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Pre-ground v. fresh-ground beef for hamburgers


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#1 Fat Guy

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 04:47 AM

A couple of years ago Sam Kinsey ("slkinsey") and I decided to experiment with different blends for making hamburgers. We bought several different cuts of meat and the butcher also gave us a bunch of beef fat for free, from the tenderloin trimmings bucket. In addition to all that, we acquired some pre-ground hamburger meat just to see how that stacked up.

I don't think we conclusively determined the best blend. There were so many variables (cooking method, fineness of grind, etc.) that we'd have needed to do several more rounds of tests in order to get closer to an answer. But like many episodes in the annals of science, this one had an unpredicted side result: it revealed an incredibly vast gulf in flavor between the pre-ground beef and the stuff we ground for ourselves.

All the meat came from the same store and that store grinds its own hamburger meat every day, so we're not talking about some industrial prepack ground beef like you'd get in a lesser supermarket. This was a fairly high-quality sample of pre-ground beef. And if somebody had just given me a hamburger made from the stuff I'd have been fine with it. But once our palates had been calibrated against the freshly ground beef examples, the pre-ground tasted horrible. It had noticeable metallic overtones and off flavors.

Now of course this was not a large enough sample upon which to base strong scientific conclusions, but the contrast was so stark that it was the one big piece of information I took away from that adventure. Ever since then, I have been holding the strong opinion that pre-grinding is the cardinal sin of burger making, and that any restaurant or person that pre-grinds is not a serious contender.

Yet in the time since that experiment I have also been living uncomfortably with the knowledge that several of my favorite restaurant burgers, and a few from home cooks I respect, are made from pre-ground beef. I've basically thrown that knowledge into the big stockpot of culinary contradictions on my mind's back burner, because I didn't know what else to do with it.

Fast forward to this year. There has been much talk in New York City, especially by "Mr. Cutlets" (aka Josh Ozersky, the current CitySearch dining editor and previously the editor of the Grub Street blog; he is also the author of the book "The Hamburger: A History," from Yale University Press), about Pat La Frieda's Black Label blend of ground beef, which Mr. Cutlets has called "the Bentley of Beef." It's served at a place called City Burger. La Frieda is a venerable New York meat purveyor, part of the pantheon that includes DeBragga & Spitler and Lobel's. La Frieda also offers various other blends of hamburger meat. All of these blends are delivered pre-ground from La Frieda.

I ran into Mr. Cutlets at an event the other night and asked him for his thoughts on this widespread use of pre-ground beef for hamburgers. He rattled off the names of several excellent burger restaurants and noted that they are all using La Frieda's pre-ground product. For him that was the end of the discussion.

So now I'm trying to reconcile two conflicting pieces of information: my iron-clad belief that pre-ground is inferior and the knowledge that several top burger restaurants are producing first-rate burgers using pre-ground beef. Thus I bring the question to you, my dear fellow Society members, for discussion.
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#2 Chris Amirault

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 05:06 AM

Your experiments with Sam and my own experience since obtaining a first-class meat grinder confirm freshly ground superiority, with all the scientific rigor of a triple-blind sugar pill trial. Part of the reason I'm convinced is that you can season meat on the way into the grinder, ensuring much more consistent distribution without the overmixing that seasoning pre-ground beef demands. But we're talking about straight-up comparisons with cuts, grinds, and meat/fat ratios identical, right?

Here's a question. Can you get to La Frieda and get a pound of their pre-ground beef and a pound in proper ratio of the beef cuts and fat they use for their beef? You'll also need to find out what grind they use for consistency.

ET add the grind query -- ca

Edited by chrisamirault, 15 December 2008 - 08:15 AM.

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#3 HungryChris

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 06:12 AM

I have never really gotten into blending meat for grinding, but when I crave a great burger, I buy chuck blade steaks. I choose them carefully to get the amount of fat to lean that looks good to me. I semi freeze them and cut them into cubes just before grinding, which I do twice on the finer setting. I have always thought that it was the flavor of the chuck, the fact that I felt that I could cook it rare without much worry (knowing it was freshly ground) and the gentle forming with my hands that produced a sponge like quality in the burger that was superior to any preground burger. It produces a juicy hamburger that is memorable enough to be worth the effort.
I would also like to know what others do to produce their favorite.
It also raises a question that has kept me wondering for years: When you buy preground hamburger that is labeled, say 90% lean. How is that determination made? I could see if the starting materials were strictly fat and lean, they could be weighed out for an accurate number, but that is not the norm. It is more often trimmings that have some fat in them to begin with. Is it done by volume and weight or by cooking and weighing? Just curious.

