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

October 17, 2011

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!

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  9. August 22, 2013 3:01 pm

    Thanks for this article. One of my tricks is to buy any large piece of meat with “round” in the name. Top round, eye round – for example. i usually buy a large piece of eye round which is essentially 100% muscle (no fat) and pretty tough. If I cant find a large piece, I ask the butcher to see if he can provide me a “family sized” roast of eye round. I’ve gotten a roast like this recently for $3.39 per pound! For stir fry, I slice the meat paper thin against the grain and marinade – freeze for an hour so you can slice thin. Perfect with the right amount of chew. For really delicious 3/4 ” steaks, I use a 48-pin tenderizer (amazon has them) and go to town on both sides. Don’t overdo it or it will turn to mush. I then coat both sides heavy with kosher salt and let sit on paper towel for 2 hours. Thoroughly wash off salt, pat dry, add course pepper to both sides, and pan fry with 1 T butter and 1 T olive oil. Cook 3 1/2 min on each side, let rest 5 min. Truly amazing and I’ve gotten complements as to how amazing the steak is. If they only knew how cheap a cut it was!!

    • September 4, 2013 12:39 pm

      Hi Dan, that’s an interesting tip. I don’t eat much beef but my mum does use eye of round in her coconut milk and tripe soup.I’ll have to try your suggestion for “steak”–my husband is a steak-lover!

  10. Karen Gilmore permalink
    August 11, 2012 9:09 pm

    Coming a little late but, your prices seem close to ours here in Boston. The problem I sometimes have is finding smaller cheaper cuts of meat .I don’t mind buying a whole pork shoulder with skin and bone intact when it’s only 1.69 a lb.The smaller shoulder cuts are all sold bone in, and while still cheaper than a loin, they have much more waste than a whole shoulder. I rarely eat beef but my market also never seems to carry the cuts I need for Asian or Mexican recipes . I also have the problem with chickens. They only carry big 5-7 lb roasting birds. If I want something smaller it would have to be a Cornish hen. Bigger is not always better!
    I don’t have an Asian market nearby but I travel to one once a month or so to stock up.
    I had been craving my mother’s braised ribs. She used baby back ribs cut across the bone into smaller sections. Here you can only get baby back ribs in one piece with flap meat attached and the price per pound rarely drops below 4.59. That’ s way too money to spend and too much meat for me to deal with now that my children have grown.
    On my latest trip to the Asian Market I was pleasantly surprised to find a small package of baby back ribs cut into 1″ riblets. Then I couldn’t find my mother’s recipe. I turned to Asian Grandmothers Cookbook and used the 12345 sticky rib recipe and it was very close to my mothers. They were quickly gobbled down My “Asian Grandmothers” never let me down. Thanks for the wonderful recipes

    • August 23, 2012 2:11 pm

      Hi Karen, thanks for visiting! Like you, I find the large chickens at the grocery store not very tasty and tough.Try looking for organic/free range chickens. Even my mum who hates to spend more than necessary shells out the extra cash to purchase these chickens when making dishes like chicken rice/nasi ayam where the flavor of the chicken accounts for so much. She says they taste like the “ayam kampung” (village chickens) she grew up eating. Asian markets tend to have lower prices and the cuts we crave so I usually buy a lot and freeze. If you have a butcher nearby you could always ask them to cut the pieces as you like and often the Asian cuts are considered “undesirable” parts of the animal and may be cheaper.

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