My wife has been out of the country for the last three weeks, and will be gone for eight weeks longer, which has instigated a number of changes in my lifestyle. First, I've taken to sleeping on the couch with Dumpling (the dog's not allowed on the bed and I feel weird sleeping alone). I've also chosen to adopt the well known do-no-chores-but-perform-a-massive-cleanup-the-day-before-she-gets-back strategy of house cleaning management. Finally, without my wife around to constantly mention that the air in our apartment is heavy with the scent of beef fat, I've had the chance to continue my research into the realms of ground meat with unimpeded haste.
I'm a cook by trade but a grinder by nature. Nothing pleases me more than the careful, controlled deconstruction and reconstruction of what nature has so carefully put together. The Howard Roark of cows, if you will. As for the method of deconstruction, my usual go-to is the KitchenAid meat grinder (check out this article for tips on how to use it and this article for our review of the best models), but is that always the best method? What about the food processor? Hand chopping? Or—dare I say it—pre-ground beef?
I gathered my meat grinder, food processor, gigantic Chinese cleaver, and 10 pounds of fresh beef chuck to find out.
A Note On Temperature
I know that I've mentioned this before, but I'd like to stress once more that the most important step for effective grinding is to chill the meat and the grinder. The warmer meat gets, the softer it becomes, and the harder it is to chop. Fat, in particular, has a tendency to smear, like this:
The meat on the left was ground in an un-chilled grinder, while the meat on the right was ground in a grinder that was chilled in the freezer for a couple of hours. As you can easily see, the mealy, pulpy stuff on the left looks a whole lot less like ground beef than the clean grind on the right, and it cooks up accordingly badly.
With properly ground beef, the fat is distributed throughout the lean in distinct pockets. As the burger heats and this fat melts, it ensures a loose textured patty with tiny bursts of juice speckled throughout. Smeared fat, on the other hand, tends to leave the meat with a mealy texture and leaks out of the patty much more easily. The result is a dry burger with a pulpy texture. I know which one I'd rather put in my mouth.
Grinding Methods Head-to-Head
For my tastes test, I gathered a couple of pounds of beef ground through each of four methods: store-bought 80 percent lean ground chuck, chuck ground in the meat grinder, chuck chopped in a food processor, and chuck finely chopped by hand.
I tasted the beef cooked into two types of burgers. The first was my Best Burger For a Single Man or Woman—a simple affair designed to maximize crispness and looseness of the patty. They're made by very loosely pushing together the ground beef into a thin patty that then gets pan-seared until well browned and crisp all over. By default, because of its thinness, it gets cooked to around medium (but is by no means dry!).
For the second, I went for a larger-format 8-ounce patty cooked using the Spotted Pig's Charbroiled Burger method: Seared hard in a grill pan (it's still too cold to break out the real grill), the transferred to a cooler pan to cook through to medium rare.
Both types of burgers were analyzed for texture, flavor, and ease of use. Here are the results.
Flavor: Not bad. Quite fatty, but only mildly beefy. In my experience, flavor can vary greatly from day to day and store to store—you never know exactly what's going into the ground beef, so a lot of it comes down to luck of the draw.
Texture: Compact, dense, slightly mealy.
Ease of Use: Very easy—buy the pack and open it up. The only difficult part is forming the patties properly—the very compressed meat is less shapeable than loose, freshly-ground beef.
Overall Impression/Best Uses: It's fine in a pinch, but will never make a memorable burger. It was far better in the thinner style patty than the thick patty where its denseness and poor texture really come out. The best way to cook store-bought beef is actually by the Shake Shack smash method, since with that method, the meat gets quite compacted anyway.
The Meat Grinder
Grinding Tips: Make sure meat is cut into cubes no larger than an inch or two across, that all connective tissue is trimmed away, and that everything is cold. The meat should come from the fridge, and the grinder should come from the freezer. Use relatively high speed (6 to 8 on the stand mixer) to get the meat through quickly without heating up the machine.
Flavor: Rich and meaty. These patties retain plenty of juicy fat as they cook, both the thin and the thick versions.