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#4 hummingbirdkiss

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 06:35 AM

my boss butchers one of her young steer once a year and grinds the entire thing into hamburger ..it is hands down the best ground beef and makes the most perfect burgers ever...

if you have 4-H'ers near you that raise beef I would check this option out ..it is very common for individuals to sell very high quality ground beef

short of this option I think grinding my own is the best way and I mix 1:1:1 with fatty chuck, round and sirloin to get the mix I want for a perfect burger ..and as above I always partilly freeze mine ..never pre season the beef before (or during) grinding.. or it tastes like meatloaf to me ...just fresh cubes partially frozen through the grinder (twice to make sure it is mixed well but do not over handle it! ) into patties ..salt and pepper the outside and cook!

people say I make a killer burger :)

Edited by hummingbirdkiss, 15 December 2008 - 06:36 AM.


#5 deltadoc

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 06:39 AM

I've spent years trying to reproduce the excellent ground beef from our local small butcher grocery store 2 blocks from my house form back in the late 1950's/early 1960's. I think it boils down to the quality of the steer. Field grazing cattle, brought in for finishing with corn, grain and beets for about 2 months. Then off to the butcher who dry aged the meat for weeks.

That meat would come out of the grinder and hold its shape like so many fat spaghetti strands made of beef.

With that said, the closest I have come to making a decent blend in this day and age, is a 1:1:1 blend of filet strap (sans silver skin), prime chuck, and sirloin.

Even as far back as the movie "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", the mother had her 2 kids go next door to the small time butcher, and pick a great steak. The butcher would always ask, 'You're not going to make me grind this are you? I just made up some fine hamburger"....or something to that effect.

The kids would swear they only wanted the steak, and when it was produced they promptly asked for it to be ground.

Now that has always stuck in my mind and I always wonder what's "really" in the hamburger from the store!?!

When I grind it myself I feel a little more confident about what I'm actually eating.

But there might be some "invisible" stuff in there that only a chemist could pronounce.

But ya try to do the best ya can these days.

doc

#6 rlibkind

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 07:06 AM

fwiw, i pick out the meat i want at my fav butcher (usually chuck, but sometimes with something else added to the mix) and he grinds it to order; I cook it later the same day. Easier than my futzing around with the grinder head of the 40+ year old Kitchen-Aid, but not nearly as exposed to air as my butcher's pre-ground stuff, even if it is only ground that morning, too. It's way better than most restaurant burgers.
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#7 weinoo

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 07:58 AM

Similar to what "rlibkind" posted above, I'm wondering if pre-ground beef undergoes a fair amount of oxidation, and whether that changes the flavor at all.

Whether I'm making burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, lamb kabobs, etc. I prefer to buy my own meat and grind it at home if I'm not pressed for time. Otherwise, I'll pick out the meat at my butcher, and he grinds it on the spot. Comments about how good the finished product is usually happen when I grind the meat at home.
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#8 Chris Hennes

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 08:07 AM

Similar to what "rlibkind" posted above, I'm wondering if pre-ground beef undergoes a fair amount of oxidation, and whether that changes the flavor at all.

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I propose a new trial: day-old home-ground versus fresh home-ground, in a side-by-side comparison.

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#9 Chris Amirault

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 08:07 AM

Good idea -- and I think someone ought to do a double-blind with the same meat, fat, and grind from the local favorite butcher, too.

ET clarify in light of Chris H's post -- ca

Edited by chrisamirault, 15 December 2008 - 08:15 AM.

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#10 slkinsey

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 08:26 AM

For sure there is a distinctive flavor to oxidized ground meat. I wouldn't say that it is a bad flavor, per se, but quite distinctive. And I taste this flavor every time I have a less-than-medium cooked burger that I have not made myself with meat that I ground a few minutes previously. For lack of a better descriptor, I'd say that to me it's a certain iron-like, "bloody" flavor.

For all intents and purposes, the test that Steven and I did was just how Chris Hennes proposes. The ground meat we purchased had the same fat content and was ground from the same beef that we would be grinding ourselves later in the day. This is a large, high quality, high turnover market with the beef ground and packaged on premises in full view. They likely turned over all their ground beef while we were still in the market. So, really, the difference was that the prepackaged ground beef was (1) around 5 hours post-grind as opposed to a maximum of 30 minutes post-grind when cooked; and (2) was ground in a machine that was certainly very clean, but nevertheless had been grinding meat for several hours already by the time our beef came out (meaning that a tiny percentage of even more oxidized meat was present in the preground sample).

