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Meat worries? Grind your own Hand-cranked, heavy-duty version has changed little since 1897

My grandmother's meat grinder, 90 years old, looks almost the same as the deluxe heavy-duty grinder that I recently pulled off the shelf at a hardware store.

Which is to say it looks fearsome, if not downright dangerous, with its 3-inch auger that seems suited for drilling holes in the ice. Her model, made of cast iron and clearly marked with the brand "Universal," fits tightly into a wooden box for storage, with multiple disks that easily turn the machine into a "bread crumber" one moment or a "nut butter grinder" the next, the descriptive words cast in iron on the individual pieces. Likely a wedding gift for my grandparents in the early 1920s, the grinder has sat on my pantry shelf for more than a decade, tempting me to figure it out.

But despite my best intentions, I had forgotten about it.

That is, until images of pink slime and FTB (finely textured beef) prompted me to tear apart my pantry in search of the wooden box. ("I know it has to be here somewhere," I muttered as I searched. And it was.)

The Universal grinder was first designed in 1897, at which time it transformed the work of the cook by easing the effort required to chop meats and vegetables. The simple machine could grind 2 1/2 pounds of meat per minute, depending on the agility of the person turning the handle. It was nothing short of a marvel -- a food processor for the 19th century.

More than 100 years later, the design of the hand-cranked version hasn't changed. It's still made of cast iron, which must be clamped or bolted to a work surface. The auger -- the giant screw that pulls the meat into the blade -- still looks formidable. Indeed, the only apparent difference is that my new one includes operating instructions, along with these warnings:

"KEEP FINGERS CLEAR of the Auger and Plate at all times. NEVER reach into any Grinder inlet."

"DO NOT use the Grinder while under the influence of drugs or alcohol."

True enough, though I've discovered that the hand-cranked grinder is, in fact, not scary at all once you've tried it.

There are other types of grinders these days, all of which can also be used to make (and stuff) sausage; some attach to electric mixers, others are electric versions of the century-old model.

My heart, though, is with the old-fashioned variety, which is relatively inexpensive ($43 for my new version and perhaps available in yard sales or thrift stores) and easy to operate, once you get the hang of it.

> Best meat cuts for grinding

* Beef: For best flavor and juiciness for burgers, use chuck or a blend of chuck and round. The advantage with chuck: It's the cheapest to grind and has the most fat, which will keep burgers juicy. You can also use shank, flank, short ribs, brisket and stew meat (which may be chuck, round or other trimmings). For leaner cuts of beef (such as round, rump, sirloin), you will need to add suet or fatback to the grind or the mixture will be too dry.

* Pork: Use pork butt (which is actually the upper shoulder) or picnic (lower shoulder). You can also use shanks, rib chops from loin, country-style ribs or lean belly.

* Lamb: The first choice is shoulder meat. Or try boned arm and blade chops or cutlets. Unlike other meats, lamb only needs to go through the grinder once because it is finely textured.

* Chicken and turkey: For the most lean meat, grind skinless, boneless chicken breasts. For a more juicy grind, use boned and skinned chicken thighs and drumsticks and gizzards. Boneless turkey breasts and wings offer more flavor than chicken, as do turkey thighs, drumsticks and gizzards. Very lean ground poultry works best when combined with ground pork or moistened with cream or half-and-half.

Source: James Villas

> Tips for grinding

* Have a plate or dish under the spout of the grinder to catch the finished product.

Cut meat in small pieces (1- to 2-inch chunks) so it goes through the grinder easily. Remove any gristle or heavy fat from the meat before grinding. Trying this for the first time? Buy beef stew meat (which is already cut) and put it through the grinder and see how you like it. For some extra flavor and fat, run bacon through the grinder and add it to the beef for a great-tasting burger.

* Chill the meat in the freezer for 30 minutes or so before grinding. This helps with the grinding process and, from a food safety point of view, keeps the meat cold as you are doing the work.

* With the exception of lamb, put meat through the grinder twice to make it more tender.

* If fat or meat builds up inside the grinder, run a few slices of bread through to clear it out.

* If using a hand-crank grinder and the handle is hard to turn, loosen the screw on the other end of the auger.

