15 Ground Beef Cooking Tips You'll Wish You Knew Sooner

If you eat meat, you've likely eaten ground beef pretty recently. Almost half of all beef is prepared and eaten in ground form, and it's the most commonly-bought type of beef for home chefs. And we can understand why. Ground beef is incredibly versatile and slots into some of the best dishes out there, as home in a chili or a lasagne as it is formed into meatballs or a burger patty. It's also budget-friendly, widely available, and full of protein and other nutrients like vitamins B6 and B12, iron, and phosphorus.

But maybe the best thing about ground beef is that it's pretty tricky to get it wrong. Ground beef cooks super-quickly, meaning you don't have to worry about parts of it being cold or underdone as you might with thicker cuts of meat. But while it's pretty easy to cook it, it's slightly harder to cook it excellently — and that's where we come in.

1. Make sure you choose your beef by its grade

It may be harder to notice the quality of ground beef than it is with larger cuts like ribeye and sirloin, but it's still worth considering where it comes from. The USDA implements a beef grading system that allows consumers to assess its origins, quality, and flavor. Prime beef is regarded as the best choice amongst beef connoisseurs and casual diners alike and is generally well-marbled, with an excellent fat-to-meat ratio. 

Choice beef tends to be slightly leaner but has a great flavor and is highly versatile. Slightly lower is select beef, which is the leanest of them all, with standard and commercial beef being lower on the tier.

These last two grades are commonly used for store-brand meat options. Interestingly, ground beef is usually not graded, and as such cheaper options can be far away in quality from the prime or choice options. But even the highest-grade beef can be ground, and some gourmet suppliers may offer it as a — naturally more expensive — choice. If you're looking for maximum quality from your beef, choosing a high-grade option is best. You're far more likely to find these in specialty stores or in butchers than in your regular supermarket.

2. Your meat-to-fat ratio will dictate your end result

With ground beef, it's all about the fat-to-meat ratio. In beef, fat works to lubricate the denser muscle fibers, making the meat seem tender and juicier while heightening the dining experience. And that's as true for ground beef as it is for any other cut. An 80/20 split of meat to fat is a pretty standard ratio and is commonly used to make burgers and a host of other ground beef dishes. The level of fat means that your meals remain juicy, while the meat content still keeps it relatively lean.

If you like your meat even juicier, go for a 70/30 split. This will give your meal slightly more of an appealing mouthfeel and make it even richer in flavor — keep in mind that you may find it greasy. Leaner ratios also exist and will naturally give you more protein content and less fat. In some cases, these ratios can be a little dry and mealy. Most ground beef products will have their ratio clearly printed on the label, but if you're in doubt at all, check out its color. Higher-fat ground beef will have more white marbling in it, whereas lower-fat beef will look redder. ‌

3. Remember to strain your beef

In some situations, ground beef can release quite a lot of fat. And while this can lead to a more flavorful end result, it can also be undesirable for some folks. This can be particularly problematic if you're making a one-pot dish like chili or bolognese and have fat coming from other sources in the food. When the beef releases its fat, it can make the dish taste too greasy.

The way to get around this is simple: Strain the beef. While this might sound daunting, it's pretty easy to do. Simply push your beef to the side of your pan, and hold it in place while tipping the pan the other way. Then, spoon the excess grease out, or soak it up with some paper towel before disposing of them. 

The key advantage of this method is that you can control exactly how much grease you want to remove, leaving as much or as little as you'd like in your dish to boost flavor while remaining relatively lean. Straining your beef also gives you an opportunity to get rid of any excess water that may have been generated, either through steam being unable to escape the pan or any liquid released from the meat. If you want to strain all the fat off your beef, tip it into a strainer and drain the fat out into a bowl. 

4. For best results, make sure you defrost it properly

One of our favorite things about ground beef is that it's surprisingly easy to cook from frozen, making it simple to make a last-minute dinner when you've forgotten to defrost it. But for the best results, you really should thaw it first. 

Cooking defrosted beef allows you to avoid any unnecessary liquid being released into the pan from melting ice crystals. It also stops your meat from shrinking and prevents your pan from dropping in temperature when you add it, allowing you to get a great sear on the surface of the beef.

When defrosting your meat, though, make sure you're doing it safely. Ideally, meat should be defrosted in the fridge, and not by leaving it out on the counter at room temperature. Doing the latter allows the meat to reach and remain at a dangerous temperature for too long, where bacteria are able to thrive and multiply. Defrosting it in the fridge, on the other hand, lets the meat slowly thaw while remaining safe. Just make sure that you're giving yourself enough time before cooking your meal to defrost it. Some larger packs of ground beef may take up to a day or longer to thaw fully. ‌

5. Buy it in bulk, and cook it in portions

Buying food items in bulk has many advantages; ground beef is no exception. It's generally cheaper, pound-for-pound, to buy bigger packs of ground beef, thanks to the manufacturers saving money on production and packaging costs. Buying larger amounts of ground beef in one go also means that you don't have to traipse all the way to the store when you need to use it in a recipe.

