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Cooking class: How to brown ground meat

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We’ve all seen it a million times haven’t we? Brown ground meat as the first step in making our favorite boxed meal, or taco meat, or sloppy joe’s , etc. But what does it mean to brown ground meat? It’s not what you think, and when it’s done right it can take your meal from blah to fantastic.

Ground mystery meat

So what is ground meat exactly? I can’t answer that because ground meat does not have a single definition. It can be anything from 100 percent beef, chicken, pork, veal, lamb, game, or any combination of those. Mostly however, when people say ground meat they are referring to beef.

Luckily the process for browning is the same regardless of what makes up your ground meat, and the improvements in flavor are just as good too. So for the sake of argument, let’s just use the blanket term ground meat to cover it all.

Getting down to the brown

What most people call browned ground meat usually refers to the uniform light brown color that beef takes on when cooked for a long time, think well done steak. While that is technically brown, we’re going after a much deeper color. And speaking of steak that’s essentially what we are talking about here…ground steak.

Thinking along those terms, do you cook your steak by placing it on a cold grill and slowly raising the temperature until it’s done? I certainly hope not. You should be heating your grill or pan to a very high temperature and then searing your steak on both sides before cooking it to your liking.

It’s this sear that we want with ground meat too. That’s the browning we’re after to give us deep, rich colors of dark chocolate and some crust formation. It’s just like cooking a hamburger.

Searing unlocks our old friend, the Maillard reaction. That is when the sugars in the fat caramelize and give us that delicious seared/charred flavor we enjoy so much in grilled and pan sautéed meats. Oh, and searing doesn’t lock in the juices of steak. But that’s another topic for another article.

The skinny on fat content

Looking to cut caloric corners leads us to buying the leanest ground meat we can find. And while your waist may thank you in small part, your taste buds will answer with a resounding, ehh. Fat adds flavor. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. Fat also facilitates browning, which adds more flavor. So if you must have super lean ground meat, like 93-7% or less, then supplement the fat content by adding some olive or canola oil. A couple of tablespoons per pound will do the trick. It won’t taste as good as some nice 80-20%, but it’s better than nothing.

Making brown work for you

Now let’s put some of this new found know how into action shall we?

First a quick list of what we will need:

  • A 5-6 quart, heavy bottomed pot or skillet
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • A stiff, heavy spatula
  • 1-1½ pounds ground meat

Method

Place the pot over medium heat and add the olive oil.

Flatten the ground meat into a disc a little smaller than the bottom of the pot.

After 4-5 minutes, turn the heat to high and look for the oil to start lightly smoking.

Add the ground meat and leave it alone for at least 3-5 minutes.

Use the spatula to check the meat. When it released from the bottom of the pot, turn it over in as large of pieces as you can.

Let brown for another 3-5 minutes, and then chop into small pieces with the spatula.

Note: Do not use non-stick or Teflon coated pots or skillets.

Better ground beef

That’s all there is to it. Taking the little bit of extra time and effort to properly brown ground meat will completely transform your dish. You will notice a steak like flavor, more depth, and better texture.

Stay hungry.

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