Upon going to law school several decades ago, the world of ALL THE THINGS I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT was laid bare in front of me. Prior to that I thought I knew everything. I walked in feeling extremely knowledgeable and within a few short days I was confident only in the fact that I had everything to learn, starting from zero. Hubris is the hallmark of youth. I was frightened, but thrilled, to have the shell knocked off of me because it was as if someone finally showed me that a library was not just a peaceful place, but it was also filled with books. There are so many areas of inquiry about which to know nothing. It is exciting.
Recently, I’ve been pondering how little I know about cows and steers and bulls and beef, generally. You think you know what a cow is. You think you know what a steak is. You think you know how to cook. You might know a bit, and you might even know a lot. But you probably don’t know diddly, kind of like me. Several years ago I met some men and women at Texas A&M who actually do know almost everything there is to know about beef and it made my knowledge base, relative to theirs, look a little puny. I learned a great deal from them, but among the things I learned was how little I actually know, and how fascinating beef and the beef industry is.
I began to notice that the meat selections in my grocery stores (I frequent about 5 different grocery stores) all have different cuts of meat with different names. Most everyone carries the big named cuts, the tenderloins and the rib-eyes. Some don’t though. These people know their customer base and if the people are slinging money around there are expensive cuts, and if they serve a more budget minded crowd there are “value”cuts. But “value” is a perception because often the “value”cuts are difficult pieces of meat. All beef is not steak to be thrown on a grill. Some require great consideration before cooking. “Cheap”cuts have all the potential in the world to be good if you cook them properly, but will pull your teeth out if you quick-cook them on a grill. For instance, a typical roast is succulent after 4 hours braising in the oven, but slice it up raw and throw it on a grill and you have shoe leather.
There are “mock” cuts. There are many names for the same cut, depending on marketing choices. One piece of meat cut one way is called “this” and the same one cut another way is called “that” and some pieces of meat that you thought were one thing, are actually comprised of several bits, all with their own names. And some shops take the same cut and call it something different than the grocer down the road.
Ground beef is not made from whole and exceptional cuts of meat. There is not a spot on a cow called the “hamburger” which is then thrown into a grinder. Ground beef is usually comprised of meat made from less popular cuts of meat and trimmings. I’m not going to get into the “pink slime” or “lean finely textured beef” issue here other than to say that I’m sure I’ve eaten my share over the years without even knowing, but as a consumer and a mother, in particular, it also ticks me off a bit when labels don’t tell the whole story. But what labels do, really? We have to educate ourselves.
So, the more I learned about ground beef (which is by the way not the same as “hamburger” which is allowed to have added beef fat, while “ground beef ” is apparently not…who knew?) the more I thought that I might like to actually have ground beef from the cuts I wanted instead of the cuts that weren’t necessarily commercially viable and scraps. I noticed about a decade ago that folks that like to sell “gourmet” hamburgers began touting the cuts of meat they use in their “custom” ground beef. I’ve known for ages that I could buy an attachment for my mixer to grind beef at home, but I am slow to buy particularized kitchen gadgets. They can take over a kitchen. And of course, I had to look at a thousand models and reviews online, and consider the hand cranked as well as the hunting lodge varieties that can be gotten at Cabela’s.
But in the end, I went with the trusty little Kitchen Aid attachment. It was well under $100, and complemented an appliance I already owned, and looked easy to handle and clean. One caveat, however. This attachment is not made to handle a lot of meat. It is for the three to four pound batches. And you have to cut down the meat into small strips for optimal performance. It is not for processing mass quantities of meat. Kitchen Aid is actually quite straight forward about that fact. If you process a ton of meat or want a machine that will allow you to do 20 pounds at a time to freeze or make 300 links of sausage, this is not the machine you want. But for smaller quantities and getting your feet wet, so to speak, it is great. For making a batch of really incredible hamburgers, it is terrific. More on using the machine in a moment.
