Thursday, February 17, 2011

How to Eat Groceries - The Meat of the Matter

Of all the foods we are likely to serve our family, meat is the highest priced segment of the food categories and how we choose the cuts we eat, what cuts we choose and how we cook them can make a world of difference in our budgets, our reputations as cooks and our family's nutritional needs.

I mentioned earlier this week that my father was very adamant about what he considered a meal.  In his book, any meal that featured ground beef, hot dogs or casseroles was NOT a proper meal.  There were a few exceptions where ground beef was concerned but he was absolutely unswayed on the rest.  So although my mother worked hard to garden/can/freeze/preserve vegetables each year she had a fairly high grocery budget all my growing up years because the cuts of meat she was required to purchase to satisfy my dad's concept of a meal were not inexpensive.  However, Mama learned to buy while on sale and stocked her freezer and kept costs a little lower in that way.

I've shared a variety of meatless meals with you that I find satisfied my family over and over again.  Not just my family mind you for in the early days of our marriage Chance and I often had guests in our home, often last minute guests, who joined our family at our small dining table in the cramped dining area of our home.  So you see it was especially imperative that I learn how to keep the budget in alignment.

These days our budget is a little more lenient but I still choose to practice some care in serving meat and now that we're in the midst of this economic recession/depression/crisis/whatever, I'm glad that I did.  I have been able to fall back on some of my old budget tricks to keep our spending about the same, while continuing to serve tasty meals despite the increase of costs at the grocery and the lack of raises in our pay. 

One of the things I find most helpful: a cost per serving limit.  Of late, I'm finding that my high per pound cost for meats is about $3.25.  That is not to say that I spend that much per pound on every single cut.  Chicken may be had for less than that amount, even boneless skinless chicken breasts, if bought on sale.  Whole breasts often cost no more than $1.20 on sale these days, and a whole chicken can be as low as $1 per pound. 

Various cuts of beef roasts run anywhere from $3.09 to $3.59/pound, with the occasional dip below $3.    This week our local grocery has Sirloin tip roast for $2.99/pound. Unlike chicken parts, beef roasts can be downright confusing.  However, there are illustrations both online and in cookbooks to teach you where various cuts originate.  I will share my somewhat limited knowledge of beef cuts with you. 

First, do not look at the pictures in ads.  All too often, as in this week's local grocer's sales ad, the picture of sirloin tip is of a lovely big roast.  Next week when they advertise rump roast or shoulder roast or round roast it will all look exactly the same per the picture in the ad.  Each cut looks different than the picture!

Sirloin roast is going to typically be a flat cut of meat, not at all round and luscious looking.  It is a lean cut of meat and slightly darker in color in than say chuck roast.    In fact, a sirloin roast is best for slow cooking such as pot roast.  It may be cubed and used as stew beef (and for this week's price it is well worth buying one or two extra roasts to cube!).  It may also be ground for extra lean ground beef.  And again, for the cost of this week's roast, it is more than worthwhile to have the butcher grind a couple of them for me.  If I buy four roasts at this price and have one set aside for pot roast, I will save $.30/pound over the cost of chuck roast, $1.25 pound over the cost of stew beef and about the same again over the cost of ground sirloin.  If I had room in my freezer, I'd purchase another roast and ask the butcher to slice it into steaks and then cube it twice for cubed steaks (and save about $1.50 per pound).  And note that all these savings keep my per pound costs below the $3.25 limit while offering me a variety of usages far beyond merely eating a pot roast.

Any cut of meat that has the word 'loin' in it is going to be leaner and usually higher in cost.  Chuck is higher in fat.  Shoulder cuts generally require long slow roasting or simmering, while rump or butt cuts are larger cuts that may be roasted and slice nicely.

It's very difficult to offer general recipes for meats or meal ideas, because quite honestly different cuts and varieties of meats are popular in different parts of the country.  We see few briskets in the South, however these are hugely popular cuts in the Northern states.  Different cuts of meat go by different names in various regions of the nation as well.  It's only been in the past five years that we had a source for lamb in our area. 

Let me encourage you to experiment with cuts of meats, and varieties.  Use recipes you find in cookbooks or online.  Try herbs or sauces or rubs to season.  Take into account how you might use leftovers before seasoning meats.  The roast I cooked today was rubbed with a whole grain mustard and garlic which is well suited to hot or cold sandwiches, a roast dinner.  If you plan to use a chicken to make a chicken pot pie, you might not want the roasted chicken served the night before to be teriyaki flavored.  However if you did choose to use teriyaki sauce you might well use those leftovers in a meal of chicken fried rice or egg rolls which would compliment the flavor of both dishes.

In years past, I enjoyed cooking liver.  Chance isn't fond of it and while 3 of the six of the family do like liver, we tend to reserve that dish as a special meal just for ourselves.  Susan often used cuts of meat I'd never tried, including tripe because it was so well priced. 

Tuna and salmon are now popular as fresh fish in the market but the canned varieties were all I knew growing up.  While they are considerably higher in cost these days they are still good value for the money.  Tuna packed in oil works best in most casseroles, there is something about  mixing water packed tuna with hot pastas that makes the flavor incredibly bland, while tuna packed in water is better for cold dishes and tuna burgers.  Salmon has a strong enough flavor to carry well in most casseroles and is good as a salmon loaf.  And it may be served as a cold salad, as well.

Here's my rule of thumb when buying meat.  I go for an average cost per pound.  Skill in the meat department isn't just about the cost per pound however, it's really in lowering your cost per serving.

Let's look at the well known Rubber Chicken meal.  One whole chicken at a cost of $1.59 per pound, weighs in at an average of 3 pounds.  Total cost   $4.77.  If that one chicken is cut into pieces and served to your family of four (2 breasts, 2 legs), you save the 2 thighs to make a bowl of chicken salad for lunch sandwiches for four, and then toss the carcass and wings into the soup pot and make soup, you have managed 12 servings from that one chicken.  That is less than $.40 per serving. 

On the other hand, one pound of ground beef will serve four burgers.  At a cost of $3.50 per pound, the burgers will average about $.75 each.  On the other hand, take that same amount of meat, divide into two half pound portions and use one to make a big pot of chili with beans which will net you six-eight servings, and use the other half to make up a big batch of spaghetti sauce to serve six to eight.  The costs are lowered still further and if you happen to combine 2 cups leftover chili with a can of drained corn and top with cornbread batter for tamale pie and serve four, reserve 1 cup spaghetti sauce to top a homemade pizza you have lowered the costs dramatically, haven't you?

However, this is complicated math when I'm in the midst of grocery shopping.  I tend to buy meat on sale without a specific meal plan in mind at the time of purchase, and only a  sense of how I might use it based on experience.  Hence my determination to have a solid price point to base purchasing decisions upon.  It's up to me once I get that meat home to determine how I might best use it. 


Lisa said...

This post was so informative and practical for me! Thank you for sharing your ideas and experience!

Rhonda said...

it was not that long ago that I only bought ground beef when it was less than $1 and other meats less than $2. and cheese for $2 or less a pound.
oh, the good old days!

you are so right about a rubber chicken being a better deal than plain meat burgers