We’ve all done it…. stood at the meat counter trying to figure out what to buy. And if we’re having guests, the decision is even more critical. Throw in the expense, especially if the wrong choice is made, and the process can be daunting.

Kansas State University’s Travis O’Quinn said there are ways to make smart choices and enjoy the flavor and aroma of meat while maximizing the grocery budget.

“There are a lot of options we have at the grocery stores right now to stretch our dollars when it comes to buying meat,” said O’Quinn, who is a meat science specialist with K-State Research and Extension. “Most consumers are familiar with T-bone steaks, ribeye strips and tenderloin steaks. However, many of those steak items are higher priced.”

Beef prices have been at record highs the past couple of years, due to a shortage of beef cattle that occurred when producers sold off their cattle due to drought in major beef states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Beyond the T-bone

In the last few years, alternatives to the more expensive cuts have been developed that produce satisfying grilling and eating experiences at a lower price than T-bones and tenderloins, said O’Quinn, who has a Ph.D. in meat science, specializing in meat quality and palatability and is a self-described grilling and barbecue enthusiast.

Flatiron steaks, that come from the area of the animal called the chuck, are now available at many retail stores and are less expensive than the cuts from the loin or the rib area. Other popular cuts from the chuck are the shoulder petite tender, Denver steak and the ranch steak. These cuts were developed in the last 10 years and compare favorably pricewise with the more traditional cuts.

Beef brisket tends to be high in price, but other beef cuts will work for chopping and shredding, including the beef clod and the beef chuck roll – both from the shoulder.

“They will go a long way and cook very similar to a beef brisket but at a much less cost per pound,” he said. “Beef tri-tip from the sirloin of the animal, can also be a good option, as is the beef culotte.”

The best way to identify these cuts is to check the label.

“Traditionally if you’re looking for good grilling cuts, retailers will list the primal cut, so they’d list ‘Beef, loin, t-bone steak,’” O’Quinn said. “Cuts that are from the rib or loin are almost always guaranteed to be tender and flavorful. Many of these other cuts come from the ‘chuck.’ In that case they’d say beef chuck flatiron steak, for example.”

Adding an enzymatic meat tenderizer (commonly containing papain, from the papaya) to a marinade is a great way to improve the tenderness of lower valued, tougher cuts, he said. Mechanically tenderizing meats using a handheld needle or blade tenderizer or a meat tenderizing mallet are other options.

Beef is typically labeled with U.S. Department of Agriculture quality grades. Consumers should look for meats that are USDA Choice in order to ensure a good eating experience, O’Quinn said.

The butcher at the full service counter is often knowledgeable about different cuts and cooking methods and can guide shoppers.

Be temperature savvy

When grilling, use a food thermometer, O’Quinn said. That helps ensure you’ll get a good outcome from a food safety standpoint but also ensures you’ll get the meat cooked to the degree of doneness you prefer, whether it’s medium, medium rare or well done.

Cook meat to 140 degrees F for rare; 160 degrees for medium; and 170 degrees for well done.

“If you’re using a food thermometer you’re guaranteeing that the steaks will come out exactly as you want.”

He said the best time to buy the meat is within a couple of days before you’ll cook it. Steaks have a tendency to brown after 3-4 days.

Know your steaks

O’Quinn outlined a few things about beef steaks that shoppers should know.

  • Beef Tenderloin – Most tender. Most expensive. Mild beef flavor and juiciness.
     
  • Ribeye – Tender and extremely flavorful. Relatively expensive. Increased fat content.
     
  • New York Strip – Tender and very lean. Mid-priced. Mild flavor. 
     
  • Sirloin – Very lean with good flavor. Less expensive. Less tender than some others.
     
  • Value Cuts (Flat Iron, Denver steak, Delmonico) – Good flavor and moderately tender, but tenderness is sometimes inconsistent. Less expensive than other steak cuts. Can be harder to find at retail markets.  

Right meat, right method

Some meats lend themselves better to certain cooking methods than others, O’Quinn said.

  • For the grill: Beef, pork, poultry or other, especially steaks, chops, tender cuts or ground meats.
     
  • For the slow cooker or oven: Beef or pork roasts, thick or tougher cuts.
     
  • For the smoker or to barbecue: Beef or pork roasts, less lean cuts (brisket, Boston butt, pork shoulder, ribs). Smoking does not tenderize the meat per se, but cooking “low and slow” like with BBQ, improves the tenderness of tough cuts by breaking down the proteins (collagen) in those cuts that are responsible for making them tough.