How many times have you gone to the meat case in the last few months and could not find what you wanted or the amount you wanted?

I would bet you were looking for ground beef or hamburger.

Each year, the average American consumes more than 65 pounds of beef and that ground beef accounts for more than 60 percent of that total. In spite of that consumption, many shoppers have questions about this most common of beef products.

Hamburger v. ground beef

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there are distinct differences between hamburger and ground beef, but also similarities.

Both can be made from fresh or frozen beef. Neither can contain seasonings, water, dyes, extenders, binders or phosphates unless labeled as such in accordance with Federal Labeling policies.

The main difference is where the fat included in them comes from. Ground beef must be made from trimmings that have the targeted fat percentage. Ground beef labeled 80%-20% must have the 80% lean and 20% fat in it come directly from the trimmings to meet the targeted fat percentage.

Hamburger, on the other hand, can have fat added to the meat to create the desired percentage of fat within the product.

From here on out, I am going to use the two terms interchangeably, as well as just ground.

What is it made from?

Ground and burger are most often made from what are called whole muscle cuts and trimmings from less tender and less popular cuts. Some may contain cereals, soybean proteins (some of you around my age may remember those school cafeteria burgers from the 1960s), or even heart and/or liver used as extenders. But, if these are included, they must be stated clearly on the label. These are not common practices, as most is pure ground beef muscle and fat.

Why is it dark in the middle?

They are not trying to hide old meat in the middle and cover it with fresh meat. There is actually a scientific reason the outside meat is red and the inside is darker.

The reason is oxygen and a protein molecule called myoglobin. Myoglobin is similar to hemoglobin, which is the protein that carries oxygen in blood. Myoglobin is the reason meat appears red when it is exposed to oxygen. When it is deprived of oxygen, it can turn a dark purple or brown. Hence, red on the outside and brown on the inside.

If you take a quantity of ground or burger and “open it up,” so to speak, and let the brown inside meat be exposed to the air, the myoglobin will actually reoxygenate and turn red again.

Even though color can be an indication of meat spoilage, temporary dark coloring on the inside meat is not an indication the meat is spoiled.

Labeling

What do the labels on ground mean, such as 80/20, or ground round? According to the USDA, ground or burger can contain no more than 30% fat and no less than 70% lean. So a package labeled as 80/20 contains 80% lean and 20% fat. And you will notice as the lean percentage increases and the fat decreases, the price also increases.

Packages labeled ground round, ground sirloin or ground chuck identify the wholesale cut where that ground meat and trimmings came from. Typically, meat gets leaner from the front of the animal to the rear.

Examples such as ground chuck (shoulder area) is generally accepted to have about 80% lean and 20% fat. Ground round, lower back leg, has about 90% lean and 10% fat. Sirloin, top front of rear leg, has about 95% lean and 5% fat.

Freezing ground beef

If you are going to buy ground beef to freeze, like when it is on sale, it needs to be frozen within one or two days of purchase. The plastic wrap the burger typically comes wrapped in is oxygen permeable, meaning the meat could possibly freezer burn.

Freezer burn happens when moisture escapes from the surface of the food while frozen. This leads to the surface dehydrating and discoloring. As that surface moisture escapes from the meat, it refreezes within the package, causing ice crystals to form. To prevent freezer burn, tightly wrap the meat in aluminum foil, freezer paper or a resealable plastic bag.

While freezer burnt meat, or any other foods, will have a very distinct off-flavor, odor and texture, it is not harmful to consume. It just will not be a pleasant eating experience.

Freezing does not kill bacteria, so proper food handling needs to be practiced. Thawing hamburger on the kitchen countertop or in the sink is not a good idea. This rapid rising of the temperature is a perfect environment for bacteria to grow.

Instead, plan ahead and slowly thaw the meat in the refrigerator. This takes more time, but is much safer. If you need it thawed quickly, you can use a microwave. All thawed meat needs to be cooked immediately after it completely thaws.

Burger rare

Burger isn’t safe to eat when cooked rare, because bacteria can contaminate the meat on the surface.

Bacteria, mostly good but some bad, called pathogenic bacteria, are everywhere. All foods, including ground beef, can be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. The one we most worry about contaminating hamburger is named E. coli 0157:H7. There are hundreds of E.coli bacteria, but this is one of the bad ones. Other bacteria than can contaminate ground are salmonella, campylobacter or listeria. All of these are commonly found in the digestive tracts of mammals.

Packaging plants, grocery stores, etc. all have guidelines for the prevention of contamination, but sometimes it still occurs on the surface because the surface area in ground beef is large and it can be thoroughly mixed throughout the product since the outside and the inside of burger is completely mixed up during the grinding process.

Steak, on the other hand could only be contaminated on the cut surface. When we cook a steak, the bacteria on the surface is killed. When we cook burgers, if not cooked completely, part of what was once the outside is now inside and the temperatures may not reach high enough to kill all of the bacteria.

Burgers need to be cooked to an internal minimum temperature of 160 degrees to kill bacteria. Use an accurate meat thermometer to check. Juices should run clear, but this does not mean the correct temperature has been reached.

In my next story, I will continue answering questions about meat.

If you have any questions, call your local county extension office. The Boyd County Extension Office number is (606) 739-5184.

LYNDALL HARNED is a Boyd County Extension agent for horticulture/agriculture.

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