Confessions of a Butcher: Eating Steak on a Hamburger Budget

Every week, I receive a couple of books in the mail from authors and publishers. (This week there were six!) They're hoping that I'll find time to review their work at Get Rich Slowly. I do my best, but it's impossible to read everything.

When John Smith offered to send me his book, Confessions of a Butcher, I wasn't expecting much. I've read a few niche books like this, and they're usually uninspiring. As a full-fledged carnivore, I'm please to report this one is different. Smith spent more than 30 years in the meat industry, and he's used his experience to produce a short book packed with information.

Confessions of a Butcher contains:

  • 60 pages describing different cuts of meat and offering suggestions for cheaper alternatives.
  • A glossary of meat-related terms.
  • An appendix containing 30 pages of short articles, such as “What to do with leftover turkey”.

The book has sections on beef (steaks, quality steaks, roasts, ribs, ground beef), pork (chops and steaks, roasts, ribs), lamb, veal, and chicken. Smith lists about 100 cuts of meat (most of which are beef). He briefly describes each cut, and then suggests cheaper (or higher-quality) alternatives.

Smith granted me permission to reprint some examples from the book. Here are his entries for stew meat, ground beef, and lamb.

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.

Now having said all that, the best meat for stew, in my humble opinion, comes from the brisket, flatiron, or the chuck flat strip. These three cuts should cost you less than the stew meat in the counter but may not be the best deal you can find. They will however be the best stew meat you can find.

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.

Lamb
Money-saving alternative: see below.

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. Another alternative is to buy lamb from the farmer and have it processed at a local custom meat plant. Be ware that you will lose more than 50 percent from the processing.

I think this is great information. Kris and I have always been puzzled why our friend AJ produces better stews than we do. It's likely that she's just a better cook, but maybe she uses a different cut of meat. Also, I had my first ground sirloin burger last month. I'm not sure I can go back to regular ground beef after that. (Yes, I realize ground sirloin is more expensive.)

Note: Did you notice something about each of these three tips? They all involve speaking with your butcher. This is true of many of the book's suggestions, and in a way it's disconcerting. Kris and I discussed this, and we realized that we don't “have a butcher”. We go to the supermarket to pick up meat. Sometimes we ask the person behind the counter for a particular steak. That's it. We've never thought about asking to have meat ground. What about you? Do you have a butcher?

 

Although I found the book interesting, Kris was less enthused. “If you had a recipe and were looking to save money, this would be handy book,” she told me. “But it assumes too much on the part of the reader. It uses a lot of meat-related terms, many of which aren't in the glossary. Plus, I would have liked more detail on what recipes each bargain cut would be good for.”

“Would you pay $11.95 for this book?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “But I might if it were beefier — with charts and hints and recipes.” (Note: Kris didn't really say “beefier”. That's just me being funny.)

I, however, would pay $11.95 for Confessions of a Butcher. We buy a lot of meat, and if the book saved us even a few bucks, it would have paid for itself. I do agree, however, that it's a bit jargony and could benefit from some diagrams and recipes. (Rumor has it there's a sequel in the works that will address some of these concerns. I'd rather see a revised edition that lumped everything together.)

I'll leave you with my favorite piece of advice from John Smith. In the chapter about butcher etiquette, he writes:

To really butter up your butcher, always leave a nice comment on his helpfulness and professionalism as you go through the checkstand…Some homemade cookies once in a while won't hurt either.

Come to think of it, bloggers like homemade cookies too!

For more on this subject, check out these articles from the archives: Making the most of cheap cuts of beef and How to buy a side of beef. Addendum: I finally found it again! Check out the All About Meat website for free online information about meat from the author of this book.