Let’s talk beef. If you are fat phobic, you are going to miss out on the good stuff. For juicy ground beef, fat is the key. When you are looking for meat that will be good for ground beef, you really need to look for some cuts that have fat in them, and not just any fat. Beef has many types of fat and in my very non-scientific mind, I categorize them as soft fat, hard fat, and silver skin. Silver skin is not going to grind up or break down. This is the stuff that literally looks shiny or silver-like and runs down whole muscles like the tenderloin. Then there is hard fat. If you can knock on it, you don’t want to put it in this machine. What you are looking for is the wonderful internal fat or marbling that certain cuts have a lot of. A chuck roast has a lot of nice internal fat which is why, I suspect, pot roast is so wonderful. The “point” of a brisket has a lot of good internal fat, but not so much the “flat” of the brisket. Right now, though, brisket in any form is quite expensive. And I get a giggle out of where you can and cannot ask a butcher to cut off the point of a brisket for you. Many grocers package “flat cut” briskets…clearly not marketing to the BBQ set, who get a little emotional about losing that fatty goldmine. Please, grocers, save those points for the home grinding folks. Heck, they are probably putting it in the store ground beef.
I turned to an expert at this point in my experimentation. An extremely knowledgeable beef expert and friend was kind enough to suggest that the chuck is the best starting point for any blend. He suggests trying the the old-style blade steak that you can usually be found with the blade bone and exterior muscle removed at most stores. He suggests not using the clod portion of the chuck though. He said to follow with some brisket fat, but not to use too much of the lean because it can be fairly tough without the long cooking. He also suggested a bit of top sirloin with the fat on it, which he said is the same as the “picanha” used in Brazilian barbecue. He said, “it is a very flavorful muscle and the fat is wonderful.”
Now, I dare you to go ask the butcher at your average store for picanha. Which leads me to the next issue. If you are going to play this game, you need to learn enough about what you are asking for to tell the person working at the meat counter, “you know, it is that upper bit of the top sirloin with the fat on it that is often used in Brazilian barbecue.” Certified Angus Beef has a handy cut guide on their website that can help you visually understand where different cuts come from and what they look like. Because I had written down that exact language of my friend on my shopping list, the butcher was able say, “oh, sure, hold on a second,” while he proceeded to cut the exact piece for me. This will not always happen. Not all of the nice folks who work behind meat counters are butchers and some stores receive their meat ready to put out, not having to cut the meat from larger pieces. It just depends on how the store is handling their meat department. Butchers are professionals who are experts in the anatomy of the animals. The person behind the counter may not be equipped to answer the questions or customize an order.
Please bear in mind that this can be an expensive experiment. As I said, brisket is expensive now, and depending on how a cut is marked, how it is being marketed, it can end up costing a small fortune to make ground beef. So be choosy. Ask a lot of questions. Ask your butcher exactly what I asked my friend, “What would you use if you were grinding beef at home and wanted to make the world’s tastiest hamburger?” Then you aren’t ordering, you are asking them for their knowledge, and that is when they meet you on that plane of existence where mouths water and you talk about “awesome fat.”
Also, visit a grocery store that caters to Hispanics. There is a whole different array of cuts at the butcher counter at Fiesta or Supermercado El Rancho than there is at Albertson’s. I found a great set of chuck steaks that were already cut very thinly, that were very inexpensive, and for which half of my prep work was already done. I have used chuck, brisket point, the aforementioned picanha, flap, and several other cuts recently in different batches. I’ve yet to have a batch of ground beef that didn’t make me completely happy.
This is FUN. For me.
But get this. If you think I am insane, there is a middle ground. You can actually ask your butcher at almost any grocery store to grind meat for you. You can choose the cuts and your preferred grind and they will do it for you. You might have to run back later to pick it up…they might grind meat at a certain time only because there is a lot of cleanup protocol involved, but they will usually accommodate. This is especially true if you are trying to track down “chili grind” meat which is a much bigger grind that the finely ground “hamburger meat.”
Onward…the bottom line is that you are going to want to play around and it will be an education in beef and beef flavor and texture. Buy the meat. Take it home. Pop it in the freezer for twenty minutes so that it is easier to cut. Put it on a cutting board and get a good knife. Cut the meat into strips, discarding any fat that is very tough. Very tough fat will clog up the grinder. When you have cut the beef into workable strips, lay them out flat on a tray and put them in the freezer for another twenty minutes. The slightly frozen beef will work better in the grinder.
Set up your meat grinder. If you are using the Kitchen Aid, assemble the attachments and put it on the front of your mixer. The assembly is very simple, There is the chute apparatus, “grindworm” which is a spiral thingamabob, a “knife” blade that looks like a propeller, a little plate with holes in it (I use the “coarse” one), and the ring that you screw on to keep it all together. Easy. Start the grinder. Set it to the “4” speed setting. Remove the beef from the freezer and begin to feed it into the grinder one strip at a time. I know this sounds tedious but it is actually fun and will keep the works from gumming up. If you look down the feed chute you can see how the spiral rod grabs each piece and pulls it toward the grinder. It can handle one or two strips but it you load it up, eventually one won’t feed through. Then you have to gently use the little plunger to push it in (not your fingers). If you are using several cuts of meat, vary the additions between the cuts so that you, for instance, don’t have a pile of chuck on the bottom and all of your additional cuts piled on top. You don’t want to overwork ground beef, so if you feed it in strategically, it will be a “mix” without having to actually mix.