One reason Cutlets and others may feel that La Frieda Black Label is the pinnacle of preground beef is because it is very high quality, flavorful beef... and also because there is most likely no restaurant in the city that is serving hamburgers made with beef that is ground to order (okay, maybe places such as DB Bistro Moderne). So even if, say, Shake Shack is getting its beef ground daily "in house" at Blue Smoke or one of the other USHG restaurants, it is still very likely the case that a day's worth of beef is being run at six o'clock in the morning, which is plenty of time for it to develop that "preground beef flavor" Steven and I noted. So, if the presence of PGBF is a given in all samples, then it is still possible for La Frieda to differentiate itself on the basis of quality. There are also things that a producer of ground beef can do to minimize oxidation (rigorous and frequent cleaning of grinders, packing in nitrogen-flushed packaging, etc.).

Finally, and with all due respect to Cutlets, et al. one has the sense that they haven't actually tried the experiment themselves (not that it matters if you're comparing restaurant-to-restaurant, since they are all likely to be using oxidized ground beef). I wonder what they might think if they were able to get La Frieda to give them the various meats he uses in his blend in whole cuts, so they could take that home, grind it themselves to order, and test it side-by-side against an end-of-the-day sample from City Burger's walk-in. I would be shocked if the ground-to-order sample didn't blow away the preground one.


ETA: I am all for the idea of scientific rigor and all that, when appropriate. But honestly, the flavor difference Steven and I observed was so far from subtle as to obviate the need for double-blinding or something like that. It was shocking how much of a difference there was. So much so that, well, let me just say that I'm glad no one was around to observe the two of us giggling.

Edited by slkinsey, 15 December 2008 - 08:32 AM.

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#11 Magictofu

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 09:41 AM

What do we know about the cuts that end up in the pre-ground stuff? How does it compare to the choice of cuts in Fat Guy and slkinsey's experiment (or anyone elses experiment for that matter)?

#12 slkinsey

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 09:45 AM

Many places sell, for example, ground chuck at 20% fat, or ground sirloin at 10% fat, etc. I'm not aware of any markets selling preground short rib meat (which we found especially good) or brisket or things like that.
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#13 deltadoc

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 10:52 AM

I used to go to the butcher, pick out some nice steaks and have him grind them.

That is, until I met the guy who used to clean the butcher's equipment everynight.

He told me that when you put in a few steaks, the capacity of the profesional grinder is so large compared to the steaks you've picked out, that the butcher has to add meat of his own choosing and/or fat he has laying around in order to get your meat out of the grinder.

To check out this story, I retained the steak packages and added up the weights printed on the labels. I then weighed (on a precision laboratory scale) the actual ground up meat I had gotten back from the butcher.

The difference was staggering. Less than 50% of the weight of the steaks was what I ended up with as ground meat.

I confronted the butcher and THEN he tells me the exact same story as my friend did. He adds fat and other meat to get my steaks out, and he was just doing what I asked: grinding up some steaks for me. I was angry that he wouldn't point something like that out to me ahead of time.

But then, that extra weight of my steaks is still in his grinder and adds weight and quality to his other ground beef. He was doubling his profit or at least increasing it at my expense.

He soon went out of business.

The new butcher that took over that location was part of a chain, one with an apparently good reputation. We were ordering some pork butt to grind into Italian sausage. He came back and said their pork butt was kind of off smelling, and offered to sell us a bag of scraps that they use themselves to make sausage.

We bought it, took it home only to find some of the grossest looking scraps ever!

So, confirmed once again, I grind everything myself as you just never know what you're getting when its already ground out of your site!

doc

#14 Magictofu

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 10:56 AM

Around here, if you do not ask your butcher to ground a specific cut of meat for you, you'll get bits of everything mixed with round and other cheap cuts. I assumed part of the explanation came from this. To see that this is not the case only reinforce your conclusions.

#15 jvalentino

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 11:09 AM

Finally, and with all due respect to Cutlets, et al. one has the sense that they haven't actually tried the experiment themselves (not that it matters if you're comparing restaurant-to-restaurant, since they are all likely to be using oxidized ground beef).  I wonder what they might think if they were able to get La Frieda to give them the various meats he uses in his blend in whole cuts, so they could take that home, grind it themselves to order, and test it side-by-side against an end-of-the-day sample from City Burger's walk-in.  I would be shocked if the ground-to-order sample didn't blow away the preground one.



