Meat: quality over quantity

Buy and cook good meat on the cheap

November 6, 2008

You’ve heard the call before, ringing louder these days with rising food costs: We need to move meat away from the center of our all-American diet. We all need to eat less meat, less often.

But then you think of Sunday breakfast, of pancakes dripping maple syrup and strips of crispy, fatty bacon. “If I cut back on meat,” you fret, “will breakfast, lunch, and dinner still be appealing?”

Not to worry. It is this cook’s opinion that we need to know more about cooking meat in order to eat less of it. Here’s how to enjoy your meat and save money, too.

Buy the whole animal — or just act as if you did

As a chef, I’ve found that the best tips for cooking with less protein come from cuisines that utilize the whole animal. These cuisines know how to get more meaty flavor from less animal.

Imagine that you have purchased a steer. Every time you approach the meat counter, choose a cut as if that steer now sits in your freezer all packaged up, and you are deciding which piece to thaw and eat.

First, widen your field of vision beyond the commonly consumed roasts and steaks — flank, strip, skirt, and the like. These are tender and cook relatively quickly, but they’re not cheap. It doesn’t make sense to buy them on a regular basis.

Don’t choose only the most commonly consumed cuts of beef.

After all, each head of cattle has a finite number of steaks and roasts, and a meal built around either demands a lot of meat on each plate. So designate prime rib, porterhouse steaks, and tenderloin for special occasions.

That leaves quite a few parts of the steer that, while delicious, are tougher and can’t simply be cooked rare to medium rare like steaks or roasts. Much of this tougher meat is sold already ground, or as cuts suitable for braising: brisket, chuck roast, short ribs, and the round.

(At Mexican and Asian markets, you will see cheeks, feet, oxtails, shanks, ears, tripe, snouts, and more. If all this is new to you, consider those your advanced lesson in meat economy.)

Get your braise on for deep flavors and multiple meals

When you braise, you get falling-off-the-bone meat as well as rich braising liquid, both easy components of two or three dinners.

Braising cuts are almost always affordable, but they require long, slow cooking to tenderize the muscle and soften their connective tissue. This isn’t a bad thing.

A couple of hours at the merest of simmers (never, ever a boil) coaxes out flavor without drying the meat. In fact, the meat should be succulent. The connective tissue melts into gelatin, subtly thickening the broth and giving it a gloss.

I like braising because it easily puts food on the table. Make a big pot of lamb stew with rosemary and olives, for example, a day or two ahead of when you plan to serve it. This allows the meat to relax and reabsorb the cooking liquid, keeping it moist.

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When you braise you get falling-off-the-bone meat, as well as the rich braising liquid.

The first night, enjoy the stew over polenta with a glass of wine, a green salad, and friends. Have fruit for dessert. The next day, break apart the chunks of meat into shreds and thin the stew with a little broth for a pasta sauce. Freeze any remaining pasta sauce for later.

Use meat as a flavor base

Not feeling up to braising a large hunk of meat, either because of time or wallet considerations? Buy a smaller amount of cheaper, fattier meat, and use it as flavoring.

Now’s the time to appreciate the glory — and the utility — of pork. Sauté just a couple of ounces of pancetta or bacon (both are cured pork belly; bacon is usually smoked) to a rich golden color with mirepoix (a mince of carrots, celery, and onion), and you’re nearly guaranteed a well-rounded soup.

Do the same to a few chunks of good-quality bulk pork sausage, and you’ll have meaty flavor and texture in pasta sauces. Or follow in the footsteps of my mom, who makes white beans and escarole with bulk pork sausage for dinner; you can make something similar by using White Bean, Dried Bread, and Escarole Soup as a base.

Use meat outside the main course

Hit up a good deli for charcuterie like terrines, cured ham, or pâtés; serve these in small amounts (they’re fatty and will fill you up fast) on toast or crackers as a first course. Or serve an appetizer of chicken livers chopped with capers and sage on bruschetta, and round out the meal with a big salad or tureen of soup.

Don’t feel like an appetizer course? Add bits of meat to composed salads, such as Matthew Amster-Burton’s Idaho Salad or Carrie Floyd’s Romaine Salad with Tomatoes, Bacon, and Blue Cheese Dressing: slices of prosciutto, crumbles of freshly cooked bacon, and the like.

Cook with lard

Please don’t be afraid of lard. There’s little reason to freak out about the cholesterol and saturated fat in lard, because it’s got less of either than butter. And it’s a great way to get meaty flavor into meals without paying for actual meat.

Within the world of fats, lard in particular excels at making you feel full and suffused with a sense of well-being. It may mean you end up eating less.

Lard lends dimension and pork flavor to beans as well as braises that may otherwise seem lean, such as those with chicken.

An unsurpassed delight is cracklins, the melt-in-your mouth bits that are left after you render your own lard.

