Ground beef remains one of the most popular forms of beef consumed in the United States. Some estimates report that up to 65% of all beef consumed is in the form of ground beef. It is one of our go-to foods, and we are reminded of this during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other times where economic or other situations have us staying at home and wanting something easy to prepare and comforting to eat. Continuing cyclical interests in various iterations of low-carb/protein-focused eating patterns certainly benefits ground beef (maybe minus the bun). Ground beef prices these days show that it is not the bargain product that it once was.
Ground beef has humble beginnings. What to do with the trimmings left over when cutting beef into steaks and roasts? Meat grinders solved this problem where the leftover lean and fat pieces were magically transformed into ground beef ready to be used for a variety of products, most notably, the hamburger. Consumers’ love affair with hamburgers has been the basis for many multi-billion dollar quick-service restaurants, burgers featured on menus in a wide variety of restaurants and bars, common items in the nation’s school lunches, and retail cases full of ready-to-cook options in grocery stores. We are simply a hamburger nation.
Through the 1990s, the types of ground beef sold at retail would have focused on lean content: e.g., regular (approximately 70% lean, 30% fat), lean (approximately 80% lean, 20% fat), and extra lean (approximately 90% lean, 10% fat). Changes to how the descriptors of “lean” (less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol) and “extra lean” (less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol) could be used resulted in most retailers dropping the traditional labeling so now it is quite common to see the lean/fat ratios such as 73% lean/27% fat, 80% lean/20% fat, and 90% lean/10% fat used with simply ground beef. A survey of any retail store will reveal lean/fat ratios all the way from 70% lean/30% fat to 96% lean/4% fat offering consumers a variety of options when selecting the type of ground beef they wish to purchase and prepare.
Diet and health trends in the 1980s fueled the move to manufacturing ground beef with lower fat contents. Consumers were told to reduce their fat intake, and consuming regular ground beef with its maximum fat content of 30% was strongly discouraged. What is interesting is that while cook losses are fairly similar across most fat percentages that range from leaner to fatter grinds, what cooks out of leaner ground beef is more moisture compared to fat while for fatter ground beef, it is more fat compared to moisture. Simply cooking ground beef in such a way as to allow the drippings to escape (e.g., broiling and grilling) results in fat and caloric contents that are very similar across fat contents.
Most studies show that ground beef with higher fat contents will have higher tenderness, juiciness and flavor properties compared to their lower fat counterparts with these differences accentuated when cooking patties to higher degrees of doneness. The challenge is always at what point do you balance perceived health benefits from consuming lower-fat ground beef with the taste advantages of the higher-fat variety.
From a packaging standpoint, while there were chub packages available in most retail markets in the past, the vast majority of ground beef was sold as freshly ground and packaged in PVC-overwrapped plastic foam trays. In recent years, the variety of ground beef sold in the marketplace has changed dramatically.
Today, there are at least three prevalent styles of packaging: PVC-overwrapped plastic foam trays, chub and brick. Because chub and brick styles are manufactured centrally, they readily lend themselves to case-ready applications allowing retailers to focus on merchandising more types of ground beef than in the past. In addition, food safety concerns with the use of bench trimmings have created an increased demand for ground beef sourced more centrally than the traditional products produced in the backrooms.
Today’s ground beef is more than just blending leaner with fatter sources of trimmings to meet a specified lean/fat target. Primal-specific blends such as chuck, sirloin, round, and brisket have increased the complexity of offerings, especially when layered with lean-to-fat ratios and packaging styles.
The contribution of trimmings from the market cow channel, which often serve as lean sources of the grind, along with the fatter trimmings from the steer/heifer fed market, may be the principal formula for most ground beef manufactured today. Market cow trimmings, if used at high proportions, may result in serumy and liver-like off-flavors and less tender products because of the amount of connective tissues. Past research in the mid-1990s cautioned against making ground beef patties exclusively from market cow trimmings primarily because of connective tissue concerns, but with the decline in the number of cows in the United States over the past 20 years, this likely will not occur. In fact, a lack of high-lean content boneless manufacturing beef has created additional import markets for such products because of shortages of market cow trimmings.
Speaking of cows, not all trimmings are created equal with respect to color stability. Research from Kansas State University found that ground beef made with inside rounds from dairy-type cows had greater display color life in high-oxygen modified atmosphere packaging than when made from inside rounds from beef-type cows.
The hamburger steer
If ground beef is so popular and as a nation, we consume so much of it, why not just raise cattle for this purpose? The math just does not work when there are so many subprimals that have excellent domestic and export markets that command prices way above those for traditional beef trimmings. However, this high volume of ground beef consumed annually has to involve cuts from the chuck and round and some minor cuts from the fed steer/heifer market. Who knows, at this rate, one day we may be championing the arrival of the Hamburger Steer.