Salt, fat, and hands all greatly impact ground meat.
Ground meat is a fascinating thing. You can make it from any animal. It’s widely available. It’s tasty. But did you know that there’s a lot of alchemy happening when you grind meat? 🧙♂️ And by alchemy I just mean science. 🔬🧪👩🔬
Let’s talk about ground meat! Hopefully, I won’t butcher it! 😉
Cuts of meat from places like the shoulders or hind legs are some of my favorites to cook with. They’re the muscles that are most used on the animal. Therefore, they’re full of flavor!
Butt (pun always intended) they’re also the toughest cuts. Why? It’s the length of the muscle fibers and all the chewy connective tissue that come from working out. 🏋️♀️
When you cook tough cuts whole, they have to cook for hours to transform the collagen in the connective tissue into gelatin. Once you hit that point, the end product will be tender and delicious! (Learn more about cooking tough cuts of meat.)
But you don’t have to worry about hours of cooking when you grind up tough cuts. A tender, juicy, flavorful meal can be ready in a fraction of the time! 🙌
How? The long fibers and tough tissue are broken down when ground. It makes those tough bits naturally more tender and juicy. It’s why we thinly slice tough greens to tenderize them.
This is important! Grinding meat makes the proteins super sticky. This works in our favor because the stickiness helps hold the meat together. That means we can form the ground meat into patties, loaves, links, or balls without them falling apart! Nifty, right?
But keep this in mind. The more you handle and mix the meat, the more it will stick together and the denser/snappier the texture becomes. 🤲 This is important depending on what end result you want.
For example, hamburgers should be barely mixed to keep them tender. Maybe you don’t even pick it up to form a patty. Plus, when the meat isn’t formed as tightly, there are more nooks and crannies. That creates extra surface area, which means better browning!
On the other hand, sausages are heavily mixed. This extra mixing—along with when they’re salted (more on this in a bit)—creates a snappy, springy texture.
Meatloaf is probably more in the middle. You probably don’t want the loaf to fall apart when you slice into it. But you also don’t want it overly chewy.
So be mindful of how much you mix or pack ground meat!
Most store-bought packages of ground meat are densely packed. So try and buy your ground beef directly from the butcher counter instead of pre-packaged. Even better, see if the butcher will grind it fresh for you on a coarse setting!
Salt dissolves proteins in meat. Normally, this makes the meat juicy since those dissolved proteins hold onto moisture better. It’s why we salt meat ahead of time.
But ground meat is a little bit different. Salt greatly increases the chances that proteins in ground meat link together. To understand what this means, take a look at this photo from J. Kenji López-Alt of two identical burgers except for one variable: when it was salted.
The photo on the left is from a burger that was salted on the surface right before cooking. The photo on the right shows a burger where the meat was salted before the patty was formed. See it makes a drastic difference! 🤯
So here’s what you need to know:
The ratio of lean meat to fat makes a difference. So when should you buy 80/20 vs 90/10? 🤔
Really it’s all about the final texture you want and how juicy you want it to be.
The consistency of fat changes based on the type of animal it came from. Pork fat is softer than beef or lamb fat which may be slightly waxy. And then there’s veal. It creates a super tender, gelatinous structure.
This means you can combine types of ground meats in order to influence the final texture. For example, add ground pork to your meatballs to give them a smoother, softer texture than just using ground beef alone. Or better yet, you could mix in diced bacon, pancetta, or prosciutto!
Can’t find veal? Not a fan of using it? I’ve seen recipes from Cooks Illustrated and Serious Eats where they use powdered gelatin to change the texture of meatloaf to be velvety smooth! Smart, right?
The more fat, the juicer the final product, even if you cook it longer. The leaner the ground meat, the quicker it dries out.
So here’s how I think about it. If I know I’m cooking something longer—like with meatloaf—I’ll want enough fat in there to keep it juicy over time. If I’m using lean meat—like ground turkey—I’ll be extra careful to make sure I don’t overcook it. And then, I’ll think about how I might add juiciness elsewhere, like with a sauce.
Where I learned this: J. Kenji López-Alt deserves most of the credit! He’s a ground meat aficionado! So check out The Food Lab and his work at Serious Eats. Also, I learned a lot from The Science of Good Cooking.