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Purchasing Ground Beef

By Cook's Illustrated Published June 2006

When you buy ground beef in the market, just what are you buying?

Most recipes simply call for "ground beef," but, as any supermarket shopper knows, the choices are much more varied. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines "ground beef" as ground fresh and/or frozen beef from primal cuts and trimmings containing no more than 30 percent fat. But that doesn't really help anyone understand the difference between ground round, ground chuck, and ground sirloin. And what about fat content, which can range as low as 7 percent?

To find out if the cut matters, we prepared hamburgers, Bolognese sauce, and meatloaf using each type of ground beef and held a blind tasting, asking tasters to comment on the taste and texture of each sample. The results were clear; differences between the cuts were obvious and noted across the board.

Ground round and ground beef consistently ranked last in our tests, with ground round described as "tough" and "chewy"; less polite tasters deemed the ground beef "livery" and "gross." Tasters preferred ground chuck and sirloin: The ultra-lean sirloin was favored for dishes in which other ingredients added much-needed fat, whereas chuck was preferred in hamburgers. Types of ground beef are listed below in order of preference.

Ground Chuck

Cut from the shoulder, ground chuck ranges from 15 to 20 percent fat and was favored by our tasters for its "rich" flavor and "tender," "moist" texture. The best choice for burgers.

Ground Sirloin

Tasters praised the ground sirloin as "tender and tasty," especially in the meatloaf and Bolognese sauce, but found it a bit "dry" in hamburgers, though it did have "good beef flavor." Cut from the midsection of the animal near the hip, ground sirloin usually ranges in fat content from 7 to 10 percent.

Ground Round

Lean and tough, ground round comes from the rear upper leg and rump of the cow. Tasters rejected the round as "gristly" and "lacking beef flavor." The fat content ranges from 10 to 20 percent.

Ground Beef

Any cut or combination of cuts can be labeled "ground beef," so consistency is a problem. Because ground beef may have as much as 30 percent fat, greasiness can also be an issue. Our tasters dismissed the ground beef in all applications as "mushy," with an "old boiled beef taste."