Cheap Meat Round II: “Thrift Cuts”

Dear Mark: Cheap Meat? really stirred up a good discussion this week. One particular comment, from reader Anna, was so great we thought we’d publish it (with her permission of course!) as an outright blog post for all of our readers to enjoy. Check out Anna’s blog for more of her Against the Grain opinions. Thanks, Anna!

Serving good meat on a budget, one of my favorite subjects.

I saved money and lots of shopping time for meat by buying a large upright freezer and sourcing meat/poultry from a local “hobby” farm (run by a couple that raises their own food and sells some to defray overhead costs and support their rural life). I buy a lot of the cuts that my source’s other customers don’t want, so they are especially cheap (some of them would have even been thrown out).

Check out the local county fair; lots of kids sell their 4-H animals at auction to raise funds. There might be a local state or county-licensed processing facility that picks up purchased fair animals at the fair and processes, wraps, and freezes for a reasonable fee. Some specialty butchers can do this, too.

I think another good thing to remember is that there is more to an animal than the pricey, boneless common cuts. Years ago cooks were more creative about using the entire animal or at least more of it. Find a good classic cookbook, like a vintage edition Joy of Cooking, a UK meat cookbook (I like River Cottage Meat), any Bruce Aidell meat book, or search online for ways to use “thrift cuts” and family friendly recipes. I also really like Jo Robinson and Shannon Hayes cookbooks for economical grassfed meat and poultry ideas. Also consider offal, the organs and “odd bits”. If the meat source is “clean”, then you don’t have to worry about liver or kidneys being full of toxins, like you do with factory farmed animals.

Learn to appreciate “the squeak to the tail”. Let other people buy the pricey tenderloins and boneless breasts, because that leaves lots of less popular, but still very useful and often more flavorful cuts at lower prices for us.

The key is learning how to fit different cooking techniques into your life. Weekend cooking is useful for meals later in the week (deboned diced or shredded cooked meat can be made into all sort of meals, so it is *not* leftovers). Slow cookers are great, too. Bruce Aidell has a great recipe for a thrifty, super easy pot roast goes into the oven to cook during the early evening, then is taken out to cool, and makes a great next-day meal.

I like 7 bone chuck roasts, O bone roasts, shoulder and shank cuts (especially), and other bone-in cuts, as well as boneless round roasts, and other thrift cuts that utilize slow cooking at low temps to tenderize them and melt connective tissue. Whole chickens and whole chicken legs are a better budget and flavor choice than boneless breasts, too. Bones shouldn’t be thought of as waste; they are a resource, providing deep, rich flavor and abundant minerals in an bio-available form when slow simmered with liquid. You won’t need calcium supplements if you cook with bone-in cuts frequently.

Cooking with thrift cuts will require a new appreciation (& skill) for thinking ahead, rather than sautéing a boneless cut while trying to prepare vegetables and salads all at the same time just a few minutes before sitting down to a rushed meal. There can be a huge payoff in nutrition, flavorful sauces and meat dishes that practically make themselves, plus, a huge reduction of “what’s for dinner tonight?” or “let’s get takeout” panic. And it is hard to overcook simmered and braised cuts, so there is a lot of timing flexibility built in for busy schedules and undetermined meal schedules. The main key is thinking about dinner long before dinnertime, maybe even days before that dinner. For instance, I now have a large O-bone roast thawing, which will cook in the slow cooker tomorrow or the next day, to make a couple different meals later this week.

Try a new “thrift cut” once a week, especially an unfamiliar one. If you think it makes to much, divide it after cooking and freeze some for another week. There are many ways of preparing cuts with regional and ethnic flavors, so if one recipe doesn’t work out, try the same cut with other ingredients (Moroccan spices and ingredients instead of Polynesian or Italian, for instance).

I’ll give a good example of how I do this. I put together a Beef Shanks in Coconut Milk with Ginger and Cumin recipe from the Bruce Aidell Meat book recently. Super cheap cut. It needed several hours to simmer in the oven, but it was too late for our Sunday supper. So I put it in before we sat down to something else for our supper and it was finished braising mid-evening, then cooled a bit while I watched Masterpiece Theater, then put in the fridge. Two day later I took it out, and warmed it up on the stove with additional coconut milk and a bit of water. My husband thought it was perhaps the best thing I had ever made. The sauce had that rich, long simmered flavor one gets in fine dining restaurant reduction sauces, because of the long braising with marrow-rich bones. One of the shank slices was mostly bone with hardly any meat, yet I left it in for the flavor rather than discard it. Warming it up on the stove was fast and easy and left only a veg and salad to get ready on a busy evening. I probably spent about 20 minute total of actual hands-on time preparing and reheating the meat dish.

I like to think of this as old-fashioned “hearth” style cooking. It isn’t fancy, but it can taste very special, indeed.

