Ground Beef - A Consumer's Guide

raw ground beef on plate
photo credit: gourrmetsleuth


Ground beef is the most economical and most highly consumed cut of beef eaten in American homes. Learn about the history, production, alternatives, safety and more.

History Of Ground Beef

Ground beef, or mince as it is known in regions outside of the U.S. is simply ground up lesser cuts of beef. It is considered accepted theory that the concept of ground beef was a creation of the Mongolian and Turkic tribe. The tribes had access to Asian cattle and they shredded the low quality meat to make it more digestible.

How The Name Ground Beef Became Known As Hamburger

Russian Tartars brought the food to Germany before the 14th century. In Germany the meat was seasoned and cooked or even eaten raw. This gave rise to a food for the commoners of the Hamburg region and the beef was referred to as Hamburg Steak. (Atlas of Popular Culture – John E Harmon)

Ground Beef Consumption In the U.S.

Roughly 42% of all beef eaten in the United States is in the form of ground beef. According to the USDA statistics, Americans consume about 67 pounds of ground beef each year. Most of that is purchased as fresh ground beef, prepared and eaten at home. The obvious reason for that is that the meat is economical and can be prepared in a myriad of ways.

The most popular ground beef recipes in the United States are hamburger sandwiches, casseroles and chili with an up and coming runner up of ground beef tacos.

Ground Beef Production And Grades

Ground beef is made from various cuts of beef (typically tougher) and sometimes with the addition of scrap and trimmings. Only products defined and sold as “hamburger” can have added fat. Additionally, ground beef products may have added seasonings but the USDA does not allow additions of water or fillers.

Standard Grades Of Ground Beef

Cut % of Lean % Of Fat Calories per ounce*
Ground Beef 70% lean 30% fat 77
Ground Chuck 80% lean 20% fat 76
Ground Sirloin 85% lean 15% fat 73
Ground Round 90% lean 10% fat 65
*Crumbled and cooked

Grass Fed, Organic, and Kobe/Wagyu

In addition to standard grading there are some new varieties on the market you will want to be aware of.

  • Grass Fed Beef – Grass fed means that for the lifetime of the animal it consumed a diet of forage consisting of grasses, legumes, Brassica). Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts. Mineral and vitamin supplementation is allowed.
  • Organic Beef – By definition this means that beef must be fed 100% organic feeds that contain no animal parts. Additionally the animals must be allowed access to outdoors, sun, grass and pasture.
  • Kobe / Wagyu Beef - Kobe beef grown in the U.S. referred to as Wagyu beef. The typical ground beef is “chuck” which offers enough fat to be moist with good flavor. This is the most expensive ground beef available and can be found in some specialty markets as well as online. At the time of this writing Wagyu ground beef was selling for about $12.50lb.

Buying Ground Beef

First, select the appropriate fat content for your recipe.  Although very lean grades are more healthful they tend to be drier and don't always have the flavor you want.  If you purchase fattier grades make sure to drain off excess fat and even blot it on paper towels before it goes into the recipe.

Fresh VS Frozen

We strongly encourage you to purchase fresh ground beef from a reputable grocer or butcher who has a high turn-over of products. Companies such as Costo sell their products very quickly so there is a good chance the beef is very fresh. Small stores with lower sales volume may keep product for longer periods of time.

Even though we now have labeling laws for origins of meat those laws do not apply to processed products such as some “hamburger patties” sold in the frozen food section as well as other processed foods.

When you purchase fresh ground beef there is typically a “use or freeze by” date on the package. We suggest you use fresh ground beef within a day of purchase or package it and put it in your freezer.

Foreign vs Domestic Ground Beef

As a general rule try to buy the best quality ground beef you can afford. When possible purchase organically grown meat. Even though imported meat must meet U.S. quality standards some of us are more comfortable purchasing U.S. grown beef and whenever possible from sources local to your home.

We don’t mean to imply that other countries don’t produce beef at or above U.S. Standards because that is not the case. There are simply benefits to supporting U.S. and when possible, local sources.

Sell By or Expiration Dates – The federal government does not require retailers to put sell by or expiration dates on meat packaging. Primarily it is done by the retailer so that they know when to rotate or remove stock. Clearly it is helpful for the consumer as well. Dating is only as good as storage and handling practices. If the product has been out of refrigeration too long the product could be well beyond it’s prime before a sell by date is exceeded.

What The Meat Should Look Like – Typically packaged or butcher-bulk ground beef will be bright red on the outside. The interior meat may turn a slight grey color and this is normal. However; if you purchase ground beef that is grey in color all-over there is a good chance it is beginning to spoil.  If the grayish meat does not have an “off smell” then it should be OK to eat provided it is cooked and used immediately; otherwise discard it.

