Steak is hot, but pricey, unless you try lesser-known cuts on the grill

For meat lovers, it's hard to imagine a summer get-together that doesn't include the tantalizing sound and smell of steak sizzling on the grill.

But for many of us, it's getting harder to work a tasty cut of beef into the budget and onto the picnic table.

The rising cost of corn, the main food for most of the cattle raised in the U.S. -- coinciding with declining herds (now around 92 million head, the lowest number since the 1950s) and growing beef exports -- is driving the price of red meat to near-record levels.

This Fourth of July, arguably the biggest cookout day of the year, you can expect to pay about 11 percent more than you did last year for steaks and ground beef at the meat counter, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- an average of about $5 per pound. And prices for "middle meats" -- those tender inside cuts from the loin and ribs that lend themselves so deliciously to dry-heat cooking methods such as grilling and smoking -- won't be going down soon, cautions Tom Friday of Tom Friday's Market in Brighton Heights, one of the last butcher shops in Pittsburgh to offer fresh hanging sides of beef.

"It's about demand," he says. "The price of steak goes up in the summer when people are grilling."

No wonder so many of us eat so much hamburger this time of year.

Yet there is another option for penny-pinching beef-lovers in this tight economy: Lesser-known, less-expensive cuts such as hangar, skirt and flat iron steaks. They're easier to find than ever before in food stores and farmers markets, and with the right preparation, just as tasty as their higher-end counterparts.

People have been eating grilled steak for as long as there have been cattle, a sharp knife and fire, so it's funny to think researchers could "discover" a new beef product. Yet that's exactly how the flat iron (also called top blade, chicken or butler's steak) came into being in the early 1990s. While trying to figure out how to use less desirable cuts of beef, meat scientists at the University of Nebraska realized the top-blade muscle of the chuck, or shoulder, was exceptionally tender once you removed a seam of connective tissue running through it. Chefs and butchers embraced the cut, and soon after, it started showing up on menus and in grocery display cases.

The Denver steak -- a well-marbled, distant cousin of the New York strip -- is a similar modern success story, though it still hasn't quite caught on in the Pittsburgh area.

"We need to appreciate there are a lot of muscles on a beef carcass, and we need to be eating all of it," says Lynne Curry, author of "Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut (Running Press, May 2012, $27).

Logan Family Farms of Hempfield, whose dry-aged beef is raised without added hormones or antibiotics, is just one of a growing number of local farms offering consumers these unfamiliar cuts. Owner Joann Logan, who often mans the farm's booth at Thursday's Market Square Farmers Market, Downtown, says that most weeks, they quickly sell out.

"Shoulder is less costly, so people gravitate towards that," she says.

The farm also sells Denver and ranch steaks, along with tri-tip, an increasingly popular grillable cut from the sirloin.

Anything from the sirloin is "forgiving," so long as you marinate or treat the meat with a rub, says Val Kennedy of J.L. Kennedy Meat Stand, which sells its locally raised meat at the Farmers Market Cooperative of East Liberty. The fourth-generation Butler farm also has had a lot of success with other lower-priced non-prime cuts, including flank steak, which is cut from the abdominal muscles.

"But you have to treat it or slow grill it, so it's tender," says Mrs. Kennedy, who has managed the stand for 11 years.

Personally, I'm a huge fan of skirt steak, a long flat cut that comes from the front belly of the cow, just below the rib cut (it's the muscle that attaches the diaphragm). Fibrous, with a papery membrane that needs to be trimmed before cooking, it's a terrific-tasting piece of meat that marinates well and cooks up super fast; you just have to remember to slice it against the grain before serving so it's not chewy.

Skirt steak is most popular for fajitas and steak sandwiches, but I've found it also pairs nicely with pasta, rice or salad. What I really love is that it's relatively cheap: I paid just $7.49 for a 11/2-pound steak at Tom Friday's, or $4.99 a pound.

On the minus side, there's only two skirt steaks per side of beef, so you may have trouble finding it if you can't sweet-talk your butcher or farmer into saving it for you.