Texture: Tons of nooks and crannies. As a thin patty, it gets nice, crisp pebbly edges while as a large burger, it remains tender and easily chewed.
Ease of Use: Relatively easy, provided you have a stand mixer and the grinder attachment. Cleanup can be a bit of a pain (getting meat and fat out of an L-shaped tube ain't easy), but my dishwasher takes care of most of the hard work.
Overall Impression/Best Uses: It's an excellent, quick, easy, all-purpose grinding tool that produces beef that's worlds better than the store-ground stuff.
The Food Processor
Grinding Tips: To minimize smearing, cut meat into 1- to 2-inch chunks and place them in a single layer on a sheet tray or large plate in the freezer for about fifteen minutes before grinding. Grind in batches no larger than a half pound for a 10-cup food processor. Pulse rather than constantly running the grinder to get a more even grind.
Flavor: Unless your processor blades are essentially brand new, you're going to get some degree of smearing. Thus, food-processed meat loses more of its fat during cooking than beef ground in an actual grinder, but not much more.
Texture: Not quite as pebbly or crisp as meat ground in a meat grinder, but very nice overall. It doesn't grind as evenly as a grinder, which means you get a good mix of some largish chunks, and very fine bits.
Ease of Use: Moderate. Freezing the meat adds an extra step to the process, as does working in batches. Finally, smeared beef fat is not the easiest thing to clean out of a processor bowl.
Overall Impression/Best Uses: A great, relatively low-fuss method to get home-ground beef if you don't own a stand mixer and grinder attachment. Still a significant improvement over the store-bought stuff. The unevenness of the grind did leave a few mealy patches that didn't fare so well in a thicker burger. Stick with thin, loose patties.
Grinding Tips: First and foremost, use a sharp, heavy knife. A cleaver is a great choice for this technique. Because of its weight, you won't have to use much effort yourself. As with grinding, you want your meat to stay nice and cold while chopping so that everything chops easily. Chop on a soft wooden or composite cutting board that you don't mind getting scarred a bit (the heavy cleaver will leave marks on the surface). It's easiest to work in small batches so that you can more carefully control the texture of the final grind.
Flavor: Virtually no smearing means great hole structure and juice retention during cooking.
Texture: You can chop as fine or as coarsely as you like, but no matter what, you're going to end up with a good degree of variation in the texture. This is a good thing. Your burgers end up with nice tiny bits of meat and fat for crust formation, but retain enough larger pieces that each bite has a few, steak-like moments with a touch of chew. Very satisfying indeed.
Ease of Use: There's no denying it: this process is time consuming. At least three or four times as slow as a grinder or processor. On the bright side, it's good exercise, and cleanup is a snap.
Overall Impression/Best Uses: When I've got the time, this'll be my new go-to method, particularly for thicker burgers where that steak-like quality of the chunky beef really makes for an interesting finished texture.
So there you go. If you've got the impetus, hand-chopped beef is probably the way to go for most applications, though meat ground in a real meat grinder comes in a close second.
I've said it a million times before, but if there's one thing you can do to instantly and dramatically improve your burgers, it's to stop using store-bought ground beef. Even before cooking, there's a distinct difference between the fresh ground beef on the left and the store-bought beef on the right. On the left, you can clearly see the openness of the texture, which translates to better browning, a better crust, more juiciness, and a loser texture in the finished burger.
Indeed, check out the four types of burgers cooked below and tell me which one of those things is not like the other:
That's right, it's the one on the top left. Because of its tight, compact structure, the proteins in store-bought ground beef are intertwined and stuck together much more firmly. This translates to more shrinking as it cooks. More shrinking leads to less juice and denser texture.
It's been a long time since I at a regular cheeseless burger, but I felt the hand-chopped beef deserved the spotlight all its own this time.
One last note: Hand chopping can get a little bit messy, so don't do it wearing your nicest shirt. Hopefully the blood stains on the wall will still be easy to clean 8 weeks from now when I get around to it.
More tests, more results! Follow The Food Lab on Facebook or Twitter.