But ground beef, like other meats, seems to present a problem when bought in bulk, with people assuming that you need to use it all before it goes bad or freeze it all in one big block. Instead of doing either of these things, you can simply portion your beef up and freeze it separately. 

Divide your ground beef into the desired portion sizes, and pop each one in a freezer bag. Push the meat down until it's relatively flat, seal the bag (squeezing out any air while you do so), and stash each one in the freezer. By doing this, you can simply pull out each portion when you need it — and flattening the meat will help save space and thawing time. You should aim to use your frozen ground beef within four months, as it will start to lose its quality beyond that. ‌

6. Pick your beef by its grind size

Not all ground beef is made equal. And as well as having varying levels of meat quality and fat proportions, different types of ground beef can also be distinguished by their grind size. To make ground beef, meat trimmings are pulverized, broken down, and passed through a grind plate. These plates have different-sized holes, which can determine the eventual texture of your meat.

Coarse-ground beef will produce the largest pieces and is best to buy when you want your meat to have a bit more body to it. It's advisable to use coarse ground beef in dishes like chili and bolognese so that the meat isn't completely lost in the thick, rich sauce. A medium grind is the next size down and is great for using to make burger patties and meatballs. 

Finely-ground beef is the smallest grind size and the standard size you'll find in most supermarkets. This size is the most versatile, and you can use it for pretty much anything. However, keep in mind that if you handle it too much, you may start to break it down even further. ‌

7. Learn how to brown it properly

A seemingly infinite amount of recipes will call for browning your ground beef. But why is this step so important if the meat's going to cook pretty quickly anyway? Browning any meat, including ground beef, helps boost its flavor thanks to the Maillard reaction occurring. 

This reaction happens when the outer surface of food reaches a certain temperature without too much moisture, which prompts a chemical change caused by the proteins and carbohydrates in the foodstuff interacting with each other. As a result, the food browns, getting tastier and looking better.

To do this with ground beef, leaving it alone is key. Warm up the pan or pot you're using, and only place your ground beef in once it's searing hot. Then, leave the beef for a few minutes before you prod or move it. This constant, untampered-with contact with the pan will allow your beef to get a deep brown crust on its outside. Once you've allowed the Maillard reaction to occur on one side, you should flip the beef and repeat the step. Make sure not to place a lid on the pan or pot as you do this, as this will trap steam and potentially cause your beef to boil instead of fry. ‌

8. If you're cooking it from frozen, you'll need longer

While we prefer to cook our ground beef in an unfrozen state, in a pinch, you can cook it straight out of the freezer. And doing so might not be as problematic as you might think. Ground beef has the advantage of being broken down into small pieces, so when you cook it from frozen, heat is able to move through it more capably than if it were a solid chunk of protein. This means it's far less likely to still be raw in places, provided you cook it for long enough.

If you're using frozen ground beef, cook it for 50% longer than your recipe states. This will give enough time for the heat to permeate the protein fully. Ensure that you wait until it's cooked to add seasonings as if you try to do so while the beef is still a frozen block, the flavor just won't get into the meat properly. 

We'd only recommend using frozen ground beef in recipes where you can get away with it not being browned, like slow-cooker stews. Trying to brown frozen ground beef might be tricky, as it'll thaw while in the pan, releasing steam that will get in the way of the Maillard reaction occurring. ‌

9. For better browning, use baking soda

Browning ground beef can be surprisingly tricky sometimes, and it can feel like a race against time to develop a sear on the meat before moisture develops and it starts to simmer. But using baking soda is a way to cause the Maillard reaction that creates the browning to happen more quickly. Baking soda is an alkaline substance, and adding a small amount to meat (which is acidic) can raise its overall pH level. A higher pH level creates an easier environment for the Maillard reaction to occur, giving your meat a deeper brown.

You don't need to use a huge amount of baking soda to create this change, either. Simply add ⅓ of a teaspoon of baking soda for each pound of ground beef you're using, stirring it into the mixture well. Leaving the baking soda and beef to mingle for 15 minutes before you cook it will give the soda a better chance to permeate the meat, resulting in a better browning all around. Using baking soda also has the advantage of softening your meat slightly, making the end result more tender and flavorful. ‌

10. Grass-fed and grain-fed beef will taste different

What an animal eats directly affects the flavor of its meat, and beef is no exception. It's no secret that cows are grass-eating creatures, and this can make up a large proportion of their diet. But these animals are also frequently fed grains as they're reared — and as these two different types of food have different energy levels, they produce different body compositions and meat flavors.

Grass-fed cows will produce leaner beef because grass is lower in calories overall, and the fats that are present in the meat will be higher in omega-3 fatty acids. As grains are more energy-dense, grain-fed cows tend to have a higher fat percentage, and their beef reflects this. 

Generally, grain-fed beef will be more flavorful and juicy than grass-fed beef, thanks to its higher fat content and marbling. But it is also worth remembering that it's not all about the taste. Grain-fed beef may contain higher levels of antibiotics and a less favorable balance of fat than the grass-fed alternatives. The artificial farming practices that can be involved in raising these animals also may make it a less humane option.

