Ground beef can be a bit daunting—chuck, sirloin, ground round or regular?—at the supermarket, so we asked a hamburger savant for his tips on buying better beef.
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Unlike picking out a good-looking piece of salmon or thunking a melon to see if it’s ripe, selecting hamburger meat can be … uninspiring. Those plastic-shellacked foam platters of beef at the supermarket just never look all that appetizing. I called Andrew Zurica, chef-owner of hit New York City mini-chain Hard Time Sundaes (where the burgers are luxuriously juicy) for his ground beef buying tips.

Hit the butcher, not the supermarket

First things first: “Avoid buying from supermarkets,” says Zurica. “I’ve been in the back of supermarkets. They fill their product with water. By the time they get it to the shelf, it’s already a week old. If you get it home, after a day or two, it turns color. It’s not fresh.” Although color isn’t always a proper indicator of freshness, I’m on board with Zurica’s suggestion that you find a butcher you know and trust, one who either grinds meat to order or grinds it fresh daily. “When I was a kid, there [were] real butchers, sawdust on the floor, meat hanging in the window, whole animals,” remembers Brooklyn-born Zurica. “Everything was cut to order. Most butchers get their stuff in already manufactured. There are a few that have it [fresh], though, if you know where to look.”

Buy ground chuck for burgers

Zurica is partial to chuck labeled “Prime,” which he says accounts for about five percent of ground chuck sold. (Some say USDA Prime accounts for more like three percent of the ground chuck market.) “Everybody knows I keep it simple,” says Zurica—who also prefers American cheese on his burgers—of his preference for chuck as opposed to sirloin “I just love the chuck. It’s simplest, easiest, most affordable, and I’d rather use it because of its fat content.”

Consider a fat ratio of about 23-27% fat if making burgers

It sounds high, but consider this hefty fat-to-lean ratio if you’re making burgers or meatballs, says Zurica. He buys his ground chuck from Schweid & Sons, a company he loves (that happens to sell to supermarkets, if you must buy beef there), and says that if the fat percentage is more around 15 to 20 percent, it will cook out very easily, leaving a burger or meatball dry.

If you’re cooking ground beef in liquid, a leaner blend is better

“Absolutely use a leaner blend for chili,” says Zurica. In that instance, he’d go with a 10 or 15 percent fat content, because you’re “adding a lot of liquid: whole plum tomatoes, [fatty] sausage meat, bacon,” and so on.

Buy whole muscle ground chuck

Although using dry-aged meat trimmings in burgers and other dishes is trendy among food illuminati, Zurica scoffs at the trend. “You don’t know what the trimmings are,” he insists. If you have a local butcher you trust and he tells you what they are, that’s one thing, he says, but some will lie to you, he says. He prefers “no fancy footwork, and no fancy blends.” Referring to the whole shoulder of a cow, he insisted, “Whole muscle ground chuck is the key.”

Some would quibble with Zurica’s position, of course, saying that a blend of different cuts is best or that using a 70/30 fat to lean ratio is better for burgers, but it just comes down to what you prefer, flavor- and texture-wise. Having tasted Zurica’s burgers, I’ll be following his beef buying tips next time I’m at the butcher.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.