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Skirt steak is a term commonly used to describe two separate cuts of beef. One type is cut from the flank and the other from the plate. Both flat steaks are long and fibrous, prized for their flavor in spite of their lack of natural tenderness. In cooking, the cuts can be used interchangeably for dishes calling for skirt steak or flank steak.
The nickname skirt steak is often thought to have been based on the natural shape of the meat, which is normally about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and 18 inches (46 cm) long, which vaguely resembles the article of clothing called a skirt. Another theory suggests the name came from the four distinct skirt steak sections found in beef carcasses that hang beneath the heart and lungs. The latter definition also explains why the cut is referred to as hanger steak in some areas.
There are two distinct skirt steaks in a cow. The outside one is cut from the diaphragm or plate muscle. To be edible, the outside membrane must be removed. The inside skirt steak is cut from the beef flank. It has a less tough membrane but should still be trimmed to prevent the steak from curling during cooking.
This steak, like flank steak, benefits from marinades to break down its fiber and tenderize it. It should be cut against the grain for maximum tenderness. Some dishes call for skirt steak to be grilled or barbecued whole and then cut into serving-size pieces. Other recipes that incorporate the steak with other ingredients while cooking it recommend the meat be cut beforehand.
Like most tougher cuts of meat, skirt steaks taste best when either very quickly or very slowly cooked. Grilled over hot coals or seared in a hot skillet yields a tasty skirt steak, just as slow cooking or oven braising do. Other methods tend to make the steak so tough and chewy it is often inedible.
Until the last two or three decades, this steak was fairly unknown except on the East Coast of the United States. In that region, many traditional steak houses serve it quickly grilled and topped with fried onions. Its tenderness and reasonable price make it a favorite on many menus that carry pricier cuts such as sirloin and filet mignon.
In the late 1970s, Mexican fajitas became a popular dish in a variety of countries and cultures. This trend made skirt steak popular as it was perfect for the quickly grilled vegetable and meat mixture used to fill the tortillas used for beef fajitas. It has also replaced flank steak in many Asian restaurant stir-fry dishes around the world.