Posts Tagged ‘cooking’


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.


The nutritional economics of musical fruit

November 12, 2008

You can get about 10g of protein from 100g of cooked beans. Total cost for beans, assuming you buy classy hippy beans from the organic food shop, about 30 cents. Compare with 100g of cooked meat, which provides 25g of protein, call it 1.20 when trimmed lean. Per gram of protein, we are clearly way ahead with the beans, 3 cents vs 5 cents per gram, not to mention doing good things for our cholesterol level. (I will leave you to agonize over the carbon footprint of imported beans vs locally raised beef yourselves.)

Anyway, beans and lentils are fine food in their own right, or extending meat-based dishes, but if you’re going to use them, you need to cook them right.

Don’t buy heat treated legumes. All imported legumes in New Zealand must be either certified virus free, or heat-treated to prevent germination, lest you plant infected beans and endanger our valuable local legume industry. (Do we have a local legume industry? We must, or why would this matter?). Heat treated legumes don’t cook properly, or indeed ever. Avoid. The health food shops are a good bet, because hippies want seeds that will sprout. So are the ethnic food shops, but you have to ask. Red split lentils are never heat-treated, so they can be bought at the supermarket even if there’s no label.

Buy from places with high turnover. Beans don’t actually go bad, but they do get drier and lose some taste. Old beans take ages to cook and taste crummy. Prepackaged beans at the supermarket = dodgy, bulk beans from health food shop or Indian grocery = ok.

Soaking is not necessary. Most beans will cook in less than twice the normal time if you forget to soak them. You can also speed up soak times to an hour by a) using hot water and b) salting the soak water. No lentils need soaking. Black eyed peas also cook quickly without soaking.

Avoid farting. Four tips for fart avoidance: throw away the soak water; cook long and slow; use Indian spices like cumin and coriander seed in your sauce; eat them regularly so your gut gets used to them. Basically, there are some kinds of sugar in beans that you can’t digest, but there are bugs in your gut that can, and they make all the gas as a by-product. Chucking away the soaking water gets rid of some of them, and long cooking breaks them down into things you can digest.

Preserve texture with an acid sauce. What we’re aiming for is beans that you can smush against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. Cooking past that is only good for refried beans, lentil porridge, or other puree type dishes. Even a little acid in the dish, eg that from tomatoes, stops further softening (that’s why you can cook baked beans for hours and the beans don’t disintegrate).

Salt wisely. Here’s the deal. Contrary to myth, salt does not slow bean cooking. But, it does change the ultimate texture. If you salt the cooking water to start with, you get mealy or floury beans. If you wait until they’re cooked, you’ll get smoother pasty beans. Up to you what you like.

Make them tastier by adding things to the cooking water: a clove of garlic, peppercorns, a bayleaf, fresh thyme.

(most of the above tips based on reading Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, and a bootleg copy of Good Eats bean episode.)

Bonus vegematarian fact! You do not need to combine vegetable protein sources to get a “complete protein.” That is old hat, a myth, untrue. Your body is perfectly capable of stashing spare amino acids from meal to meal so if you eat grains, dairy or just a crapload of broccoli later on, it will get what it needs.