The flank is that unpretentious cut of beef that doesn’t get the same attention as tenderloin steaks, ribs or even the brisket used in barbecue. Meanwhile, the unheralded flank provides steak for fajitas, the London broil and stir fry dishes in Asian cuisine.
Among all the primal cuts of beef in the United States, flank is a bit like the working-class hero. It’s not as expensive or trendy as many other cuts, but it’s a solid - even spectacular - choice for dishes around the world.
It’s also a great cut to put in your favorite marinade then throw on the grill. That’s never a bad idea.
The Cuts of Beef
The flank is one of the primal cuts of beef in the United States. Knowing about the primal cuts of beef is a smart step for people who want to know just what they are ordering in a restaurant, and especially for home cooks trying to match the right cut of beef with the right recipe.
Each primal cut comes with its own flavor profile, marbling and level of tenderness. The U.S. primal cuts are typically the chuck, rib, loin, round, flank, short plate, brisket and shank.
Sub-primal cuts are taken from these primal cuts (such as short ribs from the rib primal). Butchers then cut these sub primals into portions that are sold to customers.
Where The Flank Is Located
The flank is one of the “bottom” primals that includes the shank, plate and brisket. All these are typically less expensive cuts than top cuts, which include the loin, ribs and chuck.
The flank comes from an area of the cattle below the loin area and just in front of the hind legs. Most steaks cut from the flank primal are long and thin.
Though very flavorful, the flank offers some of the tougher cuts of beef. That’s why people in cultures around the world used flank beef to experiment with various marinades, spices and methods of cooking. That’s turned out to be a very good thing for all of us.
Dishes Using the Flank
You must start with fajitas. Although it's also important to note that not all fajitas use flank steak. Some use skirt steak from the plate primal cut, which many experts say was the first cut used for fajitas. But these days you will find flank steak is often used in making fajitas.
A Tex-Mex dish, fajitas were first popularized by restaurants such as Ninfa’s in Houston (now known as The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation). Since then, it’s become a well-known dish around the world.
Flank meat also is used in Chinese stir fry cooking, where ingredients are placed in a wok and then cooked in oil at high heat. It’s a style of cooking that’s been around for thousands of years. And for good reason, too, as it locks in the nutrients of food better than boiling it and allows meat to absorb the flavors of the ingredients added (which can include vegetables, garlic, ginger and scallions, to name a few).
Also, when you order Mongolian Beef in a Chinese-American restaurant, you are typically ordering flank steak.
Grilling and Other Uses of Flank Beef
Flank steak is popular in dishes where it is marinated, then grilled. When grilling a piece of flank beef, it’s important not to overcook, as it will become dry and tougher. Also, cut the steak against the grain. That will keep the meat from having long, tough pieces of muscle.
Flank steak is versatile when it comes to creating steak dishes. For example, in French cuisine it is the bavette, which is marinated in wine, shallots and other herbs before cooked. It’s also the source of a London broil, which is meat that is marinated overnight and then cooked under a high broil (it’s a North American invention despite the name, by the way).
Essentially, if you have a marinade you love, then a flank steak is a clever way to try it out. It allows you to get a flavorful steak without paying top price for more premium cuts. It’s also a lean cut of beef and can be used to make fast dinners.
For example, you can try a Cuban-inspired marinade (citrus, oregano, garlic and cumin), a balsamic vinaigrette, or Cola-Marinated Flank Steak with Frito Chilaquiles.
The uses of flank beef are limited only by your imagination for creating marinades. It’s a relatively inexpensive, lean cut of beef that’s provides the backbone for many popular and enduring recipes. It can do that for your recipe, too.