Shockingly Affordable Holiday Roasts
Learn how to upgrade budget-friendly cuts of meat without sacrificing dramatic presentation or big flavors
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Growing up Jewish, my family’s holiday roasts hit the table in the fall, with the High Holy Days. Sure, Hanukkah comes this time of year, but we were much more likely to have a nice, braised brisket to go with our latkes than a standing rib roast. Once I met my Italian-American husband almost 20 years ago, that all changed. These days, I know a thing or two about roasting a large piece of meat for a holiday meal.
The big problem: Too often, the traditional celebratory cuts are prohibitively expensive. I just can’t sign up for spending $20 or more per pound when I’m feeding a crowd. That’s why I turn to lesser-known cuts for festive occasions. They’re considerably less expensive than the glamour roasts that get all the glory, while still offering opportunities for sophisticated flavors and elegant presentations.
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Meat math: How to save money on holiday roasts
If you’ve ever applauded when a proud home chef carried a standing rib roast to the table, I don’t blame you. It’s impressive. But the bones that help to create such drama also drive up your price per person, since the bones add to the weight (and therefore cost) of what you're buying, but don't feed your guests. You end up having to buy a full pound of roast per guest, to account for the weight of the bones. Or think of the technique known as frenching, where a rack of lamb or pork crown roast has the meat removed from the exposed bones to create a fancy look. That takes the butcher’s time — and time is money.
Cost-saving idea #1: With a boneless roast you may lose some of that flair, but you can buy literally half as much since there’s far less waste.
Cost-saving idea #2: Buy a less expensive cut on top of going boneless, and you could save 75% or more. For example:
Let’s say bone-in prime rib is $20 per pound. To feed eight, I’ll need 8 pounds, and 8 x $20 = $160. I could stuff a lot of stockings with that money.
If I go with a boneless, budget-friendly cut instead, it will likely cost less than $10 per pound, and I’ll need half as much. So for those eight people, I’ll buy 4 pounds, and 4 x $10 = $40. Stuffed stockings for everyone!
Recipes for affordable roasts
Ready to discover your new holiday favorite? Check out these 12 options. And once you’ve picked one, pair it with some luxurious sides.
Instead of prime rib
When it comes to dramatic presentation and rich, beefy flavor, it’s hard to beat a bone-in standing rib roast, aka prime rib. But it can cost upwards of $20 per pound. Go with one of these affordable boneless, lesser-known alternatives, and you’ll get a beautiful and delicious centerpiece for your holiday table, for well under $10 a pound.
A peppery, perfectly rare eye of round roast makes a beautiful meal. The round section of the steer refers to the rump and hind legs, and cuts from here are both lean and inexpensive. The lack of fat can make them tough and dry when overcooked, but a long, slow roast in a low oven (in this case, 275°F) keeps the inside juicy and rare. Pump up the oven for the last few minutes for a delicious crust. This gorgeous recipe coats the roast in a mixture of smashed peppercorns, garlic, and rosemary.
Cross rib roast has many aliases: You might find it sold as book roast, Boston cut, bread and butter cut, chuck arm roast, clod roast, English cut roast, or shoulder center roast. This boneless cut comes from the chuck (shoulder) area of the steer, and cooks beautifully by starting in a hot oven, then reducing the heat for a low and slow roast. Coat the whole thing with a blend of fresh herbs and aromatics first for an effortless flavor boost.
The center-cut sirloin roast comes from the top portion of the sirloin, the cow’s back. Sometimes it’s labeled “spoon roast,” because after low and slow roasting it comes out tender enough to eat with a spoon. With this recipe, you’ll roll the beef in a dry rub made from coarse sea salt, steak seasoning blend, and dried herbs before roasting. Bonus: If you’re looking for an easy holiday roast, this 5-ingredient recipe takes only 1 hour total time!
Another sirloin cut, the tri-tip is a triangular roast from the bottom portion of the sirloin. It’s lean, tender, and full of beefy flavor. Tri-tips tend to be on the smaller side, so they’re perfect if you’re having an intimate holiday gathering. Note that this cut does best roasted quickly in a hot oven, so your fancy dinner will be ready in around an hour. Here, you’ll rub a blend of paprika, caraway, marjoram, mustard, and cayenne on the meat before it hits the oven.
Instead of rack of lamb
The lamb equivalent to prime rib is a rack of lamb — it comes from the same area of the animal, and it usually has a similar price tag. With lamb, you’ve got two excellent, less-expensive alternatives. Both a boneless leg of lamb and a lamb breast (aka lamb belly) cost half as much as a rack, and again, you’re not paying for bones nobody can eat.