Share your thoughts on “thrift cuts” in the comment board!

hugovk Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Smart Fuel: Eggs

Top 10 Meat Questions Meet Answers

How to Turn Cheap Steaks into Prime Steaks

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15 thoughts on “Cheap Meat Round II: “Thrift Cuts””

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  1. I have been using the salt in combination with the “sear on the range–finish in the oven” cooking method, and I’ve been real happy with the results. I use it mostly with some grass-fed round that comes about 1.5 inches thick. They come out very juicy and tasty!!

    Dave Gets Fit

  2. I really enjoyed this post too. It was something I was starting to toy with, and I’m definitely going to continue now. With prices so high these days, it’s hard to afford healthier (grass-fed, organice, etc.) meats. This is a great way to keep our health commitments and some money in our wallets.

  3. Barbeque, as it’s properly done, is also an example of low temperature, slow cooking being used to make lower quality meat more palatable. A pork shoulder cooked (preferrably smoked) at 225-250 up to a temperature of 190, which takes a while, is delicious. The sugar that accompanies most barbeque sauces can then be avoided by serving it NC style with a very light vinegar and pepper-based “sauce”.

  4. Steak is much better if it is seared in a pan (each side – 4 minutes or so) and then left sitting out to cook the rest of the way through (10 minutes or so). Finishing off in the oven can lead to overcooking or drying out the meat if you are not very careful.

    Letting the meat cook itself will result in an almost perfect medium rare every time.

  5. Oooooo, Eastern Carolina style BBQ! I lived in Durham, NC for 10 years. I really miss a good pig pickin’.

    I’ve been experimenting with an approximation of Carolina BBQ in both the crockpot and on my gas grill (too small for a while pig, though).

    My grilling really improved when I got Shannon Hayes’ book, The Farmer and the Grill (not sold on Amazon, but avail at her website). She spent an extended time in Argentina really learning how to grill. Living in So Cal where it is possible to use an outdoor grill all year, my grill is like a “second oven” for me. Unfortunately, my grilling saddens my nice neighbor, whose wife won’t let him eat any meat anymore except boneless chicken breasts now (he’s growing a “wheat belly” as a consequence). The aroma is just too much for him.

    Additionally, there are some concerns about carcinogens from grilling, created when the dripping fat hits the coals/gas flames. I think that can be reduced quite a bit with the slow grilling techniques of searing quickly over high heat (before much fat drips down to create flare-ups) then moving the meat over to the cooler side of the grill for slower cooking. I have no scientific proof of this, however.

  6. Anna,
    Buy a smoker and your nice neighbor will leave his wife. Also, the low and slow cooking, combined with a water tray catching fat drippings before they hit the coals, avoids the carcinogens most commonly associated with grilling. I don’t know whether the exposure to wood smoke introduces other carcinogens.

  7. A smoker is definitely on my wishlist. I looked at a few last year. Actually I’d like a smoke house, but that’s probably not likely to be granted. I want to make smoked sausages and bacon.

    BUT I’m not really sure what Pink and Migraineur are suggesting. I do have some obnoxious qualities, but I’m not a home-wrecker

    I do hand him a nice bottle of red wine when he has given my husband carpentry advice (his wife only likes sweet white wine so guess what he drinks?) and a cup of Espresso Americano with half & half now and then, too (he’s not allowed coffee, either). I guess you know who’s in charge next door. Guess who my husband would probably say is in charge here? 😉

  8. This string caught my attention, but still a little surprised there isn’t as many comments as I expected. I’ll keep checking back since this is a hot topic for me personally.

  9. Love this article! I think we are used to certain cuts of meat because of the publicity they have received. Another great flavor- flavoring cut is the oxtail, my mother used to love a good oxtail flavored broth for soup, beans,..stews..Good- Cheap- and easy!!
    I have found really good cheap cuts of meats at the local butcher shop here in town, hey they have to compete with the grocery stores and I have to tell you there are bargains! Also, when you become a regular you are more probable to be offered a deal at bulk or other specials! Who knows?

  10. I recently found the easiest Pork shoulder recipe ever! Rub salt (sea or Hawaiian) over a pork shoulder roast or pork butt roast. Sprinkle lightly with liquid smoke. Cook on low in the crockpot for 8-10 hours. It falls apart and is really delicious! Pastured roast cost me less than $10 and fed me for 4+ days!

  11. Try Hangar steak (Hanging Tenderloin) for a medium too low priced cut of meat which is low in fat but high in flavor (marinate first). Not too many people are aware of this cut of meat so its till inexpensive comparatively to other loin cuts.

  12. Great site and lot’s of good information well written.
    Just thought I would chime in on the Smoker comment. I am a avid BBQ guy and judge contests here in florida for KCBS and FBA. A excellant home smoker/combo grill is the pellet fed Traeger Grills.
    Pellets come in any flavor and you can low and slow or sear off a steak on them.
    I have used them for over 10 years and have been well served by them for home use. If you smoke alot take a look at Cookshacks, I have a FEC-100 also and it will hold a whole pig.
    Thanks for writing and keep up the great work.