Eat Steak on a Hamburger Budget

When families cut back on their household budgets, one of the first casualties often is meat. But if you know what to shop for, you can obtain delicious, high-quality beef, pork and chicken for a lot less money.

Why Meat Costs So Much

Beef and pork carcasses each have four or five sections, which are called primals. Butcher shops and supermarkets inflate prices by carving up these primal cuts into dozens of different shapes and sizes with fancy names, such as “rib eye”and “tenderloin.”

Result: The precut, prepackaged meats that most of us buy are grossly overpriced and have as much to do with marketing as with how tasty and tender they are.

You can request much cheaper and equally delicious alternatives from the butcher working behind the meat counter where you shop. You just have to know what to ask for. It doesn’t hurt to be on friendly terms with the butcher, either. Often the cheaper version is virtually the same and from the same primal. Here, a few examples of pricy cuts and their money-saving alternatives…

  • Rib Eye Steak

  • A cut from the tender muscle over the backbone and ribs of the beef (prime rib), this steak is beautifully marbled with fat, loaded with flavor and grills well.

    Alternative: Chuck eye is virtually the same muscle as the rib eye, but it is the section that extends into the chuck shoulder of the beef. Best: Ask the butcher to cut about a four-inch roast off the front of the boneless chuck. Then ask him/her to peel out the chuck eye and cut it into steaks.

  • Beef Short Ribs

  • This wonderful cut of beef for barbecuing or braising comes from the cross rib, a section extending from the shoulder to the ribs of the cattle. Unfortunately, about half of what you’re paying for is bone and fat.

    Alternative:Flatiron. This cut from the top of the shoulder blade probably is the most underrated cut of beef at the meat counter. It’s delicious but unattractive, with what appears to be a thick seam of gristle going down its center. Actually, that’s not gristle, just a gelatin-type substance that melts away when you cook it.

    What to request: Wait until there’s a sale on cross rib roasts, which happens frequently. Then ask your butcher to carve a flatiron roast for you out of the cross rib. Have him cut the flatiron into boneless country-style ribs. They barbecue just as well as short ribs, but you get more for your money because there’s no bone.

  • Lean Ground Beef

  • Regular ground beef is so fatty that many consumers are willing to pay for the leaner version with less than 10% fat even though it can cost two or three times as much.

    Alternative: Bottom round, a very lean, meaty and inexpensive cut of beef.

    What to request: Ask your butcher to grind up a bottom round roast.

  • Beef strips for stir-fry or fajitas

  • Supermarkets often use whatever cheap cuts of beef they have available for these two cuts but sell them at gourmet prices.

    Alternative: Rump roast is the cut that butchers often use to make prepackaged beef strips.

    What to request: Ask your butcher to cut the rump roast into thin strips.

  • Pork Tenderloin

  • The “filet mignon”of the hog, tenderloin comes from the major muscle inside of the backbone between the shoulder blade and hip socket.

    Alternative: Boneless loin roast is a very tender cut that comes from the muscle near the backbone.

    What to request: Your butcher can carve you an entire roast or cut it into medallions for frying, chunks for barbecuing or thin slices for stir-fried dishes.

  • Roasting Chickens

  • These really are just very large whole fryer chickens.

    Alternative: Whole fryers. This is the best value in the entire meat section. It’s fine to buy them prepackaged without the butcher’s help.

    If you like dark meat, you can save even more money—there are frequent sales on prepackaged fryer hindquarters (the drumstick, thigh and part of the back).

  • Veal

  • This meat from a male dairy calf has a lighter color and a more delicate taste than adult beef.

    Alternative: Boneless pork sirloin. A tender cut of pork from the backbone of the hog near the upper hip, it’s nearly the same color as veal and mild in flavor.

    What to request: Ask your butcher to slice the pork sirloin very thin, and it will make a delicious substitute in such dishes as veal Parmesan and veal scallopini.

  • Italian Sausage

  • Supermarkets use the fatty pork trim from the day’s cuttings or cheaper cuts of pork to grind into sausage.

    Alternative: Pork shoulder butt. This is meat from the top portion of the front leg of the hog. It’s a well-marbled cut that’s tougher than other pork meat because it comes from active muscle.

    What to request:Have your butcher grind it. Then you easily can mix it with Italian or breakfast sausage seasoning yourself. Without seasoning, it’s a great substitute for ground beef.