Thrifty eats – we put cheap cuts of meat to the test!

posted by in Saving money

We love saving money, especially if it means not having to compromise on quality. And meat is one of those areas where quality really matters.

Are “cheap” cuts of meat always all that cheap? Can they be as tasty as more expensive cuts of meat? Are they a nightmare to cook with? Are the MoneyAware team all terrible cooks?

We’ve experimented with cooking with four different types of cheap cuts of meat to see if they’re good value and tasty (plus one vegetarian option, to show you don’t always need to eat meat!).

Chicken thighs – Rory

Chicken thighs

Chicken thighs are perfect for BBQs, or marinated and served with salad or rice. Although you pay a bit less for drumsticks, you get more meat on the thighs so I think it’s better value overall.

My meal was a homemade version of the famous ‘cheeky’ piri-piri restaurant that people love. I coated the thighs in own-brand spicy marinade, grilled them for 30 minutes and finished with some spicy rice and corn on the cob. I usually make this recipe with chicken breasts, but it was actually more authentic to use the thighs with the skin on (although it’s a bit unhealthier for those watching their weight).

The end result was every bit as good as I’d hoped for. I paid just over £2 for 750g of chicken which is very good value, and I’ve still got loads left for later this week. The only thing I had to be careful of was that the chicken took longer to cook compared to chicken breasts, so I had to spend more time sitting down (which was very tiring).

Overall it worked out at about £2 a meal, but would be even cheaper next time as I’ve got rice and corn on the cob left over for tonight!

Beef shin – Rachel

Beef shin

I’m not a culinary expert, but trying to cook beef shin led me to my lowest culinary moment yet. I tried to follow this recipe but the worst thing was that it wasn’t even that cheap. Once I’d got the vegetables to go with it I spent nearly ten quid on the meal.

Because I made such a terrible mess of it i couldn’t even bring myself to eat the left-overs the next day. I probably should have asked the butcher for a smaller quantity, but I had too much meat and it took way too long to cook.

I’ve written an article with a full explanation of just how badly cooking beef shin went for me but needless to say I won’t be cooking this meal again.

Mutton neck / scrag end – James

scrag end stew

Mutton isn’t the most appealing sounding meat around. That’s especially true of scrag end, the neck area of the sheep. It doesn’t help that scrag end is typically the expression used to describe the worst, leftover piece of something.

So it’s no surprise that my wife wasn’t particularly happy when I told her I was serving up a scrag end stew. I really wish I’d told her that it was lamb I was feeding her, but then it would have been mutton dressed as lamb (badum tsh).

It was tricky to find a butcher that sold scrag end but I’d heard it was cheap and tasty so I eventually tracked down a butcher in Leeds market that sold me some. I threw it in the slow cooker with some potatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes with some stock cubes added for flavour then left it to cook while I was at work.

When I got back I had a delicious but very fatty stew waiting for me. The scrag end tasted pretty good, similar to lamb with a bit more flavour. The fat was hard to get rid of, so took the edge off the meal slightly but I’d definitely cook with it again. Even my wife admitted it was a tasty meal, despite her initial misgivings.

Pork shoulder – Peer

Lamb shoulder

Pork shoulder is great as a Sunday lunch joint. Cooked well, over many hours, you’ve got some really tender meat (like pulled pork, if you’re a fan of that), lots of crackling (so bad but oh so good), and, if you can avoid scoffing the lot, some meat left over for a sandwich or two during the week.

I used a James Martin recipe I found on BBC Food, for pork shoulder with apple sauce, where the apples go in with the pork to cook. I like James Martin’s recipes – always very simple, for the lazier among us.

The end result was great, but as you can see by the photo, in my effort to get the crackling nice and crispy I probably left it in the oven a bit too long. Oh, and the apple sauce had a bit too much fat from the pork in it for my liking. That didn’t make much difference to the taste, but I’ll not win Masterchef anytime soon.

Was it worth the money? I bought a kilo of meat from the butchers for three quid, a couple of bramley apples for the sauce, and a lemon for its juice, plus some potatoes to go with it (so about four pounds spent all told), and it gave me and my wife a lovely Sunday tea.

But as for value for money, you’ve also got to weigh up whether having the oven on for between three and four hours is worthwhile. It was for me, and I’ll be cooking it again, although I might just watch it a bit more closely next time, to avoid the burnt bits!

Meat-free option – Laura

Lentil curry

I’m a vegetarian, so I save money on buying meat by not buying it. There are lots of meat substitutes available which are cheaper than meat and can be fairly tasty. However, I prefer to avoid those and use lentils, pulses and beans instead.

I loosely followed this recipe for a sweet potato and lentil curry which I think is just as tasty as any meat filled meal. It was really easy to make: just fry up some onions, garlic, and spices (I used turmeric and cumin), chuck on a tin of tomatoes and tin of coconut milk, and then add some lentils and sweet potato. Give it a stir and leave it to bubble away until everything is soft. Add a couple of handfuls of coriander. Eat.

Verdict – it was actually really nice! I ended up having to add a pinch of dried chilies because it wasn’t spicy enough for us, but it was yummy, filling and pretty cheap, so I can’t complain! I halved a recipe for 6 people, so I didn’t expect to get as much food out of it as I did – it ended up making 4 meals. We had enough for dinner for the two of us, plus enough left over to freeze for a quick meal another time, and all for about three quid.

Conclusion – what are the best cheap cuts of meat?

Pork shoulder and chicken thighs are the clear winners here, though scrag-end was surprisingly tasty but a little fatty. Beef shin, at least the way Rachel cooked it, isn’t a good option. Of course, you can save even more money on meat by not buying it at all and cooking a veggie meal like Laura’s curry.

Really it’s a matter of experimenting and seeing where you can save money but still make a decent meal. As a general rule, cheap meat can be just as good as the more expensive types, but you’ll probably need to cook it for quite a lot longer.

Do you have a favourite cheap cut of meat? Pop it in the comments and tell us the best way to cook it!

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James Winterbottom has been a debt advisor for six years. Away from work he is an amateur app developer and writes fiction. James is a lifelong supporter of Huddersfield Town football club, which suggests he is either very loyal or very daft. He also likes to talk about himself in the third person in bio pages.

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