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Aman@BullsBattleBears
11 years ago

looks like a great gift for a cook or person that fires up the grill! personally, I prefer to hit up the local butcher to get the right cuts and because it seems to be more fresh. Maybe its bucking the whole “frugal” aspect since local butchers tend to charge a little more, but I feel better supporting a mom and pop type of business rather than a big box store where a person can get meat cut, pill dispensed, tires changed by the same person lol

Scordo.com
Scordo.com
11 years ago

Hi JD,

Seems like a good book, but should be read in moderation (just like eating meat) ; – )

I recently made some short ribs and they were great. Here’s the recipe: http://www.scordo.com/blog/2008/11/recipe-braised-short-ribs-in-w.html

Best,
Scordo.com

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

My wife and I go to a butcher shop at least once a week to buy the weeks meat. The best thing you can possibly do is always ask for the same guy. Our guy will see us coming a long ways away and always makes time for us. He generally has a line of 5 or 6 people waiting for him because of how good he is. The tips this guy is giving in his book might be jargon to most of us but if you talk to your butcher (if you dont have one you should) he will… Read more »

Suburban Dollar
Suburban Dollar
11 years ago

I don’t even know where to find a real, honest to goodness, butcher. I love my meat though.

Venki from ReadandRise.org
Venki from ReadandRise.org
11 years ago

From the title of the book I was expecting something else. You know what I mean. Eating meat is a personal choice and I would prefer not to eat animals. 🙂

ampersat
ampersat
11 years ago

My buddy introduced me to White’s Meats out in Gresham. They do everything from handing meat over the counter to processing game animals. It’s a busy place so it pays to know what you’re interested in when you go in. I’m sure if you told them what you were going to be doing with it (stew, grill, etc.) you’d get spot-on advice as to what to buy and how to handle it. It pays to find your local butcher shop. I’d be interested in the book but perhaps wait and get it from the library. I would like to know… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Venki (and other vegetarian readers)
This post was originally scheduled to run on February 3rd, the day before my quick tips for eating organic, which encouraged readers to eat less meat. I forget why that didn’t end up working, but now I don’t have a vegetarian follow-up post! 🙂

Dana
Dana
11 years ago

We definitely have a butcher, with whom we often do stuff outside of the local Meat Market, like bowling and going out to restaurants. We have even been to his house a couple times for dinner. The thing I like most about having a butcher is that he knows our situation (a young, frugal couple who like good meat but can’t afford to pay top dollar). He does things like cutting us thinner steaks and letting us know when he has an especially good cut of meat in the shop. He also knows that we like eating from local farms,… Read more »

Dotty
Dotty
11 years ago

My family goes to a local farm and buys an entire cow. (In a weirdly sick yet funny way, it’s very much like that episode of the Simpson’s where the cows go in on one end of the butcher shop, and come out as packaged meat on the other). Anyway, depending on what your priorities are, this can be great. The meat is fresh, cut the way we like it/want it, we’ve purchased a yearly supply in bulk, etc. That said, you need the space (we have a meat freezer in our cold cellar), and you need to know what… Read more »

Emma
Emma
11 years ago

We have a butcher, at St Lawrence Market here in Toronto. We just got back! He always looks after us with recommendations, non-advertised discounts and our sillier requests. In return we buy from him most saturday mornings (especially in the summer when we’re barbequeuing like crazy). It always amazes me that people will complain or be confused without talking to your butcher, baker, waiter, bartender, whomever. People love to help!

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Just about any cookbook you have on hand will have all the information you need to shop for meat wisely…read what you have and save…

You can also google for the information; go to wikipedia etc.

Angelo Bertolli
Angelo Bertolli
11 years ago

Hey, this is a pretty sweet post. Thanks for giving us some examples too.

Brooke
Brooke
11 years ago

I’m wondering why the price of the book is only $11.95 on Amazon, yet if you visit the author’s website, it’s priced at $24.95?

Seems the e-book (for $24.95) is quite a bit more expensive than the paperback version ($ll.95)- interesting. You’d think it would be less expensive to purchase it directly from the author’s website.

Link to the sales page is here: http://www.all-about-meat.com/meatsalespage1.html

SuperMom
SuperMom
11 years ago

I’m lucky in that, at one time years ago, my father worked as a butcher, so I grew up watching him cut up meat for our personal use. So the tips you mention are something we’ve been doing for years. And it really does save money. I never buy packaged stew or stir fry meat. And we rarely buy steaks. Instead we buy large roasts when they come on sale and slice them up into the cuts of meat we want. This also ensures that I get the size of meat I want for stew or stir fry. So there’s… Read more »

Nate @ Money Young
Nate @ Money Young
11 years ago

JD

What’s your favorite type of cookie? I can send you some! lol

-Nate

tjwriter
tjwriter
11 years ago

I don’t have a butcher per se, but I shop local grocery (part of a chain, but not one of those giant impersonal ones) when they have their semi-annual meat sales. For a little over $100 usually, I can buy about six months worth of meat of all types.

