The Ins and Outs of Fajitas
Below is a short article on fajitas. See my fajita recipe for specific preparation instructions.
During the 1980's South Texas restaurateurs took a cut of meat that was often made into hamburger and turned it into a national food craze by literally selling the sizzle. At that time, although the cut was very popular in northern Mexico (where it is called arracheras) it was virtually unknown north of the border. A decade or so later, the word that used to refer only to skirt steak can mean nearly anything! So-called chicken fajitas are as common as expensive coffee places, and sirloin, shrimp, fish, lamb, pork and even asparagus and eggplant fajitas turn up, as well. Restaurants have learned that their customers will buy almost anything as long as it is char-broiled, cut into little pieces, and served on a smoking-hot platter.
Like so many other aspects of Mexican cooking, there are unexpected subtleties in the seemingly simple preparation of fajitas. For example, although it has great flavor most of the skirt steak available in supermarkets is tough—that’s why it was made into hamburger until Texans sold the sizzle! So, fajitas usually require considerable tenderizing. This can be accomplished by machine (which ruins the texture), through a marinade (which changes its taste), or with a good powdered tenderizer, which works fairly well if you can find one without a lot of artificial seasonings or too much salt. There is also a hand tenderizer, made by a company called Jaccard,that uses a spring mechanism which allows three rows of very thin blades to be driven into the meat. Used in moderation, and especially with a small amount of tenderizer, the device does a good job without materially changing the texture of the meat.
There is, however, a better solution that has been a carefully guarded secret. Most supermarket skirt steak comes from what is called the inside cut. That, of course, infers that there is an outside cut. There is, and it is night and day more tender than the inside cut. (The inside cut is on the inside near the stomach, while the outside flap is, as one would imagine, outside near the skin). But can you get it? We can in some South Texas supermarkets, but it is often difficult to find elsewhere. Just ask your butcher (bearing in mind that he or she may not even know that there are two different cuts)!
If you cannot find the outside cut, there is yet another option, but one that some purists consider cheating. There is a sirloin flap that looks exactly like a skirt steak, and is usually more tender than either cut of skirt steak. However, it too can be difficult to find, although Costco is currently an excellent source.
To be authentic, fajitas should be natural in both flavor and texture, with nothing added but some lime juice, salt, pepper, and the passionate kiss of mesquite smoke. If you cannot find the outside cut of the skirt steak or the sirloin substitute, I suggest you use the powdered tenderizer, as it adds the least amount of unnatural flavor.
Although fajitas can be cooked over charcoal or hardwood, on a gas grill, or pan-broiled in a ridged iron or regular skillet, the authentic treatment requires either mesquite wood or mesquite charcoal. The only alternative I do not recommend is to pan-broil fajitas on a flat surface. While, even in Texas, this method is used, especially for a crowd, it produces a less tender, less flavorful, and altogether less interesting result.
To get the proper char, fajitas should be cooked over a very hot fire. This can be achieved by using mesquite charcoal set 4 to 5 inches from the grill or with regular charcoal about 2 to 3 inches from the grill. If you have a grill with a cover it is best not to close it as it will lower the temperature.
Because the skirt steak is quite dense it takes somewhat longer to cook than more familiar cuts such as ribeye. For example, a skirt steak that is about ½ inch thick takes about the same time to reach the desired degree of doneness as a 3/4 inch ribeye. This is an advantage as it allows the thinner fajita to char a bit on the outside without being overcooked on the inside.
Fajitas are usually broiled whole, then sliced into small pieces against the grain for maximum tenderness. To most of us, the direction of the skirt steak’s grain is counterintuitive. The steak is long and thin, and people often assume the grain goes lengthwise, so they slice it sideways along the short side into neat little pieces just a few inches in length. However, the grain actually goes sideways across the narrow side. This means that you will need to cut the cooked steak into pieces about 2 to 3 inches in length, then slice them into pieces about 1/4 to ½ inch wide, against the grain—that is, along what was formerly the long side.
Fajitas are traditionally served sizzling on a hot iron platter, topped with caramelized onions. You can achieve the same affect by placing the cut meat in a very hot iron skillet, topping it with the cooked onions, and sprinkling on some lime juice, which creates the steam and sizzle.