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By Joan Namkoong
Special to The Advertiser
Editors note: Sunday Night Suppers is a monthly feature by former Advertiser food editor Joan Namkoong produced in partnership with Share YourTable.com. It focuses on parlaying Sunday cooking into several days' worth of meals.
Burgers, chili, meatloaf, meatballs, casseroles, stuffed cabbage, spaghetti sauce, tacos, soups, stuffed cabbage and meat pies all rely on one of the most versatile products in the supermarket meat case: ground beef.
It goes without saying that there's so much you can do with ground beef for a Sunday Night Supper.
Not only is ground beef a desirable product, it's also plentiful. It is made up of the less tender and less popular cuts of beef, representing a large portion of the animal. Trimmings from the steer after the prime cuts are taken are also included in ground beef. Grinding these parts makes the meat tender; the fat content improves flavor and moisture. And ground beef stretches: A pound of ground beef in a spaghetti sauce or meatloaf can serve up to six people, where a pound of steak might fall short.
For all its goodness, ground beef has gotten a bad rap lately for the many recalls that have occurred due to the harmful bacteria E.coli 0157:H7. This particular strain of E.coli can multiply quickly in the right environment and produce potent toxins that can cause serious illness and even death in humans.
"All mammals carry E.coli," said Dr. Tim Richards, veterinarian and president of Kahua Ranch on the Big Island. "What people don't grasp is that we are all riddled with bacteria all the time. When (growth of different bacteria) gets out of kilter, we have trouble."
E. coli can multiply in the intestine of cattle and can contaminate meat when they are slaughtered and processed. When meat is ground, more of it is exposed to harmful bacteria.
Richards said that one factor that affects E. coli in beef is how cattle are raised: whether they eat grain or grass on open pasture.
"My understanding is there is less chance of E.coli in grass-fed than grain-fed cattle," said Richards. "When cattle eat corn instead of grass, their rumen (a stomach chamber) chemistry changes; fermenting corn (instead of grass) causes a more acidic state, and the potential for bacteria overgrowth occurs."
The processing of ground beef in USDA facilities is some insurance that it will be safe. But even with proper sanitation and temperature controls, E.coli in ground beef can multiply, especially at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. Temperature fluctuations as ground beef is transported from processing plants to trucks to ships to retail stores can affect E.coli growth. Keeping ground beef — and all meat products — chilled to 40 degrees or less is the key to keeping bacteria levels low.
"It all comes down to safe handling," said Richards.
At the supermarket, ground beef packages should feel cold and should be whole, not torn. Place the packet in a plastic bag in case of leaks. Keep meats cold on the way home; having a cooler in your car in Hawai'i's warm climate is always a good idea.
You'll notice that ground beef can be bright red on the outside but brown on the inside. The reason is that the pigment oxymyoglobin, a substance found in all warm-blooded animals, turns red as it interacts with oxygen in the air. But beneath the surface, the meat can appear to be dull grayish-brown due to a lack of oxygen. This isn't an indication of spoilage. However, if all the meat has turned gray or brown, it may be spoiled.
When you get home, refrigerate ground beef immediately. Use ground beef within a day or two of purchase. If you are not going to use it, wrap it in plastic wrap, foil, freezer paper or plastic bags made for freezing, and freeze it. Use frozen ground beef within four months for best quality. Be sure to mark your packages so you can keep track of storage times.
Thaw frozen ground beef in the refrigerator; it takes about a day for a pound of ground beef to thaw. The key is to keep ground beef cold while it is defrosting to prevent bacteria growth. Slow thawing also helps to reduce the loss of moisture when you're cooking ground beef.
When you're handling ground beef or any raw beef product, it's important to wash cutting boards, knives, utensils and hands with soap and hot water to avoid spreading bacteria and cross contamination. Always use a clean plate for cooked meats; don't use the same plate that held raw meat. Be sure that no juices escape onto refrigerator shelves or other foods as you thaw the ground beef.
Other bacteria can cause spoilage that may not be harmful but can cause ground beef to lose quality. If ground beef has a bad odor or feels sticky, throw it away.
There are many ways to cook ground beef, and most techniques overcome bacterial risks because the beef is well cooked. Spaghetti sauces, meatloaf, meatballs, chili, casseroles and other preparations generally allow enough time and sufficient temperature to cook ground beef all the way through.
When cooking ground beef, be sure to err on the side of well done or an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, harmful bacteria are destroyed.
But when it comes to burgers, the debate begins. Most people like their beef burgers juicy and moist, a state that doesn't always mean a well-cooked, bacteria-free burger.
"When I cook grass-fed ground beef, I cook it over medium-high heat," said Ed Goto, former executive chef at the Mauna Lani Hotel who is about to open Village Burger Kamuela on the Big Island. "It loses less moisture and stays juicy. I form a one-inch thick burger, keep it chilled until I'm ready to cook it, season with salt and pepper just before it's grilled. I try not to cook it well done; I like it medium rare to medium for best flavor."
Goto's burger restaurant will feature burgers made of grass-fed beef from Parker Ranch, wagyu beef from Kāhua Ranch, and Hawaii Ranchers' red veal. "I like the flavor of grass-fed beef a lot better," said Goto. "I like the organic quality of it, and it tastes like meat is supposed to taste."
While lean ground beef may be more healthy for us, note that a little fat is important to keep preparations juicy and moist; you don't want meat to dry out and become overcooked. Ground chuck usually offers the best flavor. (Grass-fed beef is also available at local farmers markets and from North Shore Cattle Co.; online orders from beefhawaii.com.)
Ground beef patties will shrink when cooked; all meat shrinks in size and weight during cooking. Fat and moisture content, temperature and length of cooking time will determine the amount of shrinkage. Moderate cooking temperatures will reduce shrinkage and help to retain juices and flavor; high-heat cooking will increase shrinkage.
One option is to shape the burger so that the center — the part it takes the longest for heat to reach — is thinner than the outside circumference. Just shape the burger as usual, then press in a bit at the center with the thumbs, moving some meat outward so the disc is a little bit thinner at the center.
Do not use a spatula to press down on a burger when you're cooking it. You'll just squeeze out all the juice and flavor. Use the spatula or tongs to turn the burger, but don't poke holes in it.
It's a balance: Ground beef needs to be cooked well to avoid any risk of illness. But overcooking a burger draws out fat and moisture, resulting in a dry product with less flavor. Cooking a burger just right is the goal.