We are Americans (no, not you, Canadians) (OK, you too, c'mon over here ya big galoots), and we like big hunks of steak*. To be precise, we like our own big hunks of steak: We like to saunter into Bob's House of Steak all bowlegged and gimlet-eyed like John Wayne and order for ourselves some great obscene wad of cow-ass—"I'll have the 92-ounce bone-in ribeye, medium-rare, with mashed potatoes on the side, and could you bring it out at the same time as the ambulance?"—and we like to make an equally extravagant show of consuming that great big slab of beef unassisted, as though this were a heroic act and not an asinine one. This—between the fact of the beef and the ludicrous size of it and the profound heedlessness of consuming the entire thing and the pride in doing it all by m'damn self—is an extremely American thing to do.
*Leaving aside vegetarians, whose restraint and humaneness are as foreign to American culture as an actual spaceship full of aliens.
We like doing steak this way for a few different reasons: because we like playing with knives; because we have inherited the myths of our rugged individualism; because we cannot tell the difference between the quantity of gratification and the quality of it; and because, as Americans, we hate and fear sharing. People probably eat steak in much the same way in other parts of the world, too (hell, for all I know, in France they leap naked onto the backs of living cattle in groups of a dozen and gnaw on them like land-piranhas—what am I, Rick Steve?), and maybe even for the same reasons, but in any case, here in the United States, we have exalted the whole I'ma eat me a big-ass steak thing to the level of fetishism. Which is kind of a shame, since all in all, satisfying though it may be to some culturally ingrained notion of caveman hedonism—me like big meat—the giant-steak-for-one preparation really isn't the best way to eat steak.
No indeed: The best way to eat steak is to cook an enormous steak for several people, slice it into portions, and share it. Yes, this tends to mean less steak per person than if you were each having your own personal Fred Flintstone cut. Turns out, this actually is good news, for pretty much everybody but your cardiologist and whoever sells luxury cars to her. A more modest portion of steak, especially one that comes to your plate sliced into thin strips, encourages smaller bites and slower chewing, and maybe even combining those bites with some of the other good stuff for which your plate now has room because it doesn't have an entire half-a-cow splayed across it, which means an opportunity to appreciate your steak as an actual foodstuff with actual flavor and texture and character, and not just as a signifier of your Total Macho Dudebrocity.
But also, and much more importantly: A big-ass steak that you slice thin and share means that everyone is eating the same piece of meat. The mmms and oohs and damn this is goods and (God forbid) I think this is maybe overcooked?s are communal, bonding, community-building. Your shitty old uncle with the military ballcap and Limbaugh on all the presets in his Ford truck may think that's a buncha commie hippie bunkum tell you what, but—why in hell did you invite him to dinner in the first place? Anyway even he will like the sliced-up communal steak. How could he not? The sliced-up communal steak is the best way to eat steak.
And so, let's cook and slice and share a big steak. A flank steak! This is a large, flat cut of beef from the abdominal muscles of a cow; it's tougher than most other steak cuts, because the abdominal muscles of a cow do a lot of work, especially when the night is overcast and dark and the humans are reading in bed and the cows lay on their backs in the fields and do crunches in rhythm to lame techno music at modest volumes. This toughness, when handled well—which is to say, when held in check by marinating or slow cooking—makes the flank steak engaging and fun to eat, in how it demands a slightly larger share of your attention than, say, a butter-soft filet, so that you notice how much more flavorful it is than a filet. Handled poorly—overcooked, say, or allowed to languish in medium temperatures that neither break down the meat nor sear its outsides before its interior cooks through—this toughness can make the eating of a flank steak a miserable fucking chore.
So, why cook and slice and share a flank steak, as opposed to, say, a skirt steak or a flap steak or a bottle of rum? For one thing, the aforementioned flavor: The flank is loaded with it. For another, the flank typically is quite a bit thicker than a skirt steak or flap steak, which gives you a larger margin for error when you slap that fucker on a really hot grill and then are distracted almost instantaneously by interesting conversation or your goddamn kids jump-kicking each other for no goddamn reason or a yellow bird or a bottle of rum: Leave a skirt steak unattended and 45 seconds later there's nothing left but a long strip of vaguely beef-scented asphalt on your grill, and your dinner guests are reminded anew why they never ask you to dog-sit. For yet another thing, I mean, you can't really cook and slice a bottle of rum. Also flank steak is cheap. Also an internet food person said to cook a flank steak. Cook a goddamn flank steak!
Let's cook a flank steak.
