We Americans cook and eat ground beef by the ton.

Unfortunately, we also seem to be in a rut with it, doing little more than hamburgers or hamburger steaks, chili, meat sauce, meatballs and meatloaf. That’s probably why the branded product Hamburger Helper was such a hit when it was introduced.

But you don’t need a boxed mix or can of cream-of-something to climb out of that rut. With a little imagination and very little extra effort, there are dozens of casseroles, one-skillet dishes, sauces and other things within your reach.

The recipes that follow are few, but let them be a springboard for you to explore the many possibilities to be had from our favorite meat.

Ground meat primer

What’s in a name: For uninitiated casual observers, hamburger probably seems like an odd name for America’s popular sandwich and the meat that goes into it, since it has nothing to do with ham. It’s actually a foreshortening of an old name for chopped steak: Hamburg (or Hamburgers’) Steak, for the German city of Hamburg and its residents, known as “Hamburgers.”

Unless you grind meat at home, you’ll have three basic types in the market to choose from: generic “ground beef,” chuck and round. Some markets will grind beef to order, but nowadays many supermarkets get it in already done and may not even have an in-house grinder.

You may also see one of these on the package: “All-natural,” “pastured,” and “grass-fed.” All natural is virtually meaningless. Pastured means that the animals have been allowed to graze but it doesn’t mean they’ve not been fed something other than grass. Grass-fed means the animal has fed only on what it would naturally eat and its system can naturally digest: grass.

Grass-fed meat is more expensive but is more flavorful and, we’re learning, far more healthful than meat from cattle that have been fed grain and commercial feed.

Ground or market ground: If the package is labeled either of these ways, the meat may be from just about any cut on the animal. Most markets will at least tell you the ratio of fat to lean. There must be some fat in the meat or it’ll be dry and flavorless. Just be aware that while “90 percent lean” may sound skinny, it means that a tenth of that package is fat.

Ground chuck: From the shoulder of the animal, because this meat is close to the bone and has a moderate amount of fat, it’s sweeter and more flavorful than most other cuts. It takes kindly to slow-simmered dishes like chili and meat sauce and to the casseroles included here.

Ground round: From the hind rump and back thigh of the animal, it’s the leanest of the ground meat cuts. The trade-off for leanness is that it’s also the least tender and can be dry if not handled with care.

Ground filet: There’s a fad for grinding the filet (the same cut for filet steaks and chateaubriand) to make hamburger steaks and burger patties. But really, the only part it makes any sense to do that with is the narrow strap muscle that runs down one side of the filet, which is flavorful but not good for much else. At any rate, ground filet would be a complete waste in these dishes.

Ground turkey, chicken, pork and lamb: In most cases, any ground meat or poultry can be used in place of beef, but be aware that they all cook a little differently and have very different flavors. Pork and lamb tend to have a much higher ratio of fat to lean. Poultry is leaner, and therefore less forgiving of being overcooked.

Shades of gray and brown: The amount of pre-cooking that ground meat will undergo depends a good deal on how it’s used in the final dish. Browning adds color and flavor to the final dish and helps ground meat hold together in clusters. It’s not, however, a blanket technique.

Many cooks, including professionals, take browning too literally and sear the meat over high heat until it’s the color of mahogany (or, I’m sorry to say, ebony). The thought is that the deeper the caramelizing, the deeper the flavor. Well, yes; up to a point. But over-browning kills the natural sweetness, actually toughens the meat, and lends a harsh acrid after-taste to the dish.

For the recipes that follow, the meat is roughly crumbled into the pan and is then stirred over moderately high heat only until it loses its raw red color, so that its innate sweetness is preserved and the meat clumps together instead of disintegrating into an even, grainy texture. The color will be a grayish light brown and the meat will still be pink at the center.

For deeper color, continue cooking it until the meat is an even gold-tinged brown. Don’t let it get too dark or harden; it’s going to undergo further cooking, so it shouldn’t be “done” but still a little pink at the center. 

 

Ground Beef and Potato Casserole

This is based on the taste memories of the frugal casseroles my mother would invent in an effort to get her picky child (me) to actually eat budget-friendly hamburger meat. Unhappily, she rarely remembered what she did, so if she had a hit, she could rarely reproduce it. Serves 4.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 ½ pounds russet potatoes (about 3 large)

• Salt

• 1 pound ground beef (preferably chuck)

• Canola, olive, or other vegetable oil

• 2 tablespoons butter or drippings from browning meat (see step 2)

• 1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced small

• 1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced

• 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning herb blend, or 1 teaspoon each dried thyme and oregano, or 1 tablespoon each chopped fresh thyme and oregano

• 3 tablespoons instant-blending or all-purpose flour

• 2 cups whole milk, warmed to room temperature

• 1 cup beef broth

• Whole black pepper in a mill

• Whole nutmeg in a grater

• 1 ½ cups coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar

 

Directions:

1. Peel and slice potatoes ¼-inch thick. Put in 2- to 3-quart saucepan, cover with water, add large pinch salt, and bring to boil. Adjust heat to steady simmer and cook until potatoes are barely tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and let cool enough to handle.

