My recipe for quick beef Stroganoff is just one example of a main dish that starts with a pan full of plain old ground beef, browned loose. The number of things you can do with this for a base is pretty much infinite.
That’s impressive, considering that ground beef usually comes from “leaner, tougher and less desirable beef”, as the USDA puts it. It gets ground up because of an ancient culinary truth that also led to the invention of the cheese grater: If you cut tough food into small enough pieces, it won’t be tough anymore. The tiny pieces also let you cook ground beef completely within a few minutes.
On the down side, ground beef spoils quickly, so you should either cook it or freeze it within two days of buying. On the bright side, you can thaw it in cold water fairly quickly — and more evenly than in the microwave.
To start ground beef browning, heat up a large skillet — a 10- to 12-inch pan will hold about a pound. Check your meat packaging for the fat content; in the U.S. ground beef may contain up to 30% fat. If it’s toward the lower end of the scale, you may need to put a little oil or other fat in the pan. Ground beef with more fat will give off enough to cook in, which should be drained as soon as the beef browns.
Most recipes tell you to cook ground beef till it’s no longer pink. If you give it a little longer, it’ll get a crisp crust, if that’s what you like. Either way, drain the fat off when it’s done.
Now it’s time to add some sauce. Sour cream with a little bouillon powder gives you ground beef stroganoff, tomato sauce makes meat sauce for pasta, and gravy makes a simple dish you can pour over rice. (If you don’t have gravy, mix some beef broth with blending flour.) Speaking of rice, try sweet and sour sauce spiked with a little soy, or cheese or barbecue sauce. Add your liquids slowly, not only for safety but so that you don’t unintentionally turn your dish into soup.
You can also add vegetables, or even make a one-pan dinner by finishing it with rice, pasta, or potatoes. For an example, see this recipe for ground beef stew. Since the stew uses fresh vegetables, it has a fairly long cooking time and uses a relatively large amount of liquid. Frozen vegetables take only a few minutes, and the water they give off is often enough to steam them. Pre-cooked rice or pasta is the safest way to make sure everything is done at the same time; it’s also a good way to use leftovers. Potatoes can be baked in the microwave and cut up when they’re cool enough.
Heat everything together until it’s not only cooked, but hot enough. You’ll have a whole dinner in one pan — and it all started with something that was supposedly too tough to eat.