To make an amazing burger, you want to start with the best ground beef. And you can find it at your supermarket or neighborhood butcher—you just need to know what to look for.
The key to choosing the best meat for burgers is to find beef that is ground right in the store where you're buying it, preferably that day, and that contains the proper ratio of fat to lean.
Two products to avoid are: "chubs" (plastic-sealed tubes of ground beef) and pre-formed patties, fresh or frozen. Those products are usually ground at a large packaging facility then shipped to your store on a truck, meaning you cannot be sure of what you're getting.
A neighborhood butcher and some supermarkets will grind the meat and sell it to you while looking you in the eye. Yes, buying ground beef is a lot about trust.
80/20 Ground Beef Is the Perfect Blend
80/20 ground beef means that it's 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat. That might sound like a lot of fat, but a large amount of that fat is going to render out as you cook it, with the result will be a moist, juicy burger. As it happens, beef chuck is right at the sweet spot of 80/20—if you see ground chuck, get it.
When considering the pre-packaged ground beef at the supermarket, look for meat that was ground and wrapped in the store. Usually, it will be in a shallow styrofoam tray with plastic wrap pulled across it.
Ask for "Store Trim"
Store trim is almost always 80/20 because they use the fat trimmings from other cuts of meat that they fabricate there. Note that the plastic wrap will be drawn tightly across the meat and it will be touching the meat. The meat will be nice and pink with flecks of white fat visible.
If the label says "ground fresh daily" or "ground in-store", ask whether that means store trim or whether it means ground beef that came in bulk chubs and then reground in the store (and avoid that.)
You may see a package with a "case-ready overwrap tray" or gas-flush tray. This is meat that was processed somewhere far away and packaged into individual trays, shipped to the store and placed directly on the shelf.
The tray is deeper and the plastic is pulled straight across the edges of the tray but does not touch the meat (there is a space between the meat and the plastic). The meat may be bright red. That's because these containers are pumped full of oxygen or nitrogen plus carbon dioxide, which causes the meat to turn bright red. The pumped-in gases are less worrisome than the fact that the product was manufactured somewhere else and shipped to the store.
Ask Your Butcher to Grind It on the Spot
Ask your butcher to grind some beef chuck for you right there on the spot. It's a reasonable request that any good butcher should be willing to fulfill. If they won't, then it may be time to find another source for your meat—or grind your own!