I find it really handy to do it this way as it allows me to keep the husband fed on steaks like he likes. It’s much cheaper to get a whole ribeye sliced into steaks than to buy all those steaks individually.

Malena
Malena
11 years ago

I second what Dotty said. By buying directly from a local farmer, we get high quality, grass-fed beef for a net price of about $3.50 per pound (as an average price per pound for grass-fed beef cuts, it is hard to beat). By buying our meat this way, we get exactly the cuts we want (including the bones for making stock and fat for rendering into tallow), the meat is more nutritious, we know that the animals live good lives and are slaughtered in the most humane way possible, and we are supporting a local family. The biggest hurdle is… Read more »

Associate Money
Associate Money
11 years ago

I may just get this book at $11.95. It seems like a good read with lots of useful information.

Maybe I will put these tips into practice and then compare my budget for buying meat before and after.

Shannon
Shannon
11 years ago

Buying your meat from a local producer in bulk is a great idea. It saves you money and supports your local economy. You don’t always have to buy a whole animal, many places offer halves and quarters. A great resource to find a local producer is http://www.localharvest.org. They are a non-profit group with a search tool to help you find meat and veggies as well as other products that are produced in your area.

TMS
TMS
11 years ago

Coming from a familly which own there own small green grocers (in the UK) I have always supported the small local butchers rather than the supermarkets. Many of the butchers I have known dish out this sort of advice anyway especially if you are a loyal customer, but I would imagine this sort of book would be great for the supermarket shoppers who tend not to get that sort of service.

RobertD
RobertD
11 years ago

I remember when a rib eye steak was one of the cheapest cuts of beef available, but today is is among the most expensive. Why because the frugal gourmet promoted it as a cheaper alternative. Demand went up price went up. The same hold true for dozens of meat products, chicken wings, spare ribs and others. The meat industry is not dumb they are quite capable of adapting their pricin by demand. Remember that they are selling a perishable product, they have learn years ago without computers how to adjust prices by demand, now with computers their time frame has… Read more »

Suzy
Suzy
11 years ago

We have a fancy new grocery in my area and I complimented the butcher because he was very knowledgeable. I was asking the difference between country-style and western-style ribs. He explained to me all the different areas, where the ribs, tenderloin, etc. are. I told him he paid attention well in butchering school, but I don’t think he liked that comment!

bethh
bethh
11 years ago

JD, I would think New Seasons would be a good spot to find an informed meat person. I liked that they flag their meat with varying colored tags, to indicate the relative sustainability of the animal. I’ve got a 100+-year-old grocry store down the street from me, and they have an excellent butcher counter. I rarely buy meat, but one time I summoned the courage to ask the guy to cut up the chicken I was buying, and he had no problem obliging. I feel sure that if I had questions about meat, they’d be very happy to answer them… Read more »

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
11 years ago

I’m a bit of a dissenter here — while I eat meat occasionally, it’s expensive to the climate, not just to the bank account. (The meat industry has been reported to create 25% of the world’s carbon emissions).

I made a delicious, meat-free company dinner two Sundays ago for $1.56 per person ($1.09 per meal if you count the lunches made from leftovers). It was also low-carbon. Here’s the menu: http://www.diamondcutlife.org/my-cheapest-tastiest-healthiest-dinner-menu/

mythago
mythago
11 years ago

J.D., does the book discuss organ meats? Frankly one of the most overlooked (and cheap) sources of meat. I used to be able to feed my kids cow heart (cheap and very little fat, so almost no waste) until they figured out what it was….. If you live near small ranchers or family farms, sometimes you can actually arrange to buy a whole or a side of meat, perhaps going in on it with another family. When I lived in Oregon, I knew a fellow who raised lamb. When he had extras you could order one and when it was… Read more »

almost there
almost there
11 years ago

Great article, I have no beef with it:).

louisa
louisa
11 years ago

I talk to my butcher all the time. Ironically, his most recent advice was on how to cook a big pot of beans (flavored with a ham hock, which started the conversation). Butchers don’t just know meat!

