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5 Ways to Make Cheap Beef Taste Expensive

Swiss steak by Amanda's Cooking, someone salting a steak, and beef stew by Once Upon a Chef.
Amanda’s Cooking/Steamy Kitchen/Once Upon a Chef

We often find ourselves having the expensive craving of a juicy, melt-in-your-mouth steak. A well-marbled prime cut costs a pretty penny. But we’ll show you how to turn cheaper cuts of beef into a tender meal you’ll love!

Just because you can’t afford a prime cut of beef at the moment doesn’t mean you have to forego a steak altogether! We’ll school you on how marbling affects the overall quality (and price) of a steak, as well as offering few tried-and-true methods and some recipes to turn cheap steaks into tender, delicious cuts.

What Is Marbling?

Two ribeye steaks displaying really nice marbling througout both cuts.
Andrei Iakhniuk/Shutterstock.com

When you look at a steak,  you’ll notice thin white streaks running through the meat, often creating a “marbled” appearance. Marbling is a really nice word for intramuscular fat, which is different from intermuscular fat (aka, the really thick pieces you trim off).

The degree of marbling within a steak determines the grade, and therefore, the price. That’s because a really fine-marbled steak boasts the juiciest, tenderest, and, overall, best eating experience.

Those tiny strips of fat are thin enough to essentially melt away during the cooking process, which is why the steak becomes so tender and flavorful. So next time you’re wondering why a ribeye evenly speckled with thin white streaks costs so much, it’s the marbling.

It’s also why those uniformly hued red steaks cost so much less. When marbling isn’t present, your steak will become tough when cooked.

Luckily, though, there are some methods you can use to tenderize even those cuts of beef.

Tenderize the Beef with Salt

Believe it or not, something as simple as salt can make a tough cut more tender. Some even say this is one of the very best techniques to reach a buttery-rich tenderness.

To try this method, just arrange your steaks on a baking sheet, and then generously coat them with coarse kosher or sea salt (not table salt).

The large granules of salt will dissolve into the steak and break down some of those tough, chewy muscle fibers. Let it sit covered in the salt for at least an hour at room temperature.

Then, rinse the steaks in cold water and pat them dry. Season them (avoid any additional salt, though), and then cook to your desired degree of doneness. We recommend temping without a thermometer or using a reliable instant-read thermometer.

Cook It Low and Slow

A white 5.5 quart Le Creuset Dutch oven with a bunch of asparagus on the side.
Le Creuset

Who doesn’t love a hot, hearty stew with tender chunks of beef that fall apart in each bite? Cooking meats at a low degree over several hours is a one-fits-all tactic for achieving tender results, and there’s no better cookware for the job than a Dutch oven. 

So, why does this method work so well? Well, beef and other meats contain collagen, which is tough at first, but liquefies when cooked low and slow. That’s how your inexpensive cuts can be turned into a wonderfully tender dinner.

When these lower-quality cuts of beef lack fat, they lack flavor, too, so the broth matters even more. The more flavorful your stew, broth, or sauce, the tastier your steak will be, too.

Slice Against the Grain

You’ll notice all cuts of beef contain muscles fibers running throughout. Instead of cutting parallel to them, cut against the grain. This will give your mouth less of a workout when chewing. This small, but reliable tip, is an excellent example of how one small tweak can ensure the perfect mouthfeel.

Luckily, it’s pretty simple to determine which way the grain runs in raw meat because you can see the lines.

Pound It

Someone tenderizing steak using a meat mallet.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

Meat tenderizers are those heavy-duty aluminum mallets with two surfaces: one smooth and one textured. This dangerous hammer-looking tool can be a friend in the kitchen, especially when it comes to working with tough cuts of meat.

Now, there’s no need to pound that poor piece of meat into mush—a few solid pounds with the textured side to flatten it a bit should do. This process breaks down the connective tissues and gives you much better results when it’s time to eat.

Before pounding, be sure to wrap the meat in cling wrap so you can avoid splashing raw meat everywhere and cause cross-contamination. 

Sous Vide

A person placing a bagged steak into a stock pot full of water to use an Anova sous vide precision cooker to cook it.

Sous vide is a gentle cooking process that uniformly cooks your steak in a controlled environment. When using this method with beef, your steak will reach a temperature that’s perfect for breaking down tough protein without high and quick temperatures.

This results in a much more tender and flavorful steak. There’s a lot to learn when you first get into sous vide, but when cooking steak, don’t forget to season and sear that bad boy before eating.

Now, it’s time to put your knowledge (and tools) to the test with some recipes that use all the techniques we just covered.

Choice-to-Gucci Steak

Someone generously salted steaks to help break down the muscle tissue and tenderize the meat.
Steamy Kitchen

You know a bit of this mad method of tenderizing tough cuts of beef. Now, it’s time to give it a try for yourself. This simple step-by-step guide will provide you with detailed instructions that are easy to follow.

Beef Stew

Two bowls of hot beef stew cooked low and slow by Once upon a chef.
Once Upon a Chef

We love a hearty stew cooked on low heat for several hours. Not only do the aromatics fill your home with the most soul-satisfying aroma, but the chunks of meat and potatoes will warm your belly like nothing else.

This Beef Stew is an excellent guide on how to turn tough cuts into tender bites. The recipe calls for chuck roast, the classic kind of meat used in beef stew.

However, now that you know the secret, try using cheaper alternatives. For example, we made this recipe with a few $5 steaks, and the meat in our stew was oh, so tender.

Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce

A staub enameled cast iron skillet filled flank steak, cut against the grain smothered with scratch chimmichurri sauce.
Le Creme de la Crumb

Flank steak used to be inexpensive, but now, a slab will cost you a lot more. You can follow this exact recipe, but ask your butcher for the chuck flap or flap steak—these are usually cheaper than the very similar flank.

Oven Swiss Steak

An enameled cast iron skillet filled with swiss steaks in mushroom gravy.
Amanda’s Cookin’

Swiss steak is another excellent example of a recipe that takes a cheap steak and turns it into a yummy dinner. This dish is traditionally made with a tomato-based sauce, but you’ll also find recipes like this one, which features a gravy sauce.

First, you’ll ensure a tender steak by first pounding a few tough rounds with your tenderizer. Then, just let it cook in a scratch sauce or gravy for a couple of hours.

The pounding and slow-cooking methods used here result in a plate of tender deliciousness.

Sous Vide Steak

A vacuum sealed steak placed into a water bath before being cooked sous vide style.
Salt Pepper Skillet

This recipe walks you through the steps of cooking the meat, and then pan-searing it for a final touch of rich, umami flavor every steak should have.

Feel free to follow the guidelines for the size and thickness of your steak selection, but you can also try any cut of beef you have on hand. That way, you can experiment with less expensive cuts until you find one you love.

Do you smell that? It’s the aroma of saving a few bucks, while also enjoying a delicious, tender steak dinner. Lucky for all of us, there are many secrets for enhancing the flavor of cheaper cuts of meat, and now that you know them, no more excuses: Let them eat steak!

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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