Principles of cheap meat cookery

December 11, 2008

Babies, eh? Are babies frugal? I don’t know. Maybe if you get them a paper round young enough… anyway. I’ve had this post in the pipeline for a while. So let me just change the subject completely, ok?

First, let’s define terms. What is cheap?

For me, cheap is less than $10 per kg. Ideally, well trimmed, with little fat (this disqualifies lamb flap and untrimmed brisket) and not too much heavy bone (ribs, shanks, etc also disqualified on these grounds).

This typically might leave us with beef chuck, blade, or topside, trimmed brisket, and the like; lamb shoulder; the cheaper chicken joints; offal.

Why is it cheap?

Generally cheaper cuts take time to cook to tenderness, or time to prepare (offal, bony/fatty meat), or are off-putting squeamish people (offal).

Most meat toughness is because of a protein called collagen, which is present as tough fibres of connective tissue. Collagen dissolves very slowly with long, slow cooking and some moisture. When it’s been broken down under slow heat it turns into tasty gelatin, which thickens your gravy/sauce/slop and is easily digestible. So our number one weapon for making cheap meat delicious is cooking for several hours.

Slow and low heat

Dissolve the gristle and you’ll be golden. It just takes time.

The tougher beef cuts need 3-4 hours at the barest simmer to become really tender. You can also roast at low temperatures (say 140 C) which is a very fashionable approach (google up “slow roast recipe” and you’ll see what I mean). Don’t be tempted to pull the meat early, and don’t despair if it seems quite tough at the two hour mark. Patience is a virtue.

Obviously this is going to work best under the following circumstances:

  • you have all afternoon
  • you have a slow cooker/crockpot
  • you biff it in the fridge and eat it over the next couple of days (I like this approach best. You can pick the solid fat off the top, which is healthier, and the flavours are much better integrated the next day).

Mincing and slicing

Since toughness is caused by strong fibres, we can deal with it by cutting those fibres into short lengths.

Mince is generally among the cheaper offerings, and if not too fatty, offers good value, since there are no bones or gristle to discard.

But another way to deal with tough meat is to slice it very thin after cooking, against the grain. For example, I have recently discovered the American way of dealing with skirt steak: after marinading, you grill or fry it quickly on a very high heat, and then serve sliced no more than 5mm thick across the grain. As long as you like rare beef, the result will be very delicious (skirt is tasty) and perfectly chewable. A similar approach works well with the other tougher steak cuts if you slice at an angle. (This has the added benefit of making one big steak easy to share amongst several people equitably).


Marinades make things a little bit tenderer, and a lot tastier. The problem is that if you leave meat in a marinade too long, the outer layer goes to mush while the inner layer is not much affected. I tend to treat marinades strictly as a flavouring tool.

The one exception is marinades with pineapple, kiwifruit or papaya juice in. These juices contain an enzyme that dissolves protein within a few hours. They certainly work, and if you’re not careful, they’ll work too well.

Basic marinade principles:

  • something acid (vinegar, wine, lemon juice, lime juice, …)
  • something oily (olive oil, sesame oil, …)
  • something salty (salt, soy sauce, brine from your used up pickles, …)
  • something smelly (crushed garlic, fresh herbs, spices, …)

Combine according to your sense of taste and ethnic tradition.

Portion control

Irrespective of your ethical stance on meat eating, the amount you need for good health is somewhere between a little bit and none at all. I know I eat too much at once, because I’m the only meat eater in the house, and I can’t economically buy and cook a single serving, and I get tempted by the abundance. So I tend to compensate by going for days at a time without any meat at all.

Every frugal cook knows that meat can be stretched, but perhaps we should think of this as a path to good health, rather than an emergency measure.

Stretch stews and casseroles with legumes and vegetables. Meatloaf and rissoles can be bulked out with breadcrumbs or cooked rice. Roasts go further with gravy and yorkshire pudding.

Don’t throw anything away

Rendered fat is potentially delicious when reused, especially on roast or fried potatoes.

Bones and meat scraps are a crucial component of stock. (You don’t buy stock, do you?) Likewise meat drippings are essential and should be kept for incorporation into the next dish.

Leftovers go into hash or soup or sauce.

I have a cache of glass jars and ceramic bowls for keeping tasty meat salvage in.