If you want an elegant presentation, you can’t go wrong with a roulade. Here, you’ll butterfly a boneless leg (or have your butcher do it for you), then spread a mix of finely chopped portobello mushrooms, pine nuts, spinach, and fontina cheese over one side. Roll it up, tie it up, and roast. Slice to expose that impressive swirl.
This one may not have the fancy “roulade” name, but slicing it is every bit as dramatic. For this recipe, the filling is made from tons of fresh herbs, garlic, and lemon zest — and some of that paste goes on the outside, too, for an herb crust. If you really want to wow your guests, don’t skip the optional mint caper gremolata to serve with the roast.
The lamb’s breast, also called the belly, comes from the lower front half of the lamb. It’s quite rich and fatty — which means it’s got tons of flavor. Try it with a luscious Moroccan-inspired stuffing made from North African spices, quinoa, dates, nuts, and cilantro.
If you want a restaurant-quality recipe that’s easy enough for home cooks, look no further. Lamb breast gets rolled around a stuffing made with raisins, bulgur, spices like fennel seed and chili flakes, and a little ground lamb for extra richness, then roasted low and slow. Just imagine how heavenly your home smells while this is cooking.
Instead of pork crown roast
A crown roast gets its name because it looks like — you guessed it — a crown. To make it, the butcher ties a rack or two of bone-in pork loin into a circle. The presentation is stunning, but it’s also the priciest pork roast you can buy. Luckily, when it comes to pork you’ve got several affordable options suitable for roasting.
The words “cranberry orange glaze” pretty much sing holidays, don’t they? And it’s a perfect way to add some zing to an inexpensive cut like a pork loin roast. (Note: pork loin roast is different from pork tenderloin, which costs a few dollars more per pound.) The loin roast comes from the area of the pig between the shoulder and the back leg, which happens to be the leanest and most tender. It’s pretty irresistible all by itself, but adding that glaze just makes it festive.
Simple and beautiful, this roast uses just a handful of ingredients to make a memorable holiday meal. About halfway through the cooking time, you could add some small potatoes and baby carrots to the roasting pan to have instant sides, ready to go.
A classic Italian roast, traditional porchetta involves deboning, stuffing, and rolling an entire pig. If you’re like me, you don’t have access to a deboned pig — so let’s go with this one, made using inexpensive pork belly instead. You’ll sprinkle the meat with thyme and rosemary leaves, fennel seeds, and garlic before rolling it up and roasting for a couple of hours. Yup, it’s a project — but isn’t that what makes a holiday meal special?
Affordable boneless pork shoulder, sometimes labeled Boston butt, blade roast, or pork butt, gets devilishly spicy for a crowd-pleasing holiday roast. To make it, you’ll crush together peppercorns, coriander seeds, red pepper flakes, oregano, and mustard seeds, then mix with garlic, lemon zest, and paprika. Rub that all over the roast and refrigerate overnight. The next day, give it a quick blast in a hot oven to form the crust, then go low and slow to finish the job.
Favorite side dishes for a holiday roast
The way I see it, you can go two ways with your sides: If you’ve got a few extra bucks, you can go fancy, since the ingredients will still be cheaper than meat. Or if you’re watching your budget, you can take an approach similar to what you did with the roast — upgrade humble ingredients with smart twists.
Potato gratin is a classic accompaniment to roasts, so as long as you’re saving money on the meat, let’s go fully luxurious with the ‘taters. We’re talking heavy cream, crème fraiche, and Gruyere cheese — and a drizzle of truffle oil to make it really special.
Romanesco is broccoli’s cooler, harder to find (and likely a bit more expensive) cousin, and the florets happen to look a lot like Christmas trees. Take advantage of that fact and stand them upright in a luscious cheese sauce, then sprinkle with grated Parmesan to look like snow.
Outside a gratin, potatoes are just about the cheapest side dish I can think of. But when you cook them with this classic French technique, they become so melt-in-your mouth tender and so richly flavored, that you’ll never want to eat them any other way. It’s easier than it looks, too: Just peel and trim the potatoes into cylinders and brown top and bottom in a cast iron skillet. When they’re gloriously golden, swirl in butter, chicken broth, rosemary, thyme, and garlic, and bake until tender. Heavenly.
When it comes to inexpensive vegetables, onions are vying with potatoes to be the cheapest. So why not embrace the fact that they really are vegetables — not just aromatics to add flavor to other ingredients — and make them the star of the show? Marinating onions overnight in red wine vinegar, brown sugar, and rosemary encourages their natural sweetness. It also means you don’t have to do much work on the day you plan to serve them. Just top with butter and roast, and dig into that surprisingly elegant result.
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More inspiration for your holiday feast
Keep exploring the options for a memorable holiday meal with these next Yummly articles.