A sizzling platter of fajitas is the quickest way to make heads turn in any restaurant. The hiss of delicious meat and veggies is heard before seen, and then that incredible aroma hits everyone — and before you know it, everyone is thinking, “You know what. Yeah. I’m getting the fajitas.”
Making that buttery, tender steak goodness at home is possible. Even simple, in fact. But simplicity often leaves greater room for error since every decision and step matters.
And one of the biggest choices you’ll make is which cut of steak you should use for fajitas. Here’s exactly what you need to know.
What are fajitas?
Fajitas are steaming hot strips of steak or grilled meat served alongside colorful and crunchy strips of pepper and onion, often served with warm tortillas.
Fajitas are a relatively recent addition to the culinary scene, first being popularized in 1930s ranches in Texas. The word didn’t even appear in print until around 1971! Fajitas comes from faja, which is Spanish for strip or belt[*].
But once America got a whiff of fajitas, the craze never died down. Originally made exclusively with steak, fajitas have diversified to include essentially any meat, vegetable, or topping — as long as it is cooked piping hot and sliced thinly.
The best cut of steak for fajitas
1. Skirt Steak
The ideal and traditional choice.
There’s really only one option for the perfect fajitas: skirt steaks. They have a unique, beefy flavor, buttery texture when cooked correctly, and aren’t overly expensive. They are also the most traditionally used cut.
Easy to cook, perfectly lean, and with a textured surface that is perfect for marinades, you’ll quickly see why skirt steaks popularized the dish.
Skirt steaks are a cut from the plate of a cow, which is a cut from the belly found below the ribs.
But… skirt steaks are rising in cost due to their popularity, and while they are the best, there are plenty of other delicious options.
2. Flank steaks
Probably the best substitute.
Flank steak is one the most common substitutes since its thin and tough nature make it similar to skirt. They have less of skirt’s signature beefy flavor, though.
Flank is taken from the bottom of a cow’s abdominals, which is why it is packed with tough (but tasty!) muscle fibers. Both skirt and flank require you to cook them correctly to avoid chewiness.
3. Hanger Steak
Another strong substitute.
Hanger steaks are so renowned for their flavor that they are sometimes referred to as Butcher’s Steaks because butchers used to keep this cut for themselves instead of selling it.
Traditionally an east coast cut, hanger steaks are similar to flank steaks in both texture and flavor, and this makes them an ideal substitute in fajitas and tacos. They tend to be a bit tough, so make sure you spend the time to properly marinate them, but when cooked correctly they are delightful.
Any meat can be used for fajitas, really, but the best choices are ones that:
- Can be easily sliced into thin strips.
- Are lean and aren’t overly marbled.
- Take well to a marinade (thin and with muscle fibers closer to the exterior of the cut).
- Have a strong beefy flavor (usually highly-used muscles).
So if you don’t have access to skirt, flank, or hanger steaks, tri-tip steaks, New York strips, thin beef tenderloin slices, short loin steaks, flap steaks, and even ribeye are all fine options.
Keep in mind, we’re being picky. Any of the above cuts will result in a great meal. It just depends on how much of a purist you are.
The ideal steak fajita marinade
The secret to restaurant tenderness and taste in fajitas is the marinade. There is no one marinade recipe, but almost all of them include oil to absorb and help distribute the seasoning, acid to help tenderize the meat, and some combination of chili powder and cumin.
You should marinate your cuts for at least an hour before cooking, ideally between 5 and 10 hours. Try not to go past 24 hours with thin steaks since the acidic component can start turning the meat tough and chalky (literally overcooking it with acid).
All you need for a good marinade is:
- Vegetable or avocado oil
- Fresh citrus juice (lime, orange, or pineapple)
- Chili powder (ideally from freshly ground peppers)
- Sugar (optional for caramelization)
The recipes below have specifics, but if you use equal parts oil and acid and eyeball the rest, you should be fine!
How to cook fajitas like a pro
Get your grill or cast iron ripping hot.
Blasting heat is the name of the game with thinly cut steak. This allows you to get that dark crust without overcooking the insides.
Don’t flip the steak a bunch of times.
The key to a good char and trapping the juices is avoiding flipping the steak more than once. Just use your thermometer and trust yourself.
Use a bit of oil to help with sticking if needed.
