Here’s our cheat sheet on the best cheap cuts of meat that you can find at your average grocery store, including chicken, beef, and pork, as well as ideas on what to do with each cut. You may be surprised at how well you can eat while still being frugal.
We’re always looking for more ways to cut costs. One of the easiest ways to do that when it comes to cooking starts with our grocery list. Meat accounts for a pretty large portion of the food budget for many of us. We aren’t encouraging you to return to the days of canned meat (though this writer does have a fond place in his heart for a good Spam musubi). Instead, know that many of the best deals at the grocery store can be found by buying larger cuts of meat that have a lower price per pound.
The tradeoff for such a relatively cheap cut of meat? Usually a longer cooking time. Thankfully, the return on your time investment comes back in spades, especially since most of the time is hands-off with little to no supervision required. A small budget doesn’t need to mean small flavor. You simply need to understand how to handle these cheap cuts of chicken, pork, and beef.
National Average: $1.39 per pound*
In general, cuts of meat with the least processing or work on behalf of the butcher translate to the least cost to the consumer. So it should come as no surprise that a whole chicken is one of the most best cheap cuts around.
This is advantageous if you’re confident in your knife skills (or have a trusty pair of kitchen shears) because you can carve yourself some more expensive parts, such as chicken breasts, for just a little hands-on effort. However, a whole chicken on its own is a gift. You can roast it whole or spatchcock it to decrease the time in the oven or on the grill.
If you’ve roasted the hen whole, don’t even think about tossing that carcass, because you can make your own chicken stock in no time, another great way to stretch its value. (While we love the calm meditation of skimming stock as it burbles on the stovetop for hours, you can also take a hands-off approach by making slow cooker stock or even making small batches of microwave stock in minutes.)
The fryer and roaster distinction you’ll encounter on labels is just a matter of size, with larger chickens (read: older) costing more per pound than smaller ones. Larger chickens also tend to be a little tougher in texture than younger chickens, which is why younger chickens tend to be selected for recipes with quick-cooking times (hence the “fryer” name) and older ones are better for slow roasts in the oven (“roasters”).
Whole Chicken Recipes
Chicken Leg Quarters
National Average: $1.34 per pound*
Chicken leg quarters refers to the thigh and drumstick portions of the chicken still being connected to one another. Many old-school rustic French recipes call for this cheap cut of meat.
Bonus: You never have to try to decipher a particular weight of chicken to buy when planning dinner. Just buy as many leg quarters as you have people. Additionally, leg quarters are perfect for recipes that call for mixed chicken pieces, since all it takes is a quick incision to separate the leg from the thigh and you have mixed thighs and drumsticks.
Chicken Leg Quarter Recipes
National Average: $1.43 per pound*
With a massive rise in popularity over the last decade, chicken thighs have established themselves as one of the most reliable and coveted warriors in a home cook’s arsenal. With the extra fat as an insurance policy against becoming tough and drying out (yes, we’re looking at you, chicken breasts), they’re both economical and versatile, pairing with a seemingly endless array of global flavors. They can be roasted, grilled, pan-fried, slow-cooked, and even deep-fried. They’re one of our favorite go-to cheap cuts.
Chicken Thighs Recipes
National Average: $1.67 per pound*
An upside to the surge in popularity of chicken thighs is the abundance of leftover drumsticks, which usually means you can find them at exceptionally low prices. While the meat-to-bone ratio isn’t as generous as it is on a thigh, drumsticks retain their moisture and flavor like thighs while inviting a similar cooking treatment to chicken wings. So while they’re perfectly at home in a braise, the kid-friendly “stick” also invites being eaten with your hands, which begs for making fried chicken.
Chicken Drumstick Recipes
Pork Shoulder and Pork Butt
National Average: $1.39 per pound* (bone-in) / $2.45 per pound* (boneless)
Pork shoulder and pork butt (also sometimes called “Boston butt”) are frequently used interchangeably but are slightly different cuts. The inevitable confusion arises because what’s referred to as pork butt is actually from the front of the pig, not the rear. Both “butt” and “shoulder” cuts are from the front shoulders of the pig, with the “butt” being the part up and around the actual shoulder joint and the “shoulder” being from the joint down the front leg a ways.
