To get the best flavor and texture out of your hamburger you need to know how to brown ground beef properly. I'll give you a hint, they call it "browned" meat, not "grayed" meat. Most people simply cook the hamburger until it is no longer pink, leaving them with a skillet of boring gray meat. You are missing out on a lot of flavor if you stop there!
In the photo below, you can see the stark difference between properly browned hamburger, and 'cooked' hamburger. If we're going to cook it, let's cook it right!
The Malliard Reaction
Named after Louis-Camille Maillard, the Malliard Reaction is a cooking term used to describe the chemical reaction that gives browned foods their recognizable flavor. Meat proteins join with sugar in the presence of high heat, to complete this reaction. This is commonly known as "browning", and is responsible for imparting new flavors, aroma, and texture to the food. This is what you are doing when you are properly browning hamburger!
Fattier beef will brown the easiest. This is because the fat renders out as it cooks and begins to fry the meat resting in it. You can still brown leaner meat, although some people add a swirl of oil to assist in the browning. However, for me, that defeats the purpose of using extra lean meat. That being said, if it were 100% lean meat, I do think it would benefit from a couple of tablespoons of oil. 80/20 ground beef is my favorite all-purpose choice. It is great for burgers and meatloaf, and it browns well without adding additional oil.
You want to use a large enough skillet to allow plenty of surface area to make contact with the meat, that is where the browning takes place. Trying to use a small skillet for a large amount of meat will result in poor browning. A 10" skillet is perfect for 1 pound of hamburger. Cast iron in particular is great, but you can use non-stick or stainless steel.
Prepare the ground beef
Cold meat hitting a hot pan creates steam, which will inhibit the browning. Taking the meat out of the refrigerator thirty minutes prior to cooking will allow it to come to room temperature and brown more easily. If your meat has moisture resting on the surface, such as with meat that was thawed, you should pat it dry with a paper towel.
Can this step be skipped?
Yes, I am terrible at pre-planning, so I rarely get my ground beef ready until the minute I plan to cook. Expect the browning process to be slower, but you will still be able to brown your meat well even if you didn't plan ahead.
How to cook it
Set your skillet on a burner over medium-high heat and let the skillet get nice and hot. Break your hamburger into large chunks so it can easily be spread around the bottom of the skillet. Your goal is to have as much surface contact as possible.
Now, don't touch it!
If you constantly stir the meat, it isn't going to brown. You need to let it sit so your ground beef builds a delicious seared crust. After a few minutes of cooking peak under some meat with a spatula. If it is browned, flip all of the meat and repeat.
Once both sides are browned, drain the fat and crumble the burger. There should be a good mix of dark brown pieces of meat and lighter colored beef. You don't want every bit of burger burnt and browned, or it will be crunchy, and dry. You are just browning enough to add flavor and texture.
Seasoning the meat
I want to quickly share a couple of thoughts on when the best time is to season the meat. Typically people season when they add the ground beef to the skillet. The issue with this is salt will extract moisture, which creates more steam, once again, inhibiting the browning process. It is best to wait until the meat is brown, and then season it when you are crumbling it.
Once again, this step is a 'best practice', not a do-or-die necessity. You can still get great browning by ignoring this advice.
Uses for Ground Beef
Congratulations, now you have the best tasting ground beef on this side of the corral. Let me give you some great recipes to highlight all of the flavor you just created!
How to Brown Ground Beef
- 1 pound 80/20 ground beef
- Remove hamburger from the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Pat dry with paper towel if there is moisture on the surface from thawing.
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Once the skillet is hot, break the meat into large chunks and spread evenly across the bottom of the skillet to get maximum surface contact. Let cook undisturbed for four minutes.
- Check for browning with spatula by lifting the edge of a piece of ground beef. If browned, flip the beef over and cook for an additional 4 minutes. If not browned, continue cooking until browning appears.
- Once both sides are browned, crumble meat, ensuring it is cooked through, drain fat, and add seasoning.