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I have been off the pre-ground stuff for a few years now, and this is exactly what popped in my head. IMHO it would not even be close. Seriously if your not grinding your own meat-even meat from a regular grocery you should try it. It is that big of a difference.

Jeff

#16 scubadoo97

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 11:12 AM

With regard to the butcher grinding your selected steaks, yes I have heard that too. The Publix grocer near me has a very large commercial grinder but when customers ask for steaks or roasts to be ground they most often use a smaller commercial grinder which is set near the window. I always liked to watch my roasts get broken down and feed into the grinder. Some grocery stores have the big grinders in the back and I always wondered if I was getting what I asked for.

I have a cousin who would pick out two roasts or steaks to be ground. The first one he would put back in the meat case and keep the second. I certainly don't advocate doing that. I grind mine at home or just don't use ground meat.

#17 qrn

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 12:35 PM

I think the preground stuff is all, to finely ground...I use a 3/8" plate on a #22 hand grinder. I buy a chunk of whatever I find at the market that looks like it has enough fat. I grind it twice so the fat gets distributed more evenly, but it is still much courser than the preground stuff. And, I can use all of the meat left in the grinder
I also salt and pepper lightly ,The tray of meat, before forming it into burgs. while cooking, you have to be a bit more careful so it does not come apart .

only thing to use the fine preground for, is meatloaf.
Bud

#18 paulraphael

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 12:47 PM

I don't doubt that someone out there is selling some nicely blended, high end preground meat.

But all else being equal, it won't be as fresh as what you grind yourself. And ground meat loses freshness very quickly (lots of fatty surface exposed to lots of air).

And considering that almost all of the ground beef I see is low quality to begin with, I see no reason to do anything but grind my own.

I never tire of of the looks on my friends' faces when they take their first bite of a fresh ground burger.

#19 rlibkind

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 02:16 PM

Many places sell, for example, ground chuck at 20% fat, or ground sirloin at 10% fat, etc.  I'm not aware of any markets selling preground short rib meat (which we found especially good) or brisket or things like that.

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When I ask my butcher to grind to order, if I'm going to add something besides chuck, it's always short rib from the plate. And he uses smallish grinder, not a massive supermarket version; to quote Tom Lehrer, "what you get out of it depends upon what you put into it."
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#20 JAZ

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 05:00 PM

Finally, and with all due respect to Cutlets, et al. one has the sense that they haven't actually tried the experiment themselves (not that it matters if you're comparing restaurant-to-restaurant, since they are all likely to be using oxidized ground beef). 

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Last year at the IACP conference, Mr. Cutlets and John T. Edge were on a panel about (surprise) the hamburger. We thought it was strange that of all the elements of burgers that were discussed in the seminar, no one mentioned grinding beef. So afterward, we ran into John T and asked why they hadn't addressed the issue of grinding one's own beef. He answered that he had his butcher grind meat for him; it was clear that that was the end of the issue for him.

#21 Tom Gengo

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Posted 16 December 2008 - 04:20 AM

Interesting topic. My most recent girlfriend served up cheeseburgers for dinner one night and I commented that it was the first burger that I had eaten in 3-4 years. She was flabbergasted, but this is a woman that thinks that anything with melted cheese on top is gourmet. I ruminated (yes, the pun is intended) about grinding our own beef for a "better" burger, but did not receive the expected encouragement from my fromage friend.

Top 10 Reasons to Grind Your Own Beef
10. Great conversation piece, "Hey, I grind my own beef." The conversation can go so many directions, or not.

9. Why not

8. Significantly lower probability of nasty, ergo pathogenic, Eschericia coli lurking in your dinner (see below here)

7. You can control the courseness of the meat to craft it to the texture you desire

6. You contol the fat content of your food

5. To borrow a computer term, WYSIWIG... what you see is what you get, hmmm

4. It is great bonding time with you KA or other brand of grinder

3. It is something to do on Sat. night when you realize that cheese head is not the right girl, :biggrin: (please note this is a cheesy grin, lol)

2. It is great practice for a role on the Sopranos if they ever revive the show

1. Bovine that are mass processed are hung upside down for their "euthanasia." I am sure that you have heard the medical term for demise, "Shit the bed?", well it applies to steer also. Another popular quip that applies is "Shit runs down hill." Sorry for the graphic nature, but it is the reason that FDA reccomends (understatement) that all ground beef be cooked to well done.

