Where’s the beef? Today, the better question to ask is what’s the beef? Restaurants are marketing the tasty cuts blended together in their burgers and other dishes made of ground meat because it sets them apart.

“Consumers are not just focused on the muscles in their meat, but their sourcing as well — whether they are domestic or from Australia, grass-fed, antibiotic-free or have growth hormones,” says Chris Fuller, president of Fuller Consulting, based in San Diego. “Any time chefs or butchers talk about ground beef they need to know where it’s coming from and what muscles are included.”

Traditionally, the chuck cut has been used for years alone or in blends. “It’s a really good cut to use because it comes from a hardworking muscle, which has more fat and flavor,” says Monica Smith, food quality assurance, food consultant, Whole Brain Consulting, in Loveland, Colo.

Ground chuck will typically contain 70 percent lean meat and 30 percent fat, she says, which is an optimum blend, especially for burgers. 

“However, if short ribs are added to the mix, they give a rich taste from their fat and add moisture,” Smith says. “Meat blends are innovative and fun today. If you’re grinding meat, why not add a few more cuts for flavor?”

Popular combinations today are chuck and brisket, chuck and short rib, chuck and hanger steak and chuck and sirloin, she says. 

“In my opinion, the best combination is chuck and brisket,” says Fuller. “Chuck has good flavor and fat, but adding brisket to the blend adds a different texture and flavor from its fat. If blending these two, combine two chuck rolls to one brisket for an 80-20 fat ratio, which is what consumers want.”

Restaurants as diverse as Johnny Rockets to Au Cheval are marketing the different primals and subprimals used in their burgers. “But the bulk of raw materials used in grinding is the same,” says Jeff Sindelar, Ph.D., associate professor and extension meat specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 


Watching the fat

Similar to the chuck cut, the bottom round cut also comes from a hardworking muscle and is a low-cost but tasty option, says Kari Underly, principal owner of Range Inc., in Chicago.

“The round cut has an amazing flavor but is lean, so it tends to be ground with sirloin,” Smith says.

Short rib and navel cuts also add fat to this lean option.

“It’s important to make sure the blended flavors don’t compete because you can wind up with a mild flavor,” Underly says.

To balance lean cuts with something fatty, some processors are buying fat and just adding it, Fuller says. 

“Chefs don’t want food trimmings though because of food safety and marketability issues,” he says.

If fat content is too low in blends, the product won’t cook well and taste right. 

“It’s important to analyze fat content to create a consistent product,” Underly says. “For burgers, it should be 40 percent neutral carrier, 20 percent flavor, 20 percent fat and 20 percent a secret ingredient that adds a special touch.”

Some unique ingredients come from between the ribs, like rib fingers (intercostal muscles that are removed from between the back ribs), she says. 

“In general, people are more open to blends,” says Underly. “It’s a huge opportunity for burgers, for example, because they are popular, fun and can use many different muscle cuts.”

Dry-aging blends is another trend because they have a more concentrated flavor, she says. “A lot of chefs are working with dry-aged blends, as long as they have a proper HACCP plan in place,” says Underly. “I would recommend dry aging subprimals before grinding them, because the cuts will have a higher fat and flavor presence after losing their water weight.” 

Fat analysis is still measured with standard machines, such as a fat analysis system (FAS) on blenders and mixers, grinding systems on conveyors with magnetic resonance (MR) imaging and X-ray machines, Sindelar says. 

“They also use rapid fat analysis systems that utilize an NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy)-based system,” says Sindelar. “These are nothing new and have been around a few years.”


Customizing blends

Some blends include mushrooms in place of a meat cut to appeal to consumers who want flavor with less fat. 

“Not every buyer will want non-beef in their meat blend,” Fuller says. “But I see this trend appealing to health-conscious consumers. If mushrooms or quinoa are added to blends, they can cut the saturated fat from burgers, for example, but still have the volume and taste consumers expect.”

More consumers are even asking butchers to grind together particular muscle cuts or grind their meat themselves. “Cuts should be ground two times on a medium blade setting for optimum results,” Smith says. “Some retailers grind and grind too much, which results in a paste-like look.”


Weighing costs

“It varies from state to state — and restaurant to restaurant — but chuck is usually the least expensive cut in the mix,” Smith says. “Brisket and short rib cost more but are good options to add savory, full, rich flavor.”

The right cost ratio of ingredients is a constant challenge for butchers, processors and consumers, Smith says. 

It is possible, however, to provide something new within a reasonable price. “If a butcher purchases a load of shoulder clod, for example, it will come with top blade roast (where Flat Iron steak comes from) at a good price,” Fuller says. “This option adds a marketable name to the blend — flat iron — but without paying as much as one would for short ribs.”

Fortunately, beef muscles are readily available, and tri tip, sirloin and flat iron cuts can add menu appeal and marketability with a lower price, he says. 

“Ground beef can always innovate new blends because it uses affordable muscle groups that can be marketed,” Fuller says.

The only challenge? Mother Nature. “Getting a consistent product from raw material is always a challenge,” Underly says. NP