The following technique is a basic technique than once mastered leads to an overall improvement in flavor in ALL your associated recipes!
For best results:
- Portion meat into patties
- Meat should be dry
- Salt the meat before browning
- Use High heat
- Brown then breakup meat
The following technique is a basic technique that is helpful in many recipes. The goal here is to sear the meat to create characteristic “nutty, meaty, roasted, toasted, burnt, or caramel” flavors.
This is provided via the chemical reaction called, the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction (pronounced may-YAR) is a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat. The browning reactions that occur when meat is roasted or seared are complicated and occur mostly by Maillard browning with contributions from other chemical reactions including the breakdown of the tetrapyrrole rings of the muscle protein myoglobin. Furthermore, high temperature, low moisture levels, and alkaline conditions all promote the Maillard reaction. In cooking, low moisture levels are necessary mainly because water boils into steam at 212 °F (100 °C), whereas the Maillard reaction happens noticeably around 310 °F (154 °C): significant browning of food does not occur until all surface water is vaporized.
So what does all this mean? Well, to promote that great seared flavor, we need to provide the best environment for the Maillard reaction, ie. high temperature, low moisture and an alkaline condition. This means we need to have a really hot pan with a flat surface to provide maximum surface area for heat transfer. A raised grill surface, for say a grill pan, is also effective, but it is effective because they maintain a high temperature (cast iron), but also because the channels allow for the moisture to be channeled away. However, the browning will be only on the areas in direct contact with the cooking surface, eg. grill marks. For this instance, I will focus on using a flat surface pan. Other conditions, such as high alkaline environment, really just means, salt your food well before you sear. The last item, low moisture is important. This means if we are to sear a steak, we would want to pat the meat down with a paper towel to wick away excess moisture.
For ground meat applications, this also has an impact. Instead of just placing the ground meat in the pan, which then would allow all the juices to mingle and essentially just boil the meat rather than sear, we can patty the meat. This will provide a means to provide portion control and a large surface area to brown without the release of all the juices. Also, by using patties and a large pan, we can ensure that there is enough space between patties, so the moisture release from one patty, doesn’t bleed over into another, causing more boiling than searing. Once you have seared the meat to get the lovely browning, you can then break up the patty into smaller bits to provide you the desired consistency, for say Beef Strouganhoff or Chili con carne.
In our household, they easy way to allow this is to purchase the ground meat, but then create patties using a plastic hamburger press. The patties are then separated by wax paper into 3 – 4 patty packs, which are then placed in a freezer bag and frozen until needed. This means I already have items portioned for separate preparations, I just need to thaw and I will be ready to go. *note: just remember to fully thaw and dry them right before browning!
One note on seasoning before searing. You need to be careful. You can salt without any issue, however, most people might attempt to season with pepper or herbs. There are two problems here. One, if we are using fresh herbs, this just introduces another moisture provider, which will not allow the browning we are looking for. Two, you have to be careful not to burn the seasonings. Herbs and spices release wonderful oils under heat to season the meat. However, they can also burn leading to not so great flavors. Specifically look out for paprika and fresh garlic, which can easily burn. My recommendation is to use just salt and pepper, then apply the seasonings on the grill after the meat is broken up. If I am attempting to keep the patty together, I might consider working in the spiced throughout the patty, rather than just on the top.
On a short side note, you have probably heard, I sear it to seal in the juices. This is a fallacy, it just doesn’t happen. You sear to get the wonderful flavors, not to form a rocky crust which somehow envelops the meat to contain the juice. See here for more detail.
1.5 – 2lbs meat *pattied into 3 – 4 patties
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Using 1 large, flat surfaced, grill pan, preferably cast iron, heat over medium high heat until just smoking. Wipe down patties with a paper towel to remove excess water. Salt and pepper the patties on both sides. Place the patties on the grill with 1 – 2 inches of space between them, they should not be touching. Allow the patties to brown 1 – 2 minutes depending on the intensity of the heat. Flip the patty, moving the patty to an area that was not previously used for maximum heat. The patty should be a light brown to dark brown color, if the color is more black than brown, you waited to long. Brown the other side. Once the patty is browned, break up the patty using a wooden spoon into the desired size.