The Most Affordable Cuts of Beef, According to a Butcher

An artisanal butcher describes a few favorite cuts that are just as delicious as pricey premium steaks.

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Over the past few years, whole-animal butcher Etana Diaz has noticed a positive trend among customers when it comes to their beef purchases: Once tough-sell alternative cuts have become cool — at least, when people have the time to cook them.

“Customers are more educated on nose-to-tail eating,” says the San Diego-based Diaz. “They’re willing to try a lot of cuts that aren’t as popular because it’s something different.”

Hard-working cuts from the shoulder and legs have more sinew and connective tissue, thus requiring lower, slower cooking — often in liquid — to coax out tenderness. Alas, our penchant for convenience wins all too often, meaning we turn to quicker-cooking standbys “from the middle,” like skirts and flanks. But as grocery bills soar (prices for food at home climbed 7.1% in April 2023 compared to a year earlier, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics), more home cooks are embracing alternative cuts that can save precious dollars and still yield succulent results.

“There’s joy in taking the time and care to transform something so it is velvety and soft and delicious,” Diaz says, adding that the oft-longer cook times that come with these cuts can help us appreciate the animal’s sacrifice. She shares her favorite alternative beef cuts and the cooking styles that will bear the tastiest results.

Related: Best Steak Recipes

Pick a top round cap for hearty braises



When cold weather calls for a braise, Diaz favors the top round cap, which sits atop the round on the leg muscle and is usually ground or formed into premade burger patties.

“What’s nice about it is it has this really long muscle grain structure, similar to flank steak,” Diaz says. “If you slow braise it for two and a half hours tops, it will just shred apart.”

A hard-working muscle, it’s juicy and flavorful, which is why Diaz prefers it for ropa vieja rather than pricier, scarcer flank. Speaking of braising, Diaz’s go-to for boeuf bourguignon or shredding into empanadas is the featherblade, or the muscle from which flatiron steaks are cut. When cut into 2-inch pieces for boeuf bourguignon, it takes at least an hour and a half to stew. “A gristly seam runs through the middle, but it breaks down into beautiful collagen and adds a lot of flavor into the braising liquid,” she explains.

Swap in petite sirloin for steak



Tenderloin steaks, cut from the top loin near the spine, are favored for their — duh — tenderness, but whole-animal butchers run out fast since cattle have only two. Fortunately, Diaz prefers the petite sirloin, or side muscle on a top sirloin, for steak.

“When you isolate that muscle and take out any silver skin and gristly bits, it is just as comparable to the tenderloin chew-wise — very soft — but it has way more flavor, and you cook it exactly the same as a tenderloin steak,” she says.

Grind up shoulder clod and ranch steak for meatballs



The key to succulent meatballs is a Goldilocks approach to fat ratios. The meat needs to be not so lean that they’ll dry out, but also not so fatty they’ll get gummy. Answer: the shoulder clod, an oblong muscle near the foreshank that resembles a giant rugby ball and is often diced for stew meat.

“It’s super-versatile, with a bold, beefy flavor that’s great for meatballs,” Diaz says. For even more depth, consider blending it with ground ranch steak. Technically the boneless chuck shoulder center cut steak, this is another of Diaz’s favorites for “super-beefy” pan-seared steaks. “It has a seam through the middle, which is a tiny bit chewy, but not offensive,” she says. “You can do a lot of things with it: make steaks or stew meat, grind it for meatballs or mix it into a burger blend.”

Make a Thor's Hammer steak the centerpiece of your next dinner party

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With ribeyes averaging over $30 per pound, a standing rib roast can easily run you into the hundred(s). Enter Thor’s hammer, a bone-in beef shank with the top two inches of bone exposed and frenched, for a stunning dinner party centerpiece. Resembling unctuous osso buco in flavor and texture, this beef shank takes a few hours to braise in a Dutch oven (Diaz recommends adding several generous glugs of dry red wine to the pot). The presentation is memorable: “It’s fun to serve it standing up straight, and you just see this massive hunk of meat with a beautiful exposed bone,” Diaz says.

Plus, it’s way cooler to tell your guests, “We’re having Thor’s Hammer for dinner.”

After picking up one of these cuts, Diaz recommends a few other butcher shop finds. While you are there, she suggests picking up some beef tallow. Sold in small tubs at most butcher shops, beef tallow lasts for months in the fridge, has a super-high smoking point and adds restaurant-quality depth of flavor to everything from steaks and crispy beef tallow roasted potatoes to vegetables and braising liquid. “You don’t need much to add a little pizzazz,” Diaz says.

And don’t sleep on the opportunity to upgrade homemade beef stock. Ask your butcher for the collagen-rich knuckle bones, which are Diaz’s favorite for beef stock. She starts by roasting them at 350°F for 30 to 40 minutes or until they turn golden brown. Then she simmers them with aromatics for a low and slow 24 hours, occasionally skimming off the foam. “I put the stock in mason jars in my freezer, then use it anytime I’m making a stew, or sometimes just as a sipping broth.”

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