The Daily Grind: Making Your Own Ground Meat
In America, we call it “ground beef,” in England, “beef mince.” The English term comes from the French mincer, which means “to make smaller.” For many people in both countries, it’s the staple meat of the family table. When I was growing up, ground beef formed the basis for many of my mother’s standard dishes: meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, and who could forget Sloppy Joes? A sandwich is a sandwich but a Manwich is a meal… Campbell’s made a soup called “Noodles and Ground Beef” which, with more ground beef and a bit of sautéed onion added by my mother, made one of our favorite casseroles. And, of course, just plain hamburgers on a Hostess white bun.
These days the hungry shopper can buy almost any protein ready-ground: turkey, pork, chicken or lamb. What a wonderful time-saver for the busy cook.
Until last week.
Tesco, England’s largest food retailer, was found to have unwittingly included undisclosed horse meat in its beef mince frozen burgers. By the next morning, Tesco had lost £300 million of its value. Customers were forced to admit that we actually have to take it on trust that the contents of ready-ground meat are what they say they are. Once it’s ground up, it could be anything, and probably is.
There is a wonderful saying, “Legislation and sausages have one thing in common: no one wants to see how they’re made.” But it turns out that when it comes to sausages, or even simple beef mince, an increasing number of people DO want to see how they’re made. But in the absence of any secure trust in commercial food production, the only real solution is to grind your own.
The best the wary consumer can do is to buy a cut of meat from a reputable butcher or supermarket, bring it home and grind it up. I say “grind,” but actually the options are myriad. One can simply chop it on a chopping board with a heavy, sharp knife, in the way of the original “mincers.” This is the best method for steak tartare, which really should be the texture of little tiny cubes of meat obtainable only by hand-chopping. But for most other recipes, it is simplicity itself to cut any meat into chunks and put it through a session in the food processor, or an inexpensive meat grinder. In small batches, you can even use your blender.
The important thing about grinding meat at home is that you know exactly, down to the last ounce, what you are feeding your family. My daughter has long objected to ready-ground beef because of the tendency to encounter what she calls “bad bites”: fat, gristle, even a bit of cartilage. For her, this sensation spoils the entire meal. Her objection to beef burgers led me to my first experiments in chicken burgers, and since it’s unusual to find ready-ground chicken in a shop, I ground my own. It was so satisfying to remove every bit of extraneous material from a chicken breast – sinew, membrane, fat – and put the chunks into the food processor. I ended up with a pristine bowl of perfect chicken, ready to be formed into a burger, sautéed and enjoyed down to the last bite, with no worries of an unexpected encounter.
An extra benefit from grinding one’s own meat is that one can get exactly the consistency desired. British ready-ground beef mince and pork mince are a bit coarser than Americans are used to, and the texture can be off-putting to a sensitive palate. How much nicer to bring home the chunk of meat and grind, process or chop it to your exact preference? Not to mention the fact that the heat of a commercial grinder in any market or butcher shop will speed up the decay in the meat.
Another massive satisfaction in home-ground meat is the knowledge that one can keep kitchen hygiene to a diamond standard. I worry about the number of unknown surfaces that processed food encounters, and the more surfaces there are – ground meats being ALL surface and so many of them – to be contaminated, the more I worry. It’s the same principle that keeps me from buying ready-cut-up fruit at the grocery.
The important thing about grinding meat at home is that you know exactly, down to the last ounce, what you are feeding your family.”
What cut of meat to buy to grind at home? Well, as with any cooking discussion there are several schools of thought, most of them devolving into arguments about fat. At the supermarket, of course, you can read the label and choose what percentage of fat you want in your beef, pork or lamb. Turkey tends to be standard, without choice. Some butchers will offer a choice of specific cuts: minced sirloin, round, rump. My butcher offers “beef mince” which contains about 20% fat, for burgers, claiming it’s necessary to hold the burgers together. “Steak mince” is nearly fat-free, for lasagna or Bolognese, he says.
Really old-fashioned butchers will offer to re-grind the mince if you want it more delicate. As for fat content, some cooks argue that fat adds flavor and moisture. I personally do not find that a completely lean cut of meat lacks flavor or moisture, and I’d prefer to add my fat by tastier means such as cheese. It’s a matter of taste.
So I choose the leanest possible cut of every meat I grind at home. This means loin chops for lamb and pork, breast for chicken, and topside (top round in America) for beef.
I’d love to tell you that it won’t cost you a single extra cent more to grind your meat at home, but that would be a lie. Buying a lean cut – as I want to – instead of the fattier cuts used for ready-ground meat will straightaway up your costs. You’ll also end up with some of your fancy lean cut in the rubbish when you trim, so there is that cost to consider as well. It’s up to you to decide how important it is and whether or not it might be worth eating less meat and spending the money on the best quality cut and grinding it at home. That’s the trade-off I’ve come to for my family – meat less frequently, but the best meat every single time.
Last night we had the Great Grinding Experiment Taste Test for supper. I brought home two topside “joints” (as the English call roasts, even if there isn’t a ball and socket involved). I trimmed them assiduously, cut them into chunks, and ran half of them through my fancy expensive Cuisinart, pulsing until I got a pleasant consistency – small grind, but not mealy. I ran the other half through my inexpensive little plastic meat grinder, noting that I had two size choices. I ran half that batch through the larger grind and half through the smaller and mixed them together. I formed them into burgers of about 166 grams, or about 6 ounces. A little salt and pepper, and bob’s your uncle.
And the results of our survey? A massive improvement on ready-ground meat (“no bad bites!” Avery marveled). Much redder, perfectly juicy, and even virtually fat-free, there was no occurrence of “falling apart.” They held together in perfect burgers. And we couldn’t distinguish between the food-processor and grinder methods. So, dear reader, the equipment really doesn’t matter.
Now that you have your ground meat, what to do with it? Burgers, obviously, and my chicken burgers – shot through with Boursin cheese and a touch of blue cheese dressing – are legendary. Chicken meatballs, swimming in a rich sauce of sour cream, paprika, brandy and fresh thyme, are an instant crowd pleaser. And don’t forget the immunity-boosting deliciousness of Thai chicken meatball soup, rich with ginger and herbs.
Moussaka is the perfect choice for your ground lamb. What could be better than fried eggplant (aubergine in England) and a gorgeous béchamel sauce? You can always add chickpeas for even more protein. As for your ground turkey, there is nothing better than a spicy, bean-laden chili, cradled in a lettuce leaf or scooped up with a tortilla chip, topped with sour cream and cilantro (coriander in England).
Ground pork will lend itself beautifully to your spaghetti Bolognese, either mixed with ground beef or on its own. My version is totally inauthentic – rich with milk, white wine and a touch of nutmeg – but is still Avery’s hands-down favorite pasta dish. And if you have leftover sauce, you must mash some potatoes, spread them on top, bake it and serve up classic British cottage pie (called “shepherd’s” if there is lamb involved).
Now, armed with a healthy dose of commercial skepticism, a shopping bag full of delicious fresh meats, and a list of tempting recipes, you are ready to cook. And I’m not mincing words.
Do you grind your own meat at home?
Photo Credit: John Curran & Avery Curran (burger image)
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