Budget Steaks: A Cook's Guide
Steak seems like a splurge. If you buy filet steak or porterhouse, then it is a splurge, but there are cuts you can buy for much less that offer plenty of beefy flavor for those nights when you'd just like to eat steak. Here are four stellar options.
Flat Iron Steak
A much better value than a filet steak but with almost the same tenderness, the flat iron, or 'poor man's filet,' is a relatively new cut. It's portioned from the shoulder, the second most tender muscle on a beef cattle. The shoulder was once thought of as unusable because an inedible sinew runs through its center, but by cutting long flat steaks, butchers were able to avoid the tissue and create a beautiful, tender, and delicately flavored cut. The flat iron is a great steak to experiment with. Try using it to make beef skewers with rosemary, steak tacos, steak au poivre, or serve it simply with a cauliflower and arugula salad.
Its great beefy flavor and tender but firm texture have made the hanger steak a favorite cut among butchers, but this wasn't always the case. Back when cattle were butchered and shipped in quarters, the hanging tender would literally hang off the diaphragm, just below the short loin, almost touching the ground, and the meat wasn't valued. This steak stands up well to marinades and bold flavors, making it a great choice for beef bulgogi or pairing with a strong condiment like sriracha butter, as well as for grilling over mesquite.
What seems like such a standard cut to some is a completely alien steak to others. The tri-tip is a grill staple on the West Coast; hence its other name the 'California Cut.' If you can't find it at your local market, ask your butcher if they can portion one out for you: it's cut from the triangle section of the bottom of the sirloin. Its tapered shape does make it a challenge to cook evenly, but when cooked correctly, tri-tip is flavorful, juicy, and firm. It has great flavor, nice marbling, and the ability to absorb a marinade. Although it is sometimes labeled a barbecue cut (and does pair nicely with a soft roll and barbecue sauce), tri-tip can be cut into steaks and served with a chimichurri or slow-cooked in a Crock-Pot.
Sirloin Flap Steak
Like the tri-tip, the sirloin flap is cut from the bottom of the sirloin. Unlike a tri-tip, the flap is not a solid muscle, and it more closely resembles a skirt steak in texture, and in the way it's similarly portioned into long, flat pieces. The shape of the cut kind of resembles a bib, which is why this steak is also called the 'bavette' steak, which is French for "bib" steak. (The term bavette is sometimes used more widely for any steak that is bib-shaped, so if you buy a steak labeled bavette, be sure it is a sirloin flap.) Its internal fat striations make the sirloin flap perfect for marinating and tenderizing. Consider it a budget skirt steak and try it in carne asada, stir-fried, or grilled with a tamarind sauce. The sirloin flap is more robust than the skirt or tri-tip (they require more delicate cooking techniques), but the sirloin flap can be butterflied and turned into a weeknight minute steak that's great for a steak sandwich or Vietnamese-inspired steak-and-asparagus salad.