Build a Better Burger: Choosing Ground BeefBy Todd • Oct 19th, 2010 • Category: How To Cook Burgers
We’re on a mission to make this world a better place, one cheeseburger at a time. But it doesn’t have to come from a fancypants bistro or a greasy diner on the wrong side of town. In fact, the best cheeseburger you’ll ever have can- and, truly, probably should- come from your own kitchen cooktop or backyard grill. So in addition to telling you where you can buy the next great burger, we’ll be telling you how you can make the next great burger. In our new “Build a Better Burger” series, we’ll break down the All-American food to get a deeper understanding of each critical component, with tips and techniques you can try in your own burgermaking adventures. Put enough of this info together, and you may never order a combo meal from the clown, king, or pigtailed girl again.
Today, we focus on beef. Say what you want about what a spectacular bun brings to the table. Argue till you’re bleu about the best cheese. Talk toppings all day long. The single most important element of the burger is still the beef. None of those other things can save a pitiful patty. But strangely, enough, when most of us go to the grocery story for cookout supplies, we spend the least amount of time in the meat department, usually grabbing a shrinkwrapped package of whatever’s closest… or, God forbid, cheapest. But have you ever stopped to really consider the beef you buy? Or wonder what kind of a difference it makes between the buns?
When the average dude (or dudette) buys beef for burgers, they’re buying pre-ground beef. Grinding your own requires specialized equipment (although we’ll explore some shortcuts in future installments) and a good bit of time, so it makes sense. But even then, you’ve got a decision to make.
Ground chuck is a popular cut for burgers, maybe the most popular. That’s because it comes from the neck and shoulder area of the cow, a region that tends to be very flavorful and on the fatty side, with 16-22% fat content. “80/20” is how I refer to it- my beef blend of choice- and it cost me $3.49 per pound the other day at my supermarket.
Ground round comes from the rump of the cow. It’s a little leaner, with a fat content of between 11 and 15 percent. You can see a little less white than in the chuck. I use “85/15” if I’ll be adding any fat or grease to the blend, as in my bacon fat burgers, to keep the finished burger from being overly greasy. It, too, rang up at $3.49 per pound.
Ground sirloin comes from the backmost section of the cow’s back closest to the round. It’s leaner still- between 5 and 10% fat content- and is visibly different from chuck. That makes “90/10” quite a bit more expensive- $4.69 per pound- and less desirable if a juicy burger is the goal. A lot of cooks save ground sirloin for spaghetti sauce or chili.
Most chefs really get into their beef blends, often ordering a custom mix from their meat supplier. These start to include cuts like brisket and hanger steak and can result in some seriously-complex flavor layering. That’s not generally an option for anyone who doesn’t have a first-name friendship with a professional butcher. (And I love how every cookbook tells you to “ask your butcher” for this or that. Who the hell has a butcher anymore?!? I live in one the country’s ten largest cities, and I can’t find one.) But if you want, buy a package of more than one type of ground beef and experiment away.
But be wary of any package labeled, simply, “ground beef.” There will not be any meat-to-fat percentages printed on the package because… they don’t know. This is ground-up meat scraps. Could be anything, from bits of filet mignon to the fabled “lips and assholes.” (Okay, not really, but you get my point. No more than 30% fat by law, it’s probably serviceable for burgers, but is “serviceable” really the adjective you want your cookout guests to use? Steer clear of mystery meat.)
So that’s difference on the cow and at the cash register. What about on your dinner plate? Does it really matter? I grilled up burgers made from each of the three cuts and did a side-by-side-by-side taste test. The results surprised me, and I’ll share them with you next time.