Before you know it, you've spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars and you still haven't smoked any meat.
With that said, barbecue itself was founded on the concept of turning cheap cuts of meat into delicious food; These days, I think a lot of folks forego this concept.
However a number of cheap cuts exist that taste wonderful.
A lot of websites like to list different cuts of meat to smoke yet fail to tell you that they can be rather expensive.
Barbecue has also become rather mainstream and as a result, the price per pound for different cuts of meat has only gone up.
There is also the aspect of seasonality.
For example, something like chicken wings can't be sold without the entire chicken. Meaning, during times where wings are in demand, the price of chicken wings goes up.
By far the cheapest (and the easiest) cut of meat to smoke is pork butt. However, if pork butt isn't available, pork shoulder is a decent substitute.
Pork butt comes from the upper shoulder and has more intramuscular fat than picnic. This is an important realization as most folks who smoke pork butt are making pulled pork - which benefits from the extra rendered fat.
Unlike a lot of other meats, selecting a pork butt is pretty forgiving.
Personally, I like bone-in pork butts with a firm, white fat cap and evenly marbled intramuscular fat. A bone-in pork butt will typically weigh 6-8 lbs and cost anywhere from $0.99 - $1.99/lb or $5.94 - $15.92.
Pork butt is likely one of the cheapest cuts of meat you can smoke. Whenever pork butts I are on sale, I'll typically freeze them to use at a later date.
You might even consider looking at the money muscle that's found on the opposite end of the blade bone. The money muscle is by far the best cut on the entire pig - you also get very little of it.
While I'm not a huge fan smoked chicken, there is no denying that it's a cheap piece of meat. Similar to pork butt, they'll typically cost around $0.99 - $1.99 per pound.
The biggest reason whole chickens cost less than most of its parts is because you're not paying for someone to butcher it.
Rather, you get to be the one to separate the individual parts.
In my opinion this is a great benefit as there are typically parts of the chicken that some prefer and others don't. From a whole chicken we get 2 breasts, 2 wings, and 2 legs.
Personally, I like chicken thighs, wings, and legs and typically stick to eating those parts where-as the rest of my family likes the breast meat.
For example, in my chicken on a stick recipe, I stick to thigh meat because of the added fat and because it's cheap.
Another important thing to note is that I've also never experienced a time where there has been a shortage or I've been unable to find a whole chicken in the grocery store.
Even if there was, cuts like leg quarters and bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs are roughly the same price per pound and are almost always available.
Pork loin is a super underrated cut of meat. Where I'm from, there have been several occasions where whole and halved pork loins are on sale for $0.99 per pound.
Whenever this happens, I usually sort the ones I like (the loin closest to the pork butt) and freeze them. The reason I opt for this loin half is because you get both shoulder meat and loin meat.
When sliced thin, the loin meat is great for sandwiches where-as the butt meat is great slice a bit thicker as a stand-alone for a meal served with other fixings.
Pork loin is also a pretty fast cook/smoke.
Unlike other cuts of meat where you're trying to smoke until the melting of collagens/connective tissues, with pork loin you stop at around 145F internal.
Meaning, the smoke time is fairly quick at around 2 hours.
Of the different types of pork ribs, pork spare ribs are the most affordable on a per pound basis. I'm also referring to both St. Louis cut and whole spare ribs.
St. Louis cut or "center cut" ribs (pictured above) simply have the sternum, coastal cartilage, and flap removed.
In every single case, the price per pound of St. Louis spare ribs is greater than untrimmed spare ribs - simply because there is more labor involved in trimming.
Granted, if you're not going to eat the trimmings - you're better off spending a little more for St. Louis cut spare ribs.
Baby back ribs are more expensive than both variations of spare ribs.
The main reason for this is because they're marketed better. Most folks have heard of "Chilis! Baby Back Ribs!"
Pork ribs are usually within the following price ranges per pound:
Personally, I think Baby back ribs (Loin meat) taste better and you get more meat. However, people in the Barbecue world - like my father - would disagree with me and say Spare ribs (Belly meat) taste better and have more flavor.
Typical serving sizes for ribs are as follows:
So in terms of beef cuts, there are very few that are "cheap" or "affordable." Lots of folks might say brisket is a "value" cut because the advertised price per pound is usually somewhere between $3-5/lb, however, they also fail to say how much trimming you have to do.
