Each week J. Kenji Lopez-Alt will drop by with a list of tools or a tool you might want to stock your kitchen with—if you haven't already. Kenji also writes The Food Lab column here on SE. You can fan The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on his future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.—The Mgmt.
If you are still asking the question, "Why should I grind my own meat?" All I can say is that you probably haven't been following this blog for too long. The advantages are numerous, but here are just a few:
- It's safer. Prepackaged beef can contain meat from hundreds, even thousands of animals, and not necessarily from the nicest bits either. This means that you've got to be extra careful when cooking with prepackaged ground beef—chances of contamination are higher, and medium-rare burgers are right out
- Better flavor. Unless you've got a really great butcher, you're stuck with whatever ground beef the supermarket has on hand. Usually this is no more specific than knowing the fat content. Grinding at home allows you to control what cuts go into your grind, along with the fat content
- Better texture. Preground meat sits in its packaging, being slowly compressed and oxidizing. Grinding if fresh lets you keep it nice and loose, improving both moisture levels, and texture after cooking
- It's cool. Anyone who makes their own sausage or grinds their own beef for their burgers gets instant street cred in my book
While it's possible to grind meat in a food processor, or even to chop it by hand, a dedicated meat grinder is your best option if you plan on grinding meat on a regular basis. Here's a basic guide on how to select, use, and maintain your grinder.
All meat grinders consiste of the same basic parts:
- The pusher and hopper are where you add cubes of meat. The pusher is used to force the meat down the feed tube and to keep things moving. Usually, there is a tray located on top of the feed tube where extra meat can be stored before being pushed into the grinder. The larger this tray, the more convenient it is to grind larger batches of meat
- The screw is the main working part of the grinder. It steadily pushes meat down the shaft, and toward the blades
- The blade and plate are what do the actual grinding. The blade is a small cross-shaped piece with a sharp edge on each arm that rotates against the plate (also called the die). The plate is a flat piece of metal with holes cut into it. As the screw forces the meat into this hole, the blade cuts it into a fine mince. The size of the holes determines the fineness of the final grind
- The cover is used to keep the blade and plate in place as it chops
Although the basic parts are all the same, you have a number of options when it comes to buying a meat grinder. The good news is, none of them is bad.
Manual grinders are the cheapest way to get good quality freshly ground meat at home, and are a great option for casual grinders who don't own a stand mixer. You have two options.
If you've got a nice wood work table or counter top and are planning on doing a lot of grinding, a bolt-mounted meat grinder is the way to go. At less than $40, they should last you a near lifetime of grinding, provided you care for the working parts properly. For an even cheaper, though slightly less sturdy option, at $29.95, this clamp-mounted model allows you to work on any tabletop you'd like.
One word of warning: The clamp-mounted models tend to be less sturdy than the bolt-mounted ones, and getting the pieces to fit together properly can sometimes be a pain. It'll still grind your meat just as well, but do expect a few headaches trying to put it together and take it apart.
Stand Mixer Attachments
The great thing about buying a meat grinder attachment is that you already know that the hardest working part of your grinder—the motor—is going to be a workhorse that can power through even the toughest grinding projects.
You are basically stuck buying the attachment for whatever brand stand mixer you own in this department, but none of the options are that bad. While both the Cuisinart and the Viking feature all-metal parts, which can stay chilled for longer than the plastic KitchenAid model, they are also three times more expensive.
Stand mixer attachments are a great option if you make a lot of sausage. You can grind the meat directly into the processor bowl, then attach the bowl to the machine and immediately start mixing it with the paddle to develop protein. It's a real time-saver.
I don't know many home cooks outside of those who do a lot of hunting who have a need for a standalone grinder, like this one from Waring ($99.95). Although they usually come with a wider assortment of plates, a wider feed tube and screw shaft, the motor is only as good as the money you pay for it. Cheaper models will work no better than the stand mixer attachments, and more expensive models are only necessary if you plan on doing a whole lot of grinding. I grind well more than the average cook, and my KitchenAid attachment has yet to fail me.
The one distinct advantage that standalone grinders have is that most of them have a reverse function—a real time-saver if you are trying to chop especially troublesome meat with lots of connective tissue to get caught in the blade.
