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Mexican-Style Steaks

Fine Cooking Issue 87
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Photos: Scott Phillips
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Say “Mexican steaks” and probably the first thing you think of is fajitas made with sizzling skirt steak. As good as fajitas are, it might surprise you to discover that traditional Mexican steak dishes are often more sophisticated. They feature juicy, tender steaks like rib-eyes, T-bones, and New York strips and get punched up with rich, bold spices or sauces.

I’ve enjoyed many steak dishes in Mexico that deliver big, meaty flavor but that also have south-of-the-border additions, such as chiles and Mexican cheeses. Often more elegant in taste and presentation than the rustic Mexican dishes most of us are familiar with, these steaks are easy to recreate at home and offer an intriguing twist to the traditional American steakhouse meal.

Size matters—thinner’s better

The most obvious difference in steak dishes down south is that the steaks are generally cut thinner than those served in American restaurants—often no more than 1/2 inch thick. As a result, portion sizes are smaller—generally 6 to 8 ounces, compared to the 12- to 14-ounce portions seen on American plates. This is not to say that all steaks served in Mexico are thin—I have had thick T-bones in Chihuahua, smothered with chiles nearly as mild and sweet as bell peppers; and in Sonora I was served a 1-pound steak cut from the center of the tenderloin. But the custom of serving thinner cuts like those in these recipes leaves room for side dishes yet still fills the plate and the craving for red meat without breaking the bank or the diet.

Thinner cuts cook faster as well, making some of these dishes easy to serve on a weeknight. Whether prepared with a simple spice rub or a more elaborate sauce, all of these steaks take less than five minutes to pan-sear, grill, or broil.

Adding depth of flavor

What sets these steaks apart from their American counterparts is the earthy flavors and spice that comes from adding Mexican ingredients. In all of these, that means some form of chile—but that doesn’t mean all these dishes are hot. Depending on the variety and form (see chile profiles below), chiles offer a broad range of flavors, from fruity to smoky. As you’ll see in the Steak with Three-Chile Sauce recipe, incorporating more than one type of chile in a dish is a way to achieve a rounded flavor, with many notes.

A sauce reduction, as in the Steak with Red Onion, Wine & Port Sauce recipe, is another example of the depth of flavor attainable in Mexican cooking. This dish comes from the upscale neuva cocina Mexicana tradition—Mexico’s answer to modern fusion cooking. It results in an elegant entrée that you might serve at a party, showing that Mexican food is far more than simple bean- and tortilla-based dishes.

Sauces are not the only flavor addition to steaks in Mexico. The Steak Adobo is a good example of simple grilled red meat punched up with a spice rub. By first brushing the meat with lime juice, you can add a bright, subtle flavor to the steak. Don’t apply the lime juice more than 15 minutes before the meat hits the heat, though, as even a little lime juice can begin to chemically “cook” the meat, which will change the texture and make it more difficult to brown.

Steak Adobo

Also on the plate

The Mexican style of serving one or more side dishes with steaks is easy to adopt in American kitchens. One traditional accompaniment is rajas, or sautéed onions and roasted and peeled poblano chiles. Enchiladas, quesadillas, rice, or beans would also lend a Mexican flair to a steak dinner. All of these steak dishes would be nice with a simple bibb and avocado salad.

Mexican Cheeses

Oaxaca cheese (used to top the three-chile steak) is a soft cow’s milk variety that melts easily. It’s widely available in supermarkets in the Southwest but is increasingly found across the country. It is delicious on pizzas, over nachos, or in grilled cheese sandwiches. Mozzarella makes the best substitute.

Cotija and anejo cheeses are aged, crumbly, slightly salty cheeses traditionally made from cow’s milk. Anejo enchilado is coated with a mild chile powder. These cheeses are excellent in pasta and salads and make a tasty garnish for tacos, quesadillas, and refried beans. Feta is the best substitute.

Clockwise from the top: Anejo, Cotija, and Oaxaca cheeses

3 ways to add chile flavor

A wide range of chile varieties is readily available in the United States nowadays, and each offers a different flavor and heat level. Adding further possibilities are the different forms in which you can find chiles: fresh, canned, dried, and powdered. By using a combination of chile types and forms, you can go beyond just adding heat to a dish to create a surprisingly mild, balanced, and interesting flavor.

Chile powders are made from dried chiles. They differ from the spice jars labeled “chili powder” in that they are ground solely from a specific type of chile. Chili powder is a mix of ground chiles with the addition of spices like garlic powder and cumin. Pure chile powders allow you to add the most nuanced hit of flavor and heat to a dish. I call for ancho chile powder in the Steak Adobo recipe because of its mild, fruity flavor. It has a moderate heat level and is also good in black beans dishes and mole sauce.

Dried chiles offer concentrated flavors that often differ so much from the fresh versions that they are given new names. For example, a dried poblano chile is called an ancho (the shorter pepper). The ancho remains mild but takes on an entirely different, fruity, raisin-like flavor. Pasilla chiles (the longer pepper) are dried chilacas. Dried chiles are often rehydrated before use and then blended with a little liquid to form a paste.

Canned chiles are often easier to find than fresh ones, although the available varieties are limited. I call for canned rather than fresh chipotle chiles because they store well and are easier to work with. Chipotles are jalapeños which are smoke-dried and then packed with a tangy tomato sauce that absorbs their flavor and heat. They come out of the can soft and ready to use, and the seeds and veins are much easier to remove than they are in their dried form.

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