All of that trim quickly drives up the cost per pound - not to mention the upfront cost. Assuming a brisket is 8 - 20 lbs and the average price of a choice brisket is $4/lb, that's between $32 to $80.
I'm not saying brisket is a bad cut of meat to smoke. On the contrary, I think brisket is the best cut of beef you can smoke. All I'm saying is that there is no denying the upfront cost.
While you can certainly save the the trim for something like rendering your own beef tallow or for something like beef sausage or ground up for hamburgers, the trim still isn't being eaten as part of that meal.
More realistically, the price per pound is more like $6/lb or more.
Luckily, poor man's brisket aka Chuck Roast exists.
A chuck roast typically weighs somewhere between 2-3 lbs. The price per pound is also very close to brisket at around $4-5/lb. Meaning, the upfront cost is closer to $8-$15.
If you do opt to smoke chuck roast like brisket, always buy a chuck roast that's at least USDA choice grade or higher.
I'm a huge fan of smoked bologna - mainly because it's one of the easiest cuts of meat to smoke.
For some reason, almost no other articles mention bologna either, which is super surprising (that or they're all repeating the same information).
Bologna is a cured sausage and is technically ready to eat right out of the packaging. Your goal with smoking is to offer the meat some smoke and to caramelize it with sugars and barbecue sauce.
I personally think that not all bologna is created equal.
A brand I quite like is Wunderbar - a German brand made in the USA. At my local deli, Wunderbar Bologna typically ranges from $3.99 - $4.20/lb.
For smoked bologna, you need the the bologna sold as a whole chunk.
Apart from that, all that's needed is a commercial barbecue rub that leans towards sugar-based.
I have an entire recipe that goes over how to smoke bologna, be sure to check it out.
Another cheap option that almost no articles mention is beef jerky.
Truly, any cut of meat can be transformed into beef jerky simply by thinly slicing it against the grain, marinating it overnight, and then smoking it at around 160-180F for 6-10 hours.
However, leaner cuts of meat work best for jerky. This is because the fat won't render and will go rancid.
In my opinion, the best cut of beef for jerky is eye of round. It has minimal, if any fat. It typically has a fat cap that is easily trimmed, and the grain is super defined, which makes slicing straight forward.
Eye of round is usually around $4-5/lb. Again though, literally any cheap cut of meat can be turned into jerky. A 2-3 lb eye of round will make enough jerky to entirely fill a 1 gallon ziploc bag.
Most of the round roasts are fairly affordable and work well for jerky. For instance, bottom round or top round.
If you're not super comfortable with slicing meat it's also possible to source the meat pre-sliced from places like Wild Fork Foods.
However, this is in a similar vein to St. Louis cut pork ribs - the extra labor costs money.
If you're looking to make jerky and are wondering if the meat is good for doing so, ask yourself:
Flank steak makes for great jerky because there is almost no intramuscular fat. Where-as skirt steak has tons of intramuscular fat.
There are also other differences between skirt steak and flank steak.
Skirt steak is also more expensive than flank steak; Granted, these days flank steak is also rather expensive.
Either way, skirt steak isn't cheap and has lots of fat, meaning it's bad for jerky. Flank steak can be expensive but lacks fat - it's good for jerky.
A backyard barbecue wouldn't be the same without hot dogs. However, rather than simply grilling them, you can slice them up and serve them as smoked hot dog burnt ends.
Similar to bologna, I don't think that all hot dogs are made the same. I'm from New England and Kayem brands like Deutschmacher and Schonland are my favorites.
At the time of writing this, a regular box of Schonland hot dogs costs roughly $16-20 for 2.5 lbs or 20 franks. Deutschmacher is similar only you get 3 or so less franks per box (granted they taste the best).
Either way, an entire box of hot dogs (17-20 franks) will offer 51-60 barbecued cocktail weenies, which is perfect for feeding a crowd.
Hot dog burnt ends also don't take long to finish - roughly 1 hour on the smoker at 225F and 30-40 minutes in the oven at 375F to caramelize sugars.
I have an entire recipe that goes over hot dog burnt ends, be sure to check it out.