smart spending

Slicing the barbecue budget

Highlights
  • You don't have to spend a ton of cash to get tender steaks, chicken or chops.
  • Want to get cheaper chicken? The cuts with the best flavor are also in lowest demand.
  • If you like to buy ahead and save, consider buying a dedicated meat freezer.

Ready to fire up that grill for the weekend but don't want to fork out big money for grill-ready meats?

Relax. You don't have to spend a ton of cash to get tender steaks, chicken or chops. There are plenty of easy-to-grill cuts with great flavor that won't take a giant bite out of your wallet.

Pricewise, summer is the "season for bad buys," says Bruce Aidells, co-author of "The Complete Meat Cookbook" and founder of Aidells Sausage Co. "Things that go on the grill this time of year -- steaks, ribs, hamburgers -- this is the worst time of year to buy them. This is when they tend to be most expensive. But this is when people want them."

3 quick ways to save:
  • Choose an equally good, but less popular, cut.
  • Buy a larger section, and do some of the cutting yourself. (Bulk buying for meat lovers.)
  • Buy seasonally, when supply is up and demand is down, and freeze.

Want good taste and a good bargain? Buy what's fresh, cheap and plentiful.

"My advice would be to not plan the menu and buy the product," says Peter Vaillancourt, instructor with Johnson & Wales University, a culinary arts and food service school. Instead, "Check out the meat, the price, then plan the menu."

Many times, you can get the same cut, or something as good, just by learning where on the animal a particular piece originates. One example: Blade-end pork chops run $2 less per pound than a popular pork item known as "country-style spareribs," says Vaillancourt. But it's the same meat, cut differently.

"Every time you touch meat with a knife, you change its name and its price," he says.

Get the best from beef

Want good, high-quality beef? Look for "fine-needled graining throughout the meat," says Stanley Lobel, partner with Lobel's of New York and co-author of "Lobel's Prime Cuts: The Best Meat and Poultry Recipes from America's Master Butchers." The color of the fat around the outside should be white, not yellow, he says. (Any variation in that color means the beef is not high quality, he says.)

Want an inexpensive and flavorful cut? Try hanger steaks. "Marinate and broil, like you would a regular steak," Lobel says. "The trick to cooking any steak is putting on kosher salt and fresh pepper. The less you put on a good steak, the better it will be."

Another good cut: a center-cut chuck steak. But stick to the center, says Lobel. "The further back you get, the tougher it gets."

Also try sirloin, which is a good cut. "The most reasonable" is top sirloin or butt steak, says Vaillancourt. "It's moderately priced and reasonably tender."

The reason the price is right is it's muscle, and it's not uniform. "Uniformity is what the restaurant world demands," he says.

Another good buy: shoulders, also called chuck. Look for the "shoulder clod," he says. To break down the fibers, marinate it, grill it and cut on the bias. "And it's flavorful and tender," Vaillancourt says.

In that same area, the undercut "is more suitable for pot roast," says Vaillancourt. With the bone, it's often called a "chuck steak."

Want to drag out the slow-cooker or make a pot of chili? "Chuck is really good for that," says Aidells. "It's often on sale. It has lots of different names, but anything with the word 'chuck' is fine."

For a good deal, pick up what's known as a "full strip loin" or "top loin," says Aidells. It can weigh 10 pounds to 12 pounds, and it's where the New York strip steaks are cut. Buy it whole and slice off equal 1- to 1½-inch slices. "Basically, you get about a dozen steaks," he says.

Or do the same with a boneless rib-eye. The whole piece will run 5 to 15 pounds, says Aidells. Estimate roughly one steak per pound.

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"One other advantage is you get the thickness you want," says Aidells.

Some lesser-known chuck steaks that are high on flavor are the flat-iron steak, the ranch steak and the petite tender, says Aidells. "The trick is to be in front of the curve, before it gets discovered," he says.

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