There's really no trick to acquiring a flank steak. Look for one with a bright color and no enormous flaps of unintegrated fat. Not to further your uncle's incipient perception that this column is a loada goddamn libtard baloney or whatever, but if you can find a flank steak that is sourced to organic, humanely raised and slaughtered, grass-fed (and so on and so forth, foodie jargon unto eternity) cattle, not only will you will be able to eat it without participating in the abject horror-show of industrialized meat production, but it'll taste a lot better, too.
The first step, after you acquire your flank steak and get it home and remove it from its packaging, is to marinate your flank steak. This isn't strictly necessary (as the steak-bores will remind us), but the flank is one of the few cuts of beef that truly benefits from marinating: An acidic marinade, given time to do so, will not only impart even more flavor to this already-flavorful cut of beef, but will also tenderize it somewhat. This is good for your flank steak, because, again, if you botch the cooking, the resulting product will be tougher to chew than the chair you're sitting on when you try, so tilt the odds in your favor a bit, willya?
So, in what will you marinate your flank steak? That's up to you. Making a marinade isn't so different from making a salad dressing (which is why many people cheat by using bottled salad dressings as marinades, the bastards): You need some tart acidity and some sweetness and some oil and some salt, and then you can play around with aromatics and spices and stuff, many of which will accomplish nothing beyond making you feel like some kind of dynamic chef-type person, but are fun to chuck in there anyway. Citrus juices are great for that tart acid role; so are vinegars. Honey works well as your agent of sweetness; simple syrup is fine, too; so is maple syrup; Go-Gurt ... maybe not as much.
One good marinade for flank steak consists of honey, soy sauce, any old vinegar you've got hanging around (rice wine vinegar is great), chopped green onions, minced garlic, a pinch of salt, and maybe a generous pinch of crushed red pepper. Another one, if you are a decent, evolutionarily superior human being and therefore love cilantro, consists of garlic, white onion, the hot chili pepper of your choice (jalapeño is great; habañero is terrifying but also great), a fucking ton of cilantro leaves and stems, all of this minced (or food-processed) very finely and mixed with the juice of several limes, a splash of white vinegar, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze from the ol' honey bear.
(That latter one may remind you of some carne asada preparations, and not of some other carne asada preparations. You may decide for yourself whether or not it is real carne asada, man, and lemme tell you what real carne asada is, and so on. For our purposes here, this is just a tasty marinade for some flank steak.)
However you choose to construct your marinade, whisk its contents together in a bowl. Don't use a metal bowl for this; the acid in the marinade can (might) react with the metal and make the marinade taste awful, and/or this reaction may or may not produce toxins which will cause anyone who eats your flank steak to glow in the dark and also die or want to die from all the diarrhea. You'll need enough marinade to fully submerge your flank steak; this should also inform what kind of (again, non-metal) vessel you use for marinating it. A deep-sided Pyrex baking dish or roasting pan will be fine; a big tupperware-type deal will do nicely, too; just to be clear, the trunk of your car is not going to work for this. Pretty much no parts of your car are going to work for this.
Pour the marinade over the flank steak, which should be lying flat in the vessel of your choice; shift the flank steak around a bit with some tongs or your gross fingers to ensure some marinade gets under it; slap some plastic wrap on top of the whole thing; and then let your flank steak marinate for, oh, between 90 minutes and two hours. Not more than two hours, lest it turn mushy, but also not less than 90 minutes, lest the marinade be wasted before it's had a chance to work into the tissues of the meat. Set a timer. Go throw a Frisbee. Outdoors, even! You can do that now! It's not freezing anymore! (Sorry, Canadians, we're back to excluding you.)
Speaking of pleasant springtime weather: Maybe a half-hour or so before the timer goes off on your marinating flank steak, build a fire in your shitty charcoal kettle grill. This needn't be a roaring fissile inferno like back when you grilled chicken breasts; if you feel like you can accomplish a fire that fits the description "high," or " really high," but not "terrifying," or "oh God, we're literally burning outer space," that'll do. I have no idea at all what actual temperature you should shoot for. 600 degrees? 2,700? 2πR? Beats me. High. Good and goddamn hot. It'll be OK.
The basic idea, when you grill a flank steak, is to get its exterior nice and crusty and cooked before the interior has a chance to cook and turn into a boot. For this you do need a sincerely hot grill. Lump charcoal will burn hotter than briquettes; a lot of charcoal will burn hotter than not as much charcoal; a huge pile of lump charcoal will burn hotter than Betelgeuse and unseal the Chaos Dimension where the Old Gods are imprisoned, and all shall know their wrath. Just a heads-up, buddy.
