Hamburgers used to be fun. Remember that? Barbecues, picnics, casual get-togethers: fun. 

With the most recent recall of more than five million pounds of ground beef by Huntington Meat Packing Inc. over the past couple of months, to say nothing of the numerous other recalls of ground beef over the past decade, hamburger doesn’t so much say “fun” as it does “back off”. 

girls-eating-hamburgers-featured.jpgMuch of the problem lies in how ground beef is produced in the United States. As Eric Schlosser pointed out in his seminal book “Fast Food Nation” back in 2001, “A single fast food hamburger now contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle.” Even more recent revelations about the use of ammonia to kill pathogens in fatty scrap meat added to the ground beef used everywhere from McDonald’s to public school lunches only confirms the image of ground beef as a health hazard, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of steps the home cook can take to make sure the ground beef they use is safe.

Looking for guidance, I called Josh Epple, co-owner with his brother Isaac Epple, of Drewes Bros. Meats, a venerable butcher shop in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. Although the butcher shop was first opened more than 120 years ago, the first guys who worked there back in the 1880s might not recognize their professional counterpart today: Epple’s shaved head, chin piercing, ear plugs, and sleeve tattoo aren’t exactly the recognized symbols of butchers anyplace, but Epple knows his stuff. He’s also adamant about the safest source for ground beef: a neighborhood butcher shop, of course. 

”It’s always a challenge to buy pre-ground beef,” said Epple, even for commercial outfits. The problem, of course, is that you just don’t know what you’re getting when you purchase a pound–or 100–of the stuff. When Epple grinds meat for his shop, he knows what he’s put into it and he’s accountable to his customers. That, of course, is the beauty of a neighborhood butcher shop. 

With a butcher, you not only have the opportunity to build a relationship with someone who knows his suppliers, you can ask him or her about its origins, age, and just about anything else that may concern you. Of course, none of this solves the problem for those who don’t have access to a nice, neighborhood butcher shop. If a supermarket is all you have access to, it’s worth asking the folks in your grocery store’s meat section whether they’ll grind meat to order. But if they don’t? 

”Grind your own,” said Epple. 

Grinding your own isn’t as weird as it might sound and besides giving you the assurance of knowing which piece of meat your ground beef comes from, it also has the side benefit of allowing you to determine for yourself just how lean or fatty you want the meat to be. Want to add a little more flavor? Home grinders – somehow, I don’t see the phrase catching on as easily as “home brewer” did – can also add other varieties of meat, such as pork or veal, to the batch. 

A little more labor intensive? Yes, but not problematically so. Grinding your own has another distinct advantage. Ground meat in general deteriorates much more quickly than whole muscle cuts, Epple pointed out. Grinding your own allows you to grind as much as you need and no more. 

If the thought of shelling out for a grinder intimidates you, it’s worth reconsidering. Grinders come in a wide variety of models, from hand powered to electric. If you own a KitchenAid stand mixer, you can purchase a grinder attachment for about $65. Other, free standing electric powered grinders cost anywhere from $130 to more than $300, and hand-cranked models can range from a decidedly low-end $15 to a more reassuring but certainly more expensive $215. Most of the hand-powered models, though, come in between $60 and $100.

Mincing is another useful technique. Mincing, which means to cut something–meat, vegetables, whatever–into pieces smaller than simply chopping, is handy for a variety of reasons. If you don’t need a large quantity of ground meat, mincing is easy to do. It also produces a more textured final product, ideal for meat sauces such as that Italian classic, Bolognese.

For mincing, a good knife and a thick, sturdy cutting board are essential, but it doesn’t mean rushing out to your nearest overpriced kitchen boutique and buying an outrageously expensive knife. A Chinese cleaver – a good model will set you back about $15 – is ideal (Cleavers are useful for more than just mincing and I use mine more than any of my other blades) A good quality chef’s knife works just as well.

Knowing the source of the ground meat you use, or simply taking over the task of grinding it yourself, will give you a level of control over the safety of the food in your kitchen you won’t have otherwise. It might even make hamburgers fun again.