Blending different cuts of ground beef to make better and more interesting hamburgers is nothing new. But during the last few years, it has become a growing trend, both in the world of foodservice and in retail where consumers can then fashion their own combinations and blends of ground beef for out-of-the-ordinary burgers at home.
The idea behind blending ground beef is to raise the level of the once-lowly hamburger, a meat dish that until recently wasn’t taken all that seriously. That has certainly changed.
In the past and even today, ground beef patties often sold at retail in grocery stores consisted of beef trimmings mixed with fatty, inexpensive beef by-products. Compare those to ground whole-muscle cuts of beef, with several cuts blended together or even value-added ingredients like bacon, mushrooms and bleu cheese added to the ground beef cuts.
A world of difference exists between those two types of burgers. In recent years, blending various cuts of ground beef, sometimes with value-added products thrown into the mix, has become an art form compared to what used to be the plain old, simple hamburger.
The secret to making good ground beef or hamburgers is not simply grinding pricier cuts like ribeye or filet. In fact, using such cuts that are very lean, with little or no fat in the mix, results in tasteless, dry ground beef that can end up resembling a hockey puck.
Instead, using good beef in a well-mixed blend of cuts like chuck, with an optimal lean-to-fat ratio of 80-20 or similar, results in a tasty, moist and juicy hamburger.
Finding a niche
For a long time, Carlstadt, NJ-based Schweid & Sons has been a large ground beef producer for foodservice customers, including Five Guys Burgers and Fries. In recent years, the company has gotten into retail, supplying ground beef to groceries and supermarkets for consumers.
“We saw a void in the market, specifically retail,” says Jamie Schweid, who with his father David and brother Brad own the four-generation ground beef purveyor, which now sells to 500 supermarkets as well as thousands of restaurants.
The business began in the late 1800s, with Harry Schweid selling meats to butchers and restaurants on New York City’s Lower East Side. His son Sam and grandson David continued the business, switching to strictly ground beef purveying.
“Ground beef blending means using whole muscle cuts and mixing other cuts with it,” Schweid says. “Blending takes place because there’s a big demand for it today in the market, so our company has grown by doing this.”
The huge demand for it in the ground beef market means a lot because 50 percent of all meat sold in the US today is ground beef. “Chefs in restaurants are looking to differentiate, make the products their own, especially on the burger side of things. We’re not just selling plain, simple hamburgers anymore,” he says.
Up to 10 or 15 years ago, nobody made anything different. “Blending is also due to the economic direction that we’ve been experiencing for a number of years – fewer steaks. So if a restaurant can’t get $25 for a steak, maybe it can get $12 to $15 for a burger, provided it’s ‘premium,’” Schweid says.
He says blending is not really due to changes in technology, “we’ve been grinding the same way for 40 years.” What has changed is the forming end of the business. “Patties were typically dense. Now the burger machine rolls, and creates the no-pressure patty,” he says. “We call them ‘airy.’ Patties are not as dense as they used to be.”
Then there’s value-added blending. “This includes adding other ingredients to the ground beef blend like bacon, mushrooms, onions, peppers, cheddar cheese, bleu cheese and other ingredients. You see these ‘value-added’ products more in retail than foodservice, although places like Five Guys are using it,” Schweid says. “Those kinds of additions enhance the burger experience. Consumers are looking for more and different kinds of products than what they’d find in a restaurant.” Some restaurants are serving “belly-burgers” – a blend of ground beef and pork belly.
There are many ways to add ingredients to burgers. Some are added in the center of the burger, like an empanada – ground beef and vegetables, for example. Or ingredients spread throughout the patty – infusing it with bacon. Limitations on what can be done with blending depend on whether it’s fresh or frozen. The shelf life of the product can be shortened by some ingredients, Schweid says.
“Ground beef blending can involve using different cuts of beef to get different fat ratios,” says Nick Beste, owner of Man Cave Craft Meats in Minneapolis. “We can blend different flavors, spices, cheeses and jalapenos. You name it, we can do it.”
Half of what Man Cave sells is bacon burgers, using bacon ends to make its best-selling product.
Another reason for blending is the desire for consumers to eat meat products, including burgers, that are hand-fashioned, rather than coming from a machine, Beste says.
“Many people would rather have ground beef patties that are fashioned by hand, rather than being made by machines. So we are making our patties like that. And blending is a natural fit for that kind of product manufacture,” he says.
Beste says that ground beef blending technology has evolved along with his company’s growth. “From product blending come bigger mixes of ground beef. At one time, we used a 20-lb. chopper. Now we do hundreds of pounds in a batch, so this blending technology has contributed to our company’s growth.”
The blending of ground beef products is affecting the patty-making process, as well. “Hamburger patties used to be quite coarse. Now the patties that are made are a lot looser – some people in the industry call them ‘airy.’ That’s due to the different cuts of beef that make up the product,” Beste says.
He points out that blending in value-added ingredients to ground beef affects the process in many ways, as well as creating products quite different from the “tried and true” hamburger. And when ingredients like bacon, cheddar cheese, bleu cheese, and various vegetables are added, both the blending process and the final products undergo big changes.
“Blends are affected quite a lot by many different factors – the color of the ground beef, the grain and the shelf life,” Beste says. “And if there are different cuts of beef, as well as pork, chicken and turkey added to the product, it won’t always hold together the same way.”
He also described how ingredients are added to the ground beef blends. “We usually bring them in at the end of the process of making the ground beef products – as close to the patty-making process as possible. Otherwise, the binder gets too blended together. If that happens, it affects the grinding process, and the ground beef becomes too much of a paste – that is something we definitely don’t want,” Beste says.
There are some limitations on the blending process. “We don’t want the meat to be too coarse,” Beste says. “We’ve also talked about the possibility of adding ingredients like peanut butter to ground beef, so we’ll see how things like that might work out.”
Beste also talked about how equipment has to be adjusted to accommodate different ingredients in the blending process – grinding sizes for one thing. He explains, “Picture a big stainless steel drum. You put beef into it. It uses a blade or a mixer to blend the meat cuts and ingredients.”
The equipment and technology for blending is extremely versatile. And whether the burger contains several cuts of beef, value-added ingredients or both, the ground beef processor and the consumer end up with a premium, tender burger that looks and tastes like it was made by hand at home.