Making the most of cheap cuts of beef

You don’t need to buy a side of beef to get cheap, great-tasting meat. Excellent inexpensive steaks and roasts are available at every supermarket. Here’s a brief guide to common cuts. The information in this article is derived from two Cook’s Illustrated pieces: “An Illustrated Guide to Beef Roasts” (Nov/Dec 2002) and “Tasting: Inexpensive Steaks” (Sep/Oct 2005).

Inexpensive Steaks

These steaks were priced $6.99/pound or less when Cook’s Illustrated tested them in 2005.

Best Cuts for Pan-Searing

Boneless shell sirloin steak (a.k.a. top butt, butt steak, top sirloin butt, center-cut roast) — Very tender texture and beefy flavor. Look for a one-pound piece of uniform 1-1/4 inch thickness.

Flap meat steak (a.k.a top sirloin tips, beef sirloin tips, sirloin tip steak, sirloin flap meat for tips) — Great beefy flavor and reasonably tender. Sizes vary widely. Look for a one-pound steak of even thickness.

Best Cuts for Grilling

Flank steak (a.k.a. jiffy steak, London broil) — Pleasant, mild flavor with a little bit of chewiness. Because this steak is wide and thin, it’s better suited for grilling.

Skirt steak (a.k.a. Philadelphia steak, fajita meat) — Rich, fatty, beefy flavor. This steak is long and narrow, making it ideal for the grill.

Disappointing Cuts

The Cook’s Illustrated testers didn’t care for the following steaks:

  • Top blade steak (a.k.a. blade steak, book steak, butler steak, lifter steak, petit steak, flat-iron steak, boneless top chuck steak)
  • Shoulder steak (a.k.a. chuck for swissing, boneless clod steak, London broil, boneless shoulder cut)
  • Top round steak (a.k.a. inside round cut)
  • Bottom round steak
  • Eye round steak
  • Tip steak (a.k.a. sirloin tip steak, round tip steak, knuckle steak)

Inexpensive Roasts

In the November/December 2002 issue, Cook’s Illustrated ran a centerfold spread entitled “An Illustrated Guide to Beef Roasts”. It’s a great reference. The editors rated each roast based on cost and flavor.

Cheap and Flavorful Cuts

Top blade roast (a.k.a. chuck roast first cut, blade roast, top chuck roast) — “This broad, flat cut was far and away the best chuck roast we tasted.” Best when braised.

Chuck 7-bone roast (a.k.a. center-cut pot roast, chuck roast center cut) — “We enjoyed the deep flavor of this thin cut, which needed less liquid and less time to cook then other cuts from the chuck.” Best when braised.

Top sirloin roast (a.k.a. top butt, center-cut roast) — “This cut has big beefy flavor…tender and juicy.” Best when roasted.

Top round roast (a.k.a. top round first cut, top round steak roast) — The cheapest but least flavorful of the four roasts in this category.

Disappointing Cuts

Some inexpensive cuts are inexpensive for a reason. For example, the bottom round roast is “not worth even the little that it costs”.

  • Chuck shoulder roast (a.k.a. chuck shoulder pot roast, chuck roast boneless)
  • Sirloin tri-tip roast (a.k.a. triangle roast)
  • Bottom round rump roast (a.k.a. round roast, bottom round pot roast, bottom round oven roast
  • Eye-round roast (a.k.a. round-eye pot roast)
  • Bottom round roast

A couple of important points:

  1. Even cuts listed as disappointing can become star attractions in the right recipe. The low-rated tri-tip roast, for example, can be made into something special using the right spice rub and barbecue sauce. (I know this from experience.)
  2. It’s frustrating that different cuts can share the same name. For example, flank steak (rated “good for grilling”) and shoulder steak (rated “disappointing”) can both be called London broil. When I used to buy steak at the grocery store (before we began to purchase our beef in bulk), I was baffled by the choices. I still am.
  3. Cook’s Illustrated prefers “beefy” cuts — meat with a real beef flavor. Some people find this flavor unpleasant. These people may actually prefer cuts the magazine deemed “disappointing”.

Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything offers some excellent, easy-to-follow guidelines for cooking beef. Here’s his recipe for a pan-grilled steak.

Pan-Griled Steak

Preheat a cast-iron or other sturdy skillet just large enough to hold the steaks over medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes; the pan should be really hot — in fact, it should be smoking. Sprinkle its surface with coarse salt and put in the steaks. Clouds of smoke will instantly appear; do not turned down the heat.

Grill them without turning for 3 minutes (a little more if they’re over an inch thick, a little less if they’re thinner). Turn, then grill for 3 minutes on the other side. Steaks will be rare to medium-rare. Check for doneness. If you would like the steaks better done, reduce the heat and grill for another minute or two longer per side. When done, sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve.

[If your kitchen has poor exhaust,] turn the oven to its maximum temperature, at least 500 degrees, and set a a rack in the lowest possible position. Follow the recipe above. Immediately after putting in the steaks, transfer the skillet to the oven (wearing a thick oven mitt to protect your hand).

The Hillbilly Housewife offers a standard recipe for delicious pot roast:

Pot Roast

Put 3-4 pounds cheap beef roast into a roasting pan or deep casserole dish. Cover the top of the meat with one onion (sliced) or a packet of dry onion soup mix. Add a 1/2-cup water if you are covering the top with tin foil instead of a lid. Otherwise you won’t need water — the meat has water in it already that cooks out of it while it bakes. Put the lid on the dish, or cover it tightly with tin foil. Place the dish in the oven and cook it at 325° for 3 hours. Check it every now and then. If it seems dry add more water. It probably won’t need it. The juice in the bottom of the pan can be thickened or not, and served as gravy. This is good with baked potatoes, candied carrots and steamed green beans. Add some nice biscuits too for a meal that the fanciest company will be impressed by.

To cook your roast in a crock pot, cook it on high for 4 or 5 hours, or on low for 8 to 10 hours. You can add vegetables to cook with the meat if you like. If you do add vegetables choose from carrots, turnips, onions and potatoes, or add a little of each. Peel them and cut them into chunks. Add along with the beef when you start the crock pot in the morning. Nothing could be easier, or taste better.

For more information, check out “How to Roast a Cheap Cut of Beef” (231k PDF), a reprint of a four-page Cook’s Illustrated article from the Sep/Oct 1996 issue.

Vegetarians may feel neglected after two beef-oriented articles in as many months. Be patient! A reader has submitted a guest-article on being a frugal vegetarian. I’ll post it when editing is finished!

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