Soak Your Ground Meat in Heavy Cream

Soak Your Ground Meat in Heavy Cream
Photo: DOANPHUONG NGUYEN, Shutterstock
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Ground meat can be awfully grim without a little help. Baking soda is fantastic for spiffing up a quick sauté, but if you’re cooking ground meat for much longer, you should marinate it in heavy cream first.

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As this bronzed goddess of a labneh-brined chicken clearly proves, dairy does great things to meat. Their beautiful partnership works because lactic acid tenderizes meat without turning it to mush and increases moisture retention for juiciness. Add a little salt — fine, a lot of salt — and you have the best 2-ingredient marinade on the planet.

Since lactic acid is the “active ingredient,” most dairy-marinated meats rely on acidic characters like yogurt, buttermilk, and labneh rather than barely-acidic heavy cream. But cream’s low acidity is perfect for ground meat, which doesn’t need much more tenderizing. (The grinder already took care of that.) What it does need is a little help retaining moisture — down with the Weird Grey Meat Pool — and something, anything, to keep its proteins from seizing up into weird little nubs.

Cream does both of these things beautifully and subtly. That subtlety is the main difference between a cream bath and a baking soda sprinkle. Baking soda can be almost too powerful; leaving it on ground meat for longer than 15 minutes is a great way to embark on an accidental texture journey. But cream isn’t acidic enough to break down proteins. Instead, thanks to its high fat and water content, cream protects those proteins from high heat so they don’t cook too quickly. The chemical processes are obviously different, but the effects are a lot like adding cornstarch to scrambled eggs: Even after hours of simmering, cream-marinated ground meat stays silky and luxurious.

I learned this trick from caterer and food stylist Jenn de la Vega’s chilli recipe, but it’s been around long enough that James Beard himself swore by it for extra-juicy hamburgers. It does everything it claims and couldn’t be easier: For every pound of ground meat, add 1-2 tablespoons of heavy cream and mix well. (Sour cream or half and half would probably work too, but I haven’t tried them.) Refrigerate overnight. Use in chilli, bolognese, meatballs, meatloaf, dumplings, enchiladas, or anywhere else you like. You won’t go back.

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