Just don’t buy the stuff labeled “lard” but sold in boxes at room temperature; it’s partially hydrogenated. Instead, source lard straight from butchers you trust.

High-quality lard and meat will cost more than mass-produced protein and fat, but that only means you get double the benefits: better food consumed in healthier quantities.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Nov 7, 2008 at 1:50 PM PST

Great article. We all need to learn more about ‘meat thrift’ not only to respect the animals we eat, but also to respect our pocketbooks. I like to use leftover fat and bone to make stock, or at the very least, feed my dog the good stuff!

2. by Bavaria on Nov 7, 2008 at 5:46 PM PST

I’ve heard it said many times--’fat carries flavor’--and it’s true. The Italians are masters of using cheap cuts and making it taste great. Thanks for the article.

3. by Erin McGovney on Nov 8, 2008 at 10:26 AM PST

Kelly! Great article. Can we have a recipe for lamb stew with rosemary and olives? :)

4. by Holly on Nov 10, 2008 at 6:52 AM PST

We’re FINALLY getting our side of beef this week--grass fed, raised by a farmer in our county. I’m so excited! Especially since I’ll be doing more of the slow-cooking Kelly describes here.

Now I’ve got to look for a local source of lard. It DOES make the best pie crusts.

5. by kelly on Nov 10, 2008 at 8:48 AM PST

I have a couple ideas for sourcing lard. The first is to check at Mexican butchers and grocery stores. I remember seeing pint containers of liquid lard set out to cool at Salvador’s in Woodburn, Oregon. It was golden, though. For pie crusts, you want pure white lard. It holds up better than lard that’s been rendered at higher heat. That leads me to my second idea: render your own. A butcher may not have lard for sale, but he will have fatback.

6. by kelly on Nov 10, 2008 at 9:15 AM PST

Here’s a recipe for lamb stew. It’s super easy.

Leg meat is just fine for this but shoulder meat is preferable. It has more fat and is less likely to dry out.
Amounts are approximate because I’m scaling down a restaurant-size recipe here.

2# lamb stew meat, cubed
olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups canned roma tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 1/2 cups pitted black olives (use either Kalamata style olives in brine or oil cured olives)

Pat lamb pieces dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brown lamb in olive oil in a dutch oven set over medium heat. (Brown meat in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pan.) Pour off excess fat, but leave the lamb in the pot.

Add garlic and rosemary and saute for a minute or so, stirring. Pour in wine and let it reduce by half. As the wine bubbles, use a wooden spoon to scrape up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Add tomatoes and olives. Cover and cook over a very low flame until the meat is tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Add a couple tablespoons water if the pot gets dry. Enjoy!

7. by Anna on Nov 24, 2008 at 5:18 PM PST

Amen, and hurrah for nose-to-tail eating. I buy “clean” well-raised and pastured meat in bulk (1/2 animal) direct from the producer most of the time now (or get wild game from my huntress sister and her husband ) and spend less time AND money in the food stores. And I don’t skimp on meat because animal foods are dense sources of nutrition that have real satisfying power. I round out meals with lots of non-starchy veggies and give sugar and starch short shrift.

While premium steaks and fast cooking tender cuts have their place now and then, I love braising bony cuts of meat for the rich sauces (so full of easily absorbed bone-building minerals, btw). the hand-on prep time is short, but the long simmering time is so easy to supervise with a glance now and then. And as you describe, “planned-overs” are a big time saver for any busy household, despite the long cooking time.

8. by lpsea on Nov 22, 2009 at 11:12 AM PST

In May I bought my first pig and found it easy to use all of the parts. I have just purchased my 2nd cow (organic & grassfed dairy cow), this time splitting it with 3 others to ensure freshness. I am good with the major braises but am working with the butcher to cut in a way that everyone can have some of the front & hind of the cow. It has been suggested that we make more ground beef, and round & sirloin be cut into 1” steaks for quicker stir fry. Do you have any suggestions for equitably splitting a cow in quarters?

9. by Patricia on May 19, 2010 at 5:48 PM PDT

Good tips Ms Meyers.
Last time we went through the penny pinching days (the 70’s)a generation of cooks were thumbing through their copy of Merle Ellis’ book Cutting Up in the Kitchen. Mr Ellis died just recently and I know I(and others)took a moment in my blog to remember how much help his book had been.
Find the book if you can and you will learn to pick up that perfect,on sale,chuck roast that will give you a couple of small but delightful steaks as well as pot roast or stew for the rest. He taught us all how to “break” a piece of meat sold over the counter in a plastic wrap, into something very nice.

10. by Lauraleigh O'Meara on Oct 9, 2011 at 6:30 PM PDT

Thanks, Kelly, for a great article. The lard comments were especially welcome--I do a lot of authentic Mexican, and I wouldn’t think of using anything else! Remember, everyone, “Pork fat rules!” (Emeril Lagasse)

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