Is all ground beef the same?

Are you planning a Labor Day cookout? If you are, I’m sure burgers are on the menu. When you go to the supermarket to get your ground beef, which kind do you buy? Which kind should you buy? In this Cooking Tip, I wish to discuss the different types of ground beef and their best uses.

According to butchers, ground beef is made out of “trimmings”. These are pieces of beef trimmed off a larger cut of beef. The particular type of ground beef will be made from trimmings from that specific primal cut. For example, ground chuck comes from the chuck area (aka shoulder). See this illustration for the primal cuts. It is interesting to note that these trimmings may come from multiple animals.

When you are shopping for ground beef, note the following terms..

Ground beef – this is a general term for ground beef that can be from any cut or combination of cuts. According the USDA, it can have up to a maximum of 30% fat. Because of the high fat content, it can have nice flavor but also tends towards being greasy and mushy. It is usually the most affordable.

Ground chuck – this is cut from the chuck (or shoulder) and ranges from 15-25% fat. It is the best choice for burgers because of its rich flavor, its tenderness and moistness. The most typical fat/meat ratio on the label is 80/20 – meaning 80% meat and 20% fat.

Ground sirloin – this is cut from the short loin, the midsection near the hip. The fat content is only 7-10%. Despite its low fat content, sirloin is a very flavorful cut. It is also very tender but can be a bit dry. It is also more expensive than other cuts. Many, but not all, ground sirloin is labeled 90/10. If it is used for burgers; it is often mixed with ground chuck to give it more flavor and moisture. A mixture is also great for chili and similar uses.

Ground round – this comes from the rear upper leg and rump. With a fat content of 10-15%, it tends to be less juicy, can be gristly and often lacks a robust beef flavor. Ground rounds are often sold as 85/15. Burgers made with ground round tend to be a little dry from the lack of fat content. It is best used in soups, stews or spaghetti. Adding ground round to dishes with other liquids helps to compensate for the lack of moisture in the fat.

Hamburger – this is another generic term and is a mix of whatever is left over from other cuts. It is usually not labeled with the fat content or which cuts were used. The USDA allows beef fat to be added to “hamburger” whereas no fat is added to “ground beef”.

I took a look at the ground beef available in my local supermarket. If I went to the meat counter, they had what was labeled “ground chuck” and “ground sirloin”. However, in the refrigerated meat section with the prepackaged packaged products. Every single package there was labeled “ground beef”. It did have the fat content listed but not the cut. I spoke to the meat department manager and he confirmed that all his products labeled “ground beef” could be a mixture of many different cuts but there was no way for the customer to know which cuts. Is it the same in your market? Let me know.

Besides checking the name of the cut as well as the fat content, you want your ground beef to be as freshly ground as possible. Look for something that was ground the day you are buying it. It should be bright red-pink in color with visible flecks of meat and fat in it. If you have a butcher, you could ask them to grind it or you could also learn to grind your own beef. However, the USDA cautions against this saying “In a USDA-inspected plant, trimmed beef destined for grinding is tested for the presence of E. coli. However, primal cuts, such as steaks and roasts, are usually not tested. When stores or consumers grind these primal cuts, it’s possible that pathogens may be present on the raw beef, and neither you nor meat market employees can see, smell, or taste dangerous bacteria. In addition, USDA-inspected plants have Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures that cover policies such as the cleaning of grinding machines and the handling and chilling of ground beef. Consumers and stores might not follow such stringent sanitary procedures.”   

Whether you are having burgers for your Labor Day meal or not, I hope the information in this Cooking Tip will help you choose the best ground beef for your dish. In a subsequent tip, I will help you turn that ground beef into the best burger possible. Stay tuned!