What is a Sierra Steak?

Sierra steak
Sierra steak. Photo courtesy of the Beef Checkoff

Sierra steaks are a cut of beef that's very similar to flank steaks, although they come from a completely different part of the animal.

Flank steaks come from the belly muscles of the steer. Sierra steaks, on the other hand, are part of the beef chuck subprimal, which is basically the shoulder.

Sierra steaks are produced from a small muscle called the splenius, which is part of a group of muscles known as the chuck underblade, situated directly beneath the shoulder blade bone.

Once the splenius is trimmed away from the rest of the underblade (which, by the way, is where we get Denver steaks), it needs to have an an exterior layer of fat and connective tissue removed.

After trimming, the average sierra steak weighs about 1 1/2 pounds. There is one sierra steak per beef chuck, and thus one per side of beef. This inherent scarcity, along with the cost of the labor required to produce it, means that it sells for around $9 per pound. 

Sierra Steak is Tough But Flavorful

Why do sierra steaks resemble flank steaks? For starters, sierra steaks are made up of coarse muscle fibers, giving it a pronounced and easily visible grain, which means it can be tough. And like flank steak, sierra steak is also loaded with incredible beefy flavor.

It can be prepared in much the same way as a flank steak, too: marinate it for a short time, grill it quickly over very high heat and serve it medium rare.

Overcooking will make it very tough and chewy.

And if you're thinking of giving it an extended soak in the marinade with the idea of tenderizing it, don't bother. The acids in a typical marinade (like from lemon juice) don't break down the collagen sheaths that wrap the bundles of muscle fibers, which means marinating beef doesn't tenderize it.

And to the extent that the acids do affect the proteins in the meat, their effect is to denature them, making them firmer, not more tender. For reference, think of the way acid turns raw seafood into ceviche. 

Cooking and Serving Sierra Steak

We mentioned that sierra steaks are best cooked quickly over high heat. You could literally sear it directly on the coals of your charcoal grill, which is the highest heat you can probably generate at home, for no more than a minute per side, which, likewise, does not get much quicker.

The reason for cooking it quickly is that the longer the steak spends on the heat, the tougher it gets. So your goal is to achieve doneness in as short a time as possible.

Next, wrap it up in foil and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing it. Resting a steak is crucial, but particularly so when using an ultra-high heat method like we've described here.

And since the muscle fibers will still be tough, even which cooked quickly, be sure to slice the steak against the grain, as thinly as possible, which will make it easier to chew. 

Another way of preparing a sierra steak is to braise it for a couple of hours, which will cause those tough muscle fibers to soften up, turning it tender and succulent.