anywhere where all five cuts are both available and inexpensive. Thanks!

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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