For tasters, here's the beef: Grinding makes it too tough

THE NEW YEAR started off with a grind, as I made my own hamburger. My home-ground burger did not get rave reviews from my family.

"Too tough," said one son who, as kids do, came home from college for the holidays and proceeded to eat us out of house and home. "Too stringy," chimed in his older brother, also home from college for the holidays, and also a chowhound.


My grind-your-own effort was fueled in part by culinary curiosity and in part by the recent mad-cow scare. I wondered if freshly ground meat would taste better than store-bought hamburger. I also had read that grinding your own hamburger from the muscle meat of cattle was one precaution I could take to avoid mad-cow troubles.

Humans who have eaten the brains, parts of the nervous system or internal organs of infected animals can get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain disease.


However, eating the muscle cuts, such as steaks and roasts, poses little risk, officials say. Unless a package of ground beef is marked as coming from muscle cuts, it can include various parts of the animal. Moreover, if mechanical deboners have been used to remove meat near the skeleton, there is some possibility that tissue from the animal's central nervous system could end up in ground beef.

Ever since December, when the news broke that a Holstein cow in Washington state tested positive for the disease, officials of the United States Department of Agriculture have reiterated that the danger of eating tainted beef is remote and the nation's meat supply is safe.

Recently the department placed an immediate ban on use of downer cattle - animals unable to walk on their own at the slaughter plant - as food for humans. Other measures taken included speeded-up testing of suspect cattle and a national identification system to track cattle from birth to slaughter. Meanwhile, retail beef prices have fallen, largely because the export market has evaporated.

Plenty of beef was on sale when I looked over the offerings at the Super Fresh in Hampden last week. My eyes locked onto a package of chuck meat from Angus cattle that was selling for $3.69 a pound, about half a dollar more per pound than the ground beef. The meat, an appealing bright red, had been cut into chunks and would, the package stated, make an excellent beef stew.

I had other plans for it. I saw it perched on a bun, posed invitingly between a slice of sweet onion and a slab of blue cheese.

Once home, I began searching the cupboards for a meat grinder. I knew we had one; I had spotted it while helping with a New Year's ritual, reorganizing the kitchen cabinets. I have a fond feeling for meat grinders.

As a boy, one of my first kitchen jobs was turning the handle of a cast-iron meat grinder as my mother or grandmother dropped pieces of meat, then bread, into its works. The meat went into the top of the grinder as hefty chunks and emerged from a grate at the grinder's business end as artful, crimson spirals.

I was hoping to re-enact that beefy transformation of my boyhood. But when I opened the brown cardboard box holding the ancient meat grinder, I saw that this was not the grinder of my youth. Instead, it had belonged to my wife's family. This grinder would work only if it was attached to an ancient Sunbeam mixer, which we did not have.


Reluctantly I turned to modern machinery, a Cuisinart food processor fitted with a metal blade, to do the deed. I dropped about a half-dozen pieces of chuck into the bowl of the food processor, pulsed the machine on and off a few times, and soon had enough meat for a hamburger patty.

For the sake of comparison, I also made a hamburger from already prepared ground beef. I broiled both in the oven, topped them with blue cheese, put them on toasted buns and carried them to the supper table.

The burgers functioned as something of a side dish for this family meal. Pausing as they attacked the evening's main dish, a humongous plate of chicken wings, my sons wolfed down pieces of the burgers. They liked the one made with store-bought ground beef, but dissed the one made with meat I had ground in the Cuisinart.

My pride was hurt, yet when I tasted the burgers, I had to agree with the critics. The texture of my self-made burger was at best chewy, at worst downright tough.

When I told Bill Ruppersberger about my attempt to grind my own hamburger, he laughed. Ruppersberger runs a Baltimore meatpacking business that makes, among other products, ground beef.

He said that rather than grinding the meat - pushing it through a series of smaller and smaller holes - my food processor had chopped the meat. This would toughen the meat, he said. As Ruppersberger described the machine at his plant that makes hamburger, it sounded like a larger version of my family's old grinder.


But an even bigger factor in the texture was the fat content of the meat. The chunks of stew meat that I had used were too lean, he said. To make a good hamburger, you need a mixture that is about 20 percent fat and 80 percent meat, he said. The meat I used was probably about 5 percent fat, he said. Chuck roast, he said, would have been a better choice.

Attempting to grind your own hamburger is just one way for meat eaters to cope with the anxiety brought on by the mad-cow situation. Another is to search out sources of organic or grass-fed beef (one site is www.eatwell Yet another, which I am leaning toward, is to remain calm and go back to buying ground beef in the store.