Knowing how to cook ground beef is something every home cook needs to know because it’s a staple in so many recipes.
When I started writing this ground beef 101 post, I thought it was going to be really short and straightforward. After all, we cook ground beef regularly. You probably do too.
Silly me! It’s not as straight-forward as I thought, especially the science behind why meat browns. This city-girl-turned-cattleman’s-wife learned a lot writing this, and I think you will too.
What is ground beef?
Ground beef is chopped-up beef that only comes from primal cuts and trimmings. It’s often called hamburger because of the juicy burgers we all love.
However, if you asked a butcher or meat aficionado, they’ll say that technically there’s a difference between hamburger and ground beef. All ground beef can only be made using meat, trimmings and fat from primal cuts (there’s no additional fat added), but hamburger can add fat to reach the appropriate fat content, if desired.
What part of the cow does ground beef come from?
Generally, ground beef is made from the less tender and less popular cuts of beef — round, chuck and sirloin. Sometimes the label at the grocery store will identify specifically what primal cut the ground beef is from by saying ground round, ground chuck, or ground sirloin. When you cook ground beef, you’ll find that ground sirloin is the leanest of all.
How to read a ground beef label:
Another thing you’ll notice on grocery store labels is a ratio such as 80/20, 85/15, and 90/10. The top number of the ratio indicates the leanness and the bottom number is the fat. So, beef with a label that says 85/15 is 85 percent lean and 15 percent fat.
Which is best? It’s entirely up to you. The thing to keep in mind is that fat equals flavor. If you want less fat in your burger so that it’s even healthier, it will also be less flavorful.
If you purchase beef from us, it won’t have ratio on the label. That’s something large beef slaughter houses do, but we’re a small family farm. What we can tell you is that based on how we raise our cattle, our ground beef is 85-90% lean.
How to cook ground beef:
- Heat a skillet over medium to medium-high heat.
- Use a paper towel and pat dry and excess moisture on meat.
- Add the meat to the hot skillet and let it sear for 1-2 minutes on both sides. Let it sear before you chop it up.
- Use a spatula and chop up the meat into smaller and smaller pieces while continuing to brown. Your goal is to break them into equal-size pieces so that the beef cooks evenly.
- You’ll know you’re done when there are no signs of pink in the beef.
- Use the ground beef in recipes immediately, or you can also refrigerate cooked ground beef for 3-4 days.
How to remove fat from ground beef:
Once you cook ground beef, you’ll likely need to remove some of the fat. Our ground beef is lean, but we still do this step. Here are a few options:
- Drain skillet: When the beef is done browning, place the skillet’s lid over the beef. Then, carefully tilt the skillet so that the liquid pours out. We recommend draining the fat into a can that you plan to throw away. Don’t pour the fat into your kitchen sink because it will eventually clog the drain – oops!
- Paper Towels and Slotted Spoon: Line a plate with paper towels. Then, use a slotted spoon to scoop out the ground beef and place the ground beef on the paper towel. As you’re doing this, you’ll see the fat drip through the spoon’s slots into the skillet. When you have all of the ground beef out, you can dispose of the fat that’s in the skillet.
- Spoon: Push all of the ground beef to one side of the pan, and tilt the pan so that the fat moves to the opposite side. Then, use a spoon to scoop out the fat, and discard the fat.
- Hot water: Place the ground beef into a strainer and rinse off the meat. This is the method we use the least, but it does work.
How to store ground beef:
According to the USDA’s food safety division, raw ground beef can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days and it can be stored for 3-4 days once cooked.
Food science & cooking ground beef:
Now that we’ve covered all of the basic of how to cook ground beef, here’s some science-y stuff that was new to us. We both must have missed this day in science class!
Browning beef occurs thanks to a process known as the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction was discovered in the early 1900s by a French chemist named Maillard. It’s a chemical reaction that occurs between carbohydrates (sugar) and proteins. Higher temperatures cause the Maillard reaction to occur sooner, and typically it happens when the surface temperature is more than 300° F.
The Maillard reaction is responsible for changes in color to food. It occurs when you brown and cook ground beef, brown bread into toast, fry French Fries into that golden color, make caramel from milk and sugar…you get the idea. The Maillard reaction also creates the new savory flavors and aromas that you love about certain foods. If you’re like us, you’ve seen the Maillard reaction happening to foods hundreds of times before, but never knew it had such a fancy name!
Something important to remember is that Maillard reaction doesn’t occur for any meat (steak or hamburger) until the surface moisture is gone – that one of the reasons why we always recommend to pat steaks dry before cooking. It’s also why we recommend searing ground beef for 1-2 minutes on both sides before chopping it into small pieces. You’re giving the beef time for the Maillard reaction (browning) to take place.
So, what do you do if you see a lot of moisture when you cook ground beef? The moisture is because when beef is raw, it’s about 70-75% water. When it’s cooked, the muscle fibers contract because of the increased temperature. If you were cooking a steak, the moisture would stay in the steak, but ground beef is already so small the moisture doesn’t have anywhere to go – except the skillet.
According to Cooks Illustrated magazine, you can limit the moisture that’s created by in two ways. First, you can cook your ground beef in smaller batches. Second, you can add some backing soda before cooking the ground beef (approximately ¾ tsp). The magazine tested this with multiple packages of ground beef and discovered that the beef that didn’t have baking soda lost about 10 percent more moisture during cooking than the beef with the baking soda. The end result is that the baking soda helped the meat brown more quickly.
Easy Ground Beef Recipes
As you’d expect, we eat a lot of beef. The majority of it is ground beef. Here are a few favorites that we regularly cook or customers have shared with us:
- BBQ Bacon Hamburger
- BBQ Beef Cups
- Beef Taco Skillet
- Cranberry Meatballs (appetizer)
- Egg Muffin Cup (breakfast)
- Italian Meatballs
- Lasagna Soup
- Mango Salsa Hamburgers
- Maple Meatballs (appetizer or main dish)
- Meat Manicotti
- Mexican Lasagna
- Nachos Supreme Dip (one skillet appetizer)
- Sloppy Joes
- Smashed burgers (a.k.a. diner burgers)
- Stuffed Bell Peppers
- Taco Soup (crock pot or stove top)
- Un-Stuffed Pepper Casserole Skillet
- Vegetable Soup with Ground Beef