Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.
Today: Get back to the grind with your meat.
If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. While this mantra may not always hold true -- we're thinking of haircuts here -- it certainly applies to grinding meat.
However, while plenty home cooks will tackle a lamb shoulder, a piece of chuck, or a fatty brisket, few have the hutzpah to grind it themselves. People seem to think that ground meat has to go through some mysterious, alchemic process to transform from a marbled hunk of sirloin to burger-ready material. We're here to wave away the mist and reveal how truly simple it is to grind your own meat, even if you don't have a meat grinder -- and the results are leagues apart from what you'd buy in the store.
Why Do It
In The New York Times, Mark Bittman makes a pretty convincing case for grinding your own meat, going so far as to say that home-ground meat is the key to a better burger. However, if his word isn't enough, we've got three concrete reasons to get your grind on (at least when it comes to meat):
How many of us actually know exactly what goes into the pre-ground meat we buy in stores? The short answer? None of us.
If you're buying pre-ground meat, the plain truth is that you'll never know exactly what's going into it. Even if it's organic, local, grass-fed, and every other trendy adjective out there, you won't know exactly which cuts of meat it's composed of. And if it's from a more run-of-the-mill supermarket section, you have no way of knowing how many animals went into the meat, or their quality. Bittman warns that some packages of ground beef can contain meat from dozens of animals, all processed together -- and not only the nicest bits, either. If you grind your own meat, you have total control over both the quality and cuts of meat that you're consuming.
As Kenji at Serious Eats points out, all pre-packaged meat in a supermarket sits on the shelf for at least some amount of time -- probably longer than you realize. As the meat hangs around in its packaging, it compresses and oxidizes, which will make it denser and tougher when cooked.
When beef is ground and exposed to air, it can pick up bacteria in the air of wherever it was processed. Therefore, when you buy pre-ground meat, you run the risk of its being contaminated with such unpleasantries as E. Coli and salmonella. By grinding your own, you avoid this risk, plus you can be sure your meat is free of any questionable additives or chemicals.
Really, what all these reasons boil down to is control. By grinding your own meat, you can control the cut, fat content, and texture of the final product, all while avoiding any risk of contamination. Have we convinced you? Great -- let's get started.
Choose Your Meat Wisely
Though this may be common sense, you want to take care when choosing the piece of meat you're going to grind. Inspect it, size it up, get a good feel for it -- because this is your blank canvas. Make sure you choose a piece of meat with a sizeable fat content, at least 20%. Fat is key -- so much so that Michael Ruhlman asserts that the fat content of the meat matters much more than the cut. A good rule of thumb is to choose a piece of meat with clearly visible fat marbled throughout. If you're aiming for extra-juicy burgers, you can even ask your butcher for some pure fat (called backfat) to grind into the meat.
We opted for chuck, but brisket, short ribs, or sirloin will also do the trick. Experiment with different cuts to find your preference, or try a mixture. If you're going to grind pork or lamb, the shoulder cut is a solid bet -- again, make sure it has visible fat. If it's poultry you have a hankering for, Mark Bittman recommends using neck meat. However, be aware that ground chicken or turkey will never be as flavorful as its bovine and porcine counterparts, as it has a much lower fat content.
Break It Down Now
Before processing, break your meat down into small, uniform chunks, about 1 to 2 inches. If you're adding in extra fat (we salute you), be sure to cut it to a quarter of the size of the meat pieces.
Lay the meat out in an even layer on a baking sheet, then wrap the entire thing tightly in plastic wrap. You're already halfway there!
Keep Your Cool
The key to optimizing the texture of your ground meat, especially if you're working with a food processor and not a meat grinder, is to partially freeze everything: the meat, the food processor, and preferably your hands (Kidding. Sort of.). Chilling your meat and your tools will help you achieve a finer grind, and it will reduce the amount of meat "smear" that inevitably occurs when grinding meat in a food processor, as opposed to a tool designed specifically for that purpose.
If you know you'll be grinding meat a day ahead of time, put your food processor in the freezer overnight. If not, make sure to give it a good 30 minutes to get nice and frosty. Your meat is ready when the edges of each chunk are frozen firm, but the center is still slighly pliable.
Hit the Grind Running
When you're ready to grind, work relatively quickly so that everything stays cold. Fill your food processor only about 1/4 of the way up, giving the meat plenty of room to blend. Put on the lid, then pulse -- but be careful. The worst sin imaginable is to come this far with a beautiful hunk of meat, then overprocess it into an unappetizing paste. Pulse 8 times, then take off the lid to check the consistency. It should look vaguely like the pre-ground meat of supermarket packages, but more loose, more free. Pick out a small amount and press the meat lightly between your fingers -- it should stick together and form a patty.
Transfer the meat to a bowl, picking out any larger pieces that escaped the spinning blades and putting them back in the food processor for a second go-round. Continue pulsing the meat in batches until it has all been transformed. If you're not planning on using it immediately, store your ground meat in airtight ziploc bags and keep in the freezer until ready to use.
What are your best tips for grinding meat -- and your favorite ways to use the finished product?
Photos by Mark Weinberg