How to: Buy Cheaper Cuts of Meat and Save Money on Groceries

In today’s uncertain economy, we’re all looking for ways to cut down on the monthly grocery bill.

One way I try is to reduce the dollar amount spent on meats, by far the most expensive ingredient in my bill. I do this in one of two ways: First off, I try to cook creative dishes that use less meat. Asian cuisine lends itself naturally to this style of cooking, as meat tends to play a supporting, not starring, role in many dishes. (For some global ideas, Almost Meatless:Recipes that are Better for You and the Planet is a great resource).

Or, I buy cheaper cuts of meat. We Asians have been practicing nose-to-tail, inside-out, eating for eons. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enjoying (once) unpopular cuts such as pork belly or chicken thighs. However, formerly cheap cuts of meat are becoming more expensive, as evidenced by the pork belly which was going for $4.29/pound versus $3.59 for pork loin at my local Asian market!

Expensive cuts of meat tend to be leaner and more tender but you can still cook a great meal with a cut that costs less. I did a little snooping at Grand Mart, an Asian market chain in Alexandria, VA and came up with a list of prices for various cuts of meat. I also linked to some recipes you can try.

A few caveats, East Coast prices may be higher (please chime in here) and prices at an Asian market may not be on par with your neighborhood Safeway. Plus, the beef does not carry the USDA Choice or Prime labels.

Beef

Chuck in the beef cut chart.
Don't discount chuck roast, a very economical cut of beef; its tough texture melts into tenderness after some slow, moist cooking (Image via Wikipedia)

Ground beef: $2.99 or $3.99 (lean)
Eye of round roast: $4.59
Chuck roast: $4.99
Chuck steak $5.79
Sirloin steak: $5.99
Top sirloin: $4.99
Flap meat: $6.49

Note that chuck steak is almost $1 more than chuck roast, and the only difference is that a blade has gone through a roast to make slices. That’s all that “steak” means, it still comes from the same part of the cow.

Obviously, the cheapest is ground beef ranging between $2.99 to $3.99 (lean) (It was $5.99 at Harris Teeter.) Beef Balls with Tangerine Peel or Embutido (Filipino meatloaf) are two great family-friendly recipes I like.

Another economical dish is Beef, Tomato and Green Pepper Stir-fry. This recipe uses only a pound of round steak and can feed 4 to 6 people at a meal with rice. You can also substitute sirloin steak or flap meat, a little pricier but again, you only need a pound.

Chicken

Whole Chicken: $1.79
Drumsticks: $0.69 (sale price) normally $1.39
Boneless breast: $3.29
Boneless, skinless thighs: $2.79
Party wings: $2.49
Quarters: $1.49

In the West, white meat is favored for its leanness. Thus chicken breast and breast tenderloin are usually the priciest chicks in the cold case. Asian palates, however, prefer dark meat from the thigh or drumstick.

Overall, buying a whole chicken gives you best value for your money, especially if you learn how to cut it up into parts yourself (click here for a video tutorial). The whole chicken is usually one of the cheapest chicken “parts” by the pound. Substitute whole chicken for the duck in Teochew Braised Duck or try Chinese White Cut Chicken.

Drumsticks are super cheap and are delicious in Vietnamese Chicken Curry. If you prefer, buy the quarters and separate them into thighs and drumsticks. Boneless, skinless thighs are not unreasonable in price, I still prefer buying them bone-in. Chicken thighs are easy to debone and I horde the bones to make homemade stock. Besides, I love the skin! I chop thigh meat into 1-inch pieces for Caramelized Chicken with Lemongrass and Chilies. And Cambodian Stuffed Chicken Wings make a great party dish.

Pork

The side is equivalent to the belly (Image via Wikipedia)

Pork belly: $4.29
Pork loin: $3.59
Ground pork: $2.79
Center cut chops: $3.59
Bone-in shoulder: $1.99
BBQ spare ribs: $2.99

As with beef, ground pork is the cheapest and make tasty Crispy Fried Meatballs or Mabo Tofu.

Pork shoulder, generally divided between the picnic roast and the Boston butt, are among the least expensive cuts of pork because they are tougher cuts of meat. The secret to getting them tender and flavorful is to braise them, a moist cooking method which breaks down the tough connective tissue. My favorite recipes for using pork shoulder include: Thit Kho (Vietnamese Caramelized Pork Belly), Lo Bak (Pork Braised in Soy Sauce), and Burmese Pork Curry.

Whether beef or pork, ribs are an inexpensive solution. And who doesn’t like using their fingers? 1-2-3-4-5 Sticky Spareribs or use the recipe for Char Siu (Chinese BBQ Pork).

To sum up:

  1. Look out for sales and be sure to stock up when prices dip. Meat can be frozen for months.
  2. Buy roast over steak (beef)
  3. Utilize cheaper, tougher cuts (beef and pork) in dishes that use moist heat (braises) and slow cookers
  4. Avoid precut pieces (chicken), especially boneless, skinless breasts. Instead,  buy a whole chicken and learn how to cut it up (and use the bones for stock)
  5. Buy ribs (beef and pork) that have a greater ratio of meat to fat. The fat will keep the meat moist while it cooks, but you don’t want to pay for excessive amounts of fat. To maximize the amount of meat you’re getting, look for fewer bones for the price because half the weight is bone

How do you save money on meat? If you have shopping tips or great recipes to share, do comment below!