Friday, May 8, 2009

How to Choose Your Burger Meat

It's one thing to talk about artisan steaks. It's another to understand artisan burgers.

If I can give you any advice: Do not buy burger meat from your grocer.

The reason cited most often is risk of food poisoning. Please allow me to offer another reason to avoid grocery store ground beef and patties:

They don't actually taste that great! In fact, I'd say they don't taste much at all. Why else would we need to add seasonings to the beef or condiments on top?

At first glance, it doesn't make any sense that commodity burger meat is bland. Most is made from older cows or the steaks and roasts found in the front or back end where the muscles get more exercise. Exercise is one contributor to flavor.

There are two reasons that most grocery beef is bland.

1. Meat processors and grocers grossly oversimplify what drives taste, texture, and quality in beef.

We have been trained to think that USDA Grade (Select, Choice, or Prime) is the key contributor to quality, flavor, and juiciness. This is not true; flavor and texture also vary (a lot) depending on the breed, region, diet, aging techniques, and the relative talent of the grower, slaughterhouse, and butcher. This is as true for burgers as it is for steaks.

2. They are not selecting beef based on how good it’s going to taste in the first place.

To grocery stores and meat processors, beef is all about throughput and efficiency. Both industries have high capital costs but with rare exceptions do little to nothing to differentiate themselves vs. their competitors. As a result, they ultimately compete based on price and operate on very thin profit margins. In retail parlance, they literally calculate a "penny profit" - how many pennies do I make on each sale?

Rather than hand-select beef that will delight the palate, which would take time and money, most grocers select beef based on these criteria:

• How cheap it is (so they can increase penny profit)
• How much they can sell (so they can make an actual profit)
• How quickly they can sell it (so they don’t tie up cash too long in inventory)

Wait, you say, this is no different than any business, the idea is to lower the cost of inputs and sell at a profit.

To which I would respond, a company or brand that wants to say in business over time will also increase the value of what they are selling. In the case of ground beef, this means at minimum they would go out of their way to purposely offer really great tasting meat.

Where does this leave you if you want to enjoy a burger, some tacos, or nice bowl of chili?

Find a source of artisan quality artisan burgers! I use the same criteria as with artisan quality steaks, which you can find listed below.

If you’re a flavor hound, for burgers I would suggest that you look even harder for a good source of grass fed beef (just make sure you know what you’re getting, some misuse this terminology). When raised and aged properly, you’ll often find it to have a far more adventurous flavor. You will likely have also done a good thing for animal welfare and the environment while you were at it. That’s a win-win-win if I’ve ever heard one!

Finally, this post is part of Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday initiative meant to help individuals take control over what is on our plates. Every week I enjoy reading the posts of others who participate in the FBF carnival. I suggest that you take a look, too, and add your own post while you're at it!

Artisan Beef Institute® - Minimum Criteria For Artisan Quality Beef
  • Specific farm or producer group (source-verified).
  • Single breed or cross-breed.
  • Known growing region.
  • No added growth hormones (steroids, yuck!).
  • No preventative antibiotics (if they can't keep healthy without 'em...).
  • All vegetable diet, no funky stuff in there like stale chewing gum.
  • Low stress conditions on farm, in truck, at yard (if relevant), & at slaughterhouse.
  • Dry-aged or wet-aged for at least 14 days
  • Bonus points: certified organic, humane, grass-only diet, holistic.
© All Rights Reserved. The Oliver Ranch Company®. The Artisan Beef Institute®


kitchenmage said...

Do you have tips for people who would prefer to grind their own burger? I can get meat from folks I trust, but it seems like it might make sense to make my own burger. Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Carrie, for this great reminder!

Thanks, too, for joining in today's Fight Back Fridays. I always appreciate your posts.

(AKA FoodRenegade)

Michelle @ Find Your Balance said...

This is the only kind of meat I buy. I believe it is worth it!

Brady's Beef said...

