So, you go to a little greasy spoon diner, and you see “London Broil” on the menu. A few days later, you go to a fancy schmancy sit-down dinner restaurant, and, again, they have London Broil. Later, you to to lunch at one of those semi-casual chains, and there it is again: London Broil. Next thing you know, you’ll be seeing it among the 3 million items on offer at the McDonald’s drive-through. What exactly is it, and why is it everywhere?
The answer comes from James Beard (who else?), from Beard on Food. According to the chef, you will likely not get a straight answer, these days, on what London broil is, even from a butcher (is it a cut of meat?). But, up until recently, it referred only to broiled flank steak. The flank cut comes from below the loin and was once considered to be a lesser grade of beef, being tough and grainy.
However, flank steak has now become much more popular, and I use flank often for all sorts of things, including Korean barbecue, Beef Stroganoff, and, of course, fajitas or carne asada. As the Beard says, USDA prime or choice flank steak is great for broiling and is much less expensive than a porterhouse, strip, or sirloin. It’s great for grilling as well, or slicing thin and using in all sorts of ways. It makes a great sandwich meat!
But, nowadays, with so-called London Broil, you might get all sort of different cuts, because the popularity of this lean cut of meat in our fat-paranoid times has caused the name to be used on just about anything, like rump, top round, or even rib eye. Most of the time, when you see London Broil in the supermarket, it is round steak. Round steak will never taste as good as flank steak done right, and authentic London Broil is flank steak. [/note]Beard, James, and Mark Bittman. Beard on Food: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom from the Dean of American Cooking. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2007.[/note] Many sources will claim that it is round steak but sometimes flank steak; or that it is either; or that it is always round steak, but they seem to be putting too much trust in supermarkets, or just dishonest butchers. The prevailing line is “contrary to popular belief, London Broil is not a cut of meat, it’s a way to cook.”
This is partially true, in that it means a marinated and quick-broiled or grilled meat. But that meat was traditionally flank steak up until fairly recently! Therefore, to insist that the cut of meat has nothing to do with it is ignoring the history of the dish. You might also notice that most of the claimants have an interest in either the supermarket or meat industry, giving them some incentive to convince you that round steak IS London Broil. Regardless, you can make a case that London Broil is a cooking method, not a cut of meat.
The Fibers Run the Wrong Way!
However, no matter what anyone tries to sell you, flank steak tastes better than round steak, and the fibers run the wrong way on a round steak. You see, if you lay a flank steak flat, the fibers run horizontally. If you lay a round steak flat, guess what? The fibers run vertically, or almost vertically. If you slice a round steak the same way you’re supposed to slice a flank steak, which means down and across the grain, you are actually cutting with the grain. The fibers are not as shortened as you can make them with flank steak, so it is not as easy to chew. It is possible to overcome this if you have a thick enough piece of round steak. You can simply cut it into smaller chunks, which can then be re-oriented for slicing thinly across the grain. If you’re using round steak to make something like Beef Stroganoff, use this same method. However, the flavor is not as good as flank steak, regardless, and it will tend to be drier.
It is true that flank can be tough, but if you cook up flank steak and carve it right, you can turn it into a meal to remember. Most every source I’ve checked, including Beard, mentioned above, Joy of Cooking 1, James Peterson 2 and numerous others, confirms that London Broil originally meant flank steak. Am I repeating myself?
Howard Hillman, in The New Kitchen Science, confirms flank steak as the original and true London broil. And it does seem to be as often thought of as a cut of meat as a method of cooking. I.E. it means flank steak. Hillman tells us that this “switch” from flank steak to round steak occurred in the days after World War II, when the backyard barbecue became popular, and London Broil became a favorite, but flank steak was less available and more expensive. There are only two “flanks” per steer! Round steak began to be marketed as a substitute, as it was more plentiful and less expensive. 3
So, London broil, originally, was either flank steak or a recipe for preparing flank steak. It typically meant a flank steak that was marinated and then quick-broiled or grilled. This means HIGH heat so that the outside gets crusty but the inside doesn’t over-cook and become tough. Then, it has to be sliced thinly across the grain so that the fibers are very short, resulting in a much more tender experience. The Beard recommends the traditional 45° cut across the grain. However, in terms of tenderness, this actually works better on a round steak. When you hold the knife at 45, you end up cutting across those vertical grains. For the shortest fibers, and therefore the most tender slices, from a flank steak, straight down at a 90° angle is best. This does, however, result in much less wide slices, which may not be as appealing.
Is London Broil Really British?
Sounds like to me that all those chefs saying “London Broil is a way of cooking, not a cut of meat,” can go suck an egg. But did it come from London? No. Although the origin of the name is murky, and there are some silly, and somewhat dark “theories” that are not worth recounting, it is a North American thing. Although you won’t find it in many British cookbooks, when you do, the author will vehemently point out that London Broil is NOT British, nor from London! 4
Cooking Flank Steak
Since the best way to cook flank steak is to marinate it (dry rub is also good, or both), and then quickly broil it or grill it, keeping the inside fairly rare but getting a nice crust on the outside, you don’t have to just look for London Broil recipes. Any good recipe for flank steak as a feature, will use pretty much the same cooking procedure. This will include carne asada or “fajitas” as well. Skirt steak, the original fajitas, which comes from underneath the ribs, can be used in similar ways to flank steak, but it is tougher. You probably won’t see skirt steak around much. Either flank or skirt, if you have a lesser grade, can also be braised.
Since, at restaurants, London Broil might mean just about anything, and is likely to be slices of round steak that are as tasteless and recalcitrant as a chunk of car tire, you might want to pass it up unless you know the restaurant well.
- Rombauer, Irma Von Starkloff, Marion Rombauer. Becker, Ethan Becker, and Maria Guarnaschelli. Joy of Cooking. New York: Scribner, 1997.
- Peterson, James. Meat: A Kitchen Education. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2010.
- Hillman, Howard. The New Kitchen Science: A Guide to Knowing the Hows and Whys for Fun and Success in the Kitchen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
- Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. Beef: A Global History. London: Reaktion, 2013.