Al Dente Gets Grindin’

Before we get started here, it’s worth noting that there are not a lot of songs about grinding. Google offers you tons of options if you want songs to grind to, but none that actually reference the gerund. I find this to be an important distinction, as I’m seeking theme music to this article about grinding your own beef for hamburgers, and R. Kelly’s Bump & Grind didn’t seem like an appropriate reference in this case. Freeze and grind, maybe.

The impetus for my interest in grinding my own beef is motivated by the quality of the beef that is ground and how it is processed. As to the latter, we all know that food processing in America is a Goddamn mess and that the government cannot/will not pay for enough oversight and enforcement to this end. Reporting on it only goes so far. I mean, in Iowa, it’s actually illegal for investigative reporters to take jobs on factory farms if they plan to report what is going on. For all of the whining about GMOs and Monsanto and all of that other crap, we’re losing sight of the real issue in American food: how it is processed. Blame the Internet. Blame PBS. Blame the continued presence of pink slime. Blame an industry that is so messed up that Wegmans felt moved to offer irradiated beef as a safer choice. Blame all of these things for my distrust of what’s in my beef. And I’m not just talking about salmonella, E. Coli or staph. That package of ground beef you buy most definitely comes from multiple cows in differing states of health. It is made from beef garbage, essentially. Trimmings from the slaughterhouse floor, in some cases, if you buy at large stores like Walmart, Target or the national supermarket chains. At least when you buy ground beef from a butcher or a grocery with an in-store butcher, you are getting the trimmings from beef cut on site. The problem is that unless the package or tray is marked ground chuck, ground round or ground sirloin, you are getting whatever is left over (Read this series from Grist, if you really want to gag. Upton Sinclair my ass.).

Yum.

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So, what do you do when you love meat but are repulsed by the process that puts it on your plate? You have options. You could go to a place like Side Hill Farmers or McCann’s Local Meats, which breaks down cattle in store and grinds its own meats. Or, you do it yourself.

If you are married — judging by the demographics of this blog you either are or have been — chances are you have a KitchenAid mixer collecting dust in your house because you never seem to bake as much as you planned. Break that bad boy out and take a long hard look at the front of it. Unscrew the chrome KitchenAid plate at the front of the mixer and prepare to visit a whole new world of cooking. You see, your KitchenAid’s attachment slot makes it possible for your mixer to become a slicer/shredder, pasta maker, juicer, and food grinder. The Wife and The Kid got me a food grinder with the sausage stuffer for Father’s Day this year. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it sat in a box until August when I finally broke it out for some grinding.

Consider the cow and where cuts of beef come from. You want meat with a good fat content that is inexpensive and has a good fat content, though not a fatty piece of meat. Count out sirloin, short loin, flank, and rib cuts, and focus on the round, chuck and brisket. Personally, I like meat from the chuck. Brisket is nice, but you end up buying 7- to 8-pound slabs. If you have some hanging around, or can find a small piece, grab it. A while back, I bought a bunch of chuck at Costco and froze it. Chuck is the perfect meat for a hamburger as its wonderfully fatty and grinds nicely. Good quality burgers are made from the chuck. The better quality burgers have a mix of chuck and other cuts. Why? The differing fat contents and flavors impact the flavor of the burger. That buttery, juicy burger you are used to eating at a high-end burger restaurant is not because they are using ribeye or high-grade steak. It’s the fat drawn from different regions of the cow.

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So, for the first foray into beef grinding, I ran with the aforementioned chuck as well as some boneless short rib that was vacuum packed and languishing in my freezer. Short rib also comes from the demilitarized zone where the chuck, plate and rib meat. Just like a chuck roast, they are awesome when you braise or slow cook them, but also add a deeper flavor dimension to your burger. My blend was 70 percent chuck and 30 percent short rib.

Here’s what I learned from my first go-round with the grinder:

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  1. Freeze your meat for about 1 hour before grinding. Ever notice how it’s easier to cut fish or meat that is partially frozen? Drawing a knife through a stiff chunk of meat is a lot easier than a soft one. Pushing the semi-frozen meat through the grinding mechanism is much easier than beef that is completely thawed.It also keeps the meat from getting too hot. That grinder attachment has a series of moving parts that will get quite warm from working. You don’t want to inadvertently heat the beef up.
  2. KitchenAid provides a tamper you can use to push food down the grinder chute. It’s helpful, but don’t push too hard or the grinder will become a spitter and fire raw meat across your kitchen.
  3. Cleaning the grinder is a lot easier said than done.
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  4. Grind your meat based on your cooking method. The genius J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats wrote a terrific piece about how to grind beef for hamburger. The KitchenAid comes with coarse and fine grinding plates that will vary the density of the beef. If you plan to cook your burgers on a grill, use the fine plate. If you’re looking at the stovetop method, use the coarse plate. It all goes to liquid retention and how the heat reacts with the meat and fat.
  5. Grind the meat twice. After you push your cubes of meat through the grinder the first time, grab a clean bowl and feed the meat through again. This will refine the ground beef into an even texture and density, just in case any chunks or strands of fat slipped through, and distribute the fat throughout the batch.

The first burgers from this batch hit the grill two days after grinding. The result?

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Not bad. I had 3 lbs. of finished product, which made 4 3/4-pound portions. For The Wife and I, those are perfect 3/8-pound burgers without a lot of waste and shrinkage on the grill. The meat was buttery tasting and juicy throughout.

And not a trace of poop in sight.

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