Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Body Parts

The blog and Twitter account have been quiet for the last few days on account of Eastover celebrations and familial cheer. We're clearing our way through leftovers in the Mike L. Burger household and ready to return to burger mania in short order. For now, a piece on body parts.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about beef - this is not as rare as you would think - and he told me a curious tale. He told me of a steakhouse in Toronto without a standard burger on its menu, but that would gladly take any cut you wish from their selection of aged steak and grind it up to your specifications for the Monica Belucci of burger fantasies. It sounds delightful at first, but on second sober thought I feel that this is a choice of gleeful excess over rational appreciation of a cow's body parts.

While I say time and time again that burgers can be made from essentially anything - meat or vegetable or even fruit - many people do envisage beef when they think of burgers. It is therefore important to have a conversation about the parts of a cow, and what I feel is or is not suitable to use for burger meat. As I embarked upon this blogging adventure, my education of the noble beef-side was high on my to-do list. I'm not getting into breeding here, just cuts; for breeding I'll take a trip out to a rancher for a good conversation about the best beef breeds.

I won't go into gory detail, but if any discussion about animal body parts makes you squeamish, you should probably reconsider eating meat altogether.

More after the break.

I'll get technicalities out of the way first. Different countries and cultures butcher their cows differently. Here in Canada we tend towards using traditional American butchering nomenclature; you'll be hard pressed to find a silverside cut in a supermarket.

Ground beef could be considered the lowliest preparation of meat there is. The grind eliminates the need for the beef to be inherently tender, so factors such as marbling (intramuscular fat) are no longer important. Steak connoisseurs can spend several minutes hovering over a cut of meat before buying, gauging colour and ratio of protein to fat, appearance of connective tissue or other factors. You don't do this with hamburger. Instead, you choose where in the "fat bands" you want your meat to fall: regular, medium, lean or extra lean.

Nowadays the beef industry is starting to introduce other factors into shopping for ground meat. I imagine that they are looking to reach out to a more sophisticated consumer that is looking to differentiate their ground beef experiences, and as a way to extract more value from a low-margin meat.

The primary benefit of the grinding method is that it renders tougher cuts easier to cook. Ground beef often comes from chuck (meat from the shoulder muscles) or round (the hind of the animal, by the back legs). These are the parts where the animal is most active, so the muscles are tougher and there is more connective tissue. This is especially if you're buying good-quality, pasture-raised beef, where the animal gets plenty of exercise. Surprisingly this has no effect on the fat content of the regions; chuck in particular can be quite fatty.

Chuck out the various beef cuts in this spectacowlar picture!
Sometimes ground beef is a combination of various parts of the cow left over after steaks are cut, or made from all parts of a mature animal. Chances are, unless the product is clearly labelled, your ground beef comes from all over the cow's real estate. Don't let that put you off. If an animal dies to feed us, it's only right that as much of the animal is used as possible, otherwise it's an irresponsible waste of resources.

As you can see above, the chuck and round are two of the largest areas on a cow; there is a lot of meat here to go around. These are the areas that give us pot roasts, short ribs and tip steaks among others. When you order a side of beef, usually about half of it will be ground, and half of it steaks and roasts of various shapes and sizes.

(If you want a ridiculously detailed series of diagrams that only a regulator would love, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's got one here - it's Canada's official "beef manual")

Back to the curious tale noted above. If I were to point at an aged cut of top sirloin and ask the kitchen to grind that up so I can eat a $40 burger that won't taste appreciatively different, I'd be an idiot. I would be using one of the smallest, most delicate parts of the cow to make into my burger when I have half of the animal to choose from. I can't imagine that there are too many people who do this anyway, making this practice niche and unworthy of a blog post. Right?

Sadly, a few years back, this practice extended from (few) top-end steakhouses to the broader market. In what was likely an attempt to signify premium quality, burger chains started advertizing sirloin burgers as if they were messianic. A&W, Montana's, Jack in the Box, even Campbell's Chunky-brand soups claim to use sirloin for their burger meat. Now, this is not a terribly objectionable practice if the meat comes from older cattle. There is some market research to suggest that most Canadians can't tell the difference between hamburger meat from young or mature cattle anyway. But if young sirloins are being stuffed into a can of soup, that's just foolish. Worse, it might inspire supermarkets to start grinding up their steaks during grilling season.

True burgerati seek out the chuck. It is cost-effective and with a fat content guaranteed to keep your patties flavourful. Barring that, be proud to go with the ground mix of less popular parts, and save the sirloin for steaks.


  1. When making your burgers at home, do you buy grocery store pre-ground, or grind your own chuck? I've been considering replacing the meat grinder I sold at a yard sale.....

  2. Hi! Thanks for reading. I buy my meat pre-ground at one of three local butchers that I frequent. To be honest, our condo-sized kitchen doesn't afford us the counter real estate for heavy machinery. We don't even have a stand mixer!


  3. Oh ya, I forgot to mention, I also <3 burgers!

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