The amount of marbling, or visible fat, in a beef cut determines its desirability in a ground beef blend. Left to right, choice-grade chuck eye roast, choice-grade sirloin tip roast and select-grade top round roast at Pat’s Meat Market in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

As the unofficial kickoff to summer and grilling season, Memorial Day weekend is one of the calendar’s most burger-friendly holidays. But before you buy your ground beef, now’s the time to learn the simple trick that separates good burgers from great ones.

Savvy cooks and butchers know that making the most memorable burgers has little to do with cooking methods or condiments. In fact, this critical step comes even before the patties feel the flames. The treasured technique? Freshly grind the beef.

Whether you grind it yourself using a grinder attachment on your home stand mixer – easier than you might think – or ask the pros at a butcher shop to custom grind a special burger blend to your exact specs, the quality, taste and texture differences between fresh ground beef and prepackaged ground beef are stark. Pre-packed ground beef at supermarkets can sit on shelves for days, becoming more tightly packed and wetter over time, while the beef fat tends to soften, spread and smear from the moisture. This leads to greasy, dense and bland burger patties.

By contrast, freshly ground beef comes out of the grinder much less packed, almost fluffy, with tiny bits of fat evenly distributed throughout. The result is a burger dripping with juice and full of deep, beefy flavor.

But before grinding, you’ll first need to choose the right beef cuts. And the preferred cuts for ground beef have changed over the years.

Fat is your friend

Advertisement

“Some years ago, maybe because of lingering Depression-era thinking, people wanted leaner ground meats because they shrank less during cooking and so seemed like a better value,” said Nick Vacchiano of Pat’s Meat Market on Stevens Avenue in Portland. He and his brother, Elliot, own the market, which has been in their family for 104 years. “Now it’s about quality, and fat helps.”

Pat’s sells a few blends of house-ground beef they make from particular cuts mixed with trimmings from their prime-grade sirloin strip and ribeye steaks for the necessary added fat. Ground round ($6.99/lb.) made from top round roast is their leanest, at 90 percent. Ground sirloin ($5.99/lb.), made from sirloin tip roast, is Pat’s most popular ground beef, weighing in at 85 percent lean, which Elliot calls “the perfect balance” of lean meat and fat. “It’s always more fat, more flavor.”

Because Pat’s cuts hundreds of pounds of steak each day, the market also sells a ground tenderloin blend ($7.99/lb.) that uses the “chain” of meat and suety fat that gets trimmed from the side of the tenderloin and often discarded. And instead of using the ribeye and strip steak scraps, Pat’s butchers blend tenderloin steak trimmings with the ground chains. “It has the best texture of any ground beef I’ve ever had,” Nick Vacchiano said, noting that the low water content of beef tenderloin gives the burgers undiluted steak flavor.

Moreover, a scan of current ground beef prices at area supermarkets shows prices range between $3.99/lb. (for basic ground beef) and $7.99/lb (for leaner grinds), offering no real savings compared to Pat’s quality beef blends.

Create your own custom blend

Max Henckel runs sirloin tip roast through the meat grinder at Pat’s Meat Market. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

While they prefer customers to try their house grinds first, the Vacchiano brothers said they happily grind custom beef blends for customers, like a 50-50 blend of chuck and short rib, which has loads of marbling and rich taste. Other good choices for custom grinds include brisket, which also has plenty of fat along with deeply meaty, mineral flavor. Nick said he’s partial to grinding London broil steak with fatty steak trimmings from time to time for a beefy mix that stays juicy while it cooks.

Advertisement

Grinding fresh also gives you better control of what’s actually inside your burger. Packages labeled “ground beef” at the supermarket (as opposed to ground chuck, from the chuck primal, or ground sirloin, from the sirloin primal) may contain meat from various parts of the animal, or from multiple cattle being processed at the packing plant. Grinding a beef cut or two for your own blend means you know exactly what’s in the mix, and that it’s not drawn randomly from a herd’s worth of meat.

Even if you use just one cut of beef, say chuck eye, freshly grinding it will produce burgers vastly superior to those made from pre-ground patties. After some tinkering over the years, I’ve arrived at a blend I love that can make a fine beginner’s template for anyone looking to try grinding for the first time, but feel free to substitute other cuts or adjust the ratios to your liking.

Tim Cebula’s Home-Ground Burger Blend

Yields about 16 (4-ounce) burger patties

2 lbs. chuck eye, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 lb. flat-cut brisket, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 lb. boneless beef short rib, cut into 1-inch cubes

If you have a grinder attachment ($50-$100) for your home stand mixer, place the attachment parts and metal grinder plates (both coarse and fine) in the freezer for 20 minutes, along with the bowl you plan to grind the beef in to. Cut the beef into 1-inch cubes. If you’re using more than one cut of beef, as I suggest here, blend the cubes from the different cuts together. Then place the cubed meat in the freezer (in a single layer, if possible) for 20 minutes or until beef is firm, but not frozen.

Advertisement

Keeping both the equipment and beef as chilled as possible while you grind is important. As the temperature of the gear and meat rises, the fat begins to melt and smear, lowering the quality of the ground beef and possibly clogging the grinder. If you’re grinding more than a couple of pounds of beef, it’s best to work in batches, chilling the beef and gear in between the batches to prevent smearing.

If you have both a coarse and fine grind plate, pass the meat through the course plate first, which helps speed the process along. Then pass the course ground beef through the grinder a second time, using the fine plate to make a proper burger grind. If you only have a fine grind plate, you should still grind the meat twice (for optimum fat distribution), but work a little more slowly on the first pass-through so the meat doesn’t get jammed in the smaller grind holes.

Once all the beef has been ground twice, you can form it into patties. If you have several pounds of ground beef, Pat’s Meat Market’s Elliot Vacchiano recommends shaping it into a log the diameter of a burger, then slicing it into roughly quarter-pound patties. When forming patties, handle the beef gently and press it just enough so it stays together – overworked beef patties become dry and dense.

Grill the patties as you usually do.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: