Is there any benefit to seeking out a grocer who offers freshly ground beef?
Not all markets offer freshly ground meat: Many purchase bulk packages of ground beef from beef-processing plants, which they sometimes regrind and supplement with meat scraps before packing into smaller parcels. Grocers who do grind beef in-house, on the other hand, usually start with whole primal cuts.
To see how commercially ground beef stacks up to freshly ground, we made tacos and hamburgers using both types. In tacos, heady spices like chili powder overwhelmed any subtle flavor differences in the meat, but the simply seasoned hamburgers elicited an altogether different response. Here, tasters had no problem picking out the just-ground meat, favoring its “fresh,” “beefy” flavor.
Of course, the flavor of beef, like that of any agricultural product, will vary from sample to sample, but for a number of food-safety and practical cooking reasons, we’ll always opt for freshly ground. First, there’s food-borne illness: In the United States, most beef comes from one of only 13 processing plants, which means that preground beef can contain meat from hundreds of different cattle, increasing the risk of bacterial contamination. (Preground beef has been recalled on several recent occasions for this very reason.) Consuming freshly ground beef is safer, since it contains meat from fewer animals. Second, there’s consumer choice: If you’re lucky enough to find a butcher who will grind meat to order, you can ask for any cut, ground as coarse or fine as you like.
Alternatively, grinding beef at home isn’t hard to do: Cut the meat into 1-inch chunks and freeze it until it is very firm and starting to harden around the edges but still pliable, 15 to 25 minutes. Working with 8 ounces of meat at a time, pulse the chunks in a food processor until they are coarsely ground, ten to fifteen 1-second pulses (longer for a finer grind), stopping and redistributing the meat around the bowl as necessary to ensure even grinding.