Why Is Flank Steak So Tough? (Detailed Explanation)

Wondering why flank steak is so tough?  Look no further for answers. In the realm of meat cuts, flank steak holds a unique position.

While it is undeniably flavorful and can be incredibly delicious when cooked correctly, its inherent toughness often perplexes home cooks and meat enthusiasts alike. 

So, why is flank steak so tough?

Flank steak is tough due to its lean composition and long, coarse muscle fibers. Unlike cuts with marbling or fat, flank steak lacks the fat content that contributes to tenderness. Additionally, the steak’s grain, which runs along the length of the muscle fibers, can make it even tougher if not sliced against the grain. 

So yes, flank steak is notoriously known for being tough. And not just the “Oh, I need to chew a bit more” kind of tough, but the “Are my jaws getting a workout?” kind.

Now, you might be wondering, “If it’s so tough, why do we still use it?” That’s the million-dollar question! Despite its rugged nature, there’s a sort of magic to flank steak that keeps us coming back.

What’s the secret? Why is flank steak so tough, and yet, why do we love it so? Are we all just gluttons for punishment, or is there a method to this meaty madness? Buckle up, because we’re about to unravel these mysteries and more.

Let’s begin!

Why Is Flank Steak So Tough (Comparison)

Here is a detailed comparison between flank steaks and other steak cuts in terms of tenderness.

Cut of MeatTendernessReasons for Toughness
Flank SteakToughLean composition, lack of fat content, long and coarse fibers, prominent grain
Filet MignonTenderHigh marbling, less connective tissue
RibeyeTenderAmple marbling, well-distributed fat throughout the meat
SirloinModerately TenderModerate marbling and fat content, some connective tissue
Chuck RoastToughHigh connective tissue, more muscular and fibrous structure
BrisketVery ToughHigh collagen content, requires long cooking for tenderness


Where Does Flank Steak Come From?


Grilled Flank Steak| Source: health4u.msu.edu


Okay, so let’s imagine a cow. 

First off, the muscles of a cow, or any animal for that matter, are categorized into two main types.

There’s the locomotive muscles, the heavy-duty kind that help our friendly cow move around, graze, and run from any pesky flies.

They do a lot of work and, therefore, are packed with tougher muscle fibers and connective tissues. Think of them as the “gym rats” of the muscle world.

Then, we have the non-locomotive muscles. These muscles don’t get as much of a workout as their locomotive siblings.

They’re the equivalent of your lazy Sunday afternoons, not doing much, just chilling. Because of their laid-back lifestyle, these muscles are much tenderer.

So, where does our champion, the flank steak, fit into all this? Well, the flank steak comes from – you guessed it – the flank of the cow.

That’s right around the tummy area, folks. Picture the spot right below your ribs, stretching to your hips. This region on the cow works overtime helping it twist, turn, and walk around.

Yep, our flank steak is a tried and true member of the “gym rat” locomotive muscle group.

Being a part of this bustling muscle hub, the flank steak gets quite a workout, and as a result, it’s denser and tougher.

But hold on, before you cry foul, remember that with great exercise comes great flavor!

So, while our pal, the flank steak, might seem like a tough guy on the outside, he’s packing a punch of taste on the inside.

The Science Behind Meat Texture

You see, when you cut into a juicy piece of steak, you’re essentially slicing through a forest of tiny meat fibers.

Imagine a bundle of raw spaghetti strands – that’s a pretty good comparison for how these fibers are arranged.

They’re lined up right next to each other, stretching from one end of the muscle to the other.

These little guys aren’t just standing alone, though. Oh no, they’re bundled up in groups and surrounded by something called connective tissue.

This connective tissue is a bit like the plastic wrapping around your school lunch sandwich; it holds everything together.

Now, in the wonderful world of flank steak, those meat fibers and their friendly neighborhood connective tissue are key players in our story.

Because the flank steak comes from a muscle that gets a whole lot of action, those fibers are not just tightly packed together but also quite robust.

It’s like that overstuffed suitcase you packed for summer camp – a bit challenging to zip up, right?

On top of that, there’s a lot of connective tissue in the mix. Picture the ropes in a game of tug-of-war – they’re super strong and durable, aren’t they?

Well, connective tissue is a lot like that. When cooked quickly, it doesn’t have a chance to break down, which leaves the meat feeling tougher to your teeth.

