What’s in Your Ground Meat?

August 29, 2017 in Cooking & Baking Hints, Foodland, General, Health, Shelf Life by Joyce Bunderson

It was late in my cooking experience when I learned to use a food processor; but I’ve gradually gotten up to speed. One of my most recent experiences is using the food processor for making ground meat. Are you wondering why I’d waste my time doing such a thing when the butcher does it so nicely? I know that there are very strict rules about grinding meat, as the grinding process introduces the possibility of contamination, thus increasing the possibility of food-borne illness. The strict rules are quite effective at keeping food borne illness at bay. In addition, like most cooks, I know how to cook ground meat to support food safety in the use of ground meat.

Regarding the safety of ground meat: The issue of increased surface area is created when poultry or red meat is ground - all those minute pieces of meat, instead of a single chunk of meat. In addition, to the surface area problem, there is the extra handling and equipment that is used in the grinding process. The meat gets more chances to pick up bacteria during the grinding process than in the simple process of cutting. Imagine cutting off a roast from a huge section of a loin or hindquarter, compared to grinding in a complex grinder with multiple course blades. Also, there is the issue of allowing any bacteria present on the surface to be mixed throughout the meat. If the meat gets to the “Danger Zone” the bacteria can multiply rapidly. Stored properly (40 degrees F or below) and cooked properly (to an internal temp of 160 degrees F) greatly reduces the chance of food borne illness. To keep burgers safe, the temperature is tested using a thermometer inserted through the side of the burger.

Although the safety issue still hovers in the distant recesses of my mind, my purpose in grinding my own meat lies in my desire to know, much more exactly, what I’m preparing and consuming.

The desire to know more precisely what is in the ground meat that I use, may have begun with the 2012 revulsion toward “pink slime” (so called by the press.) Better advertizing to call it “Lean, finely textured beef”. After all, the bones, sinew, etc. is from a beef carcass, and what is leaner than bones?). Another possibility is I was influenced by all the research saying that red meat and especially processed meat may not be the healthiest of choices. Regardless of when it began, my use of processed meat ended; and red meat is purchased for visitors only - maybe a once of year kind of event. The fact is that I’ve cooked for a long time and there are recipes that we still enjoy, recipes traditionally made with ground meat. Two early cooking adaptations were making tacos with tofu; then, making homemade sausage using purchased ground turkey along with the addition of herbs and spices.

A few weeks ago, I was thinking of making tacos for two of my grandchildren; who were visiting for a couple of weeks. I was a little apprehensive about tofu with them (although my taco tofu is quite delicious and chicken-like.) I didn’t have ground chicken on hand, so I followed commonly available instructions for using a food processor to grind chicken. I used a mix of thigh meat and breast meat. I was encouraged by the “best tacos ever” ravings by the grandchildren.

I made them again this past week for two visiting professors. This time I only had breast meat; the tacos were quite wonderful. I must admit; it’s really very reassuring to know what’s in the ground meat. I not only feel more confident with the food safety issue, because I’m using solid rather than ground meat to begin my recipe. But in addition, I know exactly what is being ground. I prefer not to include skin, gristle or whatever the butcher may have trimmed from cutting chicken into pieces. My personal feeling is that it seems so whole and fresh, compared with purchasing ground meat. I enjoy eating it and serving it.

If you still eat red meat and enjoy burgers or other recipes, but are a little nervous about the safety of ground meat, grinding your own is a blessing for your food safety nerves; in addition to having control over the quality and freshness of the meat. If you enjoy a medium-rare burger, this is a far safer option. Time is one of the factors in keeping food safe from bacterial growth. By grinding meat right before use – you’ve cut out all the time between the grinding, packaging, meat shelf, including the transport home and the time before you’re ready to cook.

Instead of following the directions for ground chicken exactly as stated, I purchase the chicken, boned and skinned breasts and thighs when on sale. When I get home, I package the breasts and things in quart Ziplock freezer bags and label. When I’m going to make ground chicken, I put the amount of chicken in the refrigerator to partially defrost. If you have fresh chicken and you’re ready to grind it all up, then use the ‘partially freeze on a cookie sheet’ method. It’s amazing how easy this really is.

There are so many recipes that use ground meat. Certainly, if you carefully follow food-handling rules, you’re not very likely to have a problem with ground meat. But my personal experience is that grinding myself is very calming and the outcome is quite excellent, with a fairly minimal output of extra work. Bon appétit!