The Basics: Browning Meat

This is "Step One" in a lot of recipes using ground beef or other ground meats (turkey, bison, chicken, sausage...). You essentially precook the meat then drain off the fat, leaving the meat itself ready to use in whatever dish you're making. I'll go over the basics in this post, then share some tips for kicking it up a notch or two, depending on the outcome you want.

I'll be using a pound and a half of ground beef for this post. In general, the higher the fat content, the more grease to drain, which isn't a good or a bad thing, just something to be aware of. 73/27 ground beef is the highest fat content that's readily available, and often the cheapest, which means it's usually what I buy. No shame here.

80/20 is a good basic one, and it's what I'm using today because it was on sale (no shame). 93/7 is the leanest beef, good if you're watching cholesterol and making something that doesn't require the meat to stick together like hamburgers or meatballs would. Otherwise, you should use a higher fat content.

You'll barely get any grease off ground turkey or bison, and since sausage is usually mixed in with spices and aromatics (like garlic) it won't be pure grease. Pork is somewhere in the middle depending on the cut... and so on.

Really, all you need to get this step out of the way is a saucepan with a lid and the meat itself. Unless you're using the leanest ground turkey breast in the world, the meat will produce enough fat that you don't need to add any oil or butter to keep it from sticking to the pan. So just put the pan on medium high heat and add the meat.

When it starts to sizzle, use a wooden spoon - which I find to be the sturdiest utensil for this task - and start flipping it over and breaking it apart.

As it browns on the outside, you'll find it easier to break it into chunks, so start doing that, and continue breaking it up until it's in tiny pieces.

Since the goal of this part of cooking is to get the excess fat out, you want to make sure it's totally browned and there is no pink left. When in doubt, let it cook longer. Eventually you'll have the browned ground meat frying in the fat that cooked out of it, and when it's all cooked, it's time to drain it.

Get a jar or other heatproof receptacle ready to drain the fat into. That means not a plastic container, like a tupperware, because it will just melt. Trust me - it will melt. I make mistakes so you don't have to. I save old jars like pasta sauce or salsa for this purpose, or if you use ground coffee you can use the big tin it comes in.

Put the lid over the pot - use a potholder to hold the lid on - and move it slightly so that there is a sliver of space between the lid and the pot. Then tip it over (over the sink, just in case) and let the grease drain into the jar.

What's important about fats - in this tutorial and in life - is that you need to take note of what the consistency is at room temperature. This is really important in baking, and the reason we use butter and shortening instead of oil in cooking - because when the cookies cool, the fat we use will turn into a soft solid and help keep their shape. This is also what makes it bad for you if you eat a pound of butter every day - because it'll do that in your arteries - and the reason fats like olive oil are healthier to use in cooking. And it's the reason we're draining the fat off the ground beef instead of letting it stay.

It's also the reason we're draining it into a jar instead of down the drain. It will freaking kill your garbage disposal!!!

Drain it, and then straighten it out, shake it, and drain it again. Less will come out, and maybe nothing, but you want to get as much of the fat out so that it doesn't sit on top of your finished dish.

Now, you have browned meat! Go forth with your recipe. If you did this without having any plans of what to do with it, add it to jarred pasta sauce and then add that to your favorite pasta - using this tutorial.

Mix it up:
  • If you need the beef in really, really small chunks, add it to the pan with about a half cup of water. You'll just drain the water along with the grease when it's cooked.
  • Even smaller chunks? Just straight up boil the beef in water or beef broth.
  • I use refrigerated ground beef, but you can brown it from frozen no problem - just put in a couple of tablespoons of water and cover it, then mix it occasionally to let the frozen parts on the inside cook.
  • For something like turkey or bison with little to no fat, you don't necessarily have to drain it. Instead, add a tablespoon of flour when the meat is browned, and stir it in. It will create a kind of roux, a thickening agent where you combine flour with fat (usually butter) and then add the sauce ingredients to make sure the sauce isn't thin. Then when you add the rest of the ingredients, like canned tomatoes or cream, it will thicken around the meat.