Ten Steps to Simple Meat Sauce

Meat sauce is often uninspired—or worse, features rubbery meat. Here’s how to make it right.

Test Kitchen Tips for Any Meat Sauce

Make a Panade

A panade is a mixture of starch and liquid—most commonly white bread and whole milk. You’ll often see panades in meatball and meatloaf recipes, where they help the ground meat stay moist and hold its shape. But a panade also serves a critical purpose in our Italian-Style Meat Sauce (see related content). The starch in the bread absorbs liquid from the milk, which in turn forms a coating around the protein molecules in the meat, preventing them from linking together in a tough matrix. The result? Meat that is tender, not rubbery.

Don’t Brown the Beef

With larger cuts of meat, we often call for browning on the stovetop before roasting or braising to add an extra layer of flavor. But we don’t recommend this step for most ground meat sauces because the extra cooking up front can toughen the small pieces of meat, leaving you with chewy little nuggets rather than soft, tender beef.

Focus on the (Vegetable) Fond

Fond is a French word that refers to the deeply flavorful browned bits that stick to the bottom of the pan when you sear meat or vegetables. Do not waste it. For many sauces or stews, you’ll want the flavor locked in these bits to find its way to your fork. Here’s how: After creating a fond, you deglaze the pan by pouring liquid over its hot surface and scraping up the browned bits to distribute them throughout the mixture. Because we don’t recommend browning the meat for this recipe, the fond comes from the chopped onion and minced mushrooms. You’ll see browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot after you sauté the mushrooms; using the juice from the diced tomatoes to scrape up the fond ensures that none of the flavor gets lost.

Key Ingredients

The Right Ground Beef

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forbids the sale of packaged ground beef with more than 30 percent fat by weight. We call for 85 percent lean (15 percent fat) beef for this recipe. Unfortunately, most prepackaged ground beef in the meat case won’t identify the cut, which means it may be any cut or combination of cuts. Your best bet? Ask the butcher to freshly grind a pound of chuck, which has the right ratio of fat to lean meat. Avoid round, which is much too lean and often gristly.

Triple Up on Tomatoes

Unlike most canned produce, good-quality canned tomatoes offer flavors that, in cooked applications, taste as good as (and sometimes better than) fresh in-season tomatoes. In a sauce like this, they’re irreplaceable. We use three kinds of canned tomato products in this sauce: The browned tomato paste adds depth and body, while the crushed and diced tomatoes, which break down to different degrees during the cooking, give the sauce a range of textures. Our favorite canned tomato paste is Goya Tomato Paste. For canned diced tomatoes, we like Hunt’s Diced Tomatoes. And for canned crushed tomatoes, our taste test winner was Tuttorosso Crushed Tomatoes in Thick Puree with Basil.

Savory Flavor Boosters

To intensify the overall meatiness in a sauce, we often turn to ingredients high in umami (savory) flavors. For this sauce, browned minced mushrooms and Parmesan cheese both contribute umami richness. Also adding savory depth: six cloves of minced garlic, which transform from sharp to sweet during the slow simmer, and red pepper flakes for a hit of spice.




Step By Step: Simple Meat Sauce

1. PROCESS MUSHROOMS: Finely chop the mushrooms in the food processor.

WHY? The smaller mushroom pieces release more flavor and contribute to the potent fond on the bottom of the saucepan.

2. MAKE PANADE: Process the bread and milk to form a panade.

WHY? A panade helps keep the ground beef tender and moist when it is cooked to medium and beyond.

3. PROCESS BEEF: Add the beef to the panade in the food processor.

WHY? This helps quickly and thoroughly incorporate the panade into the meat.

4. BROWN VEGETABLES: Cook the mushrooms and onion until dark bits form on the saucepan bottom.

WHY? These browned bits (fond) add flavor and complexity to the sauce.

5. ADD TOMATO PASTE: Brown the tomato paste.

WHY? This drives off some of the paste’s moisture and develops its flavor.

6. DEGLAZE: Add the tomato juice and scrape up the fond from the bottom of the pot.

WHY? The juice helps loosen the fond and incorporate it into the sauce.

7. GENTLY COOK BEEF: Add the meat mixture, breaking it into small pieces, and cook until it loses its raw color. Take care not to let it brown.

WHY? Browning the meat can cause it to dry out and become chalky and pebbly.

8. ADD TOMATOES: Stir in crushed and drained diced tomatoes.

WHY? Using two types of tomato adds textural variety to the sauce.

9. SIMMER: Let the sauce bubble gently over low heat.

WHY? Simmering allows the flavors to marry, and the relatively short 30-minute cooking time helps keep the meat tender.

10. FINISH: Stir in Parmesan and fresh oregano.

WHY? The Parmesan adds flavor and subtle creaminess while the oregano adds brightness.

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