Steak tacos always feel a bit like a gamble. Tough steak is always a disappointment, and much more so than dried chicken or chorizo. The best steak in tacos is melt-in-your-mouth tender, juicy, and retains all of that charred flavor that takes a taco from decent to “good god”.
So how do you capture that magic at home? Half the battle is choosing the right piece of meat to use, the other half is execution.
We’re going to go over our favorite steak cuts for tacos, answer some common questions, and then leave you with a few of our favorite steak taco recipes.
Picking the best steak for tacos
Whenever you’re choosing a steak for any meal, you want to think about how you’re going to prepare it, and what you’re going to serve it with. Here’s what to look for when choosing your steak:
- Isn’t overly marbled. While not a requirement, steak in tacos tends to be lean to take advantage of the “meaty” flavor of muscly cuts and better complements fatty toppings like sour cream, guac, and cheese.
- Takes well to a marinade. Thinner steaks are good for marinades since the marinade can get into a larger percentage of the meat.
- Has a beefy flavor. This way the steak doesn’t get buried by everything else. Steaks that are high in muscle fibers tend to have the beefiest flavors.
- Can be easily sliced into thin strips. Most steaks used in tacos tend to be thin. Thicker is fine, you’ll just have to approach it differently, and they won’t be as easily subbed into steak taco recipes.
As long as you stick within these boundaries and cook it correctly (more on that below), then you’ll be all set. That being said, there are a few preferred options for steak used in tacos. Here are our favorite cuts!
The absolute best meat for steak tacos
1. Skirt Steak
Skirt steaks are the most common choice for tacos, and for good reason. They have a unique, beefy flavor, and are cost-friendly. This is what most carne asada is made from. They’re also easy to cook, perfectly lean, and a great match for a good marinade.
Skirt steaks are taken from the area of the cattle known as the plate, which is a belly cut found just below the ribs. Our skirt steaks are 100% grass-fed, grass-finished, and guaranteed to be a hit at your weeknight dinner or weekend grill out.
2. Flank Steak
Flank steaks are a close second and similar to skirt steaks. They are good for thin strips and also have a lot of characteristic beefy flavor.
Flank is taken from the bottom area of a cow’s abdominals, which is why it can be a little tougher than skirt steak. In general, the muscles that are used least in a cow are the most tender. That’s why cuts like filet mignon are so tender and coveted — they weren’t subject to much work during the cow’s lifetime!
3. Ribeye Steak
Ribeye is a step outside of the usual taco direction, but if you’re looking to really impress your guests and put a clever spin on tacos, then this is the cut for you.
Cut from the upper back of the cow, this steak is famously tender. You’ll have to spend a bit more time cooking and slicing it to achieve those classic taco strips, but the effort is well worth it. The hearty flavor of a gourmet, grass-fed ribeye steak is hard to beat, and the perfect marbling found within ribeyes has elevated it to the top of the world’s most desired cuts.
4. New York Strip Steak
If you want to put a slightly more American spin on your tacos, then using a New York Strip Steak is a safe bet.
Cut from the part of the back on a cow known as the short loin, New York Strip Steaks are a popular and versatile steak. Pair this with a homemade chipotle BBQ sauce, jalapenos, and sharp cheddar for a really clever American spin.
The aroma of a NY strip steak is legendary, and you’re bound to be the king or queen of the kitchen as soon as this steak starts to sizzle and pop on your grill.
5. Hanger Steak
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, making them an ideal substitute in tacos and fajitas. 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.
How to cook steak for tacos perfectly
Here’s exactly how to cook your steak:
- Marinate your cut from 1 to 8 hours before cooking. Try to keep it at the middle end of that range (5-7 hours), but any longer than eight hours and the acid can start to break down the steak too much. It ultimately depends on the size of the cut, amount of acid, and numerous other factors, which is why I like to play it safe.
- Lightly cover your steak with oil before dropping it on your grill or cast iron to prevent sticking. If you marinate your steak with oil (which you should), you can probably skip this step.
- Do not flip the steak more than once. Every flip is a chance for precious liquid and flavor compounds to escape, plus you reduce charring.
- Use a thermometer to get the exact temperature you want, but 5 minutes on each side is a good place to start for most steaks around a pound if you’re feeling more daring!
- Let rest for 5-10 minutes
- Cut across the grain into thin strips.
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
We find that skirt and hanger steaks taste great right at or just below medium. They get super tough when closer to rare and when cooked above medium-well. It’s a tight window but worth aiming for.
Note: your steak will continue to cook when you take it off the grill, so take it off 2-3 degrees before your desired temperature!
Cooking Steak Tacos FAQ
Answers to common questions about cooking steak tacos from the US Wellness Meats Experts.
1. What if I don’t have a grill?
You don’t have to have a grill to make steak tacos, but you will lose that classic grill flavor. Cast-iron is your next best bet.