Skirt Steak with Green Chiles and Mushrooms

PG tested

  • 2 pounds skirt steak, cut into 3 or 4 equal pieces
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic, divided
  • 6 portobello mushroom caps, 4 left whole and 2 cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
  • 1/2 white onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 long, mild green chiles, preferably Hatch, or poblano or Anaheim, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes (or more or less to taste)

Prepare an outdoor grill for direct cooking over high heat (550 degrees).

Season steaks with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Mix 1/4 cup of oil and 1 teaspoon of garlic in a large baking dish. Add whole portobello caps to dish and turn to coat with oil. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Let mushrooms and steaks stand at room temperature while making the saute.

To make saute, heat remaining 1/3 cup oil and 1 teaspoon garlic in a large flameproof skillet on the grill until garlic softens, about 1 minute. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add chiles and sliced portobellos. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chiles are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in red pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. (The saute can be prepared up to 2 hours ahead.)

Brush cooking grate clean and lightly oil the grate. Grill portobello caps, gills side up, with lid closed as much as possible, until seared with grill marks, about 3 minutes. Flip caps. Add steaks to grill and cook, with lid clsoed, until seared with grill marks, about 3 minutes. Move mushrooms to cooler area of grill. Flip steaks and grill, with lid closed, until steak feels only slightly resilient when pressed with a fingertip, about 3 minutes more for medium-rare steak. Transfer steaks to carving board and let stand for 3 to 5 minutes.

Reheat chile and mushroom saute in skillet on the grill. With the knife held at a slight angle, slice steaks, against the grain, into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Spread saute on serving platter. Top with sliced steak and juices. Arrange mushroom caps around the steak. Serves 6.

-- "Rao's On The Grill: Perfectly Simple Italian Recipes from My Family to Yours" by Frank Pellegrino, Jr. (St. Martin's, 2012, $35)

Grilled Top Blade (Flat iron) Steak with Arugula Salad and Scorched Croutons

PG tested

Flank steak and skirt steak also stand up to this flash-in-the-pan method.

  • 2 top-blade steaks (also known as flat iron), about 1 1/2 pounds, 1 to 1 1/4-inch thick
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 thick slices artisan bread, crusts removed and torn into ragged 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 teaspoon sherry or red wine vinegar
  • 5 ounces baby arugula (about 6 cups)
  • 1 cup lightly packed fresh herb leaves, such as basil, parsley, dill, etc.
  • Finishing salt, such as coarse sea salt or flake salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Pat steaks dry with a paper towel and season liberally with kosher salt. Toss bread with 1 tablespoon oil and set aside.

Preheat charcoal or gas grill to high heat (425 to 475 degrees), scrape the grate clean and oil it lightly. Cook steaks on the hottest part of the grill until seared, 3 to 31/2 minutes. Use tongs to flip them and sear the second side for another 3 to 31/2 minutes for medium rare.

Grill the reserved bread croutons while the steaks rest, turning them 2 to 3 times, until they are tinged with brown.

Transfer steaks to a cutting board. While they rest, make the salad dressing by whisking vinegar with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small bowl. Put arugula and herbs in a salad bowl and toss with dressing. Slice steak against the grain in 1/2-inch-thick slices and put 4 to 5 slices on each plate. Pile a portion of salad on top of each serving and balance a few croutons on top. Drizzle any meat juices from the cutting board over it all and sprinkle to taste with the finishing salt and black pepper.

Serves 4.

-- "Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut" by Lynne Curry (Running Press, May 2012, $27)

Martini Steak Sandwich with Green Olive Tapenade

PG tested

Sliced into bite-sized pieces, this tasty steak sandwich would make a terrific hors d'oeuvre at a cocktail party. I substituted anchovy paste.

