8 Things You Need to Know Before You Shop for Ground Beef, According to Local Butchers

published Jul 15, 2022
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Burger patties with a partially assembled burger, pickles and sliced tomatoes
Credit: Jesse Szewczyk

When I think of ground beef, I think of plump patties sizzling on a grill — especially this time of year. Of course, ground beef is used in way more than just burgers (meatballs! Meatloaf! Tacos! Breakfast Bolognese!). Ground beef is versatile, fun, easy, and filling.

Kate Kavanaugh, co-owner of Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in Denver, agrees. “It’s something that you can just sauté up with some herbs and a little bit of vegetables and you have a really delicious, really nutrient-dense and filling meal.”

Local butchers, like Kavanaugh, are a great resource for learning more about shopping for ground beef. Many either raise their own cattle or work directly with local farmers to source their meat (or both). I spoke with several around the country to get their expert tips for picking out the highest-quality beef and, unsurprisingly, they had a lot to say — including a tip on how to properly store your ground beef for the long haul. Here’s what I learned.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

1. Many different cuts of meat go into ground beef.

Ground beef typically is made from trim, the parts of the muscles that don’t make good steaks or roasts and are trimmed off. “In a whole-animal shop, we’re breaking things down and utilizing as many muscles as possible,” says Kavanaugh. “All of our ground beef has brisket, chuck, and sirloin trim in it, along with filet and ribeye and all the other stuff,” adds PJ Jackson, co-owner of The Chop Shop Butchery in Asheville, North Carolina.

You can ask your local butcher to grind a whole muscle for you, but many I spoke with advise against it: “If you put a brisket through the grinder, the only thing that you get out of that is a fattier grind (more on that below), because brisket is a fatty cut,” says Kavanaugh. “Whatever it is that makes a brisket a brisket — whether that’s in barbecue or braised — is gone. It’s just ground beef now.” 

2. 80/20 is the preferred meat-to-fat ratio.

“If I was going to say one thing to customers, I would say not to be afraid of fat,” says Yoko Koide, head butcher at Brooklyn’s Marlow & Daughters. In fact, all of the butchers reiterated the need for fat — not just for flavor, but for texture. “I find that an 80/20 mix gets the best flavor because you need a little bit of that fat to help carry the flavor,” says Jarrod Spangler, co-owner of Maine Meat in Kittery, Maine. “The leaner that it gets, I find the texture isn’t as good,” he adds. “It’s just not as juicy and not as flavorful.” And keep in mind that 80/20 is as lean as you should go. A few of the butchers told me they’d go up to 70/30 for some dishes, including burgers and chorizo sausage. Koide had recently tested a recipe for the latter when we spoke and ended up at 70/30 after the less-fatty blend “felt like chewing on like a beef-flavored towel.”

Credit: Kristin Teig; Food Styling: Catrine Kelty

3. It’s an underutilized ingredient … and one worth championing.

“Consumers tend to gravitate towards steaks and other cuts that they’re familiar with,” says Kavanaugh. That makes it hard for small farmers, ranchers, and small butcher shops to move the whole animal (these cuts make up only a small percentage of the cow). Beyond being good for the land and business, ground beef is great for weeknight dinners and even breakfast. Kavanaugh makes a brothy “Bolo,” inspired by Bolognese, with ground beef, finely chopped organ meat, broth, carrots, celery, and lots of herbs in 10-pound batches and eats it for breakfast almost every morning with some bacon and eggs. “Ground beef is a really flavorful, really versatile, and comparatively a rather inexpensive ingredient,” she says. Jackson went a little further and told me that ground beef is his favorite cut.

4. Shop somewhere that sources its meat locally.

To source the highest-quality meat, these butchers recommend ​​seeking out local businesses that partner with nearby farms. Not only does the meat have to travel fewer miles, but your butcher or the person behind the counter also should know exactly where the beef is from and what’s in it. “You want to be able to talk to a knowledgeable staff member who can say, ‘Oh, you know, we grind this in-house. We’re using bits of chuck and bits of brisket, along with the trimmings from steak.’ These are all wonderful things to hear,” says butcher Rusty Bowers, co-owner of Chop Shop and owner of Pine Street Market, both in Atlanta.

5. Check for store cleanliness.

Some butchers, like The Chop Shop Butchery in NC, will have an established health score rating. But even if it’s a new or unknown butcher shop, you can see (and smell!) if something’s not up to your standards. “If you walk in and the place looks really dirty, if the employees look unkempt, or if there’s an unusual smell, that might not be a good place for ground meat,” says Bowers. 

6. Grass-fed labels can be misleading.

While the USDA has labeling guidelines for meat, including ground beef, how strictly they’re enforced is up for debate. “I know of operations up here [in Maine] that sell quote ‘grass-fed beef,’ but it’s smoke and mirrors,” says Spangler. “People market their stuff so well that consumers are convinced they’re getting a certain product, when in all honesty they’re totally not.” Kavanaugh pointed to the American Grassfed Association as a label verification she really trusts. “They have a little seal that you can find on packages that indicates that it was 100% grass-fed and grass-finished,” she says.

In addition to asking your butcher about how the animals are raised, you can also talk directly with farmers in your region and even visit their farms. “All the farmers we work with invite people to the farm,” says Spangler. “If somebody is curious, they’re more than welcome to go visit and see how they do things.” Not sure where to start? Kavanaugh built a search engine for regenerative farms across the country, specifically focusing on 100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef.

Credit: Brandy McKnight/Shutterstock

7. Shoot for the 48-hour rule.

Buying ground beef the same day you plan to cook it is ideal, but it’s not always the most realistic option, so I asked the butchers how far in advance they’d recommend buying ground beef. “If you’re buying it fresh and keeping it in butcher paper, get it at most a day or two before using,” says Bowers. Spangler had a similar window, saying you should “shoot for a 48-hour rule,” which, like it sounds, means consuming within 48 hours of purchasing. 

8. Otherwise, ask your butcher to vacuum-seal it.

If you won’t be using the ground beef quickly, the freezer is your best option, but because ground beef is prone to freezer burn, the butchers had some specific advice for keeping it fresh. “You want to put it in a vacuum-sealed bag to remove all the oxygen,” says Bowers. “Your local butcher shop should be able to vacuum-seal the ground beef for you,” he adds. You can even ask your butcher to portion the beef into half-pound packages before sealing, so you can grab just what you need for tonight’s dinner. If the meat is vacuum-sealed it will keep in the freezer for up to a year.

Do you have any tips to add? Leave them in the comments below.