You might already know that you’re supposed to cook ground beef thoroughly before consuming it. What does that mean, exactly? How can you tell whether the meat is cooked? There’s only one foolproof method—but there are other guidelines as well.
How To Know if Ground Beef is Cooked
Ground beef is considered fully cooked when it’s reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the meat should be brown all the way through, though some traces of pink may remain. The process takes 6 to 10 minutes if you’re browning loose beef. Burgers should cook for 3-1/2 to 4 minutes per side.
Red Meat vs. White Meat
First of all, let’s talk about the difference between red and white meat.
Red meat such as beef and pork contains higher levels of myoglobin, the protein that delivers oxygen to the muscles. The muscle fibers of chicken and turkey, on the other hand, don’t have as much, so the meat is lighter in color.
White meat isn’t as dense as red meat, either. This has a direct effect on the cooking techniques, since the bacteria that cause food poisoning are found on the surface of the flesh.
With poultry, these pathogens are able to burrow deeper, so the meat needs to cook to a safe temperature all the way through. That’s why it’s not a good idea to undercook poultry products, even though you can cook beef and pork to lower temperatures.
Why Does Ground Beef Need to Be Thoroughly Cooked?
We’ve just established that beef can be safely consumed at lower temps. So why do the rules change when the meat is ground beforehand?
It has to do with what we said earlier about the nature of the bacteria. Since they hang around on the surface, searing the outside of the meat is sufficient to destroy them. That’s true of whole muscle cuts like steaks and roasts.
However, when you make ground beef, the meat is chopped into small pieces and mixed together. There’s no way to tell which portions of the cut (or various cuts) were on the surface.
Does that mean all ground beef is contaminated with hazardous bacteria? Not at all. But these pathogens are invisible to the naked eye. The only way to ensure food safety is to cook the meat thoroughly.
What does thoroughly mean in this case? The USDA recommends cooking all ground meat products to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, bacteria such as E. coli are destroyed in a matter of seconds, rendering the meat safe to consume.
Since the temperature will continue to rise for a few minutes after you stop cooking, it’s fine to take ground beef off the heat at 160 degrees. In fact, the bacteria should die off at that temperature anyway—it will just take a bit longer.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll get sick from eating undercooked ground beef. Roughly 1 in 65 burgers will be contaminated with E. coli or another type of bacteria. But the risk is still there.
Does Ground Beef Go Bad Faster Than Steak?
Steak can be stored in the fridge for 3 or 4 days before it starts to exhibit the signs of spoilage. You don’t have the same luxury of time when it comes to ground beef.
Grinding the meat exposes more of the flesh to light and oxygen, which can hasten spoilage. It’s better to cook off raw ground beef within 1 to 2 days.
You should be able to tell whether the meat is still fresh by sniffing it. Spoiled beef has a rancid odor—it might smell sour or overly sweet, or it may be reminiscent of sulfur or rotten eggs. When it’s fresh, the meat shouldn’t have much of a scent.
There are a few other telltale signs to look out for. If the meat is slimy or overly sticky, that’s a red flag.
Also, watch out for discoloration. The ground beef should also be pink to cherry red in color. A few brown patches might be acceptable, but if it’s turned brown or gray all over, it’s time to toss it.
In general, you should discard the meat if you have the faintest suspicion that it might have gone bad. Spoilage bacteria are heat resistant, so cooking the beef won’t make it safe to eat. Once it’s turned the corner, there’s no way to salvage it.
How To Know if Ground Beef is Cooked
We’ve established that 165 degrees is the safe temperature for ground beef. How will you know when it’s reached that threshold? The only surefire way to tell is to test the temperature using a meat thermometer.
Instant-read meat thermometers can tell you the internal temperature within seconds. That helps you avoid overcooking, which is important when you’re dealing with temps this high.
You can tell when the meat is approaching doneness by checking the color. Cooking ground beef turns it from red to brown.
However, sometimes it’s still a little bit pink even when it’s cooked to 160. Conversely, it may be browned all the way through even before it reaches that temperature. That’s why a thermometer will always be your best bet.
Timing is another factor. The more you cook, the better your sense of timing will be. We’ll talk more about the approximate length of time it takes to cook ground beef in the following sections.
How Long Does It Take to Cook Ground Beef?
The answer to that depends on the fat content of the meat, as well as the amount that you’re cooking off.
Ground beef with a higher protein-to-fat ratio will take less time to cook than meat with a higher fat content. Lean meat cooks through faster and is prone to drying out, since it doesn’t have enough fat to keep it moist.
A pound of 90 percent lean ground beef might be cooked through in just 6 to 7 minutes. If the meat is 80 percent lean, it can take 8 to 10 minutes before it’s achieved the optimum temperature.
Larger quantities of meat will take longer to cook. Since crowding the skillet can prevent browning, we would suggest cooking ground beef in batches. Use medium-high heat, and add no more than 1-1/2 pounds to the skillet at a time.
How Long Does It Take to Grill Burgers?
When the meat is formed into 4- to 5-ounce patties, it should cook over medium-high heat for 3-1/2 to 4 minutes per side. Of course, if your patties are bigger, it will take longer.
Try not to flip the burgers before they’ve had a chance to develop a nice crust on the underside. If you flip it too soon, the patty will break apart. What’s more, turning the patty too often could cause it to dry out.
If you want to add cheese to your burger, wait until the patty has cooked to 160 degrees, then add the cheese right before you remove it from the heat. The residual heat should allow the cheese to melt slightly while still retaining plenty of flavor.
Although the standard recommendation is to cook ground beef to 160 degrees, there are folks that still prefer to take their burgers medium rare. If you’re one of them, know that this practice does carry a risk, however small that risk might be.