-- Gretchen McKay

  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 2 anchovies, rinsed
  • 2 teaspoons capers, rinsed
  • 4 ounces brined green olives, such as manzanilla or picholine, pitted (about 1 cup)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon lightly packed finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon whole juniper berries (available at Penzeys in the Strip District)
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole green or black peppercorns
  • 1 sirloin flap steak (also known as bavatte or sirloin tip), about 1 1/2 pounds, cut into 4 serving pieces
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup dry vermouth
  • 1 tablespoon gin, optional
  • 8 1/2-inch-thick slices crusty peasant-style bread

Make tapenade: Put garlic, anchovies, caper and olive in a food processor bowl and pulse, pausing to scrape down sides of bowl, until evenly chopped. Alternatively, mince ingredients using a sharp chef's knife and a steady rocking motion. Put chopped olive mixture in a small bowl and stir in olive oil, lemon zest and parsley. The recipe makes about 1 cup and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Crush juniper berries and peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder until they are coarse as coffee grounds. Pat steaks dry, season liberally with kosher salt and sprinkle on juniper berry rub, massaging it gently into the meat.

Place oil in a large skillet over high heat. When it smokes, add steaks and cook until well-browned, 21/2 to 3 minutes. Use tongs to flip them and cook on the second side for an additional 2 to 3 minutes for medium rare. (For medium, lower heat to low and cook steaks for 1 to 3 minutes more.) Transfer steaks to rest on a cutting board while you make the sauce.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Take pan off heat while you add vermouth and gin, if using, to avoid a flare up. Set it back on the burner and simmer until a thin glaze of about 3 tablespoons of liquid remains in pan, about 3 minutes.

Toast bread slices and thinly slice steak against the grain. For each sandwich, drizzle vermouth sauce onto a slice of bread and generously layer on slices of steak. Spread other slice of bread with about 1 tablespoon of tapenade and press it down on top of steak.

Alternatively, serve slices of steak with vermouth sauce spooned on top, a generous dollop of tapenade and the toasted bread on the side.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut" by Lynne Curry (Running Press, May 2012, $27)

Grilled Steak with Afaf's marinade

PG tested

This spicy paste/marinade, minus the pine nuts, was shown to me in the village of Deir al-Asad in northern Israel. My host spread it on an assortment of small fish before roasting them and bringing to the table on a mountain of couscous. I translated it to beef.

-- Larry Roberts

  • 2 1 1/2-pounds T-bone steak
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 2 to 3 large cloves of garlic, depending on your taste
  • 2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper (Turkish crushed red chile pepper)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Place pine nuts, garlic and chile pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Slowly add oil, starting with about 1/4 cup, and blend until ingredients form a paste. Add remaining oil a bit at a time, blending, until mixture is the consistency of a loose mayonnaise.

Spread chile mixture on steaks, and let sit 1 hour at room temperature.

Preheat a grill for high heat. When grill is hot, lightly oil the grates.

Place steaks on grill, and grill for 3 to 5 minutes per side, or until desired degree of doneness. For medium rare, it will read 135 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

Serves 3 to 4.

-- Larry Roberts

Grill Roasted Tri Tip with Spanish Adobo Rub

  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons Spanish paprika or sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2- to 2-pound tri-tip steak, fat trimmed to about 1/4 inch

Make rub: Chop garlic in food processor, then scrape down the sides of the bowl and add remaining rub ingredients. Process to form a thick red paste. Rub paste all over the meat. (If not cooking immediately, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Let roast sit for 1 to 2 hours at room temperature.)

Set up charcoal grill with fire on one half of grill and no fire on the other half. Let coals burn until a medium-hot fire is produced. If using a gas grill, turn on all burners and preheat to 500 degrees, then leave 1 section on and the rest off. Scrape off some of the spice rub, leaving a little on the meat to form a good crust. Sear for 2 to 3 minutes per side over direct heat, then move roast to area of grill with no heat. Cover the grill. Check temperature with an instant-read thermometer every ten minutes until meat reaches your desired degree of doneness (115 degrees for rare and 120 to 125 for medium-rare).

Let roast rest, loosely covered with aluminum foil, for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut across the grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices and serve.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- "The Great Meat Cookbook" by Bruce Aidelis with Anne-Marie Ramo (Houghton Mifflin, Oct. 2012, $40)

Gretchen McKay: or 412-263-1419.


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