Making mooooooves to the butcher counter.
Credit: Ted Morrison/Getty Images

Ground beef is a tried-and-true grocery staple that you can have fun with in the kitchen all year long. From juicy burgers on the grill at a summer cookout to cozy chilis or a hearty meatloaf in the colder months, there’s nothing that this versatile meat product can’t do. Next time you hit up the meat counter to figure out what’s for dinner, come prepared with everything you need to know about the different varieties of ground beef. We just want you to live your best red meat life, that’s all.

Know the Ratios

So, let’s start with the basics. Ground beef is any fresh and/or frozen beef from trimmings or cuts. Simple enough, right? Well, not so fast. Different ground meats possess varying percentages of lean meat versus fat, which is largely dependent upon where on the body of the cow the meat is from. These differing ratios of lean meat versus fat can also be identified by name—80% lean to 20% fat is ground chuck, 85% lean to 15% fat is ground round, and 90% lean to 10% fat is ground sirloin.

Watch Now: How to Make Ground Beef and Pasta Casserole

You might also see a package labeled “hamburger meat (about 73% lean to 27% fat).” This means that the meat used here can be sourced from any part of the cow, so it might be in your best interest to talk to the butcher about the contents of this particular grind and if there are any chemical fillers. According to the FDA, ground beef cannot contain more than 30% fat.

As far as selecting which ground beef is best for your needs, it’s more or less a compromise between flavor and health. As intuition will tell you, more fat means more flavor. So, if you’re in the business of grilling some juicy burgers, you’re probably going to want to choose in favor of a higher fat percentage, like ground chuck (any cut with too much lean meat means you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to dry, flavorless burgers). However, if you’re going to douse your ground beef in a thick tomato sauce, bake it into a cheesy casserole, or toss it into a hearty taco situation, then you can get away with choosing a leaner cut. It’s largely dependent on how much of a starring role your ground beef is destined to play.

Know the Key Words

As far as food safety goes, it’s probably best that you’re somewhat looped in to what’s going on behind the scenes of your meat purchase. If you see a “certified organic label,” this means that the livestock was raised on an organic, pesticide-free feed and had access to pasture. Additionally, this meat is free of antibiotics or growth hormones. “Grass-fed” labels are similar to organic in that this means that the livestock was fed only grass and forage (as the name so humbly implies…), however this label does not designate a limited use of antibiotics/hormones/pesticides or the access to open pasture. Not only is “grass-fed” more environmentally sustainable, but a grass-fed cut of beef has a significantly richer, gamier flavor than its grain-fed counterparts.

Know the Bacteria

Take a deep breath before you freak out. This stuff is everywhere. However, it’s worth noting that the ground beef sold at your local grocery store is likely packaged off-site and comes from a combination of several cows. This means that the likelihood for contamination (whether it be E. coli or salmonella) is much higher than the the ground beef packages sold at a local butcher shop, which are each typically sourced from the same cow. This doesn’t mean that you need to abandon the grocery store once and for all—just make sure that when you are cooking your meat, all parts reach an internal temperature of at least 160°, as is recommended by the USDA.

By Sara Tane and Sara Tane