March 16, 2012

'Pink slime' sounds gross, but how does it taste?

J.M. Hirsch / Associated Press Food Editor

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A hamburger made from ground beef containing "pink slime," or what the meat industry calls "lean, finely textured beef," right, and one made from pure 85% lean ground beef are ready for tasting.

AP

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Grocer No. 2 presented the opposite problem. The workers there found one brand that definitely did have the pink stuff, but they couldn't say whether any others did or didn't.

And don't be fooled by the "all-natural" beef label at store No. 1. That term is unregulated, so it doesn't really mean anything. At another store, another brand of ground beef could be similarly labeled but still contain the meat filler.

But the term "organic" is regulated, and that provides a clue. If you can find it — and are willing to pay the price — ground beef labeled organic cannot contain lean finely textured beef.

Despite the odds, I had lucked out. Between the two grocers, I'd managed to identify two packages of 85 percent lean ground beef, one with pink slime and one without. Time to taste.

By label alone, it was clear we were talking different beef demographics. The pink slime-free product bragged that it was minimally processed and that the cows had been raised without antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts in their food. Price — $5.99 per pound. The pink slime version? Just a minimalist "compare and save." Price — $3.09 per pound.

Outwardly, they seemed the same: They smelled the same, and they looked basically the same, though the pink slime sample was slightly lighter in color. Until you touched them. The all-natural sample was slightly fattier to touch. That seemed odd, since both products should have the same fat content.

INTO THE MOUTH

For the taste test, I kept it simple and pure. I formed a half-pound of each ground beef into a thick burger patty, adding nothing to the meat. And though I prefer my burgers on the grill, I decided to fry these in a skillet because it's easier to control the cooking, ensuring both would be cooked to the same degree and under the same conditions.

I added nothing to the pan. Meat this fatty generally bleeds out a robust amount of grease, so I wasn't concerned with sticking. That was my second surprise. The pink slime patty released very little fat during cooking. The other patty gave off two or three times as much.

About 5 minutes per side, and I declared them medium-rare. After giving them a few minutes to rest, I seasoned them lightly with salt and pepper, then cut in.

First, the unadulterated burger. The aroma was luscious. The meat was juicy, tender and nicely seared. Where I'd cut, juices slowly dribbled out onto the plate, collecting in a pool. The taste was savory and meaty, with big beefy flavor. The chew had just the right texture, substantial but giving. Basically, everything you would want in a burger.

The pink slime burger also was perfectly seared and drew me in with an equally alluring aroma. But no juices collected on the plate. Or dribbled out. Or were apparent in the meat in really any way. The taste was — OK. I took another taste of the first burger, then back to the pink slime burger.

It was not bad. But nor was it good. It was flat. I added more salt. No. It was simply one-dimensional.

And then there was the texture. Unpleasantly chewy bits of what I can only describe as gristle, though they were not visible, seemed to stud the meat of the pink slime burger. The result was a mealy chew that, while not overtly unpleasant, didn't leave me wanting another bite.

Of course, I did take another bite. In the interest of good journalism, I ate both burgers entirely. And then I felt sick. I'm confident that has nothing to do with slime of any sort.

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