To sum it up, our flank steak is kind of like the star athlete of the meat world. It’s worked out so much, it’s got brawn to spare.

But remember, with those muscles comes flavor that’s hard to beat!

Why Flank Steak is Tough: The In-depth Reason

Let’s take a more in-depth look at why flank steak is so tough.

Remember those muscle fibers we talked about?

The ones that look like bundles of raw spaghetti? Well, when it comes to flank steak, those fibers are more like those big, thick bucatini pasta – a lot more to chew on!

Flank steak has high muscle fiber density. Simply put, there are a lot of these tough little fibers packed into each bite of flank steak.

Imagine trying to chew through a thick, knotted rope. It takes a bit of jaw strength, doesn’t it?

But wait, there’s more!

We’ve also got a whole lot of connective tissue hanging around.

Now, connective tissue isn’t a bad guy. In fact, it plays a critical role in our bodies – and in the bodies of cows!

It’s like the glue that holds everything together, wrapping around the muscle fibers, keeping them in place.

But, just like that really sticky, hard-to-remove label on a new t-shirt, connective tissue can be tough to deal with when it comes to eating.

Especially in cuts like the flank steak that come from heavily worked muscles, the connective tissue is very strong.

So, when we try to sink our teeth into it, we’re met with some resistance.

Think of it this way, you’re trying to have a friendly chat with your flank steak, but it’s too busy showing off its muscles to listen.

Sure, it’s a bit frustrating, but remember, it’s not all about the tough talk. Behind all that brawn is some serious flavor waiting to be unleashed.

Don’t worry, though, we’re not left to our own devices.

There are ways to coax that toughness into tenderness, and we’ll get to those later on. For now, give yourself a pat on the back.

You’ve just learned why your flank steak is so tough! Stick around, because we’ve got more delicious details to dish out.

Why Is Flank Steak So Tough? (Additional Reasons)

So, we’ve gotten to know our friend the flank steak a little better.

We understand that it’s a part of the beef that gets a lot of exercise, which makes it tougher. But guess what? There’s more to the story!

The toughness of meat isn’t just about which part of the cow it comes from. Other factors, like age and diet, also have their parts to play. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Let’s talk about age first.

Now, you know that as we get older, our muscles can get a bit stiff, right? Well, the same thing happens with cows.

As a cow ages, its muscles have had more time to work and get strong. That means more connective tissue and tougher muscle fibers.

So, older cows often have tougher meat. It’s kind of like how an old, well-used baseball glove is stiffer and harder than a brand-new one.

But hold on a minute, we’ve got another player on the field – diet! What a cow eats can influence the quality of its meat.

Just like how we feel sluggish when we eat too much junk food, a cow’s diet can affect how tough or tender its meat is.

You see, cows that munch on a diet rich in grass develop meat that is leaner with a stronger, beefier taste.

On the flip side, cows fed with grain develop a higher fat content, which can make the meat more tender and subtly sweet. It’s kind of like the difference between a salad and a slice of cake.

The salad (grass-fed) is wholesome and hearty, but the cake (grain-fed) is sweet and soft.

Cooking Flank Steak: The Do’s and Don’ts

Now that we’re pretty much best buddies with flank steak, let’s switch gears and talk about how to cook it.

You see, how you cook your flank steak plays a huge part in whether it turns out tough or tender.

First up, let’s think about different cooking methods. Some methods are like a spa day for your steak, helping it relax and soften up.

Others, well, they’re more like an intense gym session that only makes your steak even tougher.

When it comes to cooking flank steak, quick and high-heat methods are your best buddies. Think of these like a sprint race.

You’re in and out before your steak even knows what hit it. Grilling, broiling, or stir-frying are great ways to cook flank steak.

They sear the outside, locking in those tasty juices, and cook the inside just enough without letting it get tough. It’s like Goldilocks’ porridge – not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

On the other hand, if you let flank steak hang out too long on the heat, you’re in for a tough time. Overcooking is like making your steak run a marathon; it just ends up exhausted and tough.

But wait, there’s a secret weapon in our culinary arsenal to combat this toughness – marinating!

Soaking your flank steak in a marinade before cooking can help break down some of that stubborn connective tissue.

It’s like giving your steak a pre-cook massage, loosening up those tough muscle fibers. Plus, it infuses your steak with delicious flavors that will make your taste buds do a happy dance.

Remember, though, like a good spa day, marinating takes time. You can’t rush relaxation, after all!

