Grilling this weekend? Flat iron steak is big flavor at a bargain.

May 19, 2021

When you think about it, we have two ways only to heat beef in order to eat it, dry ways and wet ways.

A photo of two grilled flat iron steaks sizzling on an outdoor grill.
Learning different cuts of meat – and how to cook them – can satisfy your palate. A great option is grilled flat iron steak. Photo: Getty Images.

Dry heat ways with beef are the familiar pan-searing or grilling over flame or other heat.

Wet ways include any sort of braise, of which the stew is the most traditional, but also any use of a liquid to heat a piece or pieces of beef in a slow-cooker or pressure cooker.

I submit that many a straightforward oven “roast” is also a wet way, even though a hunk of beef is merely placed inside a hot, dry oven. That so-called dry-heat cooking coaxes moisture from within the beef by breaking down — in essence, making into moisture — elements such as fat, cartilage and other connective tissue that slowly wet-cook the roast, a function of the oven’s dry heat. A salt-based rub (tellingly termed, on occasion, “a dry brine”) just wheedles more wet from the meat.

But the true rub comes from needing to choose the correct cut of beef to which to apply either dry or wet heat. Cuts of beef such as the tenderloin are ill-served as pot roasts; likewise, straightaway slapping on the grill a thick eye of round is a costly mistake.

But how to select correctly when butchers give so many — truly an unwieldy plethora — of names to cuts of beef? The other day, just at my neighborhood Safeway, I found beef steaks labeled “flat iron,” “tri-tip,” “chuck eye tenders” (as distinct from the mere “chuck tenders” nearby?), “cross rib tender,” as well as the mainline “T-bone,” “brisket” and “top sirloin” — and so on.

Grill ‘em or braise ‘em? Don’t easily know.

An older man is taking off grilled flat iron steak from a smoking grill.
Next time you’re at the grocery store, save a few dollars and try grilled flat iron steak for dinner. Photo: Getty Images.

In a big way, it helps to know from where on the beef carcass (usually a steer’s, but sometimes a heifer’s) comes the meat. In one axiom of the cook’s trade, “The higher off the hoof, the tenderer the meat.” (Easy exceptions are several parts of both the round and the chuck, both high on the animal, not to say the tongue or cheek.)

“When a carcass is broken down,” says Justin Brunson, founder of River Bear American Meats, “it’s split down the middle and then each half into four pieces.” Often enough, however, smaller cuts of beef (such as steaks) do not reference these primal or sub-primal cuts.

A bigger issue is that large sections of a primal such as the chuck, for example, can be very tough while other sections are rather tender.

Get more great tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

One key to finding more tender and better value portions of any beef is to discover what used to be called “butcher cuts,” those parts of the carcass that only butchers knew about and hence saved back for themselves and their families.

Observe that the butchers weren’t being merely selfish. Many of those so-called butcher cuts were too closely associated with (and often, in fact, were part of) larger and less desirable sections of beef such as the shoulder or the diaphragm.

“One of those butcher cuts,” Brunson points out, “the tri-tip, comes out of the sirloin and so does the sirloin cap” (this latter found often in Latin markets as “picanha,” “picaña” or “bistec de palomilla”). He adds, “the hanger steak is another [butcher’s cut], and so is the flat iron.” The hanger steak is so named because it “hangs” from the toughly-muscled diaphragm (even more correctly, the diaphragm hangs from it) and the flat iron resembles an old-fashioned laundry iron.

If you’ve got a butcher in the vein of a Brunson at your disposal, you’re in luck and may simply ask them from where comes the cut of beef and about it. But if you’re like most of us, it’s you who will need to educate yourself.

That’s what online search engines are for and they are simply great at their job. Because my butcher is, often enough, google.com, I can research and find pretty much anything I’d like to know about any cut of meat and certainly many recipes by which to cook it.

The recipe here is for a couple of what are called “flat iron” steaks. You might ask your butcher for them by that name, or see them in the case by one of their cognates or other names: boneless top chuck steak, oyster blade steak, book steak, butler steak, lifter steak, chuck clod, petite steak, triangle steak, shoulder top blade steak or boneless top blade steak. (Note that a flat iron is not, however, one of these names, all of which are different cuts of beef: hangar, flank or skirt steak.)

Some say that the flat iron is the second most tender cut of beef after the filet mignon. Hence, it is woefully under-appreciated and, often, underpriced. Because it comes from the primal cut of the animal called chuck, it sports much more intense beefy awesomeness than filet mignon, more like that from a New York strip. That’s a compliment that any searer of steer will appreciate.

Grilled flat iron steak

Makes 2.

Ingredients

2 flat iron steaks, each 1 and 1/2 inches thick, total weight of each depending on your appetites

Seasoning of your choice (kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper; dry prepared steak rub or seasoning; marinade)

Directions

For both methods of cooking here and to assure proper finishing temperatures, steaks should be thawed and at room temperature (out of the refrigerator and set on the counter 30-40 minutes before cooking). Season the steaks, if or however desired.

To grill: On charcoal, have both hot and medium-hot sections of the grill. Put steaks over the hotter section first, searing both sides for 2 minutes a side. Then move to the less hot part of the grill and cook to an internal temperature of 130 degrees for medium-rare (12-14 minutes). On gas, preheat to high, then proceed as with charcoal, lowering heat to medium after the 2-minute sear.

To sear in a skillet atop the stove: Heat a heavy or cast-iron skillet over high heat for 5 minutes, or until very hot. Add 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil (such as canola, avocado or soybean; however, not olive oil or butter) and immediately add steaks to pan. Cook to an internal temperature of 130 degrees for medium-rare (13-15 minutes).

For both methods of cooking here, remove the steaks from the heat source and rest them on a counter, cutting board or warmed plate for 5 minutes before serving, tented very loosely with foil. (The internal temperature will rise about 5 degrees, which is desired.) Resting the steaks allows the internal juices to redistribute themselves away from the surface of the steaks where they have traveled due to the heat of cooking and back into and throughout the meat.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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