2. Which is better for tacos, flank or skirt steak?
We outlined this in detail at the top, but both are fantastic options. If you want the beefiest, most traditional option, then pick up a skirt steak!
3. Should I marinate my steak?
Yes. Do not skip this step! You should shoot for a minimum of 1 hour, and an ideal window is between 5-7 hours. A good marinade imbues the steak with wonderful flavors and tenderizes the meat, which is how good restaurants make their taco meat so tender.
4. What goes in a typical steak taco marinade?
Marinades are meant to be experimented with, so have fun with it! Here’s a good foundation, though:
- Neutral oil
- Fresh citrus juice (Lime, orange, or pineapple).
- Chili powder
Start by cutting crosshatches or use a fork to give space for the seasoning to dig in, mix the dry seasoning together, cover the cuts evenly with the seasoning and press them into the meat, and then add your liquids afterward.
5. How do you cut steak for tacos?
First, cut the meat after the steak is cooked and rested. This keeps the inside of the meat more tender and retains juices.
Second, cut across the grain. The grain is simply the collection of protein fibers that look like a series of horizontal lines going across the meat. By cutting these protein “cords”, you snap those fibers and relax the meat, resulting in more tender slices of meat.
This is what separates the “one bite pulls out all of the meat” and “can actually bite through the steak cleanly” tacos.
6. What kind of steak do Mexican restaurants use?
They usually use skirt steak, but you may find some subbing in flank or hanger if skirt isn’t an option. If you see “carne asada” in a store, this is usually skirt steak in a marinade. Ask if you’re not sure!
7. What cut of meat is carne asada?
This is also commonly made from skirt steak! And as we just mentioned, these can sometimes be pre-marinated in the store.
8. What oil should I use when grilling steak for tacos?
Neutral oil is best. This means canola or vegetable. Olive has a lower burn point and carries a stronger taste, so if you want to prioritize the flavor of the beef and marinade, then avoid using oils with strong flavors like olive.
9. What’s the best seasoning for steak tacos?
The best practices for steak seasoning are:
- Keep it simple.
- Use the freshest seasoning possible. Toasting cumin seeds and then grinding them up will offer the best flavor possible.
- The same concept applies to using fresh dried chilis to make your own chili powder.
Usually taco meats are flavored with the following:
- Chili powder
10. Can you slice skirt steak before cooking?
You can, but we don’t recommend it if you have time for a proper marinade. Waiting to cut the meat results in a better texture!
11. How long do you cook skirt steak?
That depends on the thickness, but usually, five minutes on each side over a hot grill is a safe bet. Pick up a digital thermometer and get it to your preferred temperature — that will always give you the best results.
12. Should I let it rest after cooking?
Yes. Steaks are still cooking when you take them off the grill, so you want to take them off a few degrees before your desired temperature and let it rest for 5-10 minutes before slicing. This lets the steak finish cooking and gives the juices time to soak back into the protein strands, preventing you from spilling all that delicious flavor over your cutting board (a true tragedy).
13. Should I flip it often while it’s cooking?
No! Ideally, you only flip the steak one time. You want to trap the juices in and avoid moving the steak as much as possible. This prioritizes tenderness.
Our favorite steak taco recipes
The beauty of tacos is that any meat goes. So even though some of these recipes include other meats, you can just sub in some fresh steak for similarly delicious results.
I’m a sucker for a good slaw on tacos, and this recipe from John Schwint does it. Red cabbage, cucumber, and carrots? Yum. You can sub the lemon out for lime to keep it more in a Mexican lane, and feel free to swap coconut aminos for soy sauce if you’re okay with soy!
Taco bowls don’t have to include tortillas! Skip the sour cream to make this even healthier, and feel to sub add in any fresh veggies that you have on hand.
Sure, avocado mango salsa is usually reserved for fish tacos, but it’s great on steak too! Add a little red pepper for spice and pick up some fresh corn tortillas for best results.
Beef Tongue (lengua) may not be for everyone, but these paleo tortillas and chipotle ranch toppings are. Raf Chung also has some clever additions like nutritional yeast and ghee to push this into an innovatively healthy direction.
These Carne Asada Tacos from Isabel Eats are a celebration of simplicity. Paying homage to classic street fashion with just cilantro, onions, lime, and sala, these tacos are the perfect dish for your next margarita night.
So now that you know that skirt steak is the best option and flank steak is a close second for steak tacos, I leave you with two thoughts:
- Never skimp on your tortillas! As good as your ingredients are, a bad tortilla can ruin the whole thing. Pay the premium or make your own. It’s really worth it if you can swing it!
- The best steak tacos start with choosing the best cut. Half the battle is won by choosing the best ingredients. If you start with a good cut, it’s hard to go wrong. The best meats are grass-fed, raised humanely, expertly cut, and delivered fresh. Industrial meats found in many supermarkets really don’t hold a candle to real grass-fed beef.
Experience the tastiest and most humanely-raised cattle 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.