So, give your steak a good soak in your favorite marinade for at least a few hours before cooking.

Trust me, your patience will pay off in a big, flavorful way!

Watch this:


Slicing Flank Steak

Here’s the scoop, cooking the flank steak is only half the battle. The real secret to taming this tough steak lies in how you slice it.

Slicing flank steak is pretty much like an art form all on its own. Let’s paint a picture of what I’m talking about, shall we?

The key to slicing flank steak lies in a term you might’ve heard before: “slicing against the grain”. Now, you might be wondering, “What’s this ‘grain’ and why should I slice against it?”

Well, the ‘grain’ refers to those long, stringy muscle fibers we’ve been talking about, the ones that look like bundles of spaghetti.

Now imagine a bundle of uncooked spaghetti. If you tried to bite into it sideways, it would be pretty tough, right?

But if you turned it so you were biting into the ends of the spaghetti, it would be much easier to chew. That’s what we’re doing when we slice ‘against the grain’.

Instead of leaving long, tough muscle fibers, slicing against the grain shortens them, making the steak easier to chew.

It’s like cutting a jump rope into smaller pieces – much easier to handle than the full-length rope, right?

But hold your horses, there’s more! It’s not just about slicing against the grain, but also about how thin those slices are.

When you slice your steak into thin strips, you’re essentially doing some of the chewing work before it even reaches your mouth.

You’re breaking down the meat into manageable pieces that your teeth can easily handle.

Think about it like this: it’s much easier to eat a slice of bread than it is to eat a whole loaf, right? The same goes for flank steak.

Thin slices equal tender bites.

Flank Steak vs. Other Cuts: A Comparison of Toughness

Alright, let’s switch gears for a bit and chat about some of the other members of the beef family.

Just like you have different friends with different personalities, there are different cuts of beef, each with its own unique traits.

Let’s compare our buddy, the flank steak, with two other popular cuts – the top blade steak and the skirt steak.

First up, let’s chat about the top blade steak. Now, this guy is like the surprise party of the beef world.

At first glance, you’d think it would be tough since it’s from the shoulder area, a muscle that works hard. But surprise! It’s actually one of the most tender cuts of beef.

The top blade steak has a different structure to its muscle fibers and less connective tissue compared to flank steak.

It’s kind of like comparing a well-worn hiking trail (flank steak) to a smooth, paved road (top blade steak). One’s a bit more of a rough ride while the other’s a breeze.

Next up, we have the skirt steak. Now, this cut is like flank steak’s cousin. It comes from a similar area and also has plenty of muscle fibers.

The skirt steak is known for its rich flavor, just like flank steak. However, it has a loose texture with longer muscle fibers, which can make it seem a bit tougher if not cooked and sliced correctly.

It’s like comparing a thick wool sweater (skirt steak) to a tight-knit cotton one (flank steak).

But remember, each of these cuts brings something unique to the table. It’s not about which one is ‘better’ or ‘worse’, but rather about how you treat them.

Whether you’re cooking a top blade, skirt, or flank steak, it’s all about respecting the cut and cooking it in a way that lets its best qualities shine.

Embracing the Toughness: How Flank Steak Shines Despite Its Texture

By now, we’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing the toughness of flank steak.

But here’s the kicker, what if I told you that its toughness is actually part of what makes flank steak so special? It’s like a superhero with a hidden power!

First off, let’s talk about flavor. Have you ever heard the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” Well, in the case of flank steak, what makes it tough also makes it tasty.

That’s right, those hardworking muscles that make it tough are also packed full of flavors, kind of like how a fruit gets sweeter the more it ripens in the sun.

Flank steak is known for its intense, beefy flavor. It’s like the thrill ride at the amusement park – it really packs a punch!

And when you combine this with a nice marinade, it can soak up flavors like a sponge, making it even more delicious.

Now, let’s hop on a culinary world tour and see how different cultures embrace the beauty of flank steak.

In many cuisines around the globe, flank steak is the star of the show, not despite its toughness, but because of it!

Take, for example, Latin American cuisine. Ever heard of a dish called “churrasco”?

That’s flank steak, my friend! It’s typically marinated in a zesty mix, grilled to perfection, and then thinly sliced against the grain. It’s a mouthwatering masterpiece!

Or how about Chinese cuisine? They use flank steak in stir-fry dishes. The meat is cut into thin strips, quickly cooked at a high heat, and tossed with veggies and a delicious sauce.

