The Best Inexpensive Barbecue Meats

By Elizabeth Sheer,

Along with summer come all kinds of sensory reminders about the pleasures of outdoor grilling. Staples like hamburgers and hot dogs, prime examples of cheap barbecue meats, are nearly universal on these shores. But that's no reason to limit your options. There are regional preferences worth considering and a wide assortment of relatively inexpensive cuts of meat that can liven up your barbecue feasts.

We spoke with several grilling aficionados and butchers to learn about their favorite cheap barbecue meats and were quickly convinced that delicious outdoor cooking needn't singe your household budget. In fact, some of the best barbecue treats come from cheaper cuts of meat. We've set our sights on beef, poultry, and pork. Generally speaking, lamb and exotic meats like bison and ostrich are way out of our price range.

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A bit of clarification is called for here: If you come from the south, you know there's a world of difference between barbecuing and grilling. Although the terms are used interchangeably elsewhere, they do connote different cooking methods. Grilling refers to the art of cooking over a direct source of heat - it's fast and hot and suited for foods such as shrimp, pork chops, steaks, and chicken that should be cooked quickly. Technically speaking, barbecuing is a long, slow process that calls for an indirect source of heat, usually hot air and smoke from charcoal or wood. For our purposes, though, we'll default to the non-southern word usage.

Our experts weigh in on their favorite cuts of meat for BBQ.
Our experts weigh in on their favorite cuts of meat for BBQ.

Beef. Legions of burger fans can rejoice. The best cut of meat for this perennial favorite is chuck, which is usually more than a dollar cheaper per pound than less fatty cuts.

But surely you want to know, is there another penny-saving choice? Cheap cuts of meat thrown on a grill often end up tough on the plate. Butchers say the best approach with cheap cuts is marinating before grilling. Most cooks have a favorite marinade recipe, but what they all have in common is acid, like vinegar, that tenderizes the meat. Flank steak, for instance, benefits greatly from a long marinade, preferably overnight. When the barbecue beckons, says one butcher, cook this cheap barbecue meat quickly and cut across the grain in thin slices for the best results.

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Hangar steak, another cheap barbecue meat, has gained an ardent following in recent years. It's a cut that butchers love and used to be called "butcher's steak". Like flank steak, it gains a special something from bathing in a marinade and should be grilled quickly on high heat and then cut across the grain.

One of our respondents, who grills in the hills of western Massachusetts, says the family favorite is shoulder steak. This cut is far cheaper than the butcher picks, quite a bit thicker than flank steak and hangar steak, and also a bit on the tough side. Marinate away and serve in thin slices.

Butchers consider sirloin a cheap barbecue meat and say it's the best bet for the grill. That may well be, but frugal consumers must surely have another opinion about the price of this tender cut. If this is what you're hungering for, however, you can save a bundle by cutting the meat into cubes and interspersing it on a skewer with vegetables. (Speaking of kebabs, experts say that cheaper cuts of lamb, like the shank, make the best skewered meals.)

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Brisket is spoken of with reverence in the south, where recipes for rub are prized and often hidden in a vault or the recesses of a chef's memory. Its price point is about on par with flank steak and hangar steak, but brisket feeds a crowd and is amenable to long, slow cooking. In other words, this is truly a cheap barbecue meat. One informant suggests keeping the coals on one side of the grill and placing the meat on the other.

Poultry. Now we come to the humble and very cheap chicken. Every cook has a preferred way to jazz up this bird, but for the best deal, buy a whole one and cut it up yourself. A package of pre-cut chicken - especially with just one part of the chicken, like leg quarters or breasts - often costs a good $2 more per pound than a whole chicken. And don't throw out the bony wings; marinate overnight and give them a quick trip over the coals.

Whole turkey breast is a regional favorite fit for a hungry horde, reports a New Englander. This unheralded but cheap barbecue meat should be grilled with the skin on. For a special treat, stuff butter and fresh herbs under the skin and baste frequently to keep it moist.

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Pork. For the best barbecue, says our southern correspondent, nothing beats the pig. Moreover, pork is generally cheaper than beef and some cuts are usually cheaper than chicken, not to mention meatier.

Whether you're using beef, pork, or chicken, you can find a good cut for less.
Whether you're using beef, pork, or chicken, you can find a good cut for less.

A whole pork butt or pork shoulder is about the cheapest cut of meat you can find. Use a wet or dry rub - see if you can unlock one of those closely guarded secret recipes - and slow cook until it pulls apart.

One butcher we spoke with advises against using pricier tenderloin -- too dry, he says, and even with lots of love and lots of oil, it's not worth the bother. Less costly bone-in cuts are a far better idea. Ribs, for example, don't have much meat, but well-rubbed and basted and they're among the best barbecue treats. Another butcher tip: brine the ribs or give them a dip in boiling water to tenderize. Wet rubs or dry, it doesn't matter -- either adds flavor and zest to this cheap barbecue meat.

In case hotdogs have fallen off your shopping list (questionable ingredients, insist some consumers), try substituting Italian or some other type of sausage. Bratwurst, for example, has long been favored in the Midwest and by those of German ancestry. Our informants tell us that sausage has more flavor and less salt than hot dogs, cooks quickly and tastes delicious. Regardless which variety you buy, this is another cheap barbecue meat that can spice up any al fresco dining experience.

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