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 website 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 a dicey proposition.
- Better flavor. Unless you have a really great butcher, you're stuck with whatever ground beef the supermarket has on hand. Usually, you know nothing more specific about it than the fat content. Grinding at home allows you to control what cuts go into your grind, along with the fat content. That means tastier burger patties, juicier sausages, and richer ragù.
- Better texture. Preground meat sits in its packaging, slowly being compressed and oxidizing. Grinding meat 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 consist 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's 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 the blade 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 are bad.
Most meat grinders and attachments come with funnels designed for stuffing sausages. They will work in a pinch, but can be a headache to use. The main problem is that they don't push the meat forcefully enough, so stuffing sausages can take five or 10 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 is assemble the grinder with the plate you desire; feed your trimmed meat (grinders hate sinew and connective tissues, so make sure to trim it all out) into the hopper; turn on the grinder (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 you're grinding. Warm meat will smear, the fat will leak out, and it will come out with a cooked texture similar to that of papier-mâché—pulpy and dry. 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), and keep your meat well chilled right up until you're ready to grind. If you're 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 throughout.
- Trim your meat well. Smearing is most often caused by bits of sinew that get caught around the blade. 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're 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-cared-for, 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 that 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, quarter-inch die, then a second time through the smaller die. This will help prevent smearing and 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, it has a huge impact on the finished texture. When added before grinding and mixing, it dissolves some of the proteins, allowing them to cross-link more easily into a tight matrix, leading to a springier, sausage-like texture—great for kielbasa, but not as delightful in a burger.
A Final Quick Tip
After you're done grinding, before you take the grinder apart or move the bowl at all, take a couple of wadded-up paper towels and pass them through the grinder, just like you're 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 cleanup are the result.