Frugal reader Alan had the temerity to suggest that he and Becky had a more frugal and tasty brisket recipe than anyone. This cannot stand. Your cheap meat recipe below, with costs, please.


  1. In the interesting of perpetuating cultural stereotypes… how about some spicy meatballs?

    600g topside mince
    4 slices 2-3 days old bread, soaked in milk
    2-3 cloves garlic
    Plenty o’ parsley
    2 eggs
    salt and pepper to taste
    50 grams grated cheese (for the first and only time in my life I’m going to say that “parmesan” is okay, since it’s essentially a pecorino made with cow’s milk. Any similar cheese will do.)

    Mix everything together with great energy in a bowl. Shape into little balls, press them a little with a fork and fry or bake according to preference and taste. OR you could drown them in a tomato sauce and have them with pasta.

    Price wise, the meat will set you back 6 bucks at the Halal butchery in Newtown. The rest of the ingredients are pretty negligible in price, save perhaps for the cheese. You’ll be able to do the maths anyhow.

    Ah: serves four. And of course if you’re the only meat eater in the house, they freeze beautifully.

  2. Thanks for the recipe Giovanni – my kids love meatballs (or anything you can put on a toothpick really)

    I have found that a day in a crockpot makes any cut of meat tasty and tender – no matter how cheap.

  3. if you could post that recipe art, it would be appreciated. my crock-pot stuff always tastes exactly the same. nice, but not great

  4. OK – I’ll try. I have this problem with recipes though. I tend to throw things togethre and don’t pay terribly much attention to quantities etc. i also seem to be unable to follow any written recipe exactly and so things “evolve”. Here goes.

    2 large onions
    750gm-1 kg cheapest beef (seriously – anything works here)
    2 stalks celery – or to taste
    4 carrots
    1 cup hot water
    ½ cup red wine
    ¼ cup sweet chilli sauce
    2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
    2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
    1 teaspoon dried oregano
    1 tsp paprika (or ½ tsp smoked paprika)
    Cornflour to thicken

    Turn cooker onto high and wipe with oil or cooking spray. Chop onion roughly and brown (or not – you can just throw everything in the crockpot) cube meat discarding most of fat and brown (or not). Chop other veggies roughly and add to pot with meat and onion. Add liquids. Give it a stir.

    Put on lid, turn to low – cook 8-10 hours. Season with salt and pepper at end and sugar if you want (sometimes I add a dessert spoon of golden syrup to the mix when cooking). Thicken with a cornflour paste if necessary.

    I usually make parsley dumplings and cook on top of the casserole in the crock pot. You just turn it up to high for the last ½ hour and pop them in. OR you can add potatoes at the start and it’s a meal in one.

    You can play with the seasonings in this to your heart’s content but its my “basic” recipe. I have a nice drumstick one too and lamb shanks as well. Those meats aren’t really cheap though.

  5. Heh. I have exactly the same problem when writing about food, artandmylife: I just do stuff, and the details are hard to articulate, because it’s all about improvising around guidelines, not following a recipe. I tend to think recipes are for people who can’t really cook, or at least, once you can cook, recipes serve as a starting point. Don’t ask me how you get from not knowing how to cook to knowing: there is no royal road to learning in the kitchen any more than there is in geometry. You just have to do it a lot. Practice practice practice.

    I don’t brown in the crockpot. I accept the labour of washing another dish and brown onions and meat in a frying pan before tossing them in the pot. It makes all the difference, and it turns out I can do it at 7 am before I’m even conscious.

  6. I brown in a fry pan separately if I have time – if not I just chuck everything in. I also often add a tin of chopped tomatoes to the above recipe. I tell you – it was really hard to write it down.

  7. BTW – you are going to do a Frugal Christmas post aren’t you…?

  8. Um, as the atheist Jewish half of the Frugal Me team, I think I probably ought to delegate that to Che.

    But I can tell you that home-made gifts, a barbecue dinner and hosting a few waifs and strays will get no complaint from me.

  9. Stephen – that’s pretty much our plan.

  10. Stock tip: Willis St Metro caters to the boneless-skinless-flavourless chicken demographic. This means they have some of the cheapest and meatiest chicken frames I’ve seen. At around 3 for $3, you can cut off enough meat for shredded-chicken soft tacos before you make stock from the roasted frames.

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