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!