From the basic burger to the moistest meatloaf and coziest chili, ground meat is the cornerstone of so many dinner mainstays. But when was the last time you really considered your ground meat, beyond grabbing a pre-packaged pound at the grocery store? Well, award-winning writers and newly minted restaurateurs, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton—aka The Canal House Cooks—are here to help you start looking more closely at your ground meat. They've even dedicated an entire chapter to the subject in their newest book, Canal House: Cook Something: Recipes to Rely On, on the fundamentals of cooking (plus 300 recipes that demonstrate them all).
Hirsheimer and Hamilton explain that classic American ground meat dishes were born from efficiency-and economy-optimized recipe traditions from immigrants, who actually made them with different cuts of meat entirely. Take Russian beef stroganoff, which was originally made with tender cubes of beef cooked in a mustard–sour cream sauce. In the hurried New World, it morphed into a combination of hamburger meat and condensed cream of chicken soup over noodles that its creators may not have even recognized. Ditto goulash from Hungary (originally made with cubed beef, and sometimes, heart and liver), tacos from Mexico, and ground beef lo mein adapted from the Chinese culinary tradition. Despite this, ground meat has historically made our lives easier and more affordable, and still continues to do so.
Since ground meat has over time replaced longer-cooking, sometimes more nuanced cuts, it’s all the more important that we be selective about how we buy it. Just a generation or two ago, people went to the local butcher shop to select their preferred cut of meat, and had it ground right in front of them. Spending the extra time was considered well worth it, because you knew exactly what you were getting. The best news? This can still be the case! Because, when done right, a good backyard burger may just be the apex of American cuisine.
To that end, here are the Canal House cooks’ guidelines to choosing and working with ground meat. From Thai larb to British shepherd’s pie to Italian lasagna, Midwestern hotdish casserole to a hearty, meaty chili, these golden rules can help take any ground meat recipe to the next level.
Short of grinding it yourself (though you can if you'd like!), there are a few simple steps you can follow to guarantee fresh and flavorful ground meat from the store.
Know where your meat comes from
It’s ideal to know where the animal was raised, but also which cut of the animal’s body you're buying ground; it makes a big difference in flavor and tenderness (generally, fattier meat is more tender and flavorful, but more on this below). Look for package labels with as much information as possible, like those that specify the cut of meat or poultry used, and its lean-to-fat ratio. If possible, avoid buying meat with generic labels like “hamburger” or “ground beef,” as they often come from unspecified cuts.
Find a butcher you trust
Whether you live near a dedicated shop, or you're working with the meat-counter butchers at your local supermarket, this is key. Being able to select exactly what kind of ground meat you're picking up (or what cuts of meat you're getting specially ground for you) means more consistent freshness and better flavor.
Look for meat with ample fat content
It's also the juiciest and most tender, whereas lean meat can be a bit drier and more bland. For most preparations, a fattier blend of meat works best. Hirsheimer and Hamilton generally recommend an 80/20 lean-meat to-fatty-meat ratio (more detail on this below).
Choose the freshest meat available
Check the sell-by date, keep it refrigerated for up to a few days (bonus points for storing it in the bottom-back of your fridge—the chilliest part!), or freeze until you need it, simply thawing it in the refrigerator for 24 hours prior to using it.
Bonus: Treat your meat tenderly
Nearly all of the ground meat recipes in Canal House: Cook Something have instructions to handle the meat gently and not overmix when combining it with other ingredients. For light, tender meatballs, meatloaf, and shepherd’s pies, the less handling, the better.
When it comes to specific animals, Hirsheimer and Hamilton have advice on selecting the best ground meat:
80 percent lean ground chuck (from the chuck roast, a neck/shoulder cut), is Canal House's pick, for its juiciness and flavor. Choose rosy-red meat with defined white flecks of fat, and for burgers, try to get your hands on a medium-grind rather than finely ground (the supermarket standard).
The standard cut of meat used for ground pork is pork shoulder. Look for ground pork shoulder that is pale pink, with defined white flecks of fat. An 85 percent lean mix is the optimal way to go.
Choose domestic ground lamb—it's more supple and has a sweeter, milder flavor—with a ratio of 80 percent lean meat to 20 percent fat.
Choose ground turkey that is a mix of dark and light meat, or solely ground thigh meat, as opposed to lean ground turkey breast. The latter can be lacking in flavor and tenderness.
Classic meatloaf mix is a combination of equal parts ground pork, beef, and veal. Rather than buying it premixed, buy the meats separately and mix them yourself to control quality.
Now, you can put your newfound wisdom about ground meat to use in any one of the ground meat recipes below—including Hirsheimer and Hamilton’s favorite ground beef dishes, Chopped Steak Marchand de Vin. The "steak" is basically a meatball patted into the shape of a steak, and cloaked in a classic French red wine reduction sauce. Note the instructions to mix the meat gently with two forks, rather than your hands or a spoon, to keep the meat airy and tender. This may just be the best giant meatball you’ve ever made.