THE CALIFORNIA COOK
Smart steak cuts for lean times
Done right, cheap steaks cooked on the grill taste great. Your guests will never know the difference.
Set the steak out about an hour before grilling to allow it to come to room temperature.
These days, in case you haven't heard, things are different.
But mean times don't necessarily mean mingy meals. You just have to be a little more selective in your buying and a little more creative in your cooking. Though your $30-per-pound safety net may be frayed, rest assured that your summertime barbecues can continue -- perhaps even with applause.
Cheap steaks don't necessarily make you a cheapskate. As they say in the Business section, it's all about seeking out overlooked values and making the most of them. The good news is that it's a lot easier to do that at the butcher shop than it is on the stock market.
The first step is learning a few new cuts of meat. Forget about the big names: porterhouse, New York strip, T-bone and rib-eye. If you find these at an affordable price, they're probably going to be of such a low grade that you're really buying the name only.
In fact, you can almost guarantee that if a cut of meat has a name you recognize from the menu at your favorite steakhouse, you're going to have to put it behind you. Those places specialize in luxury cuts, and those almost always come at a steep price.
Instead, focus on humbler steaks: flank, tri-tip, top sirloin and sirloin tip. These cost half as much as fancier cuts in a comparable grade, but they've still got great flavor.
It's not quite as easy as that though. There are a couple of catches. First, you're probably going to need to remember all those names. As the space devoted to meat in grocery stores continues to shrink, the selection gets tighter and tighter. While a good market may stock four or five luxury cuts, it may have only two or three of the plainer varieties.
To make matters worse, there are lots of other cuts of beef that sound like they should make good grilling that don't. These are the steaks that aren't really steaks. Chuck, for instance, has great flavor but is so tough that it needs to be braised. The same is true of round, seven-bone, clod and the rest of their ilk.
And then there are the steaks that were previously good deals until they got discovered and popularized on restaurant menus -- skirts, hangers, flatirons.
Timing is everything
There are a couple of reasons that less-expensive steaks don't have a reputation as luxury cuts. They have great flavor, but they can be a little tough. That's OK; slice them thinly across the grain and no one will notice.
Also, with the exception of tri-tip, they tend to be much leaner, which means you've got to be spot-on with your cooking to keep them moist and juicy. Overcooking a great steak is sad; overcooking one of these is a tragedy.
That problem is squared when you're cooking pork chops. With today's pigs being bred and raised to produce the "other white meat," loin chops are so lean it's almost impossible to keep them moist and flavorful on the grill.
Fortunately, there's our old friend the pork butt to come to the rescue, the one cut of the pig that still has a decent amount of fat. Cutting a steak from one is simple: Trim off any big chunks of exterior fat, then slice the meat across the grain into steaks that are one-half to three-fourths of an inch thick. The Italians call this cut the spalla, and I learned about it from master butcher Dario Cecchini.
You won't be able to use the whole butt -- there's an oddly shaped bone at one end -- but the leftover meat can be diced and used for chili or kebabs.
There are a couple of things I've learned over the last couple of years about grilling meat.
The first is the importance of seasoning it as soon as you get it home from the market. This is true even if you're shopping the day before (in that case, keep it covered in the refrigerator and bring it out an hour before cooking to get it closer to room temperature).
You don't need to use any more seasoning than you normally would, but letting the meat sit for a while before cooking dramatically improves the flavor. For beef, a simple mix of coarse salt and a generous grinding of black pepper is all it takes. For pork, I like to use a combination of salt, black pepper and fennel seeds, ground coarsely.