Freshly Ground Or Make Your Own

Ground beef is essentially at the end of the production chain of beef products.  By virtue of the fact it is ground and exposed to more air it is more prone to bacterial contamination.  There are a couple of simple alternatives to the 'plant ground' ground beef found in most stores.

Have The Ground Beef Made For You

If you shop at a butcher or a grocery store with a butcher you can have them grind the beef for you.  I typically pick out a piece of chuck roast (or sirloin, depending on what I need) and I ask the butcher to put it though their grinder.   Although we don't know how clean the grinders are at least we know the meat that went into our ground beef.   Some butchers may require a minimum purchase but you can easily freeze any extra.

Make Your Own Ground Beef At Home

This is really not difficult but certainly takes more time a some equipment like either a hand meat-grinder or an attachment for your kitchen mixer.  Please read our complete Guide To Making Your Own Ground Beef At Home.

Safe Ground Beef Handling And Cooking Practices

US Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008 showed that “one in every 200 samples of ground beef was contaminated by e.coli." Like all fresh foods, ground beef should be handled and cooked properly.

Use or Freeze – Ground beef should be used or frozen within 2 days of purchase (or less if labeling advises).

Freeze – Don’t freeze meats in butcher wrappings or store packaging. Work on a clean work surface. Repackage portion-size beef in freezer paper or plastic freezer bags. Remove as much air from the packaging as possible to reduce freezer burn. Date the package and use within 6 months.
Wash all surfaces well after packaging.

Cooking – Ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160F. This temperature will kill potential E.coli bacteria. Undercooked ground beef is one of the primary sources for this food-borne illness.  Don't be misguided by the color of the meat.  When in doubt use an instant read meat thermometer to check the internal temperature. This is especially critical when feeding children or any adults with an immune deficiency problems.

Handling - Wash Your Hands & Works Surfaces

E.coli can be transferred from your hands, dishes or work surfaces.  Wash your hands well for a minimum for 20 seconds using warm soapy water.  Do this before and after handling meat. Wash all dishes, work surfaces, cutting boards, and utensils that come in contact with the raw meat.

Buying Organic Does Not Exempt You From Ignoring Safe Handling And Cooking Guidelines - While there are benefits to buying higher quality, higher cost versions of ground beef don't ignore safe use practices. In December, 2010 there was a recall of 34,373 pounds of organic ground beef products from a California beef producer and this is not an isolated case.

How To Defrost Ground Beef

Refrigerator defrosting - For best moisture retention it is best to allow the meat to thaw naturally inside your refrigerator. This also helps to prevent the growth of any harmful bacteria.

Microwave defrosting – If you are short on time you can defrost the meat in your microwave oven. Ideally use a defrost feature if you have one and defrost the meat based on the total package weight. Frequently there is moisture loss and parts of the meat may begin to cook. Ground beef defrosted in this manner should be used immediately.

Cold Water defrosting – To defrost ground beef in cold water place the meat in a vapor-proof zip lock bag. Place the bag, submerged in a bowl or sink of cold water. Replace the water every 30 minutes to keep it from getting too warm.

Re-freezing Defrosted Ground Beef

Defrosted meat should never be refrozen raw. You can cook the meat, then refreeze if needed. As with most cooked foods you should never leave ground beef out at room temperature for more than 2 hours; or less if above 90F.

Fast Food Ground Beef Products

Eating ground meat is risky business at its very best.  Some fast food restaurants use "meat products" which have been injected with ammonia to kill E.coli.  (Read the NY Times article >>) 

Counter to that, in 2009 USA Today reported that stating,

McDonald's, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day. And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.”

What does all this mean to you? Maybe nothing or maybe you want to just be more "thoughtful" about your daily food choices.  Reduce your exposure to lower quality meats.  Maybe due to household budget reasons you don't have a lot of choice.  In which case you may want to take a little extra time and grind your own meat and keep those trips to the fast food joints to a minimum, and substitute a few more vegetarian meals when you can.

Ground Beef Alternatives

These substitutes will work well in most recipes that call for ground beef (hamburger).  Most of these products tend to be more lean so you may need to add some additional moisture to the recipe.

  • Ground Turkey
  • Ground Chicken
  • Combine ground turkey or chicken with Turkey sausage which has been browned and crumbled
  • Textured Soy Protein, (TSP) a non-meat alternative or meat extender
  • Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) vegetarian

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.