Go Ahead and Put Frozen Meat in Your Spaghetti Sauce

Photo: realfarbled, Shutterstock
Photo: realfarbled, Shutterstock

Frozen ground beef is supposed to be a convenience item, but it’s only convenient if you are the type of person who can remember to transfer it from freezer to fridge the night before you plan to use it. I gave up becoming one of those people long ago, which is why this fairly recent Instagram story from chef Matty Matheson thrilled me to my bones:

He is so wise. (Screenshot: Claire Lower)

In his story, Matt adds ice beef to a dutch oven with a jar of marinara, then cooks it until it, well, looks like that. It’s an unapologetically lazy, greasy and meaty sauce, which is — to me — very sexy. There’s a lazy freedom to it that appeals to the very core of my soul, for what am I, myself, but a lackadaisical and barely contained mass of greasy meat?

Haters will say that frozen beef sauce is bad because you cannot brown the beef, but — though browning does produce flavour — I think we have all become just a little too focused on the Maillard reaction. There are other ways to develop flavour in your sauce, as well as other, different flavours you may have forgotten in your myopic quest for a crust on every cut. The frozen beef sauce frees us from this cycle.

It’s true that the meat in the frozen beef sauce does not taste browned, but it tastes meaty and beefy, like the inside of a thick burger. The beef is gently cooked in the sauce; it infuses the meat with flavour as the fat slowly renders out and mixes with the tomato juices. It’s actually quite luxurious. If you really need a browned tasting note, just char the heck out of your onions. It’s faster than defrosting and browning meat, and boy does it bring depth.

Inspired by Matty and his sauce, I decided to try the method this weekend and feed the results to the two harshest spaghetti critics I know: my boyfriend and my father. I did not have a jar of sauce, but I had two cans of tomatoes, some onion and garlic and about a cup of mediocre red wine, which is really all you need. The beauty of frozen beef is that it works well in any tomato-based sauce: just bring the sauce to a simmer, add the frozen beef and cook until it looks like the sauce in Matty’s Instagram story. I wouldn’t use it with the Marcella Hazan butter sauce, however — you’re gonna get plenty of fat out of the beef. (I used a 73/27 blend, and wow.)

If you do not have a sauce recipe to add frozen beef to, you can use mine. The spaghetti critics both enjoyed it quite a bit. My father ate his in intense, focused silence, said it was “very good,” and took some to-go. My boyfriend proclaimed it was a “good Wednesday sauce,” noting its expedient nature, then added that it tasted “dirty, in a good way.” I recommend serving this sauce with the cheap powdered parm — it soaks up the excess grease in a very pleasing way.

To make this frozen beef sauce, you will need:

  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 2 large pinches of table salt
  • 3 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
  • 1 cup of red wine
  • 2 x 800g cans of whole peeled tomatoes
  • About 450g of frozen ground beef
  • Garlic salt to taste

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and add the onion. Sprinkle the onions with two big pinches of salt and let them cook, stirring very occasionally, until they are translucent. (If you want a deeper, darker sauce, you can brown or even burn them.) Add the garlic and cook until it starts to brown.

Add the wine, scrape up any browned bits with a wooden spoon and let it reduce until you can see the bottom of the pot for at least a second when you drag a spoon through the onions. (The onions should be wet, but there shouldn’t be a lot of liquid pooling around them.)

Add the tomatoes and their juices, bring the whole mess to a hard simmer, then add the beef, coaxing it into the tomatoes until it is completely submerged. Reduce to a gentle simmer and cook for at least 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the beef is falling apart and the sauce has turned a deep crimson, with noticeable oil slicks of beef fat on top. Give it a taste, and adjust with garlic salt, a pinch of sugar or any of these as needed. Slop onto some spaghetti and serve with the green shaker of powdered cheese.

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