The result is a dish that’s a symphony of flavors and textures.

Transforming Flank Steak: Techniques to Mitigate Toughness

Let’s talk about magic. Not the pulling-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat kind, but the kind where you can transform something from one thing into another.

In our case, we’re talking about turning a tough flank steak into a tender, juicy treat. Sound impossible? Well, buckle up because we’re about to embark on a magical journey!

Our first magic trick involves a trusty tool called a meat mallet. You know, that hammer-looking thing you might’ve seen in your kitchen drawer?

That’s the one! This tool is like a magician’s wand, and with a little bit of elbow grease, it can help you tenderize your flank steak.

When you pound the steak with a meat mallet, you’re actually breaking down those tough muscle fibers we’ve been talking about.

Picture it like a bunch of tiny scissors, cutting those long, stringy fibers into smaller, easier-to-chew pieces. It’s kind of like how it’s easier to pull apart a piece of thread than a thick rope.

But remember, don’t go overboard with your mallet! You don’t want to flatten your steak into a pancake. It’s all about balance, right?

Next, let’s hop in our time machine and take the slow road to tenderness. We’re talking about braising and slow cooking, techniques that use time and low heat to make the flank steak tender.

When you braise or slow cook the steak, the heat slowly breaks down the connective tissue, turning it into gelatin. It’s like how an ice cube melts into water when you leave it out in the sun.

Picture it like this: imagine you’re going on a long road trip. At first, it might seem boring and endless. But as you travel and take in the sights, you realize that the journey itself is the adventure.

And at the end of the trip, you have a treasure trove of experiences that make it all worth it. That’s what slow cooking does.

It’s a long journey, but the tender, flavorful steak you get at the end is the ultimate reward.

Why Is Flank Steak So Tough (Final Thoughts)

That concludes this article on why flank steak is so tough. We’ve talked about factors like age, diet, and connective tissues contributing to the toughness of the steak.

We’ve also looked at ways you can tenderize your flank steak and the type of flavor this meat packs.

To sum it all up, here is a collection of the most frequently asked questions:

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Why does cutting against the grain help to tenderize flank steak?

Well, imagine a rope. It’s made of lots of small fibers twisted together, right? If you try to tear it apart lengthwise, it’s super tough. But if you cut it across the fibers, it snaps easily. Same principle applies to flank steak!

Flank steak has long, tough muscle fibers that run lengthwise, or “with the grain.” When you cut against the grain, you’re shortening those fibers. This makes them easier to chew through when you’re enjoying your steak. So, while it doesn’t actually tenderize the meat itself, it makes the eating experience much more tender and enjoyable.

Are there any marinades that can specifically help soften flank steak?

Absolutely! Marinades are like magic potions for flank steak. Ingredients like acidic fruit juices (think pineapple or lemon), vinegars, or dairy products (like yogurt or buttermilk) are particularly good at tenderizing meat.

These ingredients work by breaking down tough muscle fibers and connective tissues, making the meat softer. Additionally, they infuse the steak with extra flavor. Keep in mind though, marinating should be done properly and not too long as it might turn the meat mushy. Overnight marination is often perfect!

Is it possible to cook a tender flank steak without marinating or mechanical tenderization?

You bet! While marinating and mechanical tenderization can definitely help, they aren’t the only paths to a tender flank steak. Cooking methods that use slow, moist heat like braising can also result in a more tender steak. This process slowly breaks down the tough connective tissues over a longer period of time, leaving you with a tender and flavorful piece of meat.

How does the toughness of flank steak compare to other cuts like the brisket or round steak?

Flank steak, brisket, and round steak all come from muscles that get a lot of exercises, so they’re all on the tougher side of the spectrum. That said, each has its own level of toughness.

Brisket, which comes from the chest area of the cow, has a lot of connective tissue and can be even tougher than flank steak if not cooked properly.

Round steak, from the rear muscle, is also pretty tough and lean. It’s comparable to flank steak, but its texture can be a bit more coarse.

As a passionate enthusiast of smoking, grilling, and BBQ, Mark has dedicated his life to perfecting the art of outdoor cooking. With over a decade of experience in the field, he has honed his expertise and authority on all things related to meat smoking, grilling, and BBQ. From mastering the perfect cut of meat to choosing the right wood for the smoker, Mark has the knowledge and experience to help you become a pro at outdoor cooking.

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