Ground Beef Safety
The safety of our food supply is a recurring issue in the headlines. It comes to the fore whenever there is an outbreak of illness caused by salmonella, E.coli, campylobacter, listeria, or another of the common ingested contaminants to which we all are susceptible. Given the billions of people worldwide who get their food through what has become a global network of growers, processors, shippers and retailers, it can be surprising how well it all works. Serious food-born poisoning is rare when compared to the huge amounts of food consumed every day. Nonetheless, it does occur, it often is deadly, and with the development of our complex, dispersed system of production and distribution it has become less controllable by you, the consumer, as well as more widespread. The purpose of this article, the first of a series each about a different food, is to suggest a few things you can do in your own kitchen to improve the safety of ground beef.
How to Get Good Ground Beef
Eight billion pounds of ground beef are shipped each year in the United States, making it one of the most popular foodstuffs out there. It also happens to be one of the riskiest.
There are reasons for that. They start with the concentration of processing. Ground beef today, in America and other highly developed nations, is typically a commodity industrial product manufactured in a declining number of large, centralized factories, provided to a mass market under numerous brand names. A typical list of the meat that goes into it would include trimmings from all parts of the steer, scrap pieces, and a mush that consists basically of the scrapings from slaughterhouses. Those are purchased from facilities all around the world, they frequently are mixed together, and there are limited quality controls on them. Contamination from any of the cattle or cuts of beef anywhere in that supply system, whether it is due to something as basic as a sick steer deliberately or accidentally passed through at sale or to something as maddening as careless or overly hurried butchering that gets the contents of the bowels onto the meat, can spread downstream to all the rest in its chain of processing. The result, in our production system, is contaminated ground beef sold to a very large geography and population. In the western world, we raise clean beef, generally free of the parasites and microbes that infest cattle over much of the planet, but we then negate that advantage for ground beef with our system of supply. We are able to provide it to the consumer at a low price, for which there is something to be said, but to do so we sacrifice quality. In recent years we have seen a rising number of recalls of huge amounts of the product. There are developing technologies such as irradiation to help make it safer, but political opposition and the rate of concentration of the production system has outrun them, and so we may expect to see a continuation in the recent trend of more dangerous ground beef in our food supply.
There are two simple ways around that problem. One is almost foolproof, the other tastes better. You didn't expect to get something for nothing, now, did you? There are always tradeoffs.
The first way is to cook it until the microbes are dead. Many people judge that from the color of the meat, which is to say they call it well done when there is no pinkness left in it. The USDA reports, however, that is not a reliable method, recommending instead that a probe thermometer be used to make sure the meat is at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit through and through. At that level of heat it will taste like sawdust and be almost as tough, but you will not get sick from it unless your palate is so intolerant of bad food it makes you so. Restaurants are typically required to overcook it like that, which is why you can't go out for a decent hamburger anymore.
The second and better way is not to buy ground beef. No, that does not mean you have to give up hamburgers on the grill on Saturday nights, it means you grind your own. Get cuts of beef. Rinse them under cool, clean running water to wash off any contamination, which if they are fresh will be on the surfaces and not inside, and then pat them dry with paper towels. Cut them into pieces and then grind them.
You can do that with a meat grinder, a little machine with a hopper and a screw feeder you can buy in any good kitchen store. Some are cranked by hand, some powered by an electric motor either their own or your stand mixer's. They produce the same texture of ground beef you are accustomed to getting in the grocery stores.
Another way is to chop them finely in a food processor. That's how I do it. I actually prefer the texture of chopped beef to ground. You load some cubes of beef into the bowl with the steel chopping blade installed, "pulse" the processor for a few seconds half a dozen times or so, and there you are. The trick is not to overload the machine, and all models are different. Start small and go up from there to find out how much you can do at once.
With either method, you get the additional benefit of choosing what goes into your beef. For hamburgers I like half sirloin and half chuck, the first for flavor and the second for fat, ground beef being untasty if it's too lean. I will include seasoning, garlic, herbs, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, or whatever else I feel like, blended right in with it when it's chopped.
Whether you get a meat grinder or a food processor, indulge yourself. Get a good one. It will hold up better and be cheaper in the long run, and whatever you pay for it will be a lot less than a course of treatment for E.coli poisoning.
When grinding your own beef, handling it well in your own kitchen, the risk of contamination is far lower than it is with commercial ground beef. Though your doctor may not like the loss of revenue, the quality of your beef is far higher, and the happiness of your table is far better. Both your taste buds and your guests will thank you.