* When done, disassemble the grinder and wash it in hot, soapy water right away. Dry the meat grinder immediately -- don't let it air-dry -- or it will begin to rust almost instantly. If some rust develops, just scrape it off.

* Keep ground meat refrigerated for no more than two days.

* Fat gives flavor; don't be afraid of it. Experiment with different cuts of meat until you find the flavor and juiciness that you prefer.

* Meat grinders cost $30 and up, depending on size and type, with the manual grinder the least expensive. You can find the manual versions at some hardware stores (call ahead) or order them online. Electric models or grinder attachments for electric mixers are available where small kitchen appliances are sold.

* You can use the grinder for more than meats -- remember this was the 19th century version of a food processor. Vegetables also can be quickly chopped with a grinder (many households still use these for making cranberry relish, chow-chow and salsa).

> Cantonese Spiced Pork Meatball and Watercress Soup

2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

2 quarts beef broth

1/2 cup tomato puree

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 1/2 pound ground lean pork (see Note)

1/2 cup half-way cooked long-grain rice (see Note)

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoon minced watercress

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In large saucepan or pot, warm oil over moderate heat, add onion and garlic and stir until softened, about 5 minutes. Add broth, tomato puree, allspice and nutmeg; bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine pork, partially cooked rice, egg, watercress, salt and pepper in large bowl, mix thoroughly with your hands until well blended and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture is fluffy. To shape meatballs, roll mixture into balls about 1/2 inch in diameter.

Drop meatballs into the simmering broth and stir gently to keep them from sticking to one another. Cover pan and simmer soup about 30 minutes longer. Serve piping hot in wide soup bowls.

Serves 6.

Note: Ground chicken (especially dark meat) works well as a substitute for the pork. You will need to partially cook the rice before starting the soup. From "From the Ground Up" by James Villas.

Per serving: 323 calories; 19g fat; 1,326mg sodium; 6g saturated fat; 8g carbohydrates; 42mg calcium; 29g protein; 100mg cholesterol; 1g dietary fiber

> Spiced Chicken and Ham Spread

1 cup coarsely chopped cooked chicken

1 cup coarsely chopped cooked ham

1 tablespoon minced sweet pickle

1 tablespoon grated lemon rind

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, softened

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Tabasco sauce to taste

Run chicken and ham through the meat grinder or food processor.

In a bowl, combine mixture with pickle and lemon zest. Add the butter, nutmeg, salt, pepper and Tabasco, and mix until well blended and smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes. Serve on thin rounds of rye bread or crackers.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Note: This is a classic way to use up either chicken or ham leftovers. Here they are combined. Adapted slightly from "From the Ground Up" by James Villas.

Nutrition information per 2 tablespoons: 46 calories; 3g fat; 134mg sodium; 2g saturated fat; no carbohydrates; 3mg calcium; 4g protein; 16mg cholesterol; no dietary fiber

> Grilled Lamb Kefta

1 pound finely ground lamb

1/2 red onion, peeled and grated

1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

2 slices white sandwich bread, crusts removed, soaked in water for 30 minutes and then squeezed dry

1/2 tablespoon ground cumin

Pinch of cinnamon

2 tablespoon paprika

Dash of red pepper flakes

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

In a large bowl combine the lamb, onion, parsley, bread, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

Wet your hands with water, then mix the ingredients together very well with your hands (wet them periodically so the meat doesn't stick to them), until the mixture has a uniform, almost silken consistency. Don't skimp on the mixing -- getting the right consistency is key. As you knead, the fat will disappear into the meat and eventually the mixture will have a consistency almost like wet bread dough: smooth and somewhat shiny and a little tacky. Divide this mixture into 8 to 12 portions, then either form each portion into an oblong sausage shape around a flat-sided skewer or shape it into a small patty.

Prepare the grill.

Place the kefta skewers or patties on the grill and cook until they are just cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. (To check for doneness, cut into one and peek to be sure it is done the way you like it; the authors recommend that the meat be just barely pink inside.)

Remove from the grill and serve hot or at room temperature with pita bread and yogurt.

Nutrition information per serving: 262 calories; 17g fat; 110mg sodium; 7g saturated fat; 9g carbohydrates; 56mg calcium; 19g protein; 72mg cholesterol; 2g dietary fiber