What makes skirt steak so chewy? The more you know about the anatomy of the cow and how it affects the different steak cuts, the clearer it becomes. Our guide is designed to fill in those gaps for you.
Chewy Skirt Steak
Because it comes from the abdominal muscles of the cow, which get plenty of exercise, skirt steak can be chewy. By marinating the meat in a mixture that includes citrus or another tenderizing ingredient, cooking it to medium rare, and slicing it against the grain, you can give each bite a more tender mouthfeel.
What is Skirt Steak?
Skirt steak is cut from the beef plate primal, along the cow’s lower abdomen. It’s a naturally tough cut with a noticeable grain. There’s a membrane running along one side of the outside skirt (more on that later) that should be removed before cooking.
There’s only one skirt steak per cow, though it’s divided into two smaller steaks—the inside and outside skirt. This sets it apart from cuts like brisket, as there are two briskets on every cow. The scarcity means that the skirt steak is a relatively expensive cut.
There’s not a lot of difference between the inside and outside skirt. Both are long, narrow, and relatively thin. There’s a thick, ropy grain running along the length of each cut, both of which measure about 3 to 4 inches across and 20 to 24 inches long.
Most outside skirt steak cuts wind up in commercial kitchens—restaurants, for example. So if you’re lucky enough to find a skirt steak in the supermarket, it’s probably an inside skirt.
The membrane that encases the outside skirt needs to be removed, or it will make the steak even chewier. Dry-aging the beef makes the membrane easier to remove. Wet-aging will benefit the steak, but the membrane won’t peel off as easily if you use this method.
Many butchers will remove the membrane and trim the steak before packaging it for sale. If you’re not sure whether the skirt steak has been peeled and trimmed, ask your butcher.
There are layers of fat between the muscle strands of the skirt steak, which help it retain its moisture during cooking. Note that the inside skirt might be a bit fattier, owing to its wider grain.
Are Skirt Steak and Flank Steak the Same Thing?
Not exactly. Both are cut from the abdominal muscles of the cow, and they benefit from similar cooking techniques. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that these are just two different terms for the same cut.
In spite of the name, the flank steak isn’t technically a steak. It consists of the cow’s lower abdominal muscles, the ones toward the rear, beneath the short loin and the sirloin.
The skirt, as we’ve established, comes from the plate, which is located toward the center of the carcass. The outside skirt is from the diaphragm, but the inside skirt is cut from abdominal muscle.
Though they’re not exactly the same, it’s possible to use flank steak and skirt steak interchangeably in most recipes. For example, both are great choices if you’re marinating and slicing the steak to make beef fajitas.
Chewy Skirt Steak
Considering its price point, you might expect skirt steak to be tender and easy to prepare. In fact, it requires some special attention. If you don’t prepare it right, the meat is bound to be chewy—even tough.
You can attempt to circumvent this by marinating the meat beforehand. The loose muscle fibers absorb marinades exceptionally well, resulting in delicious steak.
Depending on the ingredients you use, a marinade can also tenderize the meat. That’s one of the reasons why it works so well for fajitas and steak tacos—the marinade ingredients often call for lime juice, which is a natural tenderizer.
Should you opt to use a marinade, don’t overdo it. The meat can benefit from just a short stint in the mixture—as little as 30 minutes. You can marinate it overnight if that works best for you, but try not to leave it in the mixture for more than 12 hours.
The best way to prepare skirt steak is to grill it quickly over high heat. It’s best when cooked to medium rare, which takes only 2 to 3 minutes per side.
Be very careful not to overcook your skirt steak. More often than not, that’s the reason why the meat turns out too chewy. When the meat is cooked past medium—that is, over 140 degrees—it will be so tough that it’s practically inedible.
Another important point: Skirt steak needs to be sliced against the grain. If the slices are made parallel to the muscle fibers, you’ll have a hard time chewing through them. Fortunately, the wide grain makes it easy to cut this steak correctly.
Since a skirt steak can measure up to 2 feet long, you can cut it crosswise into smaller pieces before slicing it thinly across the grain. That will make the task easier.
Skipping the Grate
If you have a charcoal grill, you can attempt to cook the steak directly over the coals. This is known as preparing the meat “caveman style,” and it results in a lovely charred crust and perfectly cooked steak.
To begin, you’ll need kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper in addition to your trimmed skirt steaks. Be sure to use hardwood lump charcoal, as it burns cleaner and will leave less ash on your steaks.
Start by patting the steaks dry with paper towels, then seasoning both sides with kosher salt. Save the pepper for after the steaks are cooked. When you use this cooking method, the freshly cracked peppercorns will burn, giving the steaks an acrid flavor.
Let the steaks rest at room temperature for 30 minutes while you wait for the grill to heat up. Don’t attempt to grill steaks right out of the fridge, or they won’t cook as evenly. Line a separate sheet pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Once the lump charcoal is coated with fine white ash, make sure it’s evenly distributed around the bottom level of the grill. Lay the prepared steaks directly on the coals for 45 seconds for rare steak, 60 seconds for medium rare, and 75 seconds for medium.
Flip the steaks and cook them for an equal number of seconds on the opposite side. For example, if your target is medium rare, they would cook for 60 seconds per side for a total of 120 seconds.
Remove the steaks to the prepared sheet pan and wrap the steaks loosely in the foil. Let rest for 10 minutes.
When unwrapping the steaks, take care to reserve the juices and preserve the foil. Carve the steak into thin slices, cutting against the grain.
Return the slices to the foil and toss them in the juices. Season with black pepper and serve at once. If desired, drizzle the sliced skirt steak with chimichurri or another sauce made from fresh herbs.
The Bottom Line
It’s easy to wind up with chewy skirt steak, but if you understand why this particular cut is so tough to begin with, you can avoid this pitfall. With any luck, we’ve explained this in enough detail to make your next skirt steak experiment a resounding success.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!