The first thing you need to know about making really good fajitas is that you have to get the right cut of meat. Sure, you might be able to get by with sirloin or tempted to make do with (God forbid) round steak, but a proper plate of fajitas starts with just one thing: skirt steak. In older times, the skirt steak was considered a “throw away” piece of beef, saved by the butcher for his own table or given to vaqueros to eat along cattle drives – the latter being where the humble fajita got its start. Skirt steak is a flavorful, chewy cut of beef that comes from the “plate” area of the cow, right between the brisket toward the front and the flank. These days, the secret is out about how delicious skirt steak is, and so you might have trouble finding the cut, but it’s worth it to keep your eyes peeled and snap it up whenever you see it available. Skirt steak does well with a marinade, so that’s where we want to start.
Beef Fajita Marinade
(for one pound of skirt steak, increase as needed)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons chopped red onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon red pepper
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- Juice of half a lime
In a blender or food processor, pulse all the ingredients together until smooth. Skirt steak usually comes in pieces about 18″ long, so cut your steak into four equal portions and place into a plastic zipper-type bag. Pour the marinade into the bag with the steak, and then press out as much air as possible and seal the bag. Place the bag into a pan that will let it lay flat (this will catch any leaks you might have) and let sit at room temperature for one hour, turning the bag halfway through.
Once your meat has finished marinating, you’ve got a few cooking options. Traditionally, the skirt steak would be cooked by placing it directly on hot coals, and Alton Brown recommends using a hair dryer to blow away all the excess ash before doing this. Alternatively, you can grill the skirt steak on a regular charcoal grill with a grate – just make sure that you’ve got really hot coals. As for me, I think you can make these just fine in your kitchen using a cast iron grill pan or regular cast iron skillet. Get your skillet hot with a couple of tablespoons of canola oil – you’ll want the oil just starting to smoke. Toss your skirt steak into the pan, and be sure not to crowd the pieces; cook this in two batches if your pan isn’t large enough. Brown on both sides. Let your meat rest for 5-10 minutes while you cook up some peppers and onions to serve with the fajita steak. Slice the meat against the grain and toss back into the pan with the peppers and onions – and since you’ve got another half of a lime left over from the marinade, squeeze it out now and stir it right in for a final kick. Serve with warm tortillas, fresh salsa, guacamole, or pico de gallo; and remember: it’s the cut of meat that makes the fajita so good. Enjoy!