As usual Carrie you articulate a compelling argument for what people should have learned a long time ago.

Carrie Oliver said...

Brady's Beef - Thank you for stopping by! I look forward to tasting your beef soon. Bet your burger is fabulous. Feel free to come back and tell people about it.

Carrie Oliver said...

kitchenmage. That is a great question. From a strict food safety perspective, I'm not sure I could recommend making one's own ground beef. But I have done this myself. I buy a roast (usually a cross rib) (and add some fat from other cuts if needed), trim out any gristle, and dunk the pieces in boiling water for a short period to kill any surface bacteria that may have been transferred from my or the butcher's hands or cutting surface. I then grind it (if you can call it that) in my Cuisinart. I make sure to clean the heck out of that unit, too, both before and after. I think it would be smarter to use something designed to grind meat - something with no or fewer edge/corners/crevices. Have you done this?

The other thing one can do is find a butcher you trust (in my books, this means he/she can tell me where it's from and all that) and have him grind some beef for you first thing in the morning after his/her equipment has been fully cleaned.

foodrenegade It's always a pleasure to participate in your carnival!

Michelle, Very glad that you stopped by, I love your blog! I just left a question there about sardines and anchovies.

Vivian said...

Thank you for this post it has helped me to make a decision that I have been contemplating for a while now.

We used to have really great butchers here in Oklahoma City but one by one they have closed :( I do make a monthly trip to the Meers Store in Meers, OK for the best burgers in the state and have decided that I am going to increase the number of trips to at least 2 a month so that I can purchase all our beef from them too. The Moranto family raise all their own beef (Texas Longhorns)for the restaurant and do sell their ground beef and steaks in their small store as well. They take such great pride in the product they produce and have a great reputation amongst the locals here in Oklahoma.

Carrie Oliver said...

Vivian, That's great! I'll have to look the Moranto family up.

Any one who raises and sells their own meat, esp. in a restaurant, is going to be getting a lot of feedback on it and will spend time making it even better.

If you really enjoy their beef but don't want to make 2x / month trips, you might see if they sell in larger quantities (1/8 or 1/4 cattle, for instance). As long as the beef is packaged well and frozen quickly, you can't tell the difference vs. fresh.

Carolyn Jung said...

Well, definitely after eating your aged-beef burgers, it spoils you for anything else. They have a powerhouse of flavor.

Diana said...

Great post! I've definitely noticed that restaurants who list where there beef is from have much better tasting burgers. I just had a "Gourmet" Kobe Burger at a restaurant that was not at all ipressive. My husband and I are trying to find 3 other couples/families to split a 1/4 cattle with us, then we'll get lots of ground beef!

Carrie Oliver said...

Carolyn, those dry-aged Charolais burgers are wickedly good, aren't they. I'm so glad that you like them!

Diana, go for it, sharing a purchase with others is a great way to get fabulous ground beef and steaks and roasts. It also helps the farmer/butcher.

Charles G Thompson said...

So great to hear you and meet you at the IFBC this last weekend. We're all excited about the possibility of a tasting. Thanks Carrie.

theYakRanch said...

Outstanding! Choosing what goes into Burger is the key to excellent quality. Your blog is fantastic. I will have to spend some serious time reading all posts.
Thank You.

Just Cook It said...

Really great post. I'm going to be making burgers within the next couple of weeks so will use this info. Thanks

Culinary Hatchet said...

Good post.

Inspired me to do my own research and expand on it.
Beef Labeling Brainteaser

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bulrich said...

Great tips on selecting beef. For other great grilling and recipe tips check out the Weber website. It has helped me out a lot this grilling season! (
Brian (Weber)

BTW… check out our new video series “Weber Grill Master”. Grilling experts Jamie Purviance and Steven Raichlen compare notes on grilling techniques, what inspired these classically trained chefs to pursue the art of cooking with live fire, and find out what led to their biggest grilling mistakes.