For an interesting book on our food supply and specifically mass produced beef, I recommend The Omnivores Dilemna.

Edited by Tom Gengo, 16 December 2008 - 12:00 PM.

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#22 weinoo

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Posted 16 December 2008 - 07:32 AM

Just to add a little post breakfast story to the butcher and what it is exactly that he/she is grinding...

When I was in high-school, I worked in various supermarkets in my hometown. First in the meat department, then moved on to fish (yes, supermarkets had fish departments back in the day), and finally, deli (where I did some of my best work).

So, one day while shrink wrapping some packages of beef, I cut my finger. One of the butchers called out to "run over to the meat grinder, it helps with the color!" Of course, he was joking. I've ground my own meat ever since.
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#23 budrichard

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 11:35 AM

We have been grinding our own meat for ages, first with a hand grinder and about 10 years ago I purchased the grinder attachment for our Kitchenaid mixer.
The benefits are really fourfold.
First, whenever you increase the surface area of a product, you increase the area for air and drying almost exponentially, guaranteeing you a loss in quality.
Second is the fact that if a contaminant is present in the commercial food processing line, its in the grinding of meat where it is dispersed.
Third, one can control the fat content.
Fourth, one can control what in your ground meat.
I usually purchase Choice Chuck Roasts at Sams Club, trim extensively and then grind. We have an Australian Labradoodle that gets an all raw diet and when we first started feeding her, we used commercial ground meat, when we used some of it ourselves, the fat content shocked me, even the 10% lean. So we grind hers also. It works out well, she is a happy 83# girl and we have some nice ground meat when we need it.
The best ground meat I have had is from choice or prime tenderloins that I have broken down from primal cuts and either ground or chopped up the bits and pieces leftover. I always stick a pat of unsalted butter in the middle of my burgers and it doesn't get any better than that.
I haven't tried any of the pre-ground products mentioned here and I won't.-Dick

#24 slkinsey

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 12:07 PM

So... you're reducing the amount of beef fat in your home grind, but then putting butter into your burger patties?
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#25 budrichard

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 12:10 PM

Yup! You can't live in Wisconsin without it becoming a habit!-Dick

#26 Miami Danny

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 01:06 PM

Just to add a little post breakfast story to the butcher and what it is exactly that he/she is grinding...

When I was in high-school, I worked in various supermarkets in my hometown.  First in the meat department, then moved on to fish (yes, supermarkets had fish departments back in the day), and finally, deli (where I did some of my best work).

So, one day while shrink wrapping some packages of beef, I cut my finger.  One of the butchers called out to "run over to the meat grinder, it helps with the color!"  Of course, he was joking.  I've ground my own meat ever since.

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Are you still slicing off fingertips? Because they must be down to the nub by now....

#27 gregnz

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 01:32 PM

...whenever you increase the surface area of a product, you increase the area for air and drying almost exponentially, guaranteeing you a loss in quality...



It has always struck me that the nouvelle cuisine "fresh is best" mantra wasn't comprehensive. While I don't want to eat brown, wilted lettuce, the freshest Ch√Ęteauneuf du Pape = grapes, and the freshest roquefort = milk.
How do you guys think the flavour change of aging ground beef compares with the aging of steaks?

#28 slkinsey

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 01:41 PM

The flavor change in ground beef comes primarily from oxidation. This is not so when you age whole primal cuts. Needless to say, I don't think anyone wants to eat "21 day old dry cured ground beef."
Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

#29 Fat Guy

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 01:44 PM

There's a big difference between grinding aged beef (good) and aging ground beef (bad).
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#30 paulraphael

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 02:49 PM

There's a big difference between grinding aged beef (good) and aging ground beef (bad).

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I've probably had the latter. Much of the ground beef at my supermarket qualifies ...

Never the former. In fact I'm not tempted to grind really first rate beef into burgers. But some day I'd like to grind some good beef and see how it is. So far all I've ever ground is beef from my downscale supermarket ... varying combinations of chuck, brisket, sirloin, and flank. Even with crappy beef the results are mind blowingly good. I'd like to try the same cuts, only nicer, fresher samples from a decent butcher.

Edited by paulraphael, 17 December 2008 - 02:49 PM.