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.
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.