11. To break the beef up, use a potato masher

As ground beef tends to come formed into big blocks, there comes a point in a lot of recipes where it needs to be broken up. But if you're doing that with your wooden spoon, you're doing it all wrong. The best tool to use is a potato masher. When you add your beef to the pan, apply some pressure to the top of it with the masher, spreading the meat across the bottom of the pan more evenly.

Potato mashers are advantageous as they have a large, flat surface area, which is better suited for pressing the meat down quicker and more uniformly. By doing this, you'll avoid ending up with those large chunks of ground beef which are difficult to break up with a thinner implement. 

The spaces in the masher mean that your meat doesn't get mushed and instead moves through the flats when it needs to. If you don't have a masher, you can use a large fork instead, pressing the meat down with the bottom of it. The aim is to get the meat as flat as possible before leaving it for a few minutes to brown. ‌A potato masher can also be used to mix ingredients into raw ground beef thoroughly, which can be useful if you're making burgers or meatballs. 

12. Never cook it if it's started to go bad

Like other types of beef, ground beef has a fairly short shelf life when in the fridge and even shorter if kept at room temperature. If you've just got your beef home from the store, you usually have roughly two days before it's past its prime and starts to go bad. According to the USDA, if you forget to put your beef in the fridge immediately and leave it out on the counter, it could start to develop bacteria like E. coli or salmonella within two hours.

Any warning signs of bad ground beef should result in you throwing it out immediately. The first thing to keep an eye out for is the color. While fresh ground beef has a healthy red appearance, beef that's started to go bad might have a grey or brown tinge on its outside. Bear in mind that if your meat isn't bright red on the inside, that doesn't necessarily mean it's gone bad, as that vibrant exterior color occurs due to oxygen exposure.

The smell of ground beef is also a clear giveaway of its freshness. Any strange or rancid smells from your beef can mean it's started to turn bad. Remember, though, that bacteria may not necessarily release a smell, so meat's visual appearance and sell-by date may be more reliable. ‌

13. A lid can make the best burgers

Shaping burgers can be surprisingly difficult, as anyone who's made them will tell you. Using dry, warm hands can cause the meat to stick to them, which can result in misshapen, tacky patties. Luckily, there's an easier way to get perfectly shaped burger patties from one simple household item. Grab a mason jar lid, and place some parchment paper inside it before putting your meat in the center. Press the meat down to form a patty shape before flipping the meat out onto a lined baking sheet until it's ready to go on the grill.

Using a jar lid will help to prevent you from overhandling your meat, which can lead to burgers becoming too dense or crumbly. Naturally, the size of the lid will affect the eventual size of your patty — and it's advisable to use a lid that's slightly larger than the burger you want, as they usually shrink while cooking. And once you've shaped your burger, remember to press down lightly in its center to create a dimple. "The divot 'reinflates' as the meat contracts, so you end up with a patty that's an even thickness and cooked uniformly throughout," states Hangfire Southern Kitchen's Samantha Evans via The Guardian. ‌

14. Use your oven for hands-free ground beef

Ground beef is one of the easier meat items to cook on the stove, but if it's just one part of a larger dish, you might want to devote your time to more hands-on aspects of your meal. And that's where your oven comes in. Ground beef can be easily cooked in the oven by breaking it up and placing it on a sheet pan lined with foil or baking parchment. Cover the meat with foil, and cook it covered for 15 minutes before uncovering, stirring, and giving it a final blast of heat.

Placing your beef in the oven allows for a more uniform cooking process, thanks to the slow, consistent heat. You may also find that you get a better brown overall on your meat than if you cook it in a skillet by leaving it uncovered in the oven for longer. 

Bear in mind, though, that you should break up your ground beef very well before you cook it. You won't have many opportunities to do so once it's in the oven, and while you can take it out to break it up further, doing so will cause the heat to drop. Furthermore, keep an eye on your timings and your beef, as leaving it too long may cause it to burn.

15. Soak it in heavy cream for better flavor

Ground beef can take on a seemingly endless amount of flavors and seasoning combinations. But all of these can be reinforced by giving your meat a soak in heavy cream before you cook it. Adding heavy cream to uncooked ground beef introduces a small amount of lactic acid, which works to lightly tenderize the meat. Simultaneously, the dairy fats in the cream add a layer of protection to the outside of the beef, meaning that when it hits the hot pan, it doesn't become crumbly or dry out.

Adding heavy cream also delivers a creaminess and a luxurious mouthfeel to ground beef, and it could be particularly useful for lower-fat grinds. Thanks to its neutral taste, you can use this heavy cream trick in pretty much any recipe you choose, and it works especially well if you're making burgers, with the fat working to somewhat offset the ultra-high heat of the grill. Usefully, you only need a small amount of heavy cream, too. You should add between 1-2 tablespoons for each pound of meat. Allow your meat to marinate overnight in the cream for the best results.