With the knowledge bomb that we are about to drop on you, you will never overcook ground beef again.
Are you having trouble browning ground beef in a skillet for a dish that requires it? Trust us when we tell you that you are not alone.
Browning—known among professional chefs as searing—is a somewhat simple task when a whole piece of meat is involved. Crank up the heat to high, get your skillet nice and hot, add a dollop of oil, then add the steak, chops, or fillets and let them sizzle for 1-2 minutes per side for a golden-brown crust.
The same can’t be said for ground or minced meat. The moment you add the meat to the pan, it will let go of its moisture and start to simmer in gray liquid that smells fine, but lacks the rich, complex aromas and flavors created by browning.
By the time that liquid has evaporated, the meat is usually cooked. However, for the reasons that we are about to discuss below, it hasn’t browned yet. So you keep cooking until it comes out crispy, golden-brown, and… about as chewable as that leather belt on a cowboy’s waist.
Many cooks wonder if it’s possible to overcook ground beef. Yes, like any other meat, you can overcook it—and it will become chewy, dry, and tough. When the juice runs clear and the surface is crispy and golden brown, ground beef is usually done, and can be taken off the heat.
Together, we will look at ways to cook ground beef because it can be a bit tricky at times. The first thing is to look at the color of the meat and take it off once the pinkish tint is gone. It does not take long (about 10 minutes at the most) for the meat to brown if you have a high burner.
How Browning Works (And Why It Matters)
To understand the browning process, we should go in-depth into the chemistry of browning.
After all, any form of cookery is actually chemistry, so let’s look at the chemical reaction behind browning—called the Maillard reaction—and how it goes with browning meat and getting it just right.
The Maillard reaction is named after a French chemist who studied how proteins and sugars change when heated. At relatively high heat, the proteins and the carbohydrates in the meat get charged up with heat and start to move around and about hectically until they clash and fuse.
As a result of their collision and fusion, hundreds of new aroma and flavor compounds are formed that impart the meat with a pleasant aroma and a savory, umami flavor. The thing about the Maillard reaction, colloquially known as “browning,” is that it can only happen when the ground meat is dry.
You see, water boils at 212°F and browning occurs when temperatures are between 284°F and 355°F. This means the meat only starts to brown the most of the moisture has evaporated, and there’s no longer a large amount of simmering liquid in the pan.
The Thing That Makes Browning Beef Difficult
When you’re browning thick-cut steaks, pork chops, or butterflied chicken breasts, which is usually done over medium-high heat, much of the moisture remains in the meat and mostly the surface dries out.
The same can’t be said for ground beef. The ground up bits and pieces of meat readily release their juices as soon as they heated up and the structure of their proteins get altered by the heat, creating a challenge for you, the cook.
Ground meat won’t brown before the meaty liquids in the skillet evaporated and simmering gets replaced by sizzling. But, by the time this happens on its own, it is usually too late as the meat is cooked and has started to dry out.
If you want to prevent this, turn the heat up to the highest setting as soon as the ground meat becomes watery. Water will not exceed its boiling point at 212°F, but higher heat will result in faster evaporation, which means the meat will start to sizzle sooner (and that’s what you want to happen).
Another method is to drain the liquid from the pan. For a cast iron skillet, you can hold the meat with a flat spatula and use the pour spouts for the task. For other pans, you can run the meat through a strainer and return it to the pan, along with a dollop or two of cooking oil to prevent it from sticking.
Most importantly, the faster you get rid of the liquid, the faster your meat will brown and the more aromatic and flavorful it will be—and the less likely it is to overcook.
How to Brown Ground Beef Without Overcooking It
As mentioned in the preface, it can be said that overcooking ground beef is just a matter of too much time in contact with heat. Whether it is the heat of simmering liquid or hot oil, it does not matter to the meat; it cooks.
Throw high heat in the mix, a requirement for reducing liquids and searing meats, and getting the meat “just right” becomes more challenging, as your margin of error gets reduced even further.
How to brown ground beef to perfection in five steps:
Step 1. Get out a heavy skillet from your cabinets; one suitable for high-heat cooking. Put it on the burner, crank the heat all the way up to high, and let it get up to temperature until the bottom starts to emit heat.
Step 2. Add 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil, rice bran oil, or canola oil. Wait a few seconds for the oil to start rippling and shimmering, then throw in the ground beef.
Step 3. Use the dull, bulky edge of a wooden spatula to “chop” the meat, breaking it apart into tiny bits and pieces. Keep doing this for a minute or two until those pieces are equally sized. As you do this, the ground meat will release gray juices into the pan.
Step 4. If the juices are not all that much, let them boil in the pan until they evaporates completely—and you can see and hear the meat sizzle. Otherwise, pour off the juices using the pour spouts or drain the meat in a colander and put it back, topping it up with another 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil.
Step 5. Reduce the heat to medium-high to prevent the meat from burning. Brown on all sides, stirring frequently to facilitate even cooking. When there’s no pink, the juices run clear, and the bits and pieces have a golden-brown crust, it’s right about done and can be removed from the heat.
Can You Save Overcooked Ground Beef?
When you overcook ground beef, it comes out overly dry and tough to chew. This can ruin the mouthfeel of an otherwise perfectly prepared chili, pasta, or taco dish, which is why you want to avoid it.
That said, a couple of tricks can save the day if you just overcooked your ground beef. The first thing we recommend is adding a few tablespoons of whole milk the meat in the skillet and reduce it over medium-low heat before serving. The dairy fat will add succulence, masking the texture of the beef. The same can be achieved with butter, heavy cream, or hearty stock.
You could also use a little bit of tomato juice or cream of mushroom soup. Tread lightly; these are more complicated ingredients that will significantly alter the smell and taste of your final dish. This is an option only if these ingredients go well with everything else.
Remember: break up the meat with a wooden spatula, use high heat to evaporate the gray liquid, and brown over medium-high until it’s crispy, aromatic, and deeply flavorsome. This way, you will never have to worry about cooking times again (which, by the way, are approximate).