Why It Works
- A sweet and spicy Thai-style sauce is both the marinade and dressing for the grilled flank steak and herb salad.
- A two-zone fire gives you more control when you're grilling. Sear over the direct side, then finish cooking over the indirect side.
It's hard to think of a cut of meat that is more conducive to cooking for a crowd than flank steak. It's got a robust, beefy flavor and a pleasantly tender texture with a bit of good chew. It comes in large, regular shapes that make cooking, slicing, and serving easy, and they're just thin enough that they'll cook through in a matter of minutes, but just thick enough that you can still get a nice, medium-rare center.
They're pretty diverse as far as cooking method goes, but the best way, by far, during the summer is on the grill. With their large surface area, they're made for picking up nice char, smoky flavors, and the types of dishes they transform into seem perfect for al fresco dining.
Here are a few tips for marinating, grilling, and serving flank steak.
At one time flank steak was a relatively hard cut to find, reserved for specialty butchers or saved for industrial uses. These days, consumers are wise to its benefits, and it has become as near-ubiquitous a cut as the standard high end steaks.
When shopping for flank steak, look for an even, deep red color with a fair amount of fine fat running along the length of the muscles. Poorly butchered flank steak will either have a thin membrane still attached to parts of it, or will have had that membrane removed so aggressively that its surface has been shredded. Look for smoothly textured pieces without nicks or gouges.
A standard whole flank steak can weigh anywhere between two and four pounds. Plan on cooking a pound of flank steak for every three diners, a pound and a half if your friends are as hungry as mine.
Contrary to what you may think, marinade actually does not penetrate particularly far into meat—even over the course of a few days, the bulk of the aromatic compounds in a marinade will travel mere millimeters into the meat (the exception being salt, small sugar molecules, and some acids). In reality, a marinade is mostly a surface treatment, and not much benefit lies in marinating for more than half a day or so. If you'd like the flavor of the marinade to completely coat your meat, your best bet is to reserve some marinade and simply toss your meat with it after it has been cooked and sliced.
Here are a few ingredients you should consider when constructing a marinade:
- Salt is absolutely essential. It is one of the few ingredients that penetrates and seasons meat deeper than the outer surface. I like to add my salt in the form of soy sauce or fish sauce, which are also very high in glutamates, adding extra savoriness to my meat.
- Sugar when used in moderation will help the meat brown better on the grill, creating strong smoky, charred flavors. A touch of sugar also balances salt nicely.
- Aromatics are mainly a surface treatment, but they can still be quite powerful. Garlic, shallots, dried spices, herbs, or chiles are all good things to experiment with.
- Oil is often a primary ingredient in marinades. Many aromatic compounds, such as those found in garlic, are soluble in oil but not in water. The oil will help spread these flavors evenly across the surface of the meat, as well as lubricating and protecting the meat when it first hits the grill.
- Acid can balance flavors, but should be used sparingly. It can denature proteins in the meat, causing it to turn mushy over time. With very acidic marinades, it's particularly important to not over marinate—certainly no more than half a day.
My absolute favorite way to marinate flank steak is with a sweet and spicy Thai-style sauce. I make mine with palm sugar (brown sugar will do fine), dried Thai chile flakes, fish sauce, garlic, and lime juice, which I then split in half, reserving half to toss with the meat after cooking, and adding some oil to the other half to use as a marinade.
Once the meat is cooked, rested and sliced, I toss it all together with some reserved marinade, and a big herb salad with shallots and bean sprouts. It gets an awesome caramelized, charred crust on the grill from all the sugar, and the great thing is that it's delicious even when cold, making it the perfect dish for potlucks or relaxed backyard parties.
How to Grill
The key to perfectly grilled flank steak is to use a modified two-level fire—that's a fire where all the coals have been pushed over to one side, leaving the other empty (in a gas grill, just leave one bank of burners off). Doing this gives you more control over your cooking, allowing you to sear your meat over the crazy hot side, and finish cooking it through gently with the cover on on the cooler side of the grill. Without this option, there's a good chance that you'll end up incinerating the exterior of your meat before the center cooks through.
Before applying a marinated steak to the grill, it's important to wipe it off using a paper towel. Wet meat can cause a couple problems. First, if the wetness is oil-based, it'll drip down into the fire causing flare-ups that will deposit foul-tasting sooty compounds on your steak. If there's too much water based moisture, your meat will end up steaming instead of searing, and nobody wants to eat marinated steamed flank steak, do they?
Carving and Serving
Like with all grilled, seared, or roasted meats, it's vital to allow the steaks to rest before slicing into them. As we demonstrated here, cutting into your meat prematurely leads to loss of juices and flavor. A good rule of thumb is to let the internal temperature of your meat drop to a couple of degrees below the maximum cooking temperature. So if you cooked your flank steak to 130°F for medium-rare, you should let it rest until it drops to 128°F before slicing. For a flank steak, this takes 5 to 10 minutes.
As for slicing it, we're lucky on this front—a flank steak has a distinct grain, making it very easy for us to properly orient a knife for carving. You always want to cut perpendicular to the grain in order to minimize the length of each muscle fiber you have to chew (for more information on this, see our article here.
This should be done as soon as possible, using the appropriate utensils and degree of reckless abandon.
For the Marinade:
1/2 cup palm sugar or brown sugar
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/3 cup lime juice
2 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane zester
1 tablespoon Thai chile powder (or red chile flakes)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 whole flank steak, about 2 pounds (see note)
For the Salad:
1/2 cup loosely packed mint leaves
1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
1 small bunch chives, cut into 1 1/2-inch segments
1/2 cup loosely packed basil
4 shallots, thinly sliced
1 to 2 cups mung bean sprouts
Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat until completely dissolved. Transfer to a small bowl, add fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and chile powder and stir to combine. Transfer half to a small container and reserve until step 3. Add oil to remaining half and whisk to combine. Place flank steak inside a gallon-sized zipper-lock bag with marinade. Press out air, seal bag, and allow meat to marinate, turning occasionally, for at least 1 hour and up to 12.
Remove steak from marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Light one chimney full of charcoal and wait until they're covered in grey ash. Spread evenly over 1/2 of grate, leaving the other half empty. Alternatively, set all the burners of a gas grill to high heat. Put the cooking grate in place, cover, and allow grill to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate, then place flank steak over hot side of grill. cook until well charred, about 3 minutes. Flip steak and continue to cook until second side is well charred, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer steak to cooler side of grill, cover, and cook until the center of the steak registers 125°F on an instant-read thermometer for medium-rare, or 135°F for medium, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a cutting board, tent with foil, and allow steak to rest for at least 5 minutes. Proceed to step 4.
Alternatively, to finish indoors: Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil in a large stainless steel or cast iron skillet over high heat until shimmering. Add steak and cook, turning frequently, until an instant-read thermometer registers 125°F degrees for medium-rare or 135°F degrees for medium, reducing heat as necessary if steak smokes excessively or starts to burn. Transfer to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and allow to rest 5 to 10 minutes.
Thinly slice beef against the grain and transfer to a large bowl. Add herbs, shallots, bean sprouts, and reserved marinade, and toss to combine. Serve immediately.
If you're using a gas grill, set half of the burners to high and leave the others off for two-zone grilling.
An equivalent weight of skirt, flap, or hanger steak can be used in place of flank steak.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 16g||21%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||22%|
|Total Carbohydrate 20g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||5%|
|Total Sugars 16g|
|Vitamin C 9mg||44%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|