If you want to make an amazing burger, you want to start with the best ground beef possible. And the good news is you don't have to worry about words like Kobe or Angus or anything else like that. You can buy the best ground beef at your neighborhood butcher or supermarket.
The key is you want beef that was ground right there in the store where you're buying it, preferably that day. And you want the proper blend of fat to lean.
But let's narrow things down a bit by mentioning a product that you want to avoid at all costs. I'm talking about those plastic-sealed tubes of ground beef called chubs. Those are the products that are always being recalled, and you just don't want to mess with them. The same goes for those preformed patties, fresh or frozen. Nope nope nope.
If that product is ground at a large packaging facility somewhere seven states away and then shipped to your store on a truck, you really have no idea what you're getting, and most importantly, there is no accountability. A neighborhood butcher is grinding the meat and selling it to you while looking you in the eye. Yes, buying ground beef is a lot about trust.
So if you go to a butcher, you can buy freshly ground beef that was ground right there in the store. Some supermarkets offer this as well, and that's what you want. It'll be on display behind the glass in the meat case, they'll weigh out the amount you want and wrap it up for you. You know the drill.
80/20 Ground Beef is The Perfect Blend
Now, this part is important: Make sure you get 80/20 ground beef, which 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 being a moist, juicy burger. As it happens, beef chuck is right at the sweet spot of 80/20, so if they're selling ground chuck, your decision is even simpler: get that.
All right, what about those trays of ground beef that they sell at the supermarket? Some of those are not so great, but it turns out that some of them are exactly what you want. The ones you want are the packages of meat that were ground there in the store and wrapped in the traditional packaging known as the in-store overwrap tray: basically a shallow styrofoam tray with plastic wrap pulled across it.
Ask for "Store Trim"
If you're lucky, it'll have a label on it that says "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" you'll want to ask whether that means store trim or whether it means ground beef that came in bulk chubs and then reground in the store. Obviously you don't want that.
On the other hand, you'll often see a similar-looking package called a case-ready overwrap tray, or gas-flushed tray. What happens here is that the meat is processed somewhere far away and packaged into individual trays that are shipped to the store and they go directly onto the shelf.
The tray will be deeper and the plastic will be pulled straight across the edges of the tray but it will not touch the meat. There'll be a space between the meat and the plastic. The meat will probably be a bright red. That's because these containers are either pumped full of oxygen or sometimes nitrogen plus carbon dioxide, which contribute to a bright red hue.
The problem with this product is not so much because of the fact that they pump gases into the packaging to turn the meat red. It's the fact that it was manufactured somewhere else and shipped to you.
Ask Your Butcher to Grind it On the Spot
There's another choice for you, and it's to ask your butcher to grind some beef chuck for you right there on the spot. It's a normal request and something any good butcher should be willing to do. If they won't, then it's seriously time to find someplace else to buy your meat.
So now you know what to look for, and what to avoid. Tubes of meat: No. Trays of meat with plastic that doesn't touch the meat: No. Trays of meat with the plastic pulled tightly across the meat and touching the meat: Yes. And of course, any freshly ground beef, 80 percent lean, that your butcher weighs and wraps for you.
But if you have any doubts at all, just ask for store trim, or ask them to grind a piece of beef chuck for you.
(By the way, you could also grind your own beef.)