While you can use these two cheap cuts interchangeably, you’ll get better results for certain things using one over the other. If fork-tender pulled pork is what you’re after, pork butt will provide the best results thanks to its ample marbling and tender texture that, when properly cooked, falls away at the prod of a fork and can easily be shredded for pulled pork. For dishes in which you want to be able to have slices that hold together (think porchetta), pork shoulder will provide you with tender yet sturdy slices with that signature exterior of crisped fat.
Pork Butt and Pork Shoulder Recipes
National Average: $1.89 per pound* (bone-in) / 1.68 per pound* (spiral-cut)
Hear us out. Ham’s not just for Easter and Christmas! Not only does it provide a ton of servings, but it really is the czar of reinvention when it comes to leftovers. While we can eat as many leftover ham sandwiches as the next pork aficionado, it also unlocks so many other delicious meals. Omelets. Gratins. Soup. Biscuits. Don’t forget about that bone, which can take the place of a ham hock in a split pea soup or a comforting pot of beans.
Pro tip: Cut your leftover ham into smaller pieces and freeze it that way. Diced ham thaws very quickly and then you don’t have to do additional prep work for some future last-minute meal.
National Average: $2.89 to $5.97 per pound* (depending on fat percentage)
Beef is easily the most expensive protein on this list, but there are less-expensive cuts. And none is less expensive than ground beef, which repurposes many cuts that are less traveled by the home cook into something that appeals to everybody.
Ground beef shouldn’t just be relegated to your standard burgers and chilis and casseroles and meatballs. It can also anchor a larger dish, such as shepherd’s pie. And while we’d eat Marcella Hazan’s bolognese any night of the week, a well-stocked spice cabinet and pantry and a little curiosity can reveal an entirely new world for this often looked-down-upon staple.
Ground Beef Recipes
Beef Chuck Roast
National Average: $5.06 per pound*
Granted, “chuck roast” isn’t the sexiest sounding name something could have. But all is forgotten and forgiven with the first bite of a slow-cooked pot roast with mashed potatoes. The chuck roast is the equivalent of “pork butt” on a cow, coming from the front shoulder area. Loaded with connective tissue and tough muscle that takes time to turn tender, this isn’t a candidate for quick weeknight meals, but give it several hours over low heat in which you slowly coax it to near falling-apart succulence, and you end up with a thing of beauty.
Apart from making delicious shredded beef dishes and pot roast, chuck roast becomes the perfect candidate for a braise or, if you cut the beef into small chunks, it’s ideal for things like stew or chile con carne. You can ask your butcher to do the chopping for you, though the more obsessive of us like to do this ourselves to ensure they’re all the same size.
Beef Chuck Roast Recipes
Easy Pot Roast With Potatoes and Vegetables
Trinchado ~ Spicy South African Beef
Caçoila ~ Portuguese Stewed Beef
Braised Beef with Red Wine Pasta
Korean-Style Sloppy Joes
Instant Pot Chuck Roast
National Average: $4.97 per pound*
The scare quotes simply mean that “London broil” technically isn’t a cut of meat, but rather a name for all cuts of meat that can be prepared as broiled marinated beef that’s thinly sliced across the grain. Traditionally, this was always flank steak, but the term has since expanded to include top round and other sirloin cuts. You can ask at your meat counter to find out exactly what cut the label “London broil” on the package means. Whatever cut you end up buying, since it’s boneless and doesn’t have any pockets of fat, you can eat 100% of what you buy and it makes for a cost-effective way to feed steak to a group.
These lean and tough cheap cuts will all be prepared the same way: marinade for a long time and cook quickly over high heat. The meat is often marinated overnight to ensure the acids begin to tenderize it. And short cook time also means that the marinade is responsible for a lot of the flavor and may rely on the boldest players in your pantry (think Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and curry paste) to help achieve maximum flavor.
London Broil (and Flank Steak) Recipes
*Prices reflect “USDA National Retail Report,” April 2022, and are subject to change.
Originally published February 25, 2021
© 2021 Jack Van Amburg. All rights reserved. All materials used with permission.