By: Chef Cristian Feher
Cheap grocery store meat. Before you even asked, "What is this?" You had it in your cart, slammed it on the belt, and paraded it across your living room and into the kitchen like a proud hunter - a bargain hunter. But now you're like, "What is this and how the heck do I cook it?"
There are two reasons why meat would be cheap. One, it's about to expire (or has expired already). Or two, it's usually a less popular and tough cut of meat requiring more skill and longer cooking time to prepare. In this article I will give you the "101" on cheap meat cookery so that you can be a proud bargain hunter and a proud cook as well.
Should I buy it? At that price, you’d be stupid not to, right? Wrong. First you must ascertain whether it’s cheap because it’s bad or cheap because it’s less popular. Your nose was put on your face for this purpose. So tear the plastic wrapping and smell the meat. If it smells really sour, bad, or it smells like excrement, put it back. Chicken and pork should be pretty much odorless, and beef should smell like blood - you can expect a slightly metallic smell. Although it's acceptable for beef to have a slight metallic smell, it should not make you do the I-just-smelled-something-really-bad-face. If it “stinks”, it’s bad. Your nose never lies. Now that it’s passed the smell test, we can continue.
Beef, it’s what’s for dinner. The softer and fattier the cut, the more expensive. Reversely, the leaner and tougher the cut, the cheaper it is. You will probably find cuts of beef like bottom round, chuck steak, sirloin tip, brisket and shanks on sale. And while they may not be things you stick on the grill, you can prepare really delicious dishes with a little more time and effort. You can take chuck steak, put it into a pressure cooker or slow cooker and make a flavourful, tender stew. Beef shanks are culinary gold if you prepare them Osso Bucco style - just find the recipe online or email me. And you can tenderize tougher cuts like bottom round, sirloin tip, and brisket with some meat tenderizer (like papain or papaya enzyme) added to your favorite marinade over night. Corn starch and egg whites are used by Chinese chefs to tenderize meats.
Chicken. For dark meat lovers like myself, I’m glad that I can always find cheap chicken leg quarters, drumsticks, and boneless chicken thighs. Dark meat has a slightly higher fat content than breast meat which makes it softer and juicier. For really good grilled chicken legs, you can soak your chicken legs in salted water with lemon juice for 1 hour, then pat dry and dust them with adobo seasoning or all-purpose Spanish seasoning. Turn half of your BBQ grill on high and leave the other half off. Put the chicken pieces over the side that is off, close the lid and wait 45 minutes to an hour for perfectly roasted, crispy chicken. Cook the boneless chicken thighs in BBQ sauce and flake the meat when it’s done. Put this on a potato bread hamburger roll with cheese and coleslaw and you have an award winning, Southern style, chicken sandwich. Remember, chicken breasts are for suckers.
Pork (the other white meat) is probably the lowest priced and most readily available meat around. This is due to the pig's natural ability to convert food into meat more efficiently and faster than any other livestock animal. You can always find whole pork shoulders, Boston butt roasts and hams on sale. If done right, a nice pork shoulder or butt roast is sublime. You can stab the pork with a knife, twist, and then fill the hole with garlic, herbs and spices. Do this throughout the whole piece. Try different combinations of spices. Rub the outside of the pork with plenty of all purpose seasoning, oil and herbs and marinate in the fridge over night. Roast it at 325-350 over a few hours and you should end up with a delicious pork roast that will make you wonder why you ever spent all that money roasting expensive beef. The trick to perfecting your pork is to experiment with lots of herbs and spices.
Game meats, like wild duck, elk, buffalo, boar, venison, and other game are not usually under the category of "cheap meats". But it's worth a mention that you may find it on sale at your local market depending on where you live. Here in Florida I'm actually able to find buffalo meat on sale quite often. And if you live in the Northwest, you should have no problems finding game like elk, venison, and caribou. Wherever you find them, game meats, in general, tend to be tougher than conventional livestock like pigs, chickens and cows, for the simple reason that livestock animals are tenderized through their feed, breeding and lack of physical activity. Wild animals, because of their naturally active lifestyles, tend to build tougher muscle and have less fat. However, this should not deter you from buying it and cooking it. With the right techniques, a tough buffalo steak, or a wild duck breast can melt in your mouth! Slow cooking methods such as braising, simmering and low heat charcoal grilling are excellent ways to prepare game meats. I plan to write a more dedicated article for game meats in my blog.
Now take this article and tear through your neighborhood market with a big grin, for you are the great white bargain hunter, and cheap meat is your game.