Whether you're planning a Memorial Day cookout or celebrating National Barbecue Month, don't assume there's a tradeoff between a flush wallet and a juicy cut of meat. There are plenty of tricks for extracting maximum flavor and texture out of the cheapest cuts of meat. Use these techniques and appliances to make each summer backyard party a culinary success on a budget.
Cooking a piece of meat low and slow is a surefire way to tenderize even the toughest cut and inject maximum flavor into the final dish. This highly versatile method can be applied to any meat and be done stovetop, in the oven, or even on a grill. The only requirements are that the meat cooks at a low temperature (250 degrees Fahrenheit or less) and for a long time (at least four hours) immersed in a flavorful liquid. Water seasoned with aromatics such as garlic and onion, herbs, and spices works fine, but bases with more flavor -- such as broth, wine, beer, or with a touch of vinegar and sugar -- further reduce and infuse the meat. This is particularly good for large roasts or tough meats such as mutton and goat.
A dry rub is a rich blend of spices applied directly to a piece of meat before it's grilled, seared, or smoked. These pungent mixes often contain a laundry list of ingredients, such as salt, black pepper, red pepper, garlic, sugar, dried herbs, cumin, and paprika. The rub is applied generously to a meat such as pork ribs or beef brisket and literally rubbed in to tenderize and stick to the outer layer. The crust melds with the meat, keeping the juices inside and adding an extra layer of flavor when biting into it after cooking.
One of the oldest tricks in the book is soaking meat in a flavor bath before cooking it. Marinades can be made of anything from simple olive oil, garlic, and herbs to complex blends of citrus, alcoholic beverages, and exotic spices. The marinade doesn't just coat the outside of each piece; the longer the meat and marinade sit, the more flavor is absorbed. Generally speaking, meat should marinate for two to eight hours for maximum effect.
It can be a letdown when meat doesn't come out as juicy and bold-tasting as expected. Luckily, many beloved meat dishes are all about the sauce. The juiciness of chicken wings, for example, is second to what goes on top. A quick, buttery black pepper sauce can save a steak easily, just as an award-winning barbecue sauce can make even the driest ribs palatable. Cooks who have yet to master the techniques for difficult cuts of meat can always fall back on a tasty sauce.
This Thanksgiving trick for ensuring a juicy bird can be used for poultry any time of year. Whether working with an inexpensive whole bird or cheaper cuts such as legs and thighs, brining is a tried-and-true method to pack the most moisture in. A brine is a saltwater liquid, seasoned with other aromatics such as herbs and spices. The poultry soaks for two to 24 hours, depending on the size of the pieces. The salt in the brine draws out the natural moisture of the meat, forcing it to soak up all of the flavorful brine liquid in its place. The poultry is so juicy and plump after soaking that it stays moist after cooking.
Extra umami hides in the crispy edges of broiled meat. The caramelization of fats and sugars and the textural contrast add excitement to a dish. While the old-school style of broiling meat until it was tough and gray is thankfully long gone, the broiler can still be a useful tool for achieving those coveted crispy bits. Placing a dish under the hot broiler for a few minutes is a quick and easy method that works on anything from corned beef hash to roasted chicken thighs. Be sure to check the meat after a minute; depending on the dish and how hot the broiler gets, things can turn quickly from crispy to charred.
This appliance is a meat lover's best friend, effortlessly turning tough cuts of meat into tender, juicy morsels. Essentially a braising device, the slow cooker takes meats such as pork butt or chicken breast, barbecue sauce, and optional ingredients such as veggies and spices and produces a dish that is melt-in-your-mouth tender a few hours later. The meat can be used as a burrito filling, served as sliders between mini-buns, or enjoyed simply over rice.
The most underrated kitchen appliance turns out to be one of the most useful for difficult meats. Like braising, pressure cooking breaks down and tenderizes the meat, which absorbs the flavors of the liquid in which it's immersed. Unlike braising, this takes minimal time. Curry goat that would otherwise take a minimum of eight hours to cook and infuse properly takes just 45 minutes in a pressure cooker. This is why pressure cookers are always around on TV cooking competitions, where contestants have to cook with tough meats in a limited time.
Spice has been a trick up chefs' sleeves for centuries. Capsaicin, the hot chemical in chilies, aids digestion and releases endorphins that enhance the entire process of eating. Spiciness also has a way of highlighting the essence of meat and placing the umami front and center. This doesn't mean dousing an unflavorful piece of meat with Tabasco will make it delicious, but a few drops of habanero sauce can sure kick up a burger from boring to exciting.
Any grillmaster can attest to the fact that there's a big difference between meat cooked on the stove (even in a high-quality, cast-iron skillet) and meat cooked on a charcoal grill. The char is unique, savory, and primal. Any piece of meat infused with that smoky flavor will be satisfying on at least one level. If the cuts on offer aren't particularly juicy, make the most of a good thing by grilling small and thin pieces of meat so the taste is primarily of charcoal.
One of the most ancient methods of preserving meat is also an efficient way to enhance its taste. Both hot and cold smoking methods impart a rich, woodsy flavor to the meat, bringing out the natural umami and salty flavors. This can be especially useful for cuts that are otherwise dry or too lean to have a lot of unique characteristics. Smoked meats can be enjoyed on their own and also make a bold ingredient for salads, sandwiches, and pizzas.