What Cut of Meat Do You Use for Fajitas?

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Fajitas are an archetypal example of Tex-Mex cuisine. Their roots are unquestionably Mexican, but the dish evolved among the Mexican vaqueros of Texas and their families. Fajitas began to edge their way into the restaurant world in the 1970s, and gained wide popularity beginning in the early 1980s. Although the term is now used for almost any grilled meat wrapped in a soft tortilla with vegetables, the original and authentic version is made with skirt steak.

The Origin of Fajitas

  • The evolution of fajitas is poorly documented and hotly debated, with some tracing them back as far as the 1930s. Similar dishes have certainly been made for some time. They are thought to have originated with the longstanding practice of paying Mexican ranch hands partly with less desirable cuts of beef, such as skirt steak. Slicing the beef thinly, grilling it and wrapping it in a soft tortilla was an obvious way to use this tough cut. Restaurateurs formalized the combination in Texas in the 1970s, and from there it spread to the rest of the United States and abroad.

The Skirt Steak

  • The skirt steaks are four bands of coarse, chewy beef found in the plate and hindquarters of a steer. They are similar to flank steak, but not as tough. To make fajita meat, the steaks are refrigerated overnight in an acidic marinade, then grilled to medium-rare. The meat is then sliced across the grain into thin strips, usually 1/4 inch to no more than 1/2 inch in thickness. The meat is usually brought to the table separately from the tortilla and vegetables, on a sizzling platter of its own.

Flank Steak

  • There are only 8 lbs. of skirt steak on an average steer, and the huge popularity of fajitas has made skirt steak relatively expensive and hard to find. Because of this, similar cuts are often substituted, with flank steak being the most common. Flank steak is a larger and slightly tougher cut, also cut from the abdomen, or plate, of the steer. It is largely indistinguishable from skirt steak once prepared, especially if it is mechanically tenderized.

Other Substitutions

  • The beef industry is constantly generating new and profitable cuts from low-cost areas of the carcass such as the chuck and the round. Several of these newly devised cuts are promoted as suitable for use in fajitas. The Santa Fe cut and San Antonio steak are both cut from the inside round, and both have the correct balance of chewiness and beefy flavor for fajitas. The ranch steak and flatiron steak, both cut from the chuck, are similarly well suited to fajitas, though the flatiron steak is tender enough to stand on its own as a grilling steak.

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