smart spending

Slicing the barbecue budget

One cut that's already popular, lean and still a good buy is flank steak. "It takes so well to marinades and dry rubs," Aidells says. Plus, there "tends to be no waste."

Poultry primer

Chicken and turkey are not really seasonal, though prices spike before Thanksgiving and Christmas due to increased demand.

Vaillancourt picked up a capon for 49 cents per pound and a turkey for 69 cents per pound -- both frozen holiday surplus.

If you buy frozen: Check the bottom of the bird to make sure it was not frozen and refrozen, says Lobel. The tip-off: lumps of ice. Also be wary of cuts or damage to the packaging, or turkey that is gray or discolored. Another clue: the sell-by date.

But Lobel prefers fresh chicken. If you need to, you can freeze it yourself. He also selects chickens that are lighter in color because that means they have less fat and will lose less to "shrinkage," he says.

With turkey, legs are a good bargain, usually less than $1 per pound, says Aidells. Cut off the meat and use it for stews.

Want to get cheaper chicken? The cuts with the best flavor -- legs, thighs and wings -- are also in lowest demand. And if you know your way around a chicken, it can be really inexpensive to buy a whole bird and cut it up yourself.

"It doesn't have to be a perfect job," Lobel says. "Cut it in half, cut it in quarters and remove the wings."

In some cases, you might want to pay a little more, says Aidells. "I think the cheaper the chicken, the worse the chicken," he says. "I like to see people pay a bit more and get one with some flavor." His pick: kosher chicken.

Want a juicier finished product? Roast the chicken breastside down for three-quarters of the cooking, "so the moisture goes to the breast," then turn it over, says Lobel.

Pick of the pork

Looking for ribs this summer? So is everyone else. Sparerib prices tend to skyrocket when everyone starts firing up their grills in the summer. Stock your freezer in January "and you can save 30 percent to 40 percent," says Lobel.

"Pork loins, boneless, center cut, are very, very reasonable," especially if you confine yourself to sales, says Vaillancourt.

If you like pork chops, consider a whole loin of pork. One way to really save money: "Cook that roast loin of pork without the bones," says Lobel. "Take the spareribs off and cut the pork into medallions, chops or cook it as a roast. By utilizing it in that fashion, you are saving a considerable amount of money."

Aidells says, "the absolute bargain in the pork department is anything from the leg." His picks: fresh ham or leg of pork. Have the butcher divide the leg into smaller roasts ranging from two to six. "These are great roasts, and you can cook them directly on the barbecue."

Also look for sirloin. "Any roast from that area is far superior to the pork loin, which is no bargain whatsoever," Aidells says.

Buy and hold

If you're freezing meat, have the butcher freezer wrap it for you, says Lobel. Failing that, put the meat directly in a plastic bag and get all of the air out. You want it "almost air- and moisture-free," says Lobel. Then wrap it up, and put it in the freezer.

The quick trick to marinades and spice rubs: Apply before you freezer wrap it. "When the meat defrosts, the seasoning soaks into the meat," he says.

If you like to buy ahead and save, consider buying a dedicated meat freezer. If you keep meat and poultry in the same freezer that you're opening 10 times a day, you want to store it for two months max, says Lobel. But if you have a dedicated freezer that gets and stays cold, then you can keep it for "easy, six months."

Want to know if that meat freezer is cold enough? The test: Look for one that freezes ice cream hard, says Lobel.

Really want to make sure you're getting the most for your money? Ask the butcher.

"Nine out of 10 times, the butchers will be more than happy to tell you what they think is the best cut," says Lobel. "And that's the one you should listen to."



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