Ready to fire up that grill for the weekend but don't want to fork out big money for grill-ready meats?
Relax. You don't have to spend a ton of cash to get tender steaks, chicken or chops. There are plenty of easy-to-grill cuts with great flavor that won't take a giant bite out of your wallet.
Pricewise, summer is the "season for bad buys," says Bruce Aidells, co-author of "The Complete Meat Cookbook" and founder of Aidells Sausage Co. "Things that go on the grill this time of year -- steaks, ribs, hamburgers -- this is the worst time of year to buy them. This is when they tend to be most expensive. But this is when people want them."
1) Choose an equally good, but less popular, cut.
2) Buy a larger section, and do some of the cutting yourself. (Bulk buying for meat lovers.)
3) Buy seasonally, when supply is up and demand is down, and freeze.
Want good taste and a good bargain? Buy what's fresh, cheap and plentiful.
"My advice would be to not plan the menu and buy the product," says Peter Vaillancourt, instructor with Johnson & Wales University, a culinary arts and food service school. Instead, "Check out the meat, the price, then plan the menu."
Many times, you can get the same cut, or something as good, just by learning where on the animal a particular piece originates. One example: Blade-end pork chops run $2 less per pound than a popular pork item known as "country-style spareribs," says Vaillancourt. But it's the same meat, cut differently.
"Every time you touch meat with a knife, you change its name and its price," he says.
Get the Best From Beef
Want good, high-quality beef? Look for "fine-needled graining throughout the meat," says Stanley Lobel, partner with Lobel's of New York and co-author of "Lobel's Prime Cuts: The Best Meat and Poultry Recipes from America's Master Butchers." The color of the fat around the outside should be white, not yellow, he says. (Any variation in that color means the beef is not high quality, he says.)
Want an inexpensive and flavorful cut? Try hanger steaks. "Marinate and broil, like you would a regular steak," Lobel says. "The trick to cooking any steak is putting on kosher salt and fresh pepper. The less you put on a good steak, the better it will be."
Another good cut: a center-cut chuck steak. But stick to the center, says Lobel. "The further back you get, the tougher it gets."
Also try sirloin, which is a good cut. "The most reasonable" is top sirloin or butt steak, says Vaillancourt. "It's moderately priced and reasonably tender."
The reason the price is right is it's muscle, and it's not uniform. "Uniformity is what the restaurant world demands," he says.
Another good buy: shoulders, also called chuck. Look for the "shoulder clod," he says. To break down the fibers, marinate it, grill it and cut on the bias. "And it's flavorful and tender," Vaillancourt says.
In that same area, the undercut "is more suitable for pot roast," says Vaillancourt. With the bone, it's often called a "chuck steak."
Want to drag out the slow-cooker or make a pot of chili? "Chuck is really good for that," says Aidells. "It's often on sale. It has lots of different names, but anything with the word 'chuck' is fine."
For a good deal, pick up what's known as a "full strip loin" or "top loin," says Aidells. It can weigh 10 pounds to 12 pounds, and it's where the New York strip steaks are cut. Buy it whole and slice off equal 1- to 1½-inch slices. "Basically, you get about a dozen steaks," he says.
Or do the same with a boneless rib-eye. The whole piece will run 5 to 15 pounds, says Aidells. Estimate roughly one steak per pound.
"One other advantage is you get the thickness you want," says Aidells.
Some lesser-known chuck steaks that are high on flavor are the flat-iron steak, the ranch steak and the petite tender, says Aidells. "The trick is to be in front of the curve, before it gets discovered," he says.
One cut that's already popular, lean and still a good buy is flank steak. "It takes so well to marinades and dry rubs," Aidells says. Plus, there "tends to be no waste."
Chicken and turkey are not really seasonal, though prices spike before Thanksgiving and Christmas due to increased demand.
Vaillancourt picked up a capon for 49 cents per pound and a turkey for 69 cents per pound -- both frozen holiday surplus.
If you buy frozen: Check the bottom of the bird to make sure it was not frozen and refrozen, says Lobel. The tip-off: lumps of ice. Also be wary of cuts or damage to the packaging, or turkey that is gray or discolored. Another clue: the sell-by date.
But Lobel prefers fresh chicken. If you need to, you can freeze it yourself. He also selects chickens that are lighter in color because that means they have less fat and will lose less to "shrinkage," he says.
With turkey, legs are a good bargain, usually less than $1 per pound, says Aidells. Cut off the meat and use it for stews.
Want to get cheaper chicken? The cuts with the best flavor -- legs, thighs and wings -- are also in lowest demand. And if you know your way around a chicken, it can be really inexpensive to buy a whole bird and cut it up yourself.
"It doesn't have to be a perfect job," Lobel says. "Cut it in half, cut it in quarters and remove the wings."
In some cases, you might want to pay a little more, says Aidells. "I think the cheaper the chicken, the worse the chicken," he says. "I like to see people pay a bit more and get one with some flavor." His pick: kosher chicken.
Want a juicier finished product? Roast the chicken breastside down for three-quarters of the cooking, "so the moisture goes to the breast," then turn it over, says Lobel.
Pick of the Pork
Looking for ribs this summer? So is everyone else. Sparerib prices tend to skyrocket when everyone starts firing up their grills in the summer. Stock your freezer in January "and you can save 30 percent to 40 percent," says Lobel.
"Pork loins, boneless, center cut, are very, very reasonable," especially if you confine yourself to sales, says Vaillancourt.
If you like pork chops, consider a whole loin of pork. One way to really save money: "Cook that roast loin of pork without the bones," says Lobel. "Take the spareribs off and cut the pork into medallions, chops or cook it as a roast. By utilizing it in that fashion, you are saving a considerable amount of money."
Aidells says, "the absolute bargain in the pork department is anything from the leg." His picks: fresh ham or leg of pork. Have the butcher divide the leg into smaller roasts ranging from two to six. "These are great roasts, and you can cook them directly on the barbecue."
Also look for sirloin. "Any roast from that area is far superior to the pork loin, which is no bargain whatsoever," Aidells says.
Buy and Hold
If you're freezing meat, have the butcher freezer wrap it for you, says Lobel. Failing that, put the meat directly in a plastic bag and get all of the air out. You want it "almost air- and moisture-free," says Lobel. Then wrap it up, and put it in the freezer.
The quick trick to marinades and spice rubs: Apply before you freezer wrap it. "When the meat defrosts, the seasoning soaks into the meat," he says.
If you like to buy ahead and save, consider buying a dedicated meat freezer. If you keep meat and poultry in the same freezer that you're opening 10 times a day, you want to store it for two months max, says Lobel. But if you have a dedicated freezer that gets and stays cold, then you can keep it for "easy, six months."
Want to know if that meat freezer is cold enough? The test: Look for one that freezes ice cream hard, says Lobel.
Really want to make sure you're getting the most for your money? Ask the butcher.
"Nine out of 10 times, the butchers will be more than happy to tell you what they think is the best cut," says Lobel. "And that's the one you should listen to."