How to Best Use Cheap Cuts of Beef
Beef can be pricey, so you're not alone in looking for cuts that are less expensive. I reached out to Robin Bashinsky, Time Inc. Food Studios recipe developer (and co-host of the hilarious cooking show Homemade Vs. the Internet), to chat about the most popular cheap cuts around and how to prepare them in the tastiest fashion. Because even if you're trying to save money, nobody wants a dry, stringy dinner!
Are You Cooking It Fast or Slow?
First question: Are you craving stew or do you want something to cook up fast in a wok? That will help you decide how to select your meat.
In short: Use your eyes. "Look for fat," says Bashinsky, whether you're at the grocery store or the butcher. "If you see white marbling throughout, treat it like a stew meat." If not, you want to cook it quickly, and generally add moisture in the form of fat: Because there's so little of it, it's more likely the meat will be dry unless you treat it properly. So think about whether you want to make a slow Sunday stew or a quick stir-fry before you check out at the register.
Eye of Round
Sometimes sold as "eye of round roast" "eye round," or "round steaks," depending on whether it's a large lump of meat or individual steaks, this oddly named cut can be very reasonably priced, and it's extremely lean. This isn't a stew cut, says Bashinsky. "A lot of things that are quote-unquote 'cheaper' or 'tough' cuts of meat are full of fat and connective tissue and that sort of thing—stuff that breaks down well in a slow roasting situation," he explains. "Eye of round doesn't have that—it's very tough, but not tough because of fat; it's tough because it comes from the rump of the cow." Because it's a "super-used muscle," he explains, it's very lean. If you were to throw it into a slow-cooking stew, you'd end up with a tough, dense piece of meat.
Related Recipe: Pan Seared Chuck-Eye Steaks
You, as the cook, need to add moisture back into eye of round using oil or butter. Bashinsky likes to cook it quickly, like a steak. Here's how: "Put it in a roasting pan with a lot of oil," says Bashinsky. "The typical eye of round will take 45 minutes to cook at around 425 degrees, lowering to 350 after about 25 minutes." The key, he says, is to "actively baste with butter or oil." Take it out every 10 minutes or so to baste it, he urges, and keep it moist! And feel free to marinate the meat in advance, but he suggests you don't add salt to that marinade: "I don't put salt in a marinade because what salt does is take moisture out of things." Instead, he'd salt the meat shortly before cooking, and pat down the surface right before it hits the heat to try to get some browning. Then introduce fats. (NB: Some chefs will do a "dry marinade" the night before, salting and peppering the night before, then drying it off; it depends on the chef.)
You may have spied some odd-looking "stir fry beef" at the supermarket. As is true of stew meat, this is typically "leftovers from the big steaks or roasts," says Bashinsky. Again, look at how fatty this meat is to decide how to cook it. You may want marinate this cut, perhaps in the classic mix of soy and acid (as in this yummy recipe). Most likely, you're going to have lean meat that you'll want to stir-fry in a very hot wok, getting caramelization, and adding extra moisture by saucing it up at the end.
If you see heavily marbled "stew meat" at the butcher, take its name literally. Think: chili, beef burgundy, or "any kind of beef stew you'd do," says Bashinsky. This meat is ideal for slow braises or stews—even in a pressure cooker—and it tends to contribute a luscious mouthfeel (ahem, fat) to whatever you're cooking. It's not as crucial to marinate stew meat, typically, as its accompanying ingredients tend to permeate it over a long, slow cook. This is Sunday afternoon cooking at its finest—and it's easier to prepare than the also-yummy but bone-in oxtail.
Related Recipe: Moroccan Beef Daube
Last tip from the pro? "Shoulder tenderloin" and "tenderloin" are not the same! If you see something marked "shoulder tender," know that "it's not a tender thing," warns Bashinsky.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Bon Appétit, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.