How to Eat Steak on a Hamburger Budget
The Holy Grail quality when it comes to meat in America is tenderness.
If a meat seems tender, then you know it’s good quality and probably not cheap. But that’s a bit misguided.
What you should really be looking for is not tenderness but flavor. And oddly, the most flavorful cuts of meat are not always the most expensive.
Today I want to do a deep dive into sourcing meat. I know a lot you eat meat as a staple in your diet, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m willing to bet you’re overpaying for the cuts of meat you buy at your local supermarket.
We’ve all heard the advice: skip meat for a meal or reduce the portion size on your plate and you’ll save money.
These still reign true, but the point of today’s issue is not to have you save money by eating less meat. Instead, you can save by getting more educated about the different cuts of meat at your local meat counter.
Why Does Cheap Meat Have Good Flavor?
The first thing to know is meat — muscle tissue, fibers, etc. — has very little inherent flavor. The majority of the flavor you experience when eating meat comes from fats in and around the muscle fibers.
But the flavor that does exist in meat develops mainly from two things: activity and older age. Tenderness, on the other hand, develops from: confinement and younger age.
Can you guess which spectrum the commercial meat industry is leaning towards?
Commercial farms today are being pressured to produce more and more animals that grow faster, to get to market weight quicker. The result is less flavor in our meat.
While we’re not going to change the retail meat industry overnight, there are some simple tips and basic rules of thumb you can follow that will change the way you shop for meat.
Tip 1: Understand Meat Case Merchandising
In his book Confessions of a Butcher: How to Eat Steak on a Hamburger Budget and Save $$$, John Smith, a butcher with over 30+ years experience, explains the meat counter merchandising process.
He says, “In the old days, the fatted calf was butchered and hung to cool and age. Then it was divided into a few primal cuts. A primal cut is a main section of the carcass such as the chuck, round, loin, etc. The butchers would take each primal and cut some of it thin for steaks, cut some of it in chunks for roasts, and use the trim that was left over for stew meat or hamburger. Pretty simple. So why are there so many different cuts of beef in your average supermarket meat case?”
Smith goes on to explain the merchandising process:
“The butchers of old would simply grab a short loin (the primal where T-bone steaks come from) and cut T-bone steaks and price them all the same. Then some overachieving butcher came up with the bright idea of calling the first four steaks off the short loin porterhouses instead of T-bones and charging more for them.
“That worked out pretty well. Then someone else (or maybe it was the same guy, I don’t know) thought folks might like a boneless T-bone steak that wasn’t so darned big. So he removed the bone from the short loin. Now you have loin strip steak (New York) and tenderloin (filet mignon).
“Of course, these steaks will cost you quite a bit of money. Next thing you know, butchers everywhere were trying to outdo one another with their merchandising of those few primals until most folks didn’t know what was what.”
You can already see why the cost of meat is out of whack in our country. So what can you do about it?
Tip 2: Educate Yourself on the Different Cuts of Meat
This might sound like a lot of work but I promise you, it doesn’t have to be. Think about the types of meat you buy each week. There are probably only a handful of different types and cuts of meat you’re purchasing.
If you were to find cheaper alternatives to the cuts you already buy, it will save you significant dollars over time with not much effort.
In Confessions of a Butcher, Smith lists over 100 different cuts of meat. He explains each cut, and then suggests cheaper (or higher-quality) alternatives. Here are a few of his suggestions:
Beef for stew
Money-saving alternatives: chuck roast, rump roast, cross rib roast, round steak, brisket, flatiron, chuck flat strip.
Stew meat is made from the trim that is left over from the day’s cuttings. Even when stew meat is on sale, it may not be as cheap as many other cuts. Boneless chuck roasts and round steaks on sale will be cheaper, sometimes a lot cheaper.
Find the cheapest and leanest cut of meat and cut into cubes for stew or ask the butcher for his assistance.
Regular ground beef
Money-saving alternative: boneless chuck roasts.
Regular ground beef is 27 to 30 percent fat and usually priced to sell. However, you should be able to find boneless chuck roasts on sale for about the same price. Have the butcher grind some up for you.
You may not save much, if any, money, but you will get a lot better product. Just about any cut of beef in the counter, when ground, will definitely make leaner and nicer ground beef than regular hamburger.
Money-saving alternative: Be selective about where you shop..
The best thing you can do to save money on lamb purchases is either watch the ads or shop for lamb in a store that is part of a major supermarket chain but located in a blue-collar neighborhood.
Most major supermarkets have a meat counter schematic that is the same throughout the chain. In a blue-collar meat and potatoes kind of neighborhood, lamb is not a regular part of the diet, but the local supermarket still has to carry a lamb lineup. In these types of stores, you may find legs of lamb and the like reduced to sell.
I have worked in several stores just like this and have been eating lamb (and saving lots of money) ever since. Ask the butcher if the store ever reduces lamb and when to look for it.
Tip 3: Talk to Your Butcher
You’re probably realizing that in order to put any of these tips into practice, you need to do one thing: talk to your local butcher.
This might be the hardest tip of all to execute. Between online grocery delivery services and cashier-less stores, we’re quickly removing any human element to the supermarket shopping experience.
While this can be convenient at times, I’d argue it’s hurting us to some extent too. Do you have a go-to butcher? I’m guessing not. But your grandparents probably did.
You can start by asking your butcher behind the counter at your local supermarket what alternative cuts of meat they would recommend or if they can grind up certain cuts of meat for you. If you’d rather shop at local butcher shop instead or go straight to the source at a farm, look online here and here. Good luck!
To a richer life,