If you've ever wondered why your homemade burgers or bolognese sauce aren't nearly as good as the recipe your friend makes or that you've enjoyed at your favorite restaurant, you might think it's the seasoning that's off or the cooking method. But in fact, it could simply be a matter of the lean-to-fat ratio in the ground meat.
The Meat-to-Fat Ratio of Ground Meat
Not all ground meat is created equal, and understanding this is the key to successful dishes, whether it's simple burgers on the grill or the most tender meatballs to serve over spaghetti. You'll usually see some numbers on a package of ground meat at the grocery store, like 80/20 or 90/10. Those numbers refer to the ratio of lean meat to fat. So when you see 80/20, that means it's 80 percent lean meat and 20 percent fat.
So which magic ratio gives you the best result in the most popular ground beef or pork dishes? To get advice, I reached out to Anya Fernald, co-founder of Belcampo Meat Co. and author of the forthcoming book Home Cooked. She gave some great recommendations.
You're looking for beef with a pretty high fat content, but nothing too extreme. So for burgers, go 80/20 beef. While picking up a package with this marked on it is fine, if you can get the butcher to grind the beef for you, that's even better. Fernald calls out a few specific cuts to request that she loves. "I always like brisket, short rib, and chuck mix because of the lean-to-fat ratio and the flavor in these cuts," she says.
Read More: The Best Ground Beef for Great Burgers
Go for ground beef with even more fat for the best meatloaf. This is because it cooks for a longer time than, say, meatballs, so you don't want to risk it drying out and resulting in a crumbly, unpalatable mess. Fernald recommends trying 70/30 beef. You could also try using a mix of ground beef and ground pork, using pork for a third of the recipe. Pork is generally fattier than beef, so you can use 90/10 beef or even 100 percent lean beef and get the fatty boost (and extra flavor!) from the pork.
Read More: 5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Making Meatloaf
"I like to use 50 percent ground pork and 50 percent ground beef for any tomato-based sauce meatballs because of the way pork flavor works so well with tomato," says Fernald. "The beef can be lean in that case — 100 percent lean or 90/10, since the pork is always going to have more fat, about 60/40 to 50/50."
If the meatballs are being served in a broth or other sauce that's not tomato-based, try using 100 percent beef, or veal that's 70/30. "I think the beef flavor performs better in that flavor context," says Fernald.
Read More: 6 Tips for Making the Best Meatballs
Again, Fernald likes to choose ground meat that accentuates the tomato sauce. "I always use 50 percent ground pork and 50 percent ground beef because of the sweet tomato flavor working so well with the naturally sweet flavor of pork," says Fernald. The beef can again, in this case, be lean — 100 percent lean or 90/10 is perfect when mixed with the fatty pork.
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(Image credits: Emma Christensen; Sara Kate Gillingham)