How To Cook and Brown Ground Beef

updated Aug 29, 2023
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Weeknight standards like chili, tacos, and sloppy Joes all start with the same basic concept: browning ground beef in a bit of oil. Some recipes may call for adding onion, garlic, or spices at some point along the journey, but getting truly browned ground beef is the best thing you can do to build flavor in the final dish.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Properly browning ground meat for the start of a dinner recipe or for storing in the fridge for meals all week isn’t hard, but here’s a refresher for when you need it.

Quick Overview

4 Steps to Better Browned Meat

  • Heat the pan (and oil). In order to brown, rather than steam, the pan needs to be hot. Adding oil is optional but recommended for better browning.
  • Add the meat to the pan and break it into large pieces. Use a wooden spoon, fish spatula, or other sturdy spatula to break the meat up into large pieces in the pan. Let it brown for several minutes.
  • Break the beef into smaller pieces as it cooks. As the beef begins to brown, continue to break the meat into smaller and smaller pieces.
  • Cook until browned (and try not to stir). Try not to stir the beef too much; just stir occasionally until all of the beef is browned.
Credit: Joe Lingeman

What to Look for When Buying Ground Beef

When you shop for ground beef take a close look at the labels, as they are full of information beyond price per pound.

  • Choose 85% fat to 15% lean beef. You’ll find out what cut of meat has been ground and what the fat-to-lean content of the meat is; we recommend 85/15 as a good all-purpose proportion for ground beef.
  • Check the expiration or sell-by date. Make sure you purchase the freshest ground beef you can. Start by choosing a package with the expiration or sell-by date that is furthest from today’s date.
  • Note the color. You’ll also want to check out the color of the meat. While a bright red color can be misleading since the meat may have been packaged with carbon monoxide in order to maintain the red color for its normal shelf life, just make sure to avoid any trays that appear gray.

If the package is simply labeled “ground beef” or “market ground beef” you can ask your butcher for more details or simply assume that it has been ground from a variety of cuts. Finally, you want the meat to stay cold, so make the meat counter your last stop before the checkout line. Using frozen? Check out our guide to thawing frozen ground beef safely.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Hands Off for Better Browning

The beef needs to maintain contact with the pan for a little while in order to brown. Remember that as you break the meat into smaller pieces, moisture evaporates, which can cause the meat to steam rather than brown. This is when you get gray-colored rather than browned beef. It’s still safe to eat but less flavorful and less appealing to the eye. Instead, give the meat a few minutes to cook and develop brown color before breaking it up with your wooden spoon.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What You’ll Need to Brown Ground Beef

  • The technique below is written for 1 1/2 pounds of ground beef; if you use more or less meat, try to size the pan up or down accordingly.
  • You’ll need a large 10- to 12-inch skillet for browning the beef.

Using and Storing Cooked Ground Beef

These tips and techniques not only make for better ground beef, but they can also be used for ground lamb, turkey, or chicken. Browned ground beef can be used immediately, refrigerated for up to a week, or frozen for three months.

How to Cook & Brown Ground Beef

Makes about 3 cups

Nutritional Info


  • 1 teaspoon

    vegetable oil or bacon fat (optional)

  • 1 1/2 pounds

    ground beef

  • 1/2 teaspoon


  • Spices (optional)


  • Large skillet (cast iron, nonstick, or stainless steel)

  • Stiff spatula or wooden spoon


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  1. Heat the pan and coat with oil. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. The oil helps prevent the ground beef from sticking and scorching in the pan, especially if you are using a stainless steel skillet. Use a little extra oil if you're cooking lean beef. You can omit this step if you want to avoid the extra fat, but pay close attention to the meat during the first few minutes of cooking to ensure it doesn't burn.

  2. Add the meat to the hot pan and break into large pieces. Add the meat to the center of the hot pan. Use a stiff spatula to break the meat into a few large pieces. Let the meat brown without moving it for 4 to 5 minutes.

  3. Break meat into smaller pieces, season, and brown. Break the ground beef into smaller and smaller pieces with your spatula. Sprinkle with salt and any spices you are using. Do not stir continuously, instead let it cook for a minute between each stir to let the moisture evaporate and allow the meat to brown.

  4. Finish browning. The beef has finished when it is evenly browned and shows no signs of pink. Break open a few of the larger crumbles to make sure that it has browned all the way through.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Browned ground beef can be used immediately, refrigerated for up to a week, or frozen for three months.