What focused my attention to these very flavorful, versatile, and inexpensive cuts of meat was experimenting with a rub I keep as a pantry staple. My approach was to select the same ingredients used to make the rub, and combine them in a different form, so that I could develop a paste to be used instead of a marinade. More about that a little later.
I have always enjoyed a wide variety of meat, poultry, or game, and I’ll choose pork over beef almost every time. However, when the discussion centers around flank, hanger, or skirt steaks, far more information is available about beef; people are more familiar with those cuts and many consider them to be the same. Finally, far more recipes are written about these cuts of beef rather than pork. Although I was determined to source the pork equivalent for these cuts in this blog post, let’s talk about beef first to get a sense of what we are dealing with.
Contrary to some perceptions, these three cuts are not the same, although in some kitchens the flank and skirt steaks are used interchangeably. The hanger steak is kind of the odd cut out, and for the purposes of this post I will consider it as such. Suffice it to say, it is cut from the abdominal area of the cow located in a section known as the plate. It is a long, narrow muscle hanging off or over the kidneys, hence its name. It has also been labeled the “butcher’s steak” or “butcher’s cut” because, as the story goes, there was never enough to display in the meat case to sell, and butchers, as well as chefs, favor this very juicy and flavorful cut and usually stashed it away for themselves. Probably most familiar to American diners, the hanger steak is the classic accompaniment to fries as in steak-frites, a national dish in France where the hanger steak is known as “onglet.”
To expand this anatomy lesson, the skirt steak, like the hanger, is also cut from the plate area of the cow, while the flank steak is cut from a section near the animal’s rear quarter, known coincidently as the flank. There is an inside skirt and an outside skirt and the outside is the plumper of the two.
The flank steak is a thicker, wider cut than the skirt steak—they are both considered hard-working muscles so they contain some tough fibers, and also have an abundance of intense beefy flavor. The winner for me, however, is the skirt steak since it is well-marbled, which provides for greater depth of flavor because the fat caramelizes during cooking. It is thinner, which allows for quicker cooking, and with the texture of the loose open grain it lends itself well to marinades. One cooking note: if you are a Tex-Mex fan then you are familiar with skirt steak as the classic cut used in fajitas and the choice cut in stir-fry.
So the question for me was how to translate all this beef information into pork? The skirt steak from a pig is much smaller than that from a cow even though it is cut from the diaphragm and belly area like a cow, and has an inside and outside section as well.
An in-depth search led me to the Ibérico pig, pata negra (black hoof), one of the oldest heritage breeds in the world. They are nurtured on government-protected, oak-forested land in southwest Spain, where they feed and forage on a natural diet with emphasis on acorns which enriches the luscious, silky, nutty flavor of their meat. Because of their diet, the fat in the Ibérico pig is of the mono-unsaturated type, or the so-called good fat, which is nice to know.
Being familiar with lardo, jamón, and chorizo prepared from this breed I wondered if I might find skirt steaks as well. Fortunately, import restrictions in the United States were recently lifted regarding raw Ibérico pork products and that allowed me to identify three sources from which I was able to purchase the fresh, raw (frozen) Ibérico pork products online.
I noted there was a little inconsistency in how the packages were identified on the websites by the online purveyors which caused some confusion for me. I ended up initially purchasing a package of Ibérico hanger steak; on my second attempt I was able to source two sites where I was able to purchase the skirt steak.
When you see the label Ibérico de Bellota Diafragma, that is a hanger steak, while the label Ibérico de Bellota Secreto is the skirt steak. Bellota means acorn. The “secreto” label means that the piece is “hidden” or “secret,” located and cut somewhere between the shoulder, ribs, and fatback, greatly depending upon the discretion of the butcher.
All of this leads us back to my final preparation and cooking of the pork, with both cuts being quite flavorful and juicy. In the end, the skirt steak was less fatty, seared better, was more flavorful and tender than the hanger steak, but both were very tasty.
Now back to what got us here in the first place, marinade versus rub versus paste. I did not want to marinate the meat because in my research about beef I found that whether grilled or pan-seared, marinated meat would essentially steam instead of sear and not yield that crisp charred finish that I like. My assumption was the pork would end up the same way.
It would have been fine to simply coat the meat with the dry rub I use from time to time for pork porterhouse chops, tenderloins, or even turkey breast cooked on the grill or in a grill pan. That rub consists of fennel seed, dried chipotle chili, and black peppercorns ground together, while the paste is made up in a processor using fresh fennel stalks, reconstituted chipotle chilis, ground black pepper, and some olive oil to bind it all together. I chose to go with the paste simply to learn how it tasted compared with the dry rub which I have cooked with many times before.
Here are the two recipes for the flavorings, both dry rub and paste:
2 to 3 small dried chipotle chilis, gently toasted in a dry sauté pan
¼ cup whole fennel seeds, gently toasted in a dry sauté pan
¼ cup whole black peppercorns, gently toasted in a dry sauté pan
Once cool and working in batches if necessary, pulse in a spice or coffee grinder until a medium texture is reached. Note: Remove some or all of the seeds from the chipotle if you want less heat in the rub.
Transfer to a covered jar and store up to three months in the pantry or refrigerator.
2 to 3 small dried chipotle chilis soaked in warm water until they have softened
3 to 4 stalks cut from the fennel bulb, rough chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons crushed black pepper
Drain the chilis, remove the seeds as needed, and place in the work bowl of a food processor along with the chopped fennel stalks and black pepper. Pulse several times to incorporate the ingredients and then scrape down the sides.
With the processor running, slowly drizzle olive oil down the feed tube until the mixture forms a coarse paste.
Transfer to a covered jar, top with a little olive oil, and store for up to six months in the refrigerator and indefinitely in the freezer.
A few closing thoughts about the marinade approach. If you are still looking for that moisture a marinade can add, here are two approaches you might try without sacrificing the crisp charred finish that is achieved by not using the marinade to cook the final dish.
The marinade can simply be added to a sauce pan and cooked down to become a dipping sauce to accompany the finished dish, or season the meat with salt and pepper or a dry rub and cook it either on the grill or sear it in a pan on the stovetop. Once cooked, allow it to rest for several minutes in a warmed marinade before slicing and then use the warm marinade to sauce the finished dish.
With either example (the Ibérico hanger steak, or the skirt steak) I coated them with the paste mixture prior to cooking. Working quickly over high heat, they were both seared on the stovetop 4 to 5 minutes per side, the hanger in a grill pan, and the skirt in a large oval sauté pan. They are best served medium rare.
The hanger steak was topped with my salsa verde and served with roasted sweet potato “fries” and sautéed greens.
Hanger steak, seasoned
Hanger steak, plated
The skirt steak was thinly sliced and accompanied by a roasted version of patatas bravas, a chunky spiced apple chutney, and a serving of my Romesco sauce.
Skirt steak, seasoned
Skirt steak, seared
Skirt steak, plated
Juicy, flavorful, and delicious, this is a dish you should explore at least once. If you have a preference for beef over pork, the dry rub or the paste would work equally well following the same preparation and cooking technique. Why not give it a try?
Eat fresh, eat well.
Each dish does not need to be exactly the same each time it is prepared as long as the quality is consistent.