My husband Patrick is a meat-and-potatoes guy. He orders his steak rare when dining out, and a dinner is thought impotent without a slab of meat at its core. One can imagine his surprise the first time he bit into a hamburger prepared by me, only to find it contaminated by flaky hunks of oatmeal. He almost spit it out. I stared at him, wide-eyed. My mother and my old Irish Nanna had always prepared burgers in this manner. It never occurred to me that oatmeal was used as filler to stretch the meat because pennies were always few.
This experience made me wonder what exactly unadulterated hamburger was. Stanley Glenn, the general manager of Iowa Meat Farms in Mission Valley, explained to me that hamburger is basically different cuts of beef trimmings — from chuck roast to filet mignon — that have been put through a grinder. When asked about the proportion of meat to fat in hamburger, Stan responds, “It depends. What we do here is extra lean [$2.99/lb.] and lean [$1.49/lb], which translates, extra lean is less than 10 percent fat, and lean is less than 20 percent fat. I think legally, you can go up to 30 percent, but then it’s just ground beef. [It can’t be called lean or extra lean.] Some people think in terms of ground round, ground chuck, and ground sirloin, but those aren’t really accurate. If you’re going to grind sirloin, and you grind ten of them, you have ten different amounts of fat in each one.
“I think most supermarkets buy the stuff pre-ground. It’s called ‘coarse grind.’ It comes in a tube, and then they take it and they run it back through a grinder.” Adds butcher Mark Johnson, “I used to work at [several grocery chains], and when that meat comes in the door, it’s in 20- to 25-pound tubes. You have no idea what cuts went into it. It’s a certain price for a certain fat content.”
I can recall seeing ground beef in varying shades of pinks and browns. Does color matter? “To a certain extent, that’s what you should look for. It depends on how long it’s been ground. When we cut a steak, it’s not red, it’s purple. When the oxygen hits it, it turns bright red, because the surface blood that’s in there will be oxidized. The same thing happens when you grind a piece of meat. Whatever comes out of the grinder blooms on the outside when it’s packed. But the inside, which is cut off from the oxygen, will stay dark — not because there’s anything wrong with it, just because it isn’t getting any oxygen.” Stan thinks the browning that comes after the bloom is due to further oxidation.
I picked up some of Stan’s lean and extra lean, and hit some other local grocery stores to pick up hamburger for a taste test, check prices, and see what other information I could glean. Dan, the butcher at Ralph’s, tells me the meat is usually ground twice a day and fresh every morning. He suggests I get the package marked “Premium — not to exceed 22% fat” ($2.59/lb.), which he thinks has the best flavor. “It’s my own house trim, from the steaks I cut,” he tells me. I’m disturbed by the space-age prepacked tubes of hamburger (2 lb., 7 percent fat, $5.58). Dan tells me, “Those are packed and sealed at the plant, so they have a longer shelf life, but the meat ground fresh here has a better flavor.”
Alex, the meat cutter at Albertson’s, explains that there are different fat contents for different needs. “If you’re going to cook something that you add a lot of liquid to, like eggs in a meatloaf, you want a lean cut like ground sirloin [$2.99/lb.]. But if you’re making burgers, you want a high fat content [ground beef, 30 percent fat, $1.69/lb.], so they won’t be dry and will have a lot of flavor. All the good burger places, like Fuddruckers and Boll Weevil, specify using ground chuck, because it has a high fat content, which delivers more flavor.” I ask him about the unsettling tubes of hamburger. “They shoot the tubes with nitrates at the plant to preserve them. See how this package says, ‘Freeze by January 16, 00’? If you waited that long to freeze a fresh-ground package, it would be green.”
At Henry’s, an Iranian gentleman I meet in the meat section emphatically praises the hormone-free meat (extra lean, 15 percent fat, $2.39/lb.; ground sirloin, 7 percent fat, $3.29/lb.). “This meat has no artificial hormones pumped into it. It tastes better and is better for you. My grandmother lived to 110, and it’s because she ate only natural foods.”
Later the next evening, as I cracked open packages of meat for a taste test and visual comparison, it occurred to me that it is ironic that women are considered to be the more squeamish of the sexes, yet we deal with carnage on a daily basis as we prepare supper. Here I was, about to engage in hand-to-hand combat with hamburger. No weapon — no chicken-trimming knife — just my bare hands.
The Vons 20-percent fat hamburger ($2.59/lb.) squished through my fingers. It was extremely tender to touch, with a bright-red bloom on the outside, followed by a thin layer of brown, then a shimmery purple core. The smell of the meat was fresh but mild. The Ralph’s 22-percent fat hamburger has a feel similar to the Vons, but the bright-red bloom showed only at the end of the package. Much to my surprise, the Iowa Meat Farms lean hamburger was a dull, lifeless brown on the outside. But the inside was a consistent raw purple. It had a firm, strong feel, and its meaty smell filled my nose. Henry’s hamburger was similar to the Iowa Meat Farms, except for its ochre exterior color.
Bravely, I cut into a tube of Miller Meat Company hamburger ($4.47 for 3-lb. tube at 30 percent fat). It felt like mush in my hands. It had been ground to oblivion; there was no distinguishing the meat from the fat nodules. It was more a meat paste than ground meat, its color a pale, sickly pink. It had almost no smell.