You've probably noticed that most recipes using ground beef start with a browning step. Slow cooker dishes, soups, meat sauces, and sloppy Joes almost always call for browned ground beef, and many casseroles start with browned ground beef. Meatloaf, burgers, meatballs, and stuffed peppers and cabbage are a few notable exceptions.
How to Choose Ground Beef
When buying ground beef, always check the sell-by date on the label and choose the freshest possible package. To freeze fresh ground beef for longer storage, wrap the packaged beef tightly in foil or put it in a sealable freezer bag. Air in the bag will cause freezer burn eventually, so remove as much air from the freezer bag as possible and use the ground beef within about 3 to 4 months. For even longer storage, consider a vacuum sealer system. Store frozen vacuum-sealed ground beef for as long as 2 to 3 years. Make sure to label packages with the name, a use-by date, and the weight.
The lean beef to fat ratio is another important factor to consider. An 85/15 ground beef is the most common ratio, and it's a good all-purpose choice. Choose a higher fat content—70/30 to 80/20—for the juiciest burgers and most flavorful meatloaf, or add some ground pork to the mixture for extra fat and moisture. Extra lean ground beef—90/10 or 93/7—is a good choice for tacos and sauces, or when you are browning ground beef crumbles to freeze for recipes. It's also the best choice for dishes that can't be easily drained, such as casseroles and stuffed peppers.
How to Cook and Brown Ground Beef
- Here's how to brown ground beef, whether for a recipe or to freeze for later use.
- Place a large skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat. If you are cooking very lean ground beef, heat a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil or extra virgin olive oil to the skillet. Add onions or other chopped seasoning vegetables about 2 to 3 minutes before the beef is ready, or cook them separately.
- When the pan is hot, add about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of ground beef. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to break the ground beef up into smaller pieces as it cooks. Try to keep the pieces around the same size so the beef will cook and brown evenly.
- Continue to cook for about 6 minutes, or until the beef is no longer pink.
- To drain the beef thoroughly, use a slotted spoon. Scoop the beef out onto a paper towel-lined plate or pan.
- Once the paper towels have absorbed the excess fat, use the beef in your recipe or freeze it—labeled with the name and date—in sealable freezer bags. Store frozen, fully cooked ground beef in the freezer for up to 4 months. If you use a vacuum sealer, you can store the beef for much longer.
- The drippings from cooked ground beef can cause serious problems with drains and septic systems. Never pour the excess cooking fats down the drain. Not only can the fat cause problems for your own home plumbing, but it can also cause clogged sewer drains that can affect an entire neighborhood. Pour excess fats and drippings into a jar or can and let it stand until it solidifies. Dispose of the solid fat in the trash.
- As with all meat and poultry, ground beef will shrink when cooked. The amount of shrinkage depends on the moisture and fat content. Meat loses about 25% of its weight after cooking. If you need 1 pound of cooked ground beef, buy about 1 1/4 pounds.
- Never partially cook ground beef. Harmful bacteria can survive if the beef is not completely cooked. The surviving bacteria can multiply to such a degree that they are not completely killed when the beef is cooked later. Never eat or taste the undercooked ground beef.
- The safest way to thaw ground beef is in the refrigerator because the cold temperature keeps bacteria from growing. For fast defrosting, put the ground beef in a sealable food storage bag and immerse it in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes and cook it immediately when it is completely defrosted. Do not refreeze the beef if it has been defrosted in cold water or microwave oven.