If you didn’t marinate your steaks (how dare you), then use a neutral-tasting oil like canola or vegetable to help prevent sticking.
Make crosshatch stitches with a knife for better seasoning results.
One clever way to get a little more oomph from your seasoning is to crosshatch your steaks before you rub them down with your marinade’s seasoning. You can also poke holes with a fork.
Use a thermometer for perfect results.
It’s really easy to both undercook and overcook fajitas, both of which lead to tough, chewy bites. Aim for a perfect medium (135 degrees) or just shy of that for the ideal bites.
You can also freestyle it. 5 minutes on each side is a good place to start for most steaks around a pound if you’re feeling more daring.
As a reminder, here are the temperature ranges for steaks:
- Rare: 130 degrees
- Medium-rare: 135 degrees
- Medium: 145 degrees
- Medium-well: 150 degrees
- Well-done: 160 degrees
Note: your steak keeps cooking even after you take it off your grill or skillet, so remove it 2-3 degrees before your desired temperature.
Always rest the meat before slicing.
Steaks are still cooking when you take them off the grill, and slicing them before the protein strands have time to relax and reabsorb their juices means spilling all of that delicious flavor over your cutting board. Be patient and let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes while you cook the vegetables.
Cut across the grain.
After the meat has rested, a super important step is to cut across the grain. This means cutting perpendicular to the musical fibers that run throughout meat, effectively snapping them. Imagine taking scissors to a bunch of taut rubber bands. That’s what you’re doing, and that’s what creates tenderness.
Choose meat from healthy cows.
It’s no secret. Organically raised, natural beef tastes better than industrial beef. When your beef is free from additives and preservatives and the cows eat healthier diets during their lives, the taste of the meat is richer and the texture is better. There’s no replacement for it.
Bring elite flank steak from the Island of Tasmania to your home. The purest, leanest Flank Steak is waiting for your favorite fajita recipe.
Our favorite fajita recipes
And finally, here are a few of our favorite recipes. We included a few that don’t use a grill in case you don’t have one or aren’t able to grill at the moment. That’s obviously the best way, but it’s still possible to get delicious fajitas with a cast iron or oven as well!
Most fajitas are keto if you skip the sugar in the marinade and avoid tortillas, and that’s exactly what this recipe from Cheryl McColgan does! She adds a bit of natural sweetness back with some orange zest and juice, but even with that it only ends up being around 3g of carbs per serving.
Another alternative to make this a bit healthier is to swap tortillas for lettuce wraps, although you could argue that those just balance out the chipotle aioli. But even if you aren’t watching your diet, these are so good and worth making. Plus if you have a big group, you can offer both lettuce wraps and tortillas!
Tri-tip roasts are always delicious, and using the sous vide to prepare your steak for a hot sear is a great way to make fajitas. Ethan Torgersen also uses milk in his marinade to keep things moist and tender.
As much as we’d all love to have a piping hot grill or cast iron available to us, it isn’t always an option. Megan Barrett has the perfect oven recipe for when that’s the case. This recipe is also very weeknight-friendly as well — you’re essentially throwing everything onto a baking sheet!
If you read this blog often, you know we can’t leave you without a “nerdy” option. Culinary Scientist Jessica Gavin does a lovely job breaking down what makes a great batch of fajitas, and if you have the time, these are the ones to make!
The best steak fajitas are all about good meat and execution
Again, skirt steaks are the move, but regardless of what steak you use, most of the battle is won by choosing good meat and good vegetables. Fajitas don’t hide behind any broth or sauce! The best meats are grass-fed, raised humanely, expertly cut, and delivered fresh. Even if you cook low-quality meats perfectly, the taste still won’t compare.
US Wellness Meats was founded in 2000 in Monticello, Missouri (pop. 98) by visionary farmers, who saw that big-business cattle-raising practices were taking a toll on our animals and our health. By returning to rotational grazing practices that are good for the planet and good for our cattle, we led the way in introducing a new generation to the unmatched taste, tenderness, and healthiness of grass-fed beef.
Experience the tastiest and most humanely-raised skirt steak America has to offer.
Nathan Phelps owns and writes for Crafted Copy, a boutique copywriting shop that finds the perfect words for interesting products. He is also an ethical foodie, outdoors-aficionado, and hails from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.