Richard
Richard
11 years ago

Here in England, Ostrich meat is getting quite big. Eat an Ostrich burger, you’ll find it difficult to go back to beef. My housemate, a v.proud Parisian, won’t eat beef now he’s discovered Ostrich (true).

Dana
Dana
11 years ago

I went investigating the claim that beef contributes to global warming and found out something interesting: Cows burp and fart a lot less when they are NOT finished off with corn. In other words, grass-fed cattle contribute far less to global warming. That said, I don’t remember how they compare to power plants and automobiles but I believe corn-fed cattle fall somewhere in between. So basically, if you’re not off the grid and using non-polluting power sources such as solar and wind (both of which create pollution in their manufacture but not in their use), you’re a bit premature telling… Read more »

Jenne
Jenne
11 years ago

I’ve found that frequenting groceries (or even discount places), or buying from a butcher directly, can save one a lot of money if you’re flexible about what you want to serve. Knowing when particular meats are cheapest is important, too. One of the things I’ve found interesting about people’s attitude toward food buying is how hard it is for many people to be flexible about either visiting stores that are best for only part of your shopping list, or be flexible about what you’re going to buy. I have a mental list of what prices are ‘good’ and will bulk… Read more »

Jenne
Jenne
11 years ago

Oh, and older editions of cookbooks (Fannie Farmer, Better Homes & Gardens) often have charts of what part of the meat comes from where. Check out your local second-hand bookshop for such things. Also, try calling your Cooperative Extension agent; I’m not sure that they still print those charts, but they used to have them around and may still be able to get you copies.

DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
11 years ago

Great tips!

Vi ckie Smith
Vi ckie Smith
11 years ago

Glad to see you found the all-about-meat.com site and for those of you frugal enough to notice 🙂 you can actually get the paperback directly from the author/publisher’s site for $11.95 (arkessentials.com) and we’ve added free shipping so you don’t have to buy it from Amazon. We also offer a guarantee that basically states follow these tips/guidelines and you’ll save the price of this book or we’ll give you your money back. Most have saved their $11.95 in just one or two trips to the store. Don’t just buy it to get your money back- waste of our time and… Read more »

ekrabs
ekrabs
11 years ago

What a delightful and refreshing blog entry! Thanks for sharing, JD! Making me really hungry though.

john smith
john smith
11 years ago

Hi all, I’m John the butcher author of Confessions of a Butcher. I’m getting the feeling that most of you could benefit from my book if you were to just take a look. Its been my experience that most meat cutters/butchers that I have worked with over the years fall into their own merchandising traps and aren’t really all that much help in showing the customer alternative cuts that will save you money. Like many people they just aren’t that concerned about a few dollars here or there. Now on the other hand I’m no ordinary thrifty shopper. I’m a… Read more »

Carrie
Carrie
11 years ago

Disclosure, I not only blog about meat, I also have an online marketplace for artisan quality meat and actively support any good meat producer whether farmer, truck driver, slaughterhouse, or butcher. As the Beef Geek, I’d love to get my hands on this book, it sounds like it puts a fresh, more modern spin on one I’ve seen from the ’70s. Learning more about cutting for value without sacrificing quality would be fabulous! There are lots of good tips in the review and comments above, esp. buying a whole piece vs. individual cuts or in large quantity more directly from… Read more »

Tori
Tori
11 years ago

You should go make friends with the guys behind the counter at New Seasons. They’re helpful and once they get to know you will cut you deals. I often miss sales on steaks and when I mention it within a day or two of the sale ending I always get the sale price on my steaks. The meat is a little more expensive but well worth it. Have you compared a grocery store steak (raised in a feed lot on corn) with a free range beast? Try cooking one of each, the same cut, and come back with the results.… Read more »

Rosey Dow
Rosey Dow
11 years ago

Using complete protein meat fillers is a great way to stretch hamburger. I use a blended combo of beans and rice and add to meatball recipes or other “compacted” forms of hamburger. This is better than using crackers or oatmeal because the ingredients add to the protein value as well as bulk.

Brady's Beef
Brady's Beef
11 years ago

Another option is to buy directly from a local grower. Often this will get you a higher quality beef (grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids) and you know where it was raised and how it was treated (have you seen pictures of feed lots?). If you buy in quarter or half beeves the pricing is competitive with the grocery store and you can pick what cuts you get.

@BradysBeef

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