Once the fire has had time to burn its way into the charcoal and give it a festive orange glow beneath its layer of white ash, grill your flank steak. This is pretty straightforward: Slap that fucker down on the center of the grill and leave it entirely alone for three whole entire minutes. If you prod it or lift it up or screech insults at it for some reason, it will not form the attractive crust of a well-cooked flank steak; more importantly, it will not cook predictably, and who the fuck knows what you'll get at the end. Maybe a possum. Leave it alone.
After those three minutes of uninterrupted grilling, flip your flank steak with a pair of tongs, and leave it entirely alone for another three entire unmolested minutes, so that the other side can make like the first one, all crusty and grilled-looking. If your grill fire was hot enough, at the end of these six minutes and change, both sides of your flank steak will be crusty and grilled-looking and not, say, encased in slowly melting ice or burned to a fine, gray powder. Extract your flank steak from the grill.
Is it time to eat your flank steak? No, it is not time to eat your flank steak. It is not time even to slice your flank steak. It is time to drop your flank steak, whole and unpunctured, onto a cutting board or butcher's block or a big plate, and leave it entirely alone for eight or nine or 10 more minutes, so that it can think about what it did, but also so that its juices can redistribute themselves throughout the meat, so that it will be juicy and delicious when you eat it, and not just a strip of tough leather sitting in a sad puddle of liquefied beef fat. This step is very important. People skip it and then when their steak turns out disappointing, they think they cooked it wrong. No! You didn't cook it wrong. You just ate it too soon, you greedy piglet.
Throw the Frisbee some more. Bite your lip. You can wait.
Eventually eight or nine or 10 interminable minutes will have passed; you bit your lips off, but that's OK, because you also honed your teeth, and now it is time to slice and serve your flank steak. The grain of the flank steak runs the length of it; slice the steak across the grain (that is to say, perpendicular to the grain), maybe on a slight bias (that is to say, moving the knife on a slightly diagonal plane down through the meat) (this is purely for looks, so skip it if you want), and as thinly as you can manage without making yourself homicidal. Slicing thinly, across the grain, reduces the chewiness of the strips of steak that are your final output. They also look nice, arrayed artfully on a plate.
Here's something neat: Because the flank steak is a bit thicker in the middle than at either end, the slices from closer to the end of the steak will be closer to medium or medium-rare doneness, for any weenies you mistakenly invited over for dinner, while the slices from the middle will be robustly, sexily rare for robust, sexy people to eat. Isn't that neat? Yes, it is. Apportion your steak slices accordingly.
And hey! It's time to eat.
If you went with the honey-soy-vinegar-green onion marinade, serve your flank steak with, oh, anything, really—from the basic steak-and-potatoes configuration to steak salad to, really, whatever. It's divine dredged through mashed cauliflower, for example. Fan some steak slices out on a plate and, like, assemble an artful heap of mashed cauliflower and roasted asparagus atop them, or some shit, so that you can feel like a fancy person.
If you enjoy cilantro and are a hero and went for the citrus-cilantro-chili pepper-garlic-onion-honey marinade, let's be friends, but also: Your flank steak will go with damn near anything, too, but will be especially great if you serve it with warm tortillas, some more roughly chopped cilantro, sliced avocado, chopped onion, ("Goddammit you're trying to get away with carne asada again, you bastard!"—steak dorks) maybe some crème fraîche or sour cream, lime wedges, and some sliced jalapeños for the adventurous. This is a springier, fresher, more fun way to do things. And that was a passive-aggressive way of telling you what to do.
In any case, however you serve your flank steak, you'll notice right away that you're engaging with it much more attentively than with the usual big, blunt slab of grilled or sear-roasted cow-ass—looking at it (that beautiful red center!), thinking about it (damn, this is different and fun!), savoring it (oh Christ and it tastes fucking great all juicy and blood-tart and rich and just chewy enough to keep it on your palate for the extra moment or two it takes you to make up your mind about how you'll be preparing steak from now on), instead of mindlessly sawing it into chunks and firing them unconsidered into your stomach. Steak that has more to offer you than a sad badge of dull masculinity! Huzzah!
But also, notice the others. Pay attention to them. Their evident pleasure. Their rapt and greedy focus. Their happy smiles. Their mmms and oh mans and manic gleeful sobbing and wait, sobbing? Jeez. But still. You know exactly how they are feeling, because you are all feeling it exactly. You're all together, sharing a thing that is good, which is after all the reason to share a dinner table, except for Grumpy Gramps over there, he is still caught up in wondering what kinda stoner nonsense is this, seriously you should stop inviting him to things.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at email@example.com. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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