2. Meanwhile, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Film large skillet with about 1 tablespoon oil and put pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, raise heat to medium high and crumble in enough ground beef to cover bottom without crowding. Brown well and transfer with slotted spoon to bowl. Season lightly with salt. Repeat with remaining beef until all beef is browned. Drain off fat. Add 2 tablespoons butter or return 2 tablespoons browning fat to skillet. (Let remaining fat cool and discard.)

3. Adjust heat to medium under skillet and add onion. Sauté until softened and beginning to turn golden, about 5 minutes, then add garlic and herbs and stir until fragrant, about ½ minute. Sprinkle in flour and stir until bubbly and smooth. Slowly whisk or stir in milk and broth and bring to simmer, stirring constantly. Cook, stirring, until thickened and adjust heat to slow simmer. Season well with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, stir, and let simmer 5 minutes. Turn off heat.

4. Smear bottom of a rectangular 2-quart casserole with a little sauce. Cover bottom with potatoes and scatter 1/3 of meat over potatoes. Sprinkle on 1/3 of cheese and spoon 1/3 of sauce over. Add second layer of potatoes, 1/3 of meat, 1/3 cheese and 1/3 of sauce. Repeat once more with remaining potatoes, meat, and sauce, then sprinkle remaining cheese over top.

5. Bake in center of oven until bubbly to center and topping cheese is lightly browned. Let settle 10 minutes before serving.

 

Picadillo Cubano

“Picadillo” literally means minced meat. Popular not only in Cuba but all over Latin America, there are a number of variations. There’s a version with potatoes. Some traditional recipes contain raisins. Some use red wine or no wine at all. There are even recipes with capers. So, if the combination here doesn’t suit you, feel free to shake it up.

Unless, that is, you have a Cuban grandmother and she’s likely to be at the table. In that case, stick with her recipe. Serves 6-8.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

• 2 medium onions, diced small

• 2 large green bell peppers, stemmed, cored, seeds and membranes removed, diced

• 2 large or 4 small cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced

• 2 pounds ground chuck or round

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• 1 teaspoon ground cumin

• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

• ½ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

• 2 cups canned crushed tomatoes

• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano

• ¾ cup (½ cup if using raisins) chopped pitted green olives or pimiento-stuffed green olives

• ¼ cup golden or dark raisins (optional)

• Red hot sauce

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• 6-8 cups hot cooked white rice

 

Directions:

1. Put oil and onion in large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Sauté until onion is translucent, then add bell pepper and sauté until onion and pepper are softened and onion is pale gold. Add garlic and stir until fragrant, about ½ minute. Crumble in ground meat, raise heat to medium high, and stir until it loses raw red color. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle spices over. Add wine and boil until vapors are no longer sharp, about 1 minute.

2. Add tomatoes, vinegar, and oregano and stir well. Bring to simmer, adjust heat to slow simmer, and cook until thick, about 30 minutes. Add olives and, if liked, raisins. Season to taste with hot sauce and simmer 15 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with rice.

 

Baked Beef Enchiladas

Serves 4.

 

Ingredients:

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 1 ½ pounds ground beef

• 1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, minced

• 1 medium white or yellow onion, peeled and diced

• ½ cup (or to taste) diced canned green chilies, drained

• Chili Sauce for Enchiladas (recipe follows) or 4 cups purchased enchilada sauce

• 2 cups (1 15 ½-ounce can) pinto or black beans, drained

• 12 corn tortillas

• 1 cup shredded Mexican quesadilla or Monterey Jack cheese

• 1 cup shredded extra sharp cheddar

• Sliced green onions and chopped cilantro for garnish, optional

 

Directions:

1. Put oil in heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. When hot but not smoking, add enough beef to cover bottom without crowding and stir until lightly browned. Remove and repeat with remaining beef. Add onion to pan and sauté, stirring, until translucent and softened, but not colored. Add garlic and stir until fragrant. Return meat to pan, add chilies, 2 cups sauce and beans. Stir well and simmer 20-30 minutes.

2. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Rub a 9x13-inch casserole dish with oil. Spoon meat mixture down center of a tortilla, sprinkle with both cheeses, roll up, and put into casserole, seam side down. Repeat with remaining meat, cheese, and tortillas, reserving ½ cup cheese for topping.

3. Cover with remaining sauce, sprinkle with remaining cheese, and bake until cheese is melted and lightly browned, about 20-30 minutes. Sprinkle with sliced green onions and cilantro if liked before serving.

 

Chili Sauce for Enchiladas

Makes 4 cups.

 

Ingredients:

• ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) all-purpose flour

• ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil

• About 2 tablespoons ancho, chipotle, or regular chili powder or a blend, to taste

• 1 teaspoon garlic powder

• ½ teaspoon ground cumin

• 2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican oregano

• 4 cups beef broth

• ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) tomato paste

• 1 teaspoon raw sugar

• Salt

 

Directions:

1. Over medium heat, whisk together flour and oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, and oregano and cook, whisking, until bubbly, smooth, and fragrant

2. Slowly whisk in broth, bring to a simmer, whisking constantly, and whisk in tomato paste. Add sugar and season lightly with salt. Adjust heat to slow simmer and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and adjust salt, sugar, and chili powder and simmer 2-3 minutes longer. Can be made several days ahead. Let cool, cover, and refrigerate until needed.

 

Ground Beef and Macaroni Casserole

Similar to the casserole with potatoes, this can be changed up by adding celery and/or peas or by changing the cheese to Gruyere or Swiss. Serves 4.

 

Ingredients:

• About 1 tablespoon canola, olive, or vegetable oil

• 1 pound ground beef

• 1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced small

• 1 large carrot, peeled and diced small

• 1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and finely chopped

• 2 tablespoons all-purpose or instant-blending flour

• 1 ½ cups beef broth

• ½ cup whole milk

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• Worcestershire sauce

• 8 ounces elbow macaroni

• 1 ½ cups (about 5½ ounces) shredded extra-sharp cheddar

 

Directions:

1. Put 3 quarts water on to boil in large pot over high heat. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F.

2. Meanwhile, film large skillet with oil and heat over medium heat. Crumble in ground beef and brown (in batches if necessary to keep from crowding meat), about 2-3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and add onion. Sauté until softened and beginning to turn gold. Add carrot and sauté 2 minutes longer. Add garlic and stir until fragrant, about ½ minute. Stir in flour, blending until smooth, then slowly stir in broth and milk. Cook, stirring constantly, until bubbly and thick. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce, adjust heat to slow simmer, and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat.

3. When water is boiling, stir in small handful of salt and macaroni. Cook until softened but still not done (about half of time recommended on box) . Meanwhile, butter a rectangular 2-quart casserole dish. Drain and add macaroni to dish.

4. Add beef and sauce mixture and 1 ½ cups cheese. Gently toss to mix and level with spatula. Sprinkle remaining cheese evenly over top. Bake until bubbly at center and cheese is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let settle 10 minutes before serving.

 

Old-Fashioned Savannah “Scotch Collops”

In Harriet Ross Colquitt’s timeless 1932 classic, “The Savannah Cook Book,” we find a curious little recipe called “Scotch Collops.” Collop is an old English word for a slice of meat (think “scallop” or “scaloppine”) that’s usually beaten out to an even thinness before cooking it.

In the 19th century, a popular leftover dish was minced collops: the cooked meat was chopped fine, simmered in highly seasoned gravy, and served with rice. By Ms. Colquitt’s day that dish had become so common that collop had been corrupted to mean chopped meat in gravy, rather like picadillo. The surprise is that it is really quite good.

This is loosely based on Ms. Colquitt’s recipe and other recipes of the period. Serves 4.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

• ½ cup minced yellow onion (about ½ medium onion)

• 1 medium clove garlic, lightly crushed and minced

• 1 pound lean ground round of beef

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• Whole nutmeg in a grater

• 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

• ½ cup dry white wine or dry sherry

• 1 cup seeded and crushed canned or fresh tomatoes

• Worcestershire sauce

• 1 teaspoon raw sugar

• 6 cups hot steamed rice

• Minced fresh flat leaf parsley, for garnish, optional

 

Directions:

1. Put butter and onion in large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until translucent and softened but not colored, about 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and simmer until fragrant, about ½ minute.

2. Crumble beef into pan and cook, stirring often, until it loses raw red color. Season well with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and add thyme. Stir well and slowly add wine. Let simmer until liquid is mostly evaporated, then add tomatoes. Season well with Worcestershire, add sugar, and bring to simmer. Adjust heat to slow simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender and juices are thickened, about 30 minutes. Serve over rice, garnished if liked with parsley.