Irma first offered a recipe for hamburgers in the second edition of Joy, published in 1936. truly a time-honored classic, and an easy go-to during grilling season (or griddling season, if such a thing exists). Cheeses, pickles, lettuce, a slab of ripe tomato, a good mustard, and other embellishments can certainly improve upon the basic burger, but we occasionally enjoy breaking out the meat grinding attachment for our stand mixer and starting with whole cuts of beef. Why go to the trouble? Maybe a recent outbreak of E. coli has been associated with ground beef sold in your area. Perhaps you would like to try using different cuts to make a unique blend, a la Pat Lafrieda. Or you may have a frozen beef roast and wish to turn it into burgers. Frankly, we rarely have a “good excuse” for making things from scratch: We love tinkering, and starting with raw materials offers more opportunities to tweak and experiment.
As for the materials, we often go with chuck roast, as it generally has our preferred ratio of fat when modestly trimmed (about 20 percent). You may use other, more flavorful cuts such as brisket or boneless short rib, but be sure to keep the fat content in mind: if the beef has too much fat the resulting burgers will cause a lot of flare-ups and shrink too much during cooking; if the beef is too lean, your burgers will tend to be dry and their flavor will not be as appealing.
Remember these rules for safety and hygiene: Keep the meat refrigerated before and between all steps. Wash all utensils, equipment, and work surfaces before and after grinding meat. Use dish soap as well as a sanitizing solution: mix 3/4 teaspoon household bleach with 1 quart of cool water. (The best option is to keep a 32-ounce spray bottle under the sink for easy access and convenient use.) Wash your hands frequently.
Aside from studiously sanitizing all equipment and work surfaces, the biggest concerns when grinding meat are smear and springiness. Fat that is closer to room temperature is more likely to be “smeared” into a paste (especially by a dull grinding blade), which will then render very quickly when cooked. Springiness, on the other hand, is usually caused by grinding meat with a dull blade or handling it excessively once ground. The more meat is ground or handled afterward, the more myosin is released. Myosin, the main type of protein in muscle fibers, acts as an emulsifying agent and helps bind together the water and fat present in the meat. The resulting emulsion is sticky, and functions like a binder or glue. This effect can be exploited to give emulsified sausages or Swedish meatballs a snappy texture, but it must be carefully controlled when grinding meat for use in burgers and coarse-textured sausages, which can quickly become too dense. To reduce smear and springiness, grind the meat with sharp, clean-cutting tools and keep the meat and fat well chilled at all times.
Electric meat grinders are ideal, as their motors are up to the task, and the metal grinding parts can be chilled to keep smear to a minimum. Hand-cranked grinders are also excellent, since they generate the least heat. They are less than convenient for obvious reasons. Grinding attachments for stand mixers can produce good results, but plastic grinder parts are not as durable.
To grind beef with a meat grinder, first cut the meat and any fat into chunks small enough to comfortably fit into the grinder chute, place the meat on a rimmed baking sheet, and thoroughly chill in the freezer for 30 minutes. While the meat chills, set up your grinder by placing a bowl or rimmed baking sheet underneath to collect the ground meat. For most applications, we recommend using a medium-sized, 1 ⁄4-inch grinding plate. Sometimes, juices may squirt out of the grinding plate; to keep this from causing a (contaminated) mess, tape a sheet of paper so that it drapes over the grinding plate to limit any splatter.
Once the meat is chilled, run it through the grinder (for a stand mixer attachment, set the speed to low). When grinding a large batch of meat, remove it from the freezer in small batches as needed. If a finer texture is desired, chill the ground meat for 15 minutes and grind it again. For a firm-but-coarse texture, double-grind half and gingerly mix it back in with the coarser meat.
To grind meat with a food processor, first cut it (along with any fat, if making sausage) into 3⁄4-inch cubes and freeze for 30 minutes on a rimmed baking sheet. Working with 8 ounces at a time, place the meat in the food processor bowl. Pulse several times, stir the meat in the bowl, and repeat until it is the desired texture. Use caution, as the food processor will grind the meat quickly, making it easy to overprocess. For best results, stop processing the meat while the largest pieces are around ¼ inch in size. Transfer the meat to a bowl. Proceed with grinding the remaining meat in 8-ounce batches.
Once the meat is ground, handle it with care: try not to knead or mix it. In fact, we prefer seasoning the beef after they have been formed into patties for this very reason. If you are tempted to add other ingredients to the ground beef—many folks seem compelled to add diced onion, for whatever reason—sprinkle the beef into a shallow layer on a baking sheet, distribute the ingredients over them, and then lightly fold them in. For onions or any other raw ingredient, be sure they are cooked before mixing with the beef (they will not soften in the short amount of time it will take to cook the burgers through).
To form patties, gather ¼ to ⅓ pounds of ground beef into a ball and, on a baking sheet, let the ball fall from about one foot above the surface. Gather up the meat, flip it over, and let it fall again. Using your thumbs and index fingers, shape a ridge around the edge. This will add to the integrity of the patty and make the finished burger relatively flat (the center has a tendency to bulge during cooking). Once shaped, season the patties on both sides with salt and black pepper.
Assuming your patties are no more than ¾ of an inch thick, grill over a medium-hot fire for five minutes per side. Since the meat isn’t as pasty as store-bought ground beef, you don’t want to move or flip the patties any more than necessary. After searing for the first five minutes, they should release easily from the grate.
Though grinding meat yourself has the potential to be much safer, please remember that the USDA recommends cooking ground meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, or medium-well-done. The interior of the cuts of beef you are grinding are virtually sterile, but the outer surfaces may harbor bacteria. Just keep in mind that this guideline is designed to take into account the risk of cross-contamination present in store-bought ground beef.