Most meat grinders and attachments come with funnels designed for stuffing sausages. They will work in a pinch but can be a real headache to use. The main problem is that they don't push the meat forcefully enough, so stuffing sausages can take five or ten times longer than it should. All the while, the meat is slowly warming up.
I've had better luck stuffing sausage with a pastry bag (this requires two people—one to squeeze the bag, the other to pull the casings off the end as the meat comes out), but if you're really serious about sausage-making, you'll want a piston-based stuffer that pushes the meat out with a lever rather than trying to force it out with a screw. The result is faster, tighter sausages with fewer air bubbles.
Necessary? No. Useful? Definitely.
How to Use and Care for Your Meat Grinder
There's really not much to it when it comes to using a meat grinder. Basically, all you've got to do assemble the grinder with the plate you desire, take your trimmed meat (grinders hate sinew and connective tissues, so make sure to trim it all out), feed it into the hopper, turn the grinder on (if using a grinder on a stand mixer attachment, a relatively fast speed is the way to go—I've found that about 6 to 8 on the KitchenAid produces the best results), and press the meat through. Ground meat, simple as that.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind while grinding:
- Keep everything cold. This is the single most important thing when it comes to grinding. Warm meat will smear, the fat will leak out, and it will come out with a cooked texture similar to papier-mâché—pulpy, and dry. Ugh. Place the grinder and all of its parts in the freezer for at least one hour before grinding (I keep mine stored in the freezer all the time), keep your meat well chilled right until ready to grind. If you are making sausage that will require several grinds, grind the meat into a bowl placed inside another bowl filled with ice in order to keep it chilled during grinds
- Trim your meat well. The No. 1 cause of smearing is when bits of sinew get caught around the blade, causing it to go dull. Rather than chopping meat, you end up smooshing it through the holes on the plate, giving you a chewed up texture. Trimming your meat well will help prevent this
- Watch for smearing. Keep an eye on the meat as it comes out of the grinder. Ideally, it'll come out of each hole in discrete little pieces. You should be able to clearly identify fat and meat. If it starts coming out as one mass, looks wet, and collects on the surface of the die, you are in trouble. If your grinder has a "reverse" function, use it and see if it fixes itself. Otherwise, disassemble the mechanism, clean the blade, and start over
- Keep your blade sharp. The blade is the only part of your grinder that should ever need much care or attention. A dull blade will smear meat. Luckily, the blade and plate should actually get better and better with repeated use. The metal grinds down microscopically each time you use it, so the contact between the blade and the plate should get tighter and tighter. Nothing grinds as smoothly as a well-taken care of, well-used grinder. You will occasionally need to get your blades resharpened if they've gotten way too dull. Once a year or so for a moderately well-used grinder is more than enough. Or, simply buy a few replacement blades. They can usually be had for a few bucks
- Keep your plate clean. Allowing meat to dry and stick to the blade is a good way to get yourself sick. Make sure to remove and wash all parts of the grinder well between grinds. Even on a stainless steel model, the plate is often made of a different die-cast material which will tarnish if you stick it in the dishwasher. Your best bet is to wash it by hand in hot soapy water, and carefully dry it with a clean towel after each use
- Grind from large to small die. If you need an extra-fine grind for certain types of sausages, make sure to grind your meat twice, chilling it again between batches: Once through a larger 1/4-inch die, then a second time through the smaller die. This will help prevent smearing, will give you a more even grind, and a better textured sausage in the end
- Salt meat for sausages before grinding, and meat for burgers after forming your burgers. When you add the salt to your meat has a huge impact on the finished texture. When added before grinding and mixing, it dissolves some of the proteins, allowing them to crosslink more easily into a tight matrix, and leading to a springier, sausagelike texture
A Final Quick Tip
After you're done grinding, before you take the grinder apart or move the bowl at all, take a couple wadded-up paper towels and pass them through the grinder just like you are grinding meat. They won't come out the other end, but they will push out any stray bits of meat that have managed to stay behind, as well as help clean out the inside of the feed tube and shaft. Better yield and easier clean-up result.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.