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How-To

Get Great Flavor from Ground Meat

Shape ground meat and poultry into simple, succulent main dishes with loads of flavor and tender texture

Fine Cooking Issue 43
Photos: Amy Albert
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Meatloaf and hamburgers, two supremely tasty home dishes, convinced me to further explore ground meat’s potential. The light, loose texture of ground meat eagerly accepts mix-ins, and its multiple surfaces are terrific at absorbing and delivering flavor—two reasons why it’s such a great medium for shaping into patties, “cushions,” and meatballs that become easy and delicious weeknight dinners. The most common complaints I hear about ground meat dishes is that they can be heavy, dense, dry, and boring. But as long as you mix with a light hand and use a moist filler and generous seasonings, you’ll get tender, savory results, whether with ground beef, lamb, veal, chicken, or turkey.

Full flavor, tender texture

Patties, meatballs, and cushions taste great because they stay good and juicy, and if you cook the patties at the specified heat and times, you retain the juices and the meat won’t dry out. When it’s time to eat, all those cut surfaces release their juices easily. Follow the cooking times in the recipes, and after a while, you’ll be able to feel for doneness: press a fingertip on the ground meat; it should have a slight spring to it, which means that it’s cooked through but still juicy.

Grinding meat gives it a lush consistency by breaking down tough fibers and connective tissue. Generally, the cuts used for grinding (like shoulder), though tasty, are less tender to begin with. But because their long muscle fibers are cut fine in grinding, the cooked result isn’t only savory, it’s tender, too.

If you’re lucky enough to have a good butcher who will grind meat fresh for you, as I do, that’s really the best. At the butcher’s, specify “once ground” in order to get a grind that’s not too fine. You’ll get the most succulent results that way. If you do buy packaged ground meat, check the label and choose meat that has been ground as recently as possible, preferably that day. Use it as soon as you can, because ground meat spoils faster than solid cuts. I shave off the outer surfaces with a very sharp knife on a pristine cutting board to make absolutely certain of cleanliness.

Half-and-half adds moisture and richness to the ground meat mixture, and it helps the seasonings blend in.
For a tender result, mix the meat gently and don’t overwork it. Be vigilant about washing your hands first.
Use a gentle hand, too, when shaping the mixture. Light patting (not dense packing) ensures a light, juicy result.
Don’t crowd the pan—instead, use two skillets. Leaving space in the pan means that the meat will brown rather than steam.

For filler and flavor, add chopped herbs and soaked breadcrumbs

Minced garlic, fresh herbs, and dried spices flavor ground meat so effectively because they get mixed right into the center of the meat, unlike with a steak or roast, where the seasoning just sits on the surface. I use fresh and dried herbs, depending on the flavor I’m looking for. Another important method for keeping the texture light and tender is using a binder, which prevents the meat from fusing together too tightly. Breadcrumbs soaked in half-and-half are an excellent binder, filling out the mixture so that it’s substantial but not dense. Grated cheese and sautéed onions also help keep things loose and add depth, too.

Of course, a sauce or condiment served with the meat is another opportunity for flavor. I’ve included a chopped olive sauce with the Lemony Chicken Meatballs to add even more interest and moistness.

Mixing in seasonings ahead of cooking time lets the meat soak up the flavors. Cover the shaped meatballs and refrigerate for 15 minutes, and then let them sit at room temperature for another 15 minutes before cooking so they’ll brown well and cook evenly.

Be patient and resist fiddling

For the brownest, juiciest results, a few last words:
• Try not to shuttle the meat around the pan. Let the patties stay in one place so they can brown properly. Just check that they’re not sticking to the pan.
• Resist pressing on the meat with the spatula. Pressing down pushes out juices, again yielding a dense, dry result. When feeling for doneness, give the meat a quick, gentle poke: it should feel springy-firm.

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