Ground Beef Basics
In recent scribblings, I've mentioned once taking over operation of a small diner in order to help a struggling friend. Forced by circumstances into the role of absentee owner, his eatery was failing fast, due in part to the fact that the people he had entrusted to run it had no clue about food or food service. This was clear to me when I found the diner's signature burgers to be absolutely terrible. And the reason they were terrible was that the inexperienced employee running the place decided to “save money” by buying cheaper ground beef. My friend had always insisted on 80/20 beef for his burgers, but now they were being made with 73/27. And if you, like that well-meaning employee, don't know the difference, read on for A Few Things You Should Know About Ground Beef.
First, the numbers: 90/10, 80/20, 85/15, 70/30. What does it all mean and what’s the difference? Those numbers refer to the percentages of lean meat and fat by weight in the ground beef you're buying. So if your label reads “90/10,” you're buying ground beef that's 90 percent lean and 10 percent fat by weight. And these ratios make a big difference in the finished product. For example, most chefs and cooks use the 80/20 mixture for hamburgers because you need a certain amount of fat in your burgers to make them juicy and appealing. Burgers made with 90/10 tend to be a bit on the dry side. And the problem with 73/27 is that with so much fat in the mix, the patties shrink up as the fat cooks away and the resulting burgers are dense and greasy. 80/20 or 85/15 are the happy mediums most people prefer. 90/10 or even 95/5 are okay if you're using them in meat sauce for spaghetti or in tacos or something, but not for burgers. And don't think that burgers made from 90/10 beef are some kind of “diet” burgers: that 10 percent fat content still accounts for a little more than half the total calories in a 90/10 mix.
The next thing that confuses beginning beef buyers is the terminology: what's the difference between “sirloin,” “chuck,” “round,” and plain old “ground beef?” Generally speaking, “ground beef,” ground from cuts like brisket or shank, is the least expensive and usually the fattiest, clocking on average between 20 and 30 percent fat. Next up is “ground chuck,” which comes from the shoulder and is generally a bit leaner, with a 15 to 20 percent fat range. “Ground round” comes from the hind legs and averages 12 to 15 percent fat. At the top of the list is “ground sirloin,” the leanest and most expensive cut on the market. Sirloin comes from the animal's midsection and contains about 10 to 14 percent fat.
The USDA regulates what producers are allowed to put in ground meat. When you see chuck, round, or sirloin on a label, that's the part of the cow the stuff in the package comes from. It may be a combination of muscle, fat, and trimmimgs, but it's all chuck, round, or sirloin. Ground beef, however, is a little more.....shall we say “amorphous” in its definition. Thanks to a recent “policy change,” product labeled “ground beef” can come from any and all parts of the animal: esophagus, diaphragm, cheek, organ meat.....let your imagination run wild. And regardless of cut, unless you actually see the butcher run the sirloin, chuck, or round steak through the grinder, when you buy packaged ground meat, you have no guarantee the meat in the package all comes from the same animal. This is especially true of those big, opaquely wrapped “tubes” of ground beef that studies have shown may contain the meat of as many as fifty different cows.
Some supermarkets sell prepackaged, pre-made “hamburger patties.” This is still basically ground beef to which a little extra fat has been added.
Let's talk about color for a minute. You'll probably notice that everything displayed in those gleaming cases at the supermarket is a brilliant shade of red. Yet when you get it home and open it up to use it, the meat sometimes turns brownish or even gray. Yuck, right? Not really. According to the USDA, that optimum surface color is highly unstable and usually quite short-lived. Without delving too deeply into food chemistry, all really fresh meat is a reddish-purple in color due to the presence of myoglobin. When exposed to oxygen, myoglobin forms the pigment oxymyoglobin, which gives meat that vivid red color. The use of special semi-permeable plastic wrap ensures that meat retains this bright red color in the store's meat case. However, exposure to store lighting as well as the continued interaction of myoglobin and oxymyoglobin with oxygen leads to the formation of metmyoglobin, a pigment that turns meat brownish-red. The interior of the meat may even be grayish brown due to lack of oxygen. This color change alone does not mean the product is spoiled. However, if all the meat in the package has turned gray or brown, it may be on the edge of spoiling.
Storage is another question. Never leave ground beef or any perishable food out at room temperature for more than two hours. Try to plan your shopping so that the grocery store is your last stop. If you're going to be on the road for awhile, invest in a cooler or an insulated bag for your meats and frozen foods. Once you get it home, refrigerate ground beef immediately and don't keep it in the fridge for more than a day or two. If you're going to use it fairly quickly, it can be frozen in its original packaging. But if you're looking at longer term storage, you need to do a little extra work. The USDA says ground beef is safe indefinitely if it's kept frozen, but quality is another matter. You should wrap ground beef in heavy duty plastic wrap, aluminum foil, freezer paper, or plastic bags made for freezing if you're going to be storing it for awhile. I usually employ a combination of either plastic wrap or aluminum foil and a heavy-duty freezer bag. And remember to put a date on the package when you stick it in the freezer. Four months is about the best you'll get before quality starts to degrade. Again, from a safety aspect, you can keep it in there for years, but you probably won't want to eat it.
Ground beef is so versatile and can be used in so many applications that I'm not going to get into cooking lessons here. But maybe just a few thoughts about preparing ground beef for cooking. First thought, don't over handle or over work your ground beef. Too much manipulation can turn your meatballs to gut bombs and your hamburgers to hockey pucks. Just do the minimum amount of prep work to get the size and shape you want, then leave it alone.
I mentioned shrinkage: All meat shrinks up to some degree during cooking. As I said earlier, part of the reason for the shrinkage is fat content and also moisture content. Another factor is the temperature at which the meat is cooked, and how long it is cooked. Basically, the higher the cooking temperature, the greater the shrinkage. Cooking ground beef at moderate temperatures rather than hammering it on high heat will reduce shrinkage and help retain juices and flavor. Overcooking draws out more fat and juices from ground beef, resulting in a dry, less tasty product. And, of course, ground beef should always be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
Finally, for maximum freshness and quality, consider having a butcher grind your beef or grinding it yourself at home. Any real butcher shop and most decent supermarket meat counters will custom grind beef for you. Just choose a whole cut and ask to have it ground. That way you know exactly what you're getting and you know it's fresh. The same thing applies to grinding meat at home. I don't think my grandmother ever bought ground beef. She had a grinder – a big silver-gray machine with a long handle – that attached to her kitchen counter into which she would drop whole cuts of meat. A few turns of that handle would produce the ground meat she used for meatloaf, meatballs, sauces, and, of course, hamburgers. You can still buy those venerable old-fashioned grinders for thirty or forty bucks or you can upgrade to a modern electric model. Or, if you have a KitchenAid mixer, as I do, there's a very efficient grinder attachment.
Besides freshness and quality, there's another benefit to grinding your own: the ability to customize. Most of my recipes for meatballs and meat sauces call for a mixture of two or even three different meats – usually beef and pork and sometimes beef, pork, and veal. Even hamburgers often benefit from having a little extra fat added in. Try grinding some bacon into your beef for the ultimate beef and bacon burger.
Ground beef accounts for an estimated 60% of all beef consumption in the United States. The USDA website can tell you all about safety and proper handling and there are tons of recipe sites with technique and cooking suggestions. But I'm hoping that I at least provided you with an informational starting point; a little more than you knew before about ground beef.