And, you are finished. Isn’t it lovely? Put it in the fridge while we have a serious conversation.
Perhaps the most important part of this is…clean your grinder. Remove it from the mixer. Use a fork or a toothpick to dig all of the beef remnants and fat off of all of the parts and out of the nooks and crannies. Wash it in sudsy, hot water. Wash it again. I’m even so brazen and bold as to add a tiny bit of bleach to the water for a final soak. Then immediately remove the parts from the water and rinse them again and dry them. My understanding is that certain parts of the apparatus can rust if they are not dried immediately, so dry them.
Neitzhe once said…well, he said a lot of things, some of which were fairly asinine in my opinion, but he once said…”Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.” Fairly sure he wasn’t talking about grinding beef at home, however, if you think you are grinding beef at home to avoid “icky dirty practices”at the grocery store or at “BIG BEEF” writ large, think again. The professionals have standards and obligations regarding safety, lest they be subject to industry crushing recalls. It wouldn’t be funny if you caught E. Coli at home because you chose to grind primal cuts or parts of primal cuts for safety reasons. The reasons to grind beef are, that you want to use these cuts to create a custom blend. Another reason is that the idea of having one pound of beef from 100 cows is a little disturbing to you and you can lower that count to two or three cows by using cuts. But don’t avoid grocery store ground beef because you think it is unsafe. Or rather, you are not going to improve the safety concerns regarding pathogens by grinding at home. That is not the issue at all, and if you are going to do this at home, you need to use care and clean up your toys after playing with them in order to minimize risks.
Producers, due to liability and the fact that they need living customers, and presumably even like their customers, work to minimize pathogen exposure. It is not a perfect system to be sure, but beef ground at processing plants is tested for E. Coli. Primal cuts, where pathogens do not necessarily enter the muscle tissue, are not always tested in the same manner. Though I understand that many producers still use pathogen reduction efforts for all types of beef. But, arguably, you are at greater risk of pathogen exposure when you grind your own beef. Arguably. Temperature issues are important, as is cleaning your equipment. But, don’t vilify the professionals and then do something stupid at home that makes your ground beef more unsafe than the stuff at the store.
The only sure fire way to avoid this issue is to cook your ground beef to 160 degrees. You have been told. Do I do that? Not really.
What to eat? What not to eat? I’ve been grinding my own beef for chili, hamburgers and for chopped beef steaks. One of the meals I make most often at home, because it is easy and cheap and delicious is chopped beef steaks with melted cheddar on top. I love it and so does Pitts. Pair this with a baked potato or an iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing and bacon and you are singing my song. So, get out the grinder and give it a shot. If you have a blend that you swear by, I’d love to hear about it.
By the way, this doesn’t mean I will not be buying ground beef at the store. There are times for convenience and ground beef is the ultimate convenience food: tacos, sloppy joes, hamburger casserole, meatloaf. But if you want to do something special, or have control over the flavor, texture, or fat content, try grinding beef at home.
|Hamburger Steak|| |
- 1⅔ pound ground beef
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 2 teaspoons worchestershire sauce
- 8 slices of medium cheddar cheese
- Gently form ⅔ cup portions of ground beef into patties that are approximately ¾" thick.
- Season each side with kosher salt and pepper.
- Place the patties onto a preheated cast iron skillet or griddle. Then spoon ½ teaspoon worchestershire sauce on the top of each.
- Cook for approximately 3 minutes and then flip the patties. Cook until you have reached the desired doneness, or approximately another 3 to 4 minutes.
- Remove the patties to an oven safe baking tray. Divide the cheese among the patties and place under the broiler until melted and bubbly, approximately 90 seconds.
Notes: This should go without saying, but, Kitchen Aid did not pay me to say nice things about their product. And, occasionally, a bit of food safe grease will come out of the grinder and you will see a little gray spot in the ground beef. I have read that it is harmless. I pick it